Some years ago, when I ploughed a lonely furrow through the morals section of the Gregorian University library in Rome, I came across an article entitled something like “The Permanent Structure of Conservative Thought.” The author, whose name now escapes me, argued that conservative thinkers always follow the same patterns of argument and took up similar positions that did not change much over the centuries. It made good reading, because it reinforced something that most of us know to be true: the arguments we hear are never fresh, they are merely reformulations of old arguments; and the conversation we are having is in fact the same conversation our ancestors had: some of the language may have changed, but the substance has not. Thus it is not too much of a stretch to see in the current culture wars a distant but real echo of the disagreements between followers of St Thomas Aquinas and the Nominalists, which raged six hundred years ago, but are still with us: do moral ideas exist of themselves or are they merely ideas in our heads?
Just as there may be a permanent structure to conservative thought, there also seems to be a permanent structure to anti-Catholic thought (one uses the word “thought” very loosely in this context). Recently the Guardian has begun to sing the praises of Pope Francis while at the same time taking the rather extraordinary view that this Pope is a sort of anti-Catholic Pope, for many writers seem convinced that the Pope is the one who will somehow correct what they consider to be the faults of the Catholic Church.
And what are these faults? They are the sort of things that I often heard bruited abroad by my anti-Catholic relatives (of which, sadly, I used to have rather a lot) back in the 1970’s. This permanent structure to anti-Catholic thought, the foundations of which probably go back to the Middle Ages, looks something like this, with some variations allowed to accommodate your political preferences.
• The Catholic Church is rich and does not care about the poor.
• The Catholic Church is riddled with sexual predators.
• The Catholic Church is foreign, and not to be trusted.
• The Catholic Church is hypocritical and addicted to show: God does not want vestments and golden chalices, but simplicity.
• The Catholic Church is in league with rightwing dictators.
• The Catholic Church is in league with Marxists.
I am sure most readers will be able to add many more to these, in accordance with their experience. Many of them can be diced and spliced according to preference. I have been told on several occasions that the Catholic Church in Chile (my mother’s country) was indifferent to the poor for years, then sucked up to Pinochet, but then decided to turn Marxist in order to keep in with prevailing fashion. The hypocrites! Why didn’t they sell all those golden chalices to help the poor?
It is of course impossible to argue with this sort of thing, simply because the anti-Catholics have little difficulty in taking up contradictory positions: Catholics are fascists and Marxists, in such quick succession that they seem to be both together. Indeed, the fundamental anti-Catholic position is that Catholics are hypocrites, and the positions they espouse are based purely on expediency. They love to follow the prevailing fashion: hence Pius XII was “Hitler’s Pope”. There is nothing new about that slur.
How to argue with these people? The best thing to do, I find, is to point out that all these issues are complex ones, and not reducible to simple formulisations. This can stop people in their tracks, as they do not want to be seen to be what they accuse us of, that is, people who have been brainwashed. Of course you could try to remind people that the Vatican is not rich, but cash-strapped, and that it owns the art treasures in the Vatican Museums in the same way as the British government owns the contents of the National Gallery.
One could point out that a second hand chasuble would be of little use to a poor person, and that melting down chalices (which was done on a huge scale at the Reformation) is a form of vandalism. But embarking on these arguments is not for the fainthearted and certainly not for the easily bored. It might be best, though a little unkind, to point out to the anti-Catholics that they belong to a long though hardly respectable tradition, embodied by the Black Legend. One might add that Pope Francis is, as he himself put it, a son of the Church, one who believes what Catholics have always believed, and one who does what Catholics have always done.