The Catholics

by Roy Hattersley, Chatto and Windus, £25

Roy Hattersley is the son of a Catholic priest, as he recounts in the opening pages of this thoroughly entertaining new book. He only discovered the truth when he was 40, after his dad died. “I never wondered why my father – a lowly local government officer who went with my mother to Church of England evensong – knew that Bonnie Prince Charlie’s brother had been made the Cardinal Archbishop of Frascati … Nor was I in the least surprised when – during the visits to historic churches we often made together – he translated the Latin tombstone inscriptions on sight.”

Those were the days! When Benedict XVI announced his abdication to the assembled cardinals, most of them sat still as puddings, because they did not understand the Latin. Hattersley makes the point that Vatican II did not merely involve the translation of the liturgy into the vernacular, but a wholesale reformation. He singles out the abandonment of Friday fasting – one of the many changes that has led to Catholics being “like everyone else”. He also believes that the more charismatic forms of the faith only appeal to the middle classes and that the changes “did not attract working-class people”. The sight which, in America, had converted Dorothy Day to Catholicism – namely, hordes of working-class people streaming in to weekday Masses before work – would appear to be a vanished phenomenon here; though it may still be seen in Poland.

So, Hattersley starts with two advantages. One is his own personal involvement with the subject. The second is the fact that this is a history with a beginning and an end. The Church he is describing, and the story which begins with the heroism of the recusants in Tudor times and takes in the romance of Jacobitism and the coming of the 19th century, has really come to an end. Of course, the Church itself has not come to an end – there is still a pope, there are still sacraments and saints. But Catholics really are – more or less – like everyone else. One senses Hattersley’s wistful sadness at this.

He devotes far more time to English recusant and penal times than he does to the 19th century or the modern Church. The story starts with the sacrifice of the martyrs. A gentle intelligence, Hattersley prefers the self-deprecating scholar Fisher to the “celebrity” More, but sees how absolutely key their martyrdom was in inspiring the Catholics to remain true to their faith. His account of the arrest and execution of Campion is haunting. He does not echo the late Auberon Waugh, who called annually upon the pope to canonise Guy Fawkes; but then Hattersley is a distinguished parliamentarian. The martyrdom of Oliver Plunkett in 1681 is told in a way that makes you ashamed to be English.

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