The Catholic Church To-day

The Socialist attitude to religion must be clearly understood; it is, and has always been, unqualified opposition. That is not simply because all religion is mumbo-jumbo; if that were all, there would be nothing to add to the useful work of the Freethinkers in showing up the stupidity of it. The far more important reason is that religion is intensely anti-working-class. Not just the Bishops or the Thirty-Nine Articles, or any religious institution by itself, but the whole panoply of belief, ritual, salvation and miracle stands against the interests of all working people.

That is true not only of Christianity in Britain and the western world at large, but of all the world’s religions: “so many distinct and geographical insanities,” Robert Owen called them. Their creeds work to keep the poor content with poverty, their teachings instil submissiveness to oppression and exploitation, their organization—usually subsidized for the purpose—aims to guard ruling interests in every country. There is no doubt, however, that of all the Christian religions the one most pernicious, most firmly staked in fear, ignorance and poverty, is the Roman Catholic Church.

In the last few years the Catholic Church has conducted campaigns for converts with a good deal of success in Britain and America. (At all times, it is much more propagandist than other religions; every local church displays a big selection of pamphlets on Catholicism). Chiefly through newspaper advertising, the Church has drawn attention to itself and increased Its membership, and it claims today that there are more than two and three-quarter million Catholics in Britain. The trend this number represents, however, is far from what it seems.

The figure itself is misleading, in that it includes an unknown but considerable number who are Catholics in name only (nothing but formal declaration and, of course, excommunication removes a name from the roll), More important, however, is the leakage of another kind, Conversion forms only a small part of the continuation of Catholic membership. The great bulk of it is by parentage: birth-control is forbidden to Catholics, and in theory the Catholic population should practically double in each generation. In practice, the Catholic reproduction rate has been falling for some time now, even in Ireland, and its biggest drop is among migrants to Britain where, for all the priestly exhortations, Catholic families are nearer the British than the Irish norm for size.

Social pressures have more weight than Papal pronouncements. The current crop of conversions is merely going some of the way towards offsetting the real losses in coming generations caused by the decline of the big families which have been the backbone of Catholicism. The durability of the conversions, too, remains to be seen. The Catholic Church guards as far as possible by having a probationary “instruction” period, but the fact remains that no campaign for religious conversion in modern times has produced enduring results worth talking about.

The social doctrines of the Catholic Church are based on its religious teachings (which in turn, of course, are based on the requirements of a propertied, hierarchic society—feudal or capitalist). The starting point is the beginning of the Catechism: “ Who made me? God made me. What is God? God is a spirit,” the supernatural dictum that each of us is one part body and nine parts soul divinely infused at the moment of conception. Given that, all the rest proceeds logically. The whole structure of Catholic dogma, indeed, is quite logical: once the first bit of nonsense is accepted, the rest follows from it. That is why it is wrong to suppose that X, who is only a bit religious, is somehow more enlightened than Y, who believes it all: the bit is the part that matters.

All Catholics are required from the age of seven to attend Mass on Sundays and certain other days, to have Holy Communion regularly; to confess their sins, and to pay for the support of their priests and churches. Their children may only go—except for “grave reasons”—to Catholic schools, and they may only marry—except for “grave reasons“—other Catholics. In practice, intermarriage is generally though grudgingly permitted in southern England, where the Catholic population is relatively sparse; in the north, things are different. The non-Catholic partner in a “ mixed” marriage has to sign a promise not to prevent any Papal practice and to have the children raised as Catholics.

How are these observances enforced? Overwhelmingly through fear and ignorance. A Catholic who fails in his duties or dies with sins unconfessed goes, they say, straight to hell; and though modern Catholic theology is evasive on the point, the hell which lay Catholics are taught to fear is the old-fashioned rip-roaring pit of fire. The limitations on Catholics’ reading are well known, and it is forbidden for Catholics to listen to people or go to places where they may be tempted into thinking about things. The bald lies which are told to Catholics are numerous, too; for example, that contraceptives cause insanity. The Royal Commission on Population in Britain mentioned this and said simply that the view lacked “any firm support ” (Report of Royal Commission, 1948, Para. 426), but it is given as gospel to Catholic married people.,.

It should not be thought, however, that the Catholic priesthood is a crowd of foxy schemers. Most of them are as ignorant as those they preach to, and believe it all themselves. Every good Catholic family hopes for one of the boys to become a priest The majority of parish priests are working-class boys who were attending on the altar when they should have been playing tag, who went to Catholic schools where they learned the Catholic view of history and the Catholic view of science (which, put briefly, is that most science does not exist), and finished off reading devotional works in a bachelor college full of others like themselves. They are not allowed to attend theatres lest the sight of opulence discontent them, and every day between chores they have to read the Holy Office, which is enough to keep anyone occupied.

The centrepiece of Catholic worship is the Mass, the impressive ritual which must be the fascination to many of the converts, and the centrepiece of the Mass is transubstantiation, the changing of biscuit and cheap wine into the flesh and blood of Christ in which Catholics implicitly believe. Other religions (even the imitative Anglican High Church) offers this only as a symbol, but to the Catholic it is actual transformation. Pure magic: the Catholic taking Holy Communion believes literally that he swallows divine flesh and blood, and specially devout people have it daily.

The wicked go to hell, and the good to heaven. Not right away, however. Before entering the celestial fold, each must spend a time in purgatory: maybe a hundred years, maybe ten thousand, working off payment for sins forgiven, but not expiated on earth. Credits (as it were) for this may be gamed in this world. Catholics crowd into church for a bishop’s visit, for example, because the bishop’s first pronouncement will be an indulgence—a remission of purgatory-time—for all those present. Special prayers give indulgences with each repetition, and there is what most people would consider a racket in indulgence-selling: “Two Hundred Days’ Indulgence to Each Purchaser of This Book,” etc. It is possible also to help departed souls through purgatory. An average Catholic parish church has perhaps sixteen Masses a week, and each one usually is chalked up to some interested parishioners; e.g.. Mrs. O’Malley for the repose of the soul of the late Mr. O’Malley, at a non-obligatory fee of five shillings.

There is, too, the matter of saints, who figure prominently in Catholicism. (A devout Catholic home is a minor religious museum, with holy-water fonts by the doorways, crucifixes on the walls, life-sized pictures of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and as many statues of saints as the mantelpiece will bear.) The saints are supposed to intercede with God for those they favour, and the “miracle cure” shrines at Lourdes and elsewhere represent the special beneficence of particular saints in this direction. There has been no instance yet, however, of the really miraculous, such as (the writer is perfectly serious) a one-legged man growing a new limb overnight.

What are the social effects of all this? The Catholic hierarchy has unquestioned rule over the world’s Catholic population, demanding supervision of their lives from the cradle to the grave. It is hardly necessary to labour the point that there are, therefore, between two and three millions in this country, twenty-six millions in America and a still greater number spread over the world who are to a lesser or greater degree held in ignorance by inculcated fear. Similarly—and consequently—there is the same legion committed to promoting the Catholic Church’s interests above all things: told how to vote, supplied with tailored judgments on all political and social matters, drilled to shape family and communal life in the moulds of the ideal Catholic civilization.

The thoughts of the Catholic worker are directed to preoccupation with the next world: to escape the terrors of hell and minimize the rigours of purgatory are to be his paramount concerns. “Which is the more important, my body or my soul? ” asks the Cathechism, and the answer can hardly be in doubt. Indeed, the famous Rerum Novarum encyclical of Leo XIII—the “Workers’ Charter”—while it mildly enjoined benevolence by employers and the State, made clear that working people must submit to hardship on this earth: “To suffer and to endure, therefore, is the lot of humanity . . . If there are any who pretend differently—who hold out to a hard-pressed people the boon of freedom from pain and trouble, an undisturbed repose, and constant enjoyment—they delude the people and impose upon them, and their lying promises will only one day bring forth evils worse than the present. Nothing is more useful than to look upon the world as it really is—and at the same time to seek elsewhere, as we have said, for the solace to its troubles.”

The politics of the Catholic Church are those of an organization incessantly seeking power. Its thesis is, par excellence, the claim of every non-governing party: that it can run property society better than any of them. It seeks to govern not democratically but absolutely, less through direct participation than through government by its votaries, and it is prepared to support any policy and make any alliance which will further its own ends; What Catholic domination means in practice can be seen simply by looking at the almost proverbial poverty and degradation of people in Ireland and Italy and the dictatorships of Spain and Portugal.

The fact is, however, that the Catholic Church will never again rule men’s minds as in the past. Its present campaign is not a crusade, but a rearguard action against the progress of man: it is doubtful even if capitalism needs Catholicism when there are Sputnik and Zeta for sky-pie. Nevertheless, the Church must be recognized for what it is—the greatest of the Christian religions which, from their beginnings, have enslaved men’s minds so that property societies might continue. It has declared itself—in the encyclical already mentioned–an enemy of Socialism. More explicitly, it is an enemy of the working class.


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