Interview How I came back to the Church Novelist Louise Mensch, former Tory MP and rock groupie, nearly converted to Judaism. But a bumpy plane ride revived her intense Catholic faith
Astorm above the Atlantic Ocean helped bring Louise Mensch back to the faith. As she was bounced around in an aircraft several miles up in the air, she ended up “making all sorts of deals with God”. Among these were that, if she survived, she would go to Confession. Back on safe ground in London, she kept her side of the bargain, and in doing so met Fr Alexander Sherbrooke, of St Patrick’s, Soho, who, she says, became a mentor.
Mensch – novelist, Twitter guru and former Conservative MP – has not been widely known for her Catholic faith. That changed in the run-up to the family synod in October. As Cardinal Walter Kasper cranked up his campaign for a change in the Church’s stance on Communion for the divorced and remarried, Mensch, a divorced and remarried Catholic herself, wrote a powerful piece opposing the idea. She said it had “never occurred” to her to present herself for Holy Communion – that would be a mortal sin. “I know I am not a good Catholic,” she wrote in the Spectator, “and I am living a life that the Church considers to be adulterous. Yet I am in good spirits, as I hope in God’s mercy. But I do not presume upon it.”
For some readers, Mensch’s grasp of Church teaching may have come as a surprise. But, in fact, she has known her theology from an early age. When she was only 15 she started writing for the Tablet. At school, she dipped into the Bible so often that “she wound up reading it cover to cover”. She loved the “intellectual puzzle” aspect of it, and was not always satisfied by the answers. “I require logical proofs of everything,” she says.
As a little girl, before she began reading her parents’ Tablet, she was always attracted to the “more traditional style” of faith, she says. She liked prayer cards and lighting candles, and detested happyclappy hymns. “Make Me a Channel of your Peace” she found “physically painful”.
Later she struggled with various aspects of Church teaching. In her teens and 20s, for instance, she argued in favour of women’s ordination, only changing her mind upon reading St John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignitatem, which she says was “sufficiently feminist to explain it in a way that didn’t make it stick in the gut”.
Louise Mensch finds happy-clappy hymns ‘physically painful’
At university she considered converting to Judaism. She explains that she was “stuck” on a couple of passages in the Bible where Jesus seemed to be denying his divinity. This led her to think: “Well, I believe in all the rest of it, so I must be Jewish.” She looked a rabbi up in the phone book and went down to London to meet him. By chance she had picked an Orthodox rabbi, who told her that she must never step inside a church again, even for her parents’ funerals. “And that was the end of that,” she says. If she had gone to see a reformed rabbi, she suggests, “things might have turned out differently”.
At the time, she recalls, she was on a bit of a spiritual search. She tried going to a Church of England service at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, where she was a student. “It had all the stuff you would think that I would like in terms of being High Church, lots of incense, robes, Latin and choirboys – it was right up my ecclesiastical, ecclesiological alley.” But, she says, she “did not feel the presence of God at all. It felt completely wrong.”
After leaving Oxford, she worked for MTV and later EMI as a press officer. These were her slightly wild days. Her music industry career did not last long,
though, and by her early 20s she had established herself as a novelist. For some years, she says, her faith wavered. Then, in her late 20s, a period in which she felt depressed, she stumbled across a biography of St Padre Pio. After being inspired by this account of the Italian priest’s life, she obtained an edition of his private letters. “The sanctity that came out of them was extraordinary,” she says. They were so “consistently beautiful” and covered such a long period of his life that she concluded his humility could not be fake. This, she says, brought her back to Mass. “I suppose I was looking for some sort of proof and something supernatural and in the miracles attributed to Padre Pio I found them,” she says. “He lived recently enough for there to be quite good scientific documentation on a lot of the stuff that happened.”
Later, after her flight scare, she met Fr Sherbrooke who, she says, is terrific. “I don’t want to say he should be a bishop, because it will be the kiss of death.” But she thinks that he will be, once the Church “shakes free of the appalling clubby nature of the English bishoprics”.
But Mensch is still not reconciled to all aspects of Church teaching. For instance, she says, she can’t get her head around Original Sin. Sin has to require consent, she says. “Collective sin just doesn’t seem to be logically possible.” She doesn’t reject the teaching outright, but has “stuck a pin in it”. “I’ve managed to make enough peace to say: ‘I don’t understand this.’”
These days Mensch lives in New York with her three children and her husband, Peter, who manages Metallica and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. She first met Peter back in her wild 20s. I ask, given her roundabout journey of faith, if she has any advice for others who have lost touch with the Church. “If you don’t believe in everything, connect yourself to the bits you do believe in, and then the rest of it will sort of come later,” she says. God is probably forgiving of weakness, she suggests, and is likely to have a good sense of humour.
Mensch declines to explain publicly why she has not sought an annulment of her first marriage. But she hopes that one day, in a state of grace, she will receive the Host again. Until then, as she wrote in October, she hopes that God “hides me in the shadow of his wings; that Mary, hope of sinners, has her cloak cast about me”.
20 CATHOLIC HERALD, DECEMBER 5 2014