Saturday, April 22, 2017

Hamish Fraser on making the Faith visible

A passer-by taking a photo of the procession with the Easter Candle at the Easter Vigil in
St Mary Moorfields.
I've been reading Hamish Fraser's Fatal Star, part biography and part commentary on the Church of his day. It was published in 1952, Fraser having been received into the Church some seven years earlier, after an extended period as a Communist activist: including in the Communist secret police in the Spanish Civil War. The edition I have includes extracts from his writings up to the 1980s.

Fraser became a greater supporter of the Traditional Mass, but this isn't the focus of this book. Instead, he connects the Presbyterian culture of his childhood with the untrammelled capitalism which made Communism attractive, laments the failure of the Church to offer an alternative, and points to the message of Fatima as a call to do just this, not (simply) through private devotions, but through penance and conversion of life. He quotes Sister Lucy as saying that the primary message of Fatima is not the Rosary or the First Saturdays, but Penance, and the duties of one's state of life.

His experience of Catholics in industrial Glasgow between the wars was that they offered a watered-down Marxism as a response to the social ills of the Great Depression. After the Second Vatican Council, this was even more the case, and in the case of Liberation Theology, not much watering down was being done. In the meantime, Fraser had discovered the Church's social teaching (Leo XIII and his successors), when researching for a prize essay, and was bowled over by it. He thought it would be fun to win a prize essay on the subject of religion as an atheist, but was no longer an atheist by the time he received it. God has a sense of humour.

Why, he asks, was no one in the Church talking about this social teaching? Or so few that it never percolated down to ordinary Catholics in the trade union movement. Leo XIII framed his teaching precisely as a counter to the rise of anti-clerical Socialism, but it was simply never incorporated into the Church's everyday teaching and practice.

There is a good deal to be said about this historical question, but it also raises a broader practical question for today. People are not going to benefit from what Christ has given the Church to help them be saved if they do not hear anything, or anything positive, about the Church. Most people do not hear Catholics talk about the Faith, and they do not see the Faith manifested in any other way either.

One would never know, from Fraser's complaints about the Church of the 1930s and 1940s, that this was a high point of Catholic evangelisation. It doesn't mean he was wrong: perhaps the Church could and should have been doing even better. But compared to today the Church was visible. Catholic colleagues at work could be identified in all sorts of ways, such as their eating fish on Fridays, which would be impossible today. They were not just identifiable as Catholics by such symbolic actions, however, they had noticeably different attitudes. In the society depicted by the novels of Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and others of that generation, being a Catholic meant that you'd have noticeably different attitudes to a range of ethical issues, including sex outside marriage, abortion, and euthanasia. It wasn't that Catholics were all saints, but their Faith made a difference to way they thought even if they were sinners.

To manifest one's religion in this kind of way today is to set oneself apart not only from non-Catholic society, but from the majority of one's fellow Catholics. Most self-identified Catholics do not attend Mass, nor do they have particularly strong or distinctive views about divorce or contraception. Fraser thought that the Faith was invisible in 1950; today you need a microscope to detect it. When an individual Catholic does do or say something reflective of the Faith, far from being representative of the Catholic community, it is nominal Catholics who will be among those most eager to shout him down. Outsiders don't always have any reason to think that an orthodox Catholic is more characteristic of the Faith than an unorthodox one. Converting to the Faith must seem a little like joining a debating society, perhaps with a view to supporting the less popular side.

It is not easy to know how to handle this situation. What I would at least suggest is that we still need, indeed need more than ever, Catholics in the workplace, in academia, and in the media, who are identifiable as such; we need all kinds of good works to be identifiable as Catholic; and we need ideas identifiable as Catholic in debates about all manner of public and private matters.

Perhaps this is obvious, but there are many who do not behave as though it were true. While I criticise no one who needs to keep the Faith under the radar for personal reasons in the workplace--only they can make that judgement--others make a virtue of it, claiming that they can do more good by being invisible. I'm sorry, but this is wrong. You may have some good influence, but if you succeed in hiding the fact that this influence has any connection with the Catholic Faith, you have also done harm, by creating the dangerous illusion that the wholesome moral instincts and the energy to implement them can as easily spring out of a purely secular source as from grace.

Again, many Catholics can't see a Catholic organisation doing some good work or other without wanting to make it more 'inclusive', either of other Faiths, or of secularists, making it either officially ecumenical or Catholic only in its 'heritage'. Again, this is a way of pretending that good works springing from a living Faith are just humanistic impulses. It is not evangelisation, but a counter-evangelisation.

I don't see the situation for evangelisation in this country as entirely hopeless. If you know where to look, you can find a great many Catholics, deeply indebted to the Faith, serving their fellow citizens in all sorts of ways, which should be making the Faith visible. There is a problem, however, that so many of them are deliberatly trying to keep their Faith under wraps.

To repeat, I don't blame anyone for keeping quiet when colleagues mention the explosive issues of the day, in order to preserve the ability to earn a living for their family. What I am blaming is the attitude that a self-confessedly Catholic organisation, initiative, or idea is ipso facto an embarrassment. If you are embarrassed of Christ, ultimately, he will be embarrassed of you.

For he that shall be ashamed of me, and of my words, in this adulterous and sinful generation: the Son of man also will be ashamed of him, when he shall come in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. (Mark 8:38)


Fr Ray Blake has added some commentary on this issue, arising from this post, here.

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  1. Joseph.Great post and i agree with everything you say!Yes it would,and does,bring criticism if you aspire to be a Traditional Catholic-as i do-because people are embarrassed by it and you.Catholics have jettisoned most of what we had before the Great Vat 11 disaster and,now,have little to give to anyone.Tradition for me is my life blood and and as a member of The Latin Mass Society i believe that The True Church will,once again,be resurgent again.Great post Joseph.

  2. The Church's collapse was a direct result of WWII and not Vatican II. Heenan admitted as much in his autobiography. Those bishops from the Anglo-Saxon World failed totally to grasp the impact of the War in Europe, the subsequent peace settlements and the occupation of Europe by the USA and allies from 1944 onwards. The inability of the Roman curia to grasp their own political reality is particularly odd especially given that Alcide di Gasperi's Christian Democrats were being bankrolled by the Americans to thwart the advance of communism in their country and even the outbreak of civil war. The idea that Italy was in a position to host a council is risible.

    1. People seem to think Hitler lost the war. He did, but only militarily.

  3. I am so moved to see this post. I met Mr. Fraser once in my (horribly) liberal city of Portland, Oregon, USA, probably in the early 80s. He was a powerful speaker and he and my mother were correspondents. We didn't have the Internet then so the Catholics had to work to stay connected. And they did! I am so honored that I met him and Michael Davies and others back in the darker ages of the 20th century Faith. I pray that both of my sons will be as devoted to the Faith as you are.