The heroism and romance of persecuted Catholics

A new mosaic in Westminster Cathedral honours the martyrs of England and Wales (Mazur/

The Catholics
by Roy Hattersley, Chatto and Windus, £25

Roy Hattersley is the son of a Catholic priest, as he recounts in the opening pages of this thoroughly entertaining new book. He only discovered the truth when he was 40, after his dad died. “I never wondered why my father – a lowly local government officer who went with my mother to Church of England evensong – knew that Bonnie Prince Charlie’s brother had been made the Cardinal Archbishop of Frascati … Nor was I in the least surprised when – during the visits to historic churches we often made together – he translated the Latin tombstone inscriptions on sight.”

Those were the days! When Benedict XVI announced his abdication to the assembled cardinals, most of them sat still as puddings, because they did not understand the Latin. Hattersley makes the point that Vatican II did not merely involve the translation of the liturgy into the vernacular, but a wholesale reformation. He singles out the abandonment of Friday fasting – one of the many changes that has led to Catholics being “like everyone else”. He also believes that the more charismatic forms of the faith only appeal to the middle classes and that the changes “did not attract working-class people”. The sight which, in America, had converted Dorothy Day to Catholicism – namely, hordes of working-class people streaming in to weekday Masses before work – would appear to be a vanished phenomenon here; though it may still be seen in Poland.

So, Hattersley starts with two advantages. One is his own personal involvement with the subject. The second is the fact that this is a history with a beginning and an end. The Church he is describing, and the story which begins with the heroism of the recusants in Tudor times and takes in the romance of Jacobitism and the coming of the 19th century, has really come to an end. Of course, the Church itself has not come to an end – there is still a pope, there are still sacraments and saints. But Catholics really are – more or less – like everyone else. One senses Hattersley’s wistful sadness at this.

He devotes far more time to English recusant and penal times than he does to the 19th century or the modern Church. The story starts with the sacrifice of the martyrs. A gentle intelligence, Hattersley prefers the self-deprecating scholar Fisher to the “celebrity” More, but sees how absolutely key their martyrdom was in inspiring the Catholics to remain true to their faith. His account of the arrest and execution of Campion is haunting. He does not echo the late Auberon Waugh, who called annually upon the pope to canonise Guy Fawkes; but then Hattersley is a distinguished parliamentarian. The martyrdom of Oliver Plunkett in 1681 is told in a way that makes you ashamed to be English.

The dukes of Norfolk do not get much of a look-in to Hattersley’s story. But the 18th century is explored with a pleasing combination of sensitivity and gusto: Bishop Challoner, “the Forty-five” and the Gordon Riots. Was this English Catholicism’s Golden Age?

To put it another way, was the 19th century, seemingly a season of the famous Second Spring, actually sowing the seeds of modern British Catholics’ problems? Wiseman is affectionately evoked here, but did he do the Catholics any favours by setting up an elaborate system of dioceses and (quite often rather cruddy) cathedrals?

Due weight is given by Hattersley to Manning’s great social conscience. His paper on “The Dignity and Rights of Labour” is a classic of English socialism. His support for papal infallibility and the more “extreme” positions of Pio Nono during the First Vatican Council will be seen by some readers as having burdened the Church with baggage she would later wish to discard.

This book tries to tell the story of Catholicism in all parts of our archipelago, and that is quite an ambition. My guess is that Irish readers will feel a bit short-changed, and regret that the “glory days” of “Dev” are handled as hastily as are the later eras of Father Ted’s Ireland.

By the time we get to the child abuse scandals, you feel the author racing to the finishing post. This is nothing, however, to what Welsh Catholics will feel. Where, they will ask, is Saunders Lewis? The founder of Plaid Cymru was a Catholic convert whose faith was a key ingredient in wishing to take his country back to the good old days of the Roman legions. We look in vain here, too, for David Jones, arguably the greatest poet-painter in Welsh history, and his time at Capel-Y-Ffin with Eric Gill’s Guild of St Dominic and St Joseph.

There is no mention of Marian apparitions, either – Our Lady of Knock and Our Lady of Llanthony might, for all Hattersley is concerned, have not bothered to appear.

But these cavils aside, I heartily recommend this volume, which is written with great brio, intelligence and charm; and with a wistful distance from his subjects’ faith which I found very appealing.

This article first appeared in the March 10 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here