Last night I went to the annual Craigmyle Memorial Lecture, hosted by Jim Dobbin MP on behalf of the Catholic Union and given in Portcullis House. This year the speaker was HE Francis Campbell, the first Catholic to be Britain's Ambassador to the Holy See, and still in office. He gave a thoughtful talk on Pope Benedict's conception of Europe and secularism.
An interesting discussion took place during the questions about the effect of persecution on the Church. One questioner was saddened and disillusioned that the church in the Czech Republic, having been active in opposing the Communists, had, since Communism fell, become rather an insignificant force in what is said to be the most secular country in Europe. Another questioner suggested that the reason for the decline in the Czech church was that it was no longer being persecuted.
Mount Grace Priory, a Carthusian house (more photos).
Having been to Yorkshire recently I can show exactly what persecution, when at all effective, usually does to the Church. It makes a ruin of its institutions, and most of its members apostatize. Of the Yorkshire Cistercians in the four great Abbeys there only one, George Lazenby of Jervaulx, gave his life for refusing to assent to the manifestly absurd claim (which even Queen Elizabeth did not revive) that the monarch was the Head of the Church.
Byland Abbey, Yorkshire, Cicsterian (more photos).
In Poland the result of the persecution, to leave aside the most obvious, the horrific sufferings of Catholics under the Nazis and Communists, has been the agonising on-going revelations of the treachery of one after another respected prelate. The effect on the minds of the ordinary people of more than a generation of unquestioned anti-Catholic propaganda will take at least another generation to undo, and probably far longer.
Yes, certainly persecution gives us martyrs, but anyone who thinks that it unites the Church clearly hasn't read any history: the early Church was riven by heresy during persecution; persecuted English Catholics under persecution were bitterly divided about both strategy and leadership, divisions cruelly exploited by the persecutors.
And yet there are still people looking forward to what appears to be coming - a increasingly shrill persecution of Catholicism by the British state - as if to a lovely warm bath. But it won't be lovely. It will be horrible. Without institutions, whether they be adoption agencies, charities, or schools, the Church is maimed: she cannot spread the gospel or undertake her characteristic works of love towards all effectively. So the first thing which will happen is that the Church will cease to be able to make visible to society at large what the gospel means in practice.
Byland Abbey Chapter House.
The next thing that will happen is apostasy. Lukewarm Catholics who find professing their faith embarrassing or even a danger to their jobs will cease to do it, and will fall away from the faith. Fervent Catholics will be more and more cautious about doing it, and will tend to become lukewarm. No one will hear Catholics witnessing to their faith and conversions will fall.
After that we can expect increased internal divisions. Catholics always have their disagreements, but a situation of chronic pressure from outside creates a feeling of desperation, which is expressed in ill-considered but emotional support for conflicting plans and leaders.
Rievaulx Abbey, Yorkshire, Cistercian (more photos).
Sociologists will tell you that isolation and persecution leads to radicalisation. This is the fervour which those looking forward to persecution are hoping for. But it can more easily be wrong-headed radicalisation which grows, rather than the admirable kind, in a situation where the institutions of Catholic education and informed debate have been destroyed.
An extraordinary air of whimsy and presumption pervades the air when persecution is discussed. Are the Catholics of today more ready for rack and rope than the Catholics of 1535 or 1939? I don't think so.
Rievaulx Abbey, Monks Refectory
Look at the last two pictures above: this is the achievement of St Aelred of Rievaulx, one of the greatest spiritual writers of his age, who created one of the greatest religious houses of England. What is it now? A pile of stones whose visitors scarcely know what God Aelred worshipped.