THE INTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY FOUNDED IN 1840
BACK TO CATHOLIC
The traditional obligation for Catholics to attend Mass every Sunday was lifted in Britain and virtually everywhere else in the world more than a year ago. So the familiar distinction between practising and non-practising Catholics was suspended. This week, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales have issued “The Day of the Lord”, a reflection on the way back to normality. They do not indicate whether and when they intend to reimpose that obligation. Perhaps they should leave things as they are.
The bishops write that they are aware of three groups of people they are seeking to reach out to: those who have simply lost the habit of weekly churchgoing; those who are not sure they can see the point of it any more; and those who have only recently encountered the Catholic Church during the pandemic – “the Covid curious” – and may be attracted by what they found. Few in these three groups would be likely to respond to pressure to conform, which is what the re-establishment of canon law requirements about Mass attendance would entail. For most, it could well have the opposite effect.
Participation in the Eucharist is the fount and summit of a Catholic’s spiritual and moral life, and Mass attendance on Sundays and Holy Days is the mark of Catholic identity. As the bishops say, the Sunday Eucharist is “food for the unique mission with which we have been endowed”.
The principal events in the life of the universal
Church during the pandemic have included Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli Tutti and his call for dialogue between faiths during his recent visit to Iraq. Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster signed an ecumenical letter to the prime minister last autumn calling for an end to poverty, especially among children. His diocese and Cardiff ’s, under the banner of Caritas, have collected and distributed impressively large sums of money for the relief of hardship.
The Catholic Church’s witness for social justice and its wealth of teaching on the matter is one of its most compelling characteristics, especially among younger generations. The world is crying out for clear moral direction. The bishops praise the contribution of Catholics to the food bank movement, but fail to ask the obvious question – why are food banks necessary? Why were an estimated 4.3 million children living in poverty even before Covid arrived? How could church leaders ignore such a scandal?
The Eucharist feeds the soul and it feeds a hunger for justice in the world. Clearly reaffirming the unbreakable link between participation in the sacraments and action for social justice would be a clear trumpet call to the faithful, those with doubts and those drifting away as well as those feeling the pull to return. Every Catholic should respond positively to the bishops’ invitation, “Come back to Mass to heal your soul”; had the invitation been augmented by a call to “Come back to Mass to heal the world”, it would have had even greater power and conviction.
INTEGRITY AND POLITICS
TIME RUNNING OUT FOR
It is said that a fish rots from the head. Misconduct at the top gives permission for misconduct lower down. In the case of Boris Johnson, a character trait described by his former Eton housemaster is becoming the dominant theme of his administration – his belief that he should be “free of the network of obligations which binds everyone else”. Because he leads a government, his implausible denials of any hint of wrongdoing have to be echoed by his spokespersons and colleagues. They are drawn into a web of deceit.
At the heart of the current turmoil is the essentially trivial question of who funded the £58,000 cost of the redecoration of the prime minister’s Downing Street flat according to the tastes of his fiancée Carrie Symonds. Did the prime minister ask wealthy friends of his to pick up the bill? If so, why not say so? But Johnson habitually avoids scrutiny and accountability, and therein lies the germ of corruption. And not just by himself. The unethical cutting of corners soon becomes an institutional habit, part of the culture.
Once trust is eroded, it is hard to rebuild, and impossible without a visible moral shift. This is one of the underlying factors behind the public’s increasing impatience with the inconveniences of lockdown. It is ironic that Johnson’s chief tormentor is Dominic Cummings, his once indispensable aide and guru, who was himself responsible for a massive collapse in public trust when he gave himself permission to waive lockdown restrictions by driving 300 miles from London to Durham and back, and to Barnard Castle nearby (“to test his eyesight”).
Johnson may lack integrity, but the public somehow largely discounts that, provided his government can attend to the urgent problems of the day – which at the moment means completing the remarkably successful vaccination programme. He lacks predictability because of a well-known series of U-turns. He is widely reported to have said at a meeting of ministers and advisers last autumn that he would resist another lockdown “even if the bodies piled high”. But he almost immediately agreed to the second lockdown, and a third a few weeks later. If he did say that, he should simply admit it, trusting the public to understand what he meant.
It would be a catastrophe if the legacy of Johnson’s term of office was that the integrity of the British government machine was damaged beyond repair. The so-called “revolving door” between ministerial office holders and the senior civil servants on the one hand, and company consultancies and directorships on the other, is an obvious source of corruption. So is the unscrutinised distribution of huge amounts of public money to the friends and relatives of ministers, in a panic to generate supplies of desperately needed medical equipment at the start of the Covid epidemic in Britain last year.
Johnson should come clean. He has been under extraordinary pressure. The public may well be willing to understand and, if necessary, even forgive, this and other errors of judgement. What the public dislikes most of all is hypocrisy. But first, there must be transparency. Light must be shone in dark places. Johnson plainly has no appetite for that. He would rather brazen it out. This is a man whose character flaws will eventually be his undoing.
2 | THE TABLET | 1 MAY 2021