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page 4 Peter KevernWhy it’s good to be a bad Catholic

Peter Kevern

There’s an old saying that Christians who convert to Rome are ‘More Catholic than the Pope’. I sincerely hope that it’s not true in my case, because if it is, the Church is in real trouble! I never set out to be much of a Catholic and don’t expect to become a good one any time soon.

I’ve been drawn to the Roman Catholic Church for most of my adult life, but when I finally made the move it was largely by historical accident. I was a tutor at the Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham, training future clergy for the Anglican and Methodist churches. As part of the job I attended chapel each day, so ‘worship’ started to be part of my work. The last thing I wanted to do on a Sunday was more of the same, so I started to go to Mass, slipping in at the back and enjoying the fact that I didn’t have to speak to anyone. The liturgy was wonderful and I was never asked to do anything: it was ‘Christianity without koinonia’! I grew used to the idea that I could be there without being a good Catholic, could quietly get on with my faith without worrying too much about the details of doctrine.

But each term, I would try to convince my students that the doctrines of the Church could not be so easily dismissed. We may find Aquinas’ views of sex, Luther’s anti-Semitism or Paul’s tolerance of slavery obnoxious; but we had to assume that they were at least as Christian as and probably more intelligent than we are. So if they disagreed with us about such fundamental issues, we had to find a way to live with that, and not simply consign them to the dustbin of history. Similarly, we had to face the fact that most of the Christians across the world might disagree with us about marriage, or biblical interpretation, or how to worship: but that didn’t make them somehow less Christian or less civilised. The blunt fact was that God was not an Englishman, still less a 21st-century liberal-Anglican Englishman.

Eventually I stopped talking for long enough to listen to myself. Just disagreeing with a lot of what the Catholic Church taught was no reason to refuse to be part of it; finding some of its practices (such as its silence over clergy abuse cases) obnoxious did not give me an excuse to sit at the back and pretend to be invisible. The Church is what it is: frequently wrong (whatever the theologians say), often confused and occasionally, horrifyingly, soaked in blood. But it was also the living repository of a great tradition stretching back to Jesus, a visible sign of God’s presence on earth. In other words, it was all too human, just like us.

So I concluded that, in my case, it was probably better to be a Bad Catholic than a Good Anglican. In many respects I was more comfortable identifying myself with the Church of England – with its humanity, openness and gentleness – but found it almost too congenial. I was suspicious of a Christianity that might fit my own desires and prejudices too neatly, and wanted the friction of living with Christians from other times, places and perspectives. In that friction, I sought reassurance that there was a faith bigger than I, which would not be simply bent to fit my preferences.

Having attended Mass at the church for perhaps six years, I was expecting a very smooth transition, not much more than an administrative ‘tidying up’ of an anomalous situation. I was unprepared for how profound the shift felt over the next few weeks. On the one hand, I felt more intimately in communion with a huge number of people from all places and all times, with the centre of my world no longer in England but somewhere else (it didn’t feel like Rome either!). On the other, some of my friends and colleagues found this a hard transition to accept: particularly students and colleagues who were women and/or gay, for whom this might be understood as a rejection of their life and ministry. Indeed, I was joining the Catholic Church at a time when most other Anglicans who did so were protesting against women or gays in the clergy, and it was embarrassing and upsetting to be lumped in with them in the minds of some people around me. Finally, I was joining at the height of the scandal in the Irish church around Magdalene Laundries, brutality at Catholic Schools and clergy sexual abuse: a bad time to own up to being a Catholic.

Stories like this tend towards a ‘happy ending’, in which the author describes how they have won through to a place of blessedness, peace and rest in their new ecclesial home. Five years on, there’s precious little sign of that. The Church continues to be autocratic, tribal and often shallow; I continue to be a Bad Catholic whose obedience is patchy, faith intermittent and attendance at Mass rather sporadic. Most often, I experience my faith as a sort of wound which keeps reopening or a set of questions that refuse to be answered rather than as a possession to be owned or a country to inhabit. But it seems that when I wander away (which is often), I find myself in a grey and impoverished world of small dreams and banal thoughts, where very little seems worthwhile. I come back to my faith for the big visions and astringent thoughts of the great women and men of faith throughout history and across continents, and find there rich arguments to have and new territories to explore. None of which makes me a Good Catholic, but perhaps a respectably Bad one. f

Peter Kevern was a member of the First Order for 13 years, and is now an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences, Staffordshire University.