Colm Tóibín wants the Church to be beautiful and exotic. But she has to impart truth, too

Pope John Paul II at Czestochowa, Poland, in 1979 (AP Photo/Stf). His message, writes Tóibín, was 'mysterious and charismatic'

Last week I blogged about the curious distinction between spirituality and religion made by Clifford Longley on Thought for the Day. Today a friend has sent me a recent review by Colm Tóibín in the London Review of Books that makes a similar distinction. Tóibín, raised an Irish Catholic and a writer of distinction, states, “As Wojtyla’s health declined, it was tempting to imagine that there was a cardinal in waiting… who would move from the ranks of conformity into a position of leadership and would dismantle Church teaching on sexuality, clerical celibacy, human reproduction and the rights of women, matters which were bringing the Church to its knees, distracting from its spiritual mission.”

What does Tóibín mean by this “spiritual mission”, so divorced from moral behaviour and theological truth? Referring to the subsequent election of Pope Benedict XVI, he continues: “It was possible to imagine him spending his papacy restoring prayer and the spiritual life to the heart of the Catholic faith, placing much emphasis on the mystery and beauty of the Eucharist and dwelling as much as he could on ideas of redemption, responsibility, solidarity, forgiveness and love in the life of Jesus in the New Testament.”

This is Catholicism as a branch of aesthetics and Jesus as a kindly, long-haired hippy. The key to Tóibín’s viewpoint perhaps, lies in an earlier passage in the same review, an intensely romantic description of watching Pope John Paul II at a prayer vigil at Czestochowa in 1991: “He was offering an example of what the spiritual life would look like; his message was mysterious and charismatic. If you did not know anything about the religion he represented, you would say it was one of the most beautiful ever imagined, wonderfully speculative and exotic, good-humoured and sweet but also exquisite and exalted…”

Tóibín sounds like a disappointed lover: as long as the Church is prepared to be merely exquisite and mysterious, providing potent symbols for a writer’s imagination, she is allowed to function. As soon as she acts like a loving mother, reprimanding her wayward children, curbing their wrongdoing and offering firm guidance back from the primrose path, she is completely out of order. The Church Jesus founded can incarnate beauty – but not goodness or truth.

The trouble is, as neither Longley nor Tóibín seem to have realised, that you cannot separate these three components without fatally distorting the Church and her mission. Not only that: beauty left to itself becomes ugly and malevolent. Think of the seductive Green Lady in that marvellous book, The Silver Chair, by CS Lewis. No sooner is she challenged than she transmogrifies into a writhing serpent.
And the moral of that is…