Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Some Grounds for Catholic Optimism

The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, began his New Year message for 2022 by comparing two different kinds of hope.  One he called the ‘pragmatic version’ — in which ‘a secure present’ gives us confidence to ‘look forward to an uncertain future’  — whereas the other, he said, was the ‘theological virtue’ of hope — ‘the capacity to face an uncertain present’ because, beyond it, we trust in an ‘utterly secure future.’  

Most of us in the Church would recognise this distinction.  After all, the first kind of hope, which we might also call ‘optimism’, is in distinctly short supply these days.  As the memory of the old faith drains steadily out of our cities and civilisation, as the tenets of the Creed are forgotten one by one, as forces mighty as Goliath yet insidious as the serpent conspire to hobble the Church and smother the Gospel, the psalms of lamentation come easily to the lips: ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’  And so we cultivate the second kind of hope, setting our sights and our hearts on the ‘utterly secure future’ of the kingdom of Heaven.  We brace ourselves for the ‘Long Defeat’, as Tolkien put it, in sure hope of the Final Victory.

But what if even earthly hope is not altogether lost?  For although this nurturing of Deep Hope is fundamentally the right approach to our situation, it nevertheless carries with it an understandable temptation: to give up on the immediate future altogether, and thereby to miss such possibilities as do in fact lie before us.  We are not Albigensians; we should not turn our backs completely on the world.  The Resurrection of Christ was as earthly a thing as it was supernatural, and changes the present moment as much as it does eternity; its implications are not only cosmic but comprehensive, changing the world not only in general but in detail, and from within, not from without.  Our everyday lives on earth are shot through with a new life-force — the Word, whispering perpetually into every crisis, ‘This is not the end — for I was, I am and ever shall be.’  Even in these bewildering times, there is an onward path to tread.

Cardinal Vincent in his message goes on to point out the ‘middle ground’ that exists between the two kinds of hope.  His point, if I understand rightly, is that we need to develop an intelligent combination of both: Deep Hope in the long term; courage and fortitude in the short.  Even if ‘optimism’ is hardly the first word we might use to characterise our immediate outlook, it has to be an ingredient in our approach.  Even a dash will do.  As we heard from the prophet Jeremiah (of all people!) one Sunday last year:

A blessing on the man who puts his trust in the Lord, with the Lord for his hope.  He is like a tree by the waterside that thrusts its roots to the stream: when the heat comes it feels no alarm, its foliage stays green; it has no worries in a year of drought, and never ceases to bear fruit. 
(Jeremiah 17: 5–8)

‘Never ceases to bear fruit’…  Mainstream opinion-formers may think the Catholic Church obsolete, deluded and contemptible, but we must not give the slightest impression of believing them.  Certainly we should be prudent in the deployment of our energies; absolutely we must attend to the deep and inner roots, but in the drought of the coming decades we must never lose confidence that the Church will indeed ‘never cease to bear fruit’ — because she retains countless ways to prove herself essential not only to her own members, but to our whole society.

What sort of thing do I mean?  Here are some ideas.

1.  Pro-life victory is certain

I am absolutely confident of the eventual victory, on earth, of the pro-life movement.  This might sound absurd, given the present total dominance of the abortion lobby in law and politics.  All the same, of the innumerable logical contradictions at the heart of the revolutionary secular-progressive project, this is the hardest to sustain, and indeed can be sustained only by shrill campaigning and a constant flow of cash.  A succession of scientific discoveries is steadily and consistently vindicating the Church’s position, and, sadly, so is the testimony of ever greater numbers of women as to the offence done by abortion against their dignity and happiness.  The strength of the pro-choice lobby is nearing its high water mark; it has little further ground to gain; it is already having to become defensive of its establishment position.  Its members are beginning, rightly, to recognise the possibility that they will, as the phrase goes, ‘lose the narrative’ to the joyful and energetic pro-life message.

March for Life, London, September 2018

I do not mean to sound complacent — after all, the cost in unborn lives now runs at over two hundred thousand every year in England and Wales alone — but I am not being complacent; I am being confident.  As with the trans-Atlantic slave trade two centuries ago, the whole outrage is likely to end abruptly, even unexpectedly, with a sudden anagnorisis and revulsion at the horror.  Unless our society is completely overtaken by nihilism, a point will be reached at which the injustice can be denied no more; someone at some point will ask, in a loud enough voice and in a way which can be heard, why (for instance) we see hardly anybody with Down’s syndrome around any more; will ask why we uphold the rights of God’s animal creatures, as we should, without extending the same defence to our own unborn children.  When the tide does turn, the sheer consistency and integrity of the Church’s pro-life position, as well as her record in providing for mothers in need, will stand her in good stead when it comes to establishing a new and authentic culture of life.

That is one concrete reason for hope in our age, but still stretches the definition of ‘optimism’ a little far.  What about today and tomorrow?

2.  Fire-power isn’t everything

It is worth remembering that we still have great resources in the nature of our presence in society.  Secular progressivism is on the warpath, and hardening into a religion of its own, having at its disposal many organised shock-troops with strident and persuasive voices, and tightening its grip on our culture.  But if the Church seems not quite able to match this sheer fire-power, it is not because we lack good arguments or articulate ripostes.  It is because we have other things on our plate as well.  Unlike the cultural revolutionaries, we have always been concerned about more than mere propaganda.  The Church may be in battle, but she is not merely a battleship: she has to be a rescue vessel and a hospital ship and a flagship all at once.  She cannot be expected to swivel and aim her guns as adeptly as a purpose-built destroyer.

What is more, so much of the strength of our witness actually lies in our silence.  This is true in two senses: firstly in the simple fact of our not going along with propaganda or slogans, and secondly in the positive quality of the silence of our sanctuaries.  Especially these days, when moments of peace, let alone peace by oneself with God, are so hard to come by, precious indeed are the physical refuges of our churches amid the howling cities.

Our strength lies, too, in the aspects of the Church’s life that never make the headlines: her presence in hospitals, in hospices, in prisons, in homeless shelters, in ports, in refugee camps, in the armed forces, in universities, in schools.  And her charities: the tireless work of CAFOD for overseas development, Aid to the Church in Need for persecuted Christians, the St. Vincent de Paul Society for the homeless, and so on.  All those things that are never chalked up on the scoreboard of history: the Masses, rosaries, hymns and prayers; the confraternities, the prayer-groups, the pilgrimages, the devotions; the ‘ecclesiolae’ or ‘little churches’ of families holding their own day after day.  The kindly priest in the lit confessional; the Mary-garden under the railway arch; the soup-bowl in the homeless shelter: in all these ways the Church, with that gentle tenacity of hers, persists in living the ‘life to the full’ that her Founder promised.

The cultural revolution tends to be keener on the commanding heights of the culture — the law, the government, the arts, schools, universities, and the apparatus of civil society — than on the welfare of ordinary people.  This tells us that it is only really interested in power; that for all its capacity for intimidation it is necessarily brittle and lacking foundations, and that its strength, though incontestable for the moment, will prove ephemeral.  The Church’s appearance, by contrast, is no mere veneer.  Under the surface she is true to her word.

3.  The Church comprehends the new and pluralised Britain 

Another opportunity for the Church in years to come, one in which it stands as good a chance of success as any other institution apart from the Crown, is in making sure we fashion a harmonious society of the new pluralised Britain, and preventing the emergence of any division or mutual alienation.  Relatively few things can be said to unify us as a country these days, and certain fractures are emerging which the Faith is placed uniquely to heal.  What but the Christian imagination could even conceive of bringing into serious dialogue, say, the secular liberal on the one hand — whose instinct for mercy, though misproportioned, echoes a distinctively Christian idea — and the observant Muslim on the other, whose concern for justice, codified by the bracing tenets of Islamic law, testifies to a sincere attentiveness to God’s will?  Because the Church understands this paradox of justice and mercy, knowing how to temper one with the other, she can, I think, foster more fruit from such a conversation than anyone else.

And where else but within the Church can the demographic changes of the past fifty years be not only reconciled but harmonised convincingly with the deepest roots of our society?  To take only one of countless examples, consider the Tamil pilgrimages to Our Lady’s shrine at Walsingham, which I understand attract the largest numbers of all the pilgrim groups.  In this village in the heart of rural Norfolk, a place of pilgrimage since before the Norman Conquest, an ancient English devotion is unified with a Tamil one.  There is no contradiction between love of England and love of neighbour; there is simply one faith, one Church and one Lord.  Thus the world-wide roots of today’s pilgrims are entwined with the very depths of England and Englishness, new Britons follow in the footsteps of medieval kings, and all pilgrims throughout the ages are unified in peace and goodwill.  For many immigrants and their families and descendants, the Catholic Church is a ‘home away from home’ — and yet it has been here in England, waiting for them, it seems, since England’s very beginning.

Tamil Pilgrimage to Walsingham, Norfolk, 2016

4.  New alliances amid the crisis of meaning

Then there is the crisis of meaning: the alarming and deepening void at the centre of modern life, and, which is often even more horrifying, all that is rushing in to fill the void.  Only a decade ago the New Atheists were trumpeting the new dawn of a fanaticism-free secular age of cool rationalism, but now their vision seems completely unequal to the socio-cultural forces of our present time — forces which I am convinced are also spiritual.  As R. S. Thomas wrote,

In cities that
have outgrown their promise people
are becoming pilgrims
again, if not to this place,
then to the recreation of it
in their own spirits […]

Amid a loss of confidence in our institutions, our culture and even ourselves, a tremendous spiritual famine has suddenly declared itself: often vague, often outwardly hostile to formal religion, but unmistakeably spiritual in character.  This manifests itself in some obvious ways — the growing and understandable popularity of ‘mindfulness’, or the emergence of whole new academic fields such as ‘Loneliness Studies’ — but also in some more alarming forms: in the new ideologies sweeping every public institution, our blind faith in progressivism, and the many genuinely troubled young people.

Writers such as the essential Mary Eberstadt have long been observing how sixty years of aggressive secularism have been incubating this situation — but plenty of non-churchgoers are also noticing the crisis.  They share our alarm at the widespread subjugation of truth and reason to personal desire, and many are realising that even the Church may have something interesting to say about it.  We can and must do our best to repay that confidence; if we do, we may find ourselves entering into some new and fruitful kinds of dialogue.  (I say this from personal experience.) 

5.  The crisis of gender, though tragic, is a particular opportunity

One friend with whom I regularly enjoy such conversations recently brought to my attention a recent lecture on freedom of speech, one of the BBC’s annual series of Reith Lectures, by Nigerian-born novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  At the core of this address was an appeal for a ‘coalition of the reasonable’ to maintain the standards of public debate.  She was speaking mainly with reference to the extraordinary behaviour in recent years of many advocates of gender theory, who have often been using outrageous tactics in order to advance their contentious cause, organising social media storms, releasing personal information, and even hounding their opponents from their jobs.

Adichie’s is an invitation to which the Church can and must respond positively.  We believe in reason and know that civil and reasonable debate are essential to our whole society — so there is an opportunity here for some real solidarity and co-operation.  In forming such alliances we do not have to pretend to agree where we disagree, but there is no reason why an edifying exchange of ideas should not take place.  The ‘reasonable secularists’ can discover our sincere interest in truth and reason, while we might draw some inspiration from their strength of purpose and concern for accountability and integrity.  Maybe, in finding ourselves on the same side for once, the discussion will be more constructive than it has been for many years.

Perhaps, too, at a relaxed moment, the conversation might turn to higher things, and to the spiritual dimension of the crisis of our time.  We might mention Benedict XVI’s insight that as well as reason we need faith, and that the two are not only compatible with but absolutely essential to each other.  We might make the point that the sense of meaninglessness from which so much of the crisis has stemmed corresponds to a deep reality about ourselves — that our longing for meaning is not some vague and inconvenient appetite, nor some functional or dietary need to be satisfied by the appropriate vitamin, but is a sign of the deepest truths about ourselves: the spiritual truths.

Even so, the urgent task remains to offer charitable but robust collective opposition to gender theory, which even now is doing irreversible damage to many confused and unhappy young people, as well as offending in a particular way against the rights and dignity of women.

6.  The Re-evangelisation of Romance

Another obvious mission for the Church is also one of the most dangerous: to confront head-on the ongoing melting down and recasting of marriage and the family, and to re-evangelise the sphere of romantic and marital love with the fullness and beauty of the Church’s teaching.  

Here, as with abortion, the post-Sixties revolutionary movement is visibly running into difficulties, and beginning to fray amid its own contradictions.  But its power is still tremendous, and its price exacted mainly on the young — who secretly, often even without knowing it themselves, long to hear the truth.  They long to be told what deep down they suspect: that all men and women were made for each other’s mutual respect and friendship, not for sullen rivalry; that the unique kind of friendship which is life-long marriage, the real thing, is no fancy but the gold standard, given to us by God for our flourishing; that a bride and bridegroom really are worth to the other nothing less than the gift of a great cosmic vow, one equal to the weight of an entire human life and strong enough to sustain the multiplication of new life; that such a vow is no mere formality, but something we long with all our hearts to make and to fulfil.  Youth seeks truth — the truth about ourselves, a truth which is written in our bodies as well as in our souls — and the Church, with teaching that is as beautiful as it is true, must be there to meet their longing.  Our culture is near enough rock bottom to hear it.  

We will often run up against wild rage and hatred — for those entrapped by darkness hate and fear beauty and truth — but there are millions of others waiting to be captivated by the high mission to which the Church calls them.

As Mary Eberstadt said in a recent interview,

Catholics should be proud (in the right way) of all these unpopular teachings.  They’re only unpopular for the moment, and […] they resonate with the human heart.  That again is to our advantage as we try to press this case.

This is one of the few spheres of life in which many people will still acknowledge a spiritual dimension, while often remaining sceptical about the form of marriage.  We are in much the same situation as those who argue for rhyme and metre in poetry: our task is to show how the form gives sense to the feeling; how the rules and vows give the underlying human impulse the sense and the strength to endure.  Against the pessimism of liberalism, with its fear of commitment, with its cynical assumptions about loyalty and perseverance, many will be surprised and inspired by the frankness, the freshness, the bracing realism, and, yes, the sheer optimism of the Church’s vision.

7. How hope works

I have one final remark on the way hope itself works, and where to look for it.  Whether pragmatic or theological, hope does not usually come marching over the hill; it grows fierce and green in unlikeliest places, as tenacious as grass or wildflowers.

One hot day a few years ago I was riding along a cycle path beside a busy road in south London, gritting my teeth against the volume and hostility of the traffic, when I came to a narrow gap and, seeing a child of about ten or eleven coming the other way, braked to let him through.  To my complete astonishment, he very sincerely and deliberately thanked me; I hadn’t expected it and was too stunned to respond adequately.  There, uncrushed by the juggernauts and the tyres, defying the smirking warlords of the road, a tiny counter-witness, a green shoot of hope — something so vital, so ‘original, spare, strange’, that it offered a stronger riposte to its surroundings than I think the child could know.  Like Lovejoy’s garden in Rumer Godden’s book An Episode of Sparrows, it grows and germinates in defiance of overwhelming forces, even in spite of ourselves.

In the same way, as we should know from our own lives — and at Eastertide of all seasons — the vindication of the faith is with us in on earth in this very hour.  ‘Christianity works,’ as Douglas Gresham, C. S. Lewis’s straight-talking step-son, once said.  It works in our lives, in every detail of our lives, even if the wider world is ignoring it for the present.  


I am under no illusions: this is a very uncertain and unsettling age, and things will not be easy for the Church for some time.  Many of the opportunities I describe may only be born of various crises and amid great suffering: it may be that we can be optimistic only to the extent of being poised to respond to a crisis.  It is also undeniable that the Church as an institution — in Europe and the West at least — has been severely weakened in the past fifty years — partly by mockery and marginalisation from without, partly by slacking and scandal from within.  But the Church’s members on the ground are chastened and made wise by crisis; we are all, clergy and laity alike, more alert, less complacent, and more capable of giving an account of ourselves than we have been for some time.  And in an age when all institutions are struggling to win trust, the Church is again as well-placed as any other to recover her integrity and a visible authenticity.

As far as external threats go, the Church can handle crises far better than she can uncertainty and apathy.  Our very foundation began with an utter catastrophe which was gloriously and outrageously inverted into triumph.  We have the ‘utterly secure future’; we have the Final Victory — but the near future is worth fighting for as well.  Keeping courage, then, means keeping courage in the short term as well as the long; today and tomorrow, this hour and the next, so that, in a happier time, our descendants will remember and give thanks for their forbears in faith, as we give thanks for ours.

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?…
Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear.
For in the time of trouble he shall hide me in his pavilion:
In the secret of his tabernacle shall he hide me; he shall set me up upon a rock.

(Psalm 27: 1–5)

Pope Benedict at Hyde Park, September 2010.


  1. Wonderful post. I hope you are right. I make no predictions myself, but none of your grounds for optimism seem unreasonable.

    Regarding your comment on the internationalism of our Faith, on Sunday I was in an Asian food store in Dublin. The proprietor was from the south of India, and he had a big painting of the Immaculate Heart of Mary over the counter!

    1. Thank you, Maolsheachlann! Well, I'm no expert, but I thought Eastertide would be a good time to count our blessings.

      Good for your Indian shopkeeper! 'One Church, one Faith, one Lord.'


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