Musings on an Antithesis: Catholic England

Liverpool: Catholic England
St Anthony’s, Scotland Road, Liverpool. One of the numerous massive Catholic Churches in Liverpool which were erected largely by and for the Irish immigrants. Photo: Green Lane (Own work) [GFDL (

From the opening to Dennis Sewell’s Catholics: Britain’s Largest Minority:

When I was sent away to the Jesuits at the age of eight, my paternal grandmother plotted to have me abducted.

Family legend has it that her co-conspirator was Great Aunt Mary, a strict Presbyterian with a booming voice and a developed propensity to meddle.

The plan was carefully laid. A car and driver were hired. Rooms were taken at a boarding house …

I would be transported to a farm outside Kilmarnock to undergo a process of ‘deprogramming’ – though that word was not yet in general circulation in 1965.

I have often asked myself what life might have been like had the scheme not unravelled in farce and had my father’s family succeeded in having me raised in the Protestant tradition.

Would I be more thrifty and hard-working?

Given to fatalistic pessimism?

Alternatively, glassy eyed and evangelical?

Or would I, like so many of my generation, have come to regard religion with indifference, even hostility?

For sure, I would have been essentially somebody else, for Catholicism has always been to me an important ingredient of personal identity.

Here is a striking snapshot of 1965: Vatican II was yet to be implemented. The author’s story speaks of a time when people still held strong views as to what it meant to be, either Protestant or Catholic – a time of course when the Catholic Church was less Protestantised than it is today and distinctions were sharper …

And the author raises important questions. For if Catholicism powerfully conditions individual identity—what of social and collective identity?

What of the collective identity of an entire people, the English or the Irish say?

There are very sobering things here for me.

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Perhaps none moreso than what Sewell intimates about indifference to religion, even hostility.

He is in fact questioning whether he would be Christian at all today, had he not been raised Catholic.

Again it is the collective dimension to this matter which presses on me.

For it does seem to be that generally speaking – albeit with the important exception of the U.S.A. – Christianity disappears most rapidly in once-Protestant countries, such as England or Sweden. Great indifference if not outright hostility to religion is marked there.

And speaking personally dear Lector, my life has involved living in Catholic cultures: Ireland, Spain, France. In all of these – even France – Christianity remains a more vital phenomenon.

And now I am once again in Britain and feeling acutely the difference in a culture marinated, completely marinated in Protestant heritage.

And yes, compared to Catholic Ireland or Spain in particular, how much Britain today seems all about indifference, even hostility to Christianity …

I confess that living in England for me is to force questions about English collective identity, which are like Sewell’s questions about individual identity.

It is to ask: what if Henry VIII had not crushed Catholicism in England?

What if this island had for instance, continued to be bathed in the radiation from monastic life, prayer and sacraments – which Henry VIII obliterated?

In the centuries which ensued, would Britain have produced the same rash of rationalist, utilitarian and positivist philosophy typified by men like Locke, Hume, Bentham, Mills and Ayer?

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Would this island have still become the once-greatest capitalist power on Earth – with all the economic prowess which generated the British Empire?

Would Britain be so disaffected from Christianity as she is today and consequently I think, the New Age capital of the world (with California in close second place)?

Frankly my answers to these last queries range from ‘maybe not’ in the first instance to a decisive NO to the last question.

This entry is something of a blip. An indication of things I want to pursue ere long …

A very personal note: Kim and I are involved in a move to one piece of English soil that seems different to us than all the rest: Liverpool – a city which still registers the impact of massive Irish immigration, or at least significant parts of north Liverpool do . . .

For while the more affluent, southern side of the city was somewhat more Protestant, parts of the North were and even still are very largely Catholic, at least nominally Catholic. (Certain parishes in the north have proportions of at least nominal Catholics of close to ninety per cent—something utterly extraordinary in England).

We will be living in proximity to these. It will give us opportunity to observe and participate in the remains at least of a Catholic micro-culture.

A relatively tiny corner of England not marinated in Protestantism in quite the same way …

And as I have already suggested here – there is statistical evidence that even in this remnant microculture of ‘Catholic England’, Christianity is not quite in the same degree of retreat, as it elsewhere in Britain.

At least my investigations – though hardly complete – of the 2001 census show identification with Christianity in this region to be higher than virtually anywhere in England. (The only competition I am aware of is nearby St Helen’s, just at the edge of Liverpool – also dominated by Irish immigration. More research however is needed).

Just a last note for now: While we are engaged in this move, this site may perhaps “suffer’ a bit.

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Perhaps instalments will be published less frequently. But I think not. I have some old writings from a time when I was a more liberal Catholic, less concerned with things like ‘de-Christianisation’, less troubled by ‘indifference and hostility to religion’.

Yes less troubled. My heart was less awake …

The writings as they presently stand are often unfit for this more traditional website. But with a little re-writing, hopefully the site will be kept fresh, without too much toil in this time of personal transition.

Once we are properly relocated, I hope to return to Sewell’s book for a review. It has much meaning and insight to offer about the themes in this entry.

Note: There is a little more about Catholic England here.

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  1. […] Note: There is a little more about Catholic Liverpool here. […]