In a month’s time, I will be boarding a plane to Washington for the launch of the new American weekly edition of the Catholic Herald. This is one of the most important events in our 130-year history. With the American Church in a state of crisis, our feeling is that a fresh voice on Catholic affairs is exactly what is needed in a country where there are more Catholics (an estimated 75 million) than the entire population of Britain. Above all, we intend to take a positive attitude towards how to both re-build and restore faith in the Church, not just in America but across the world.
Throughout its history, the Herald has broken some of the most important Catholic stories, including the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958 – an exclusive it achieved by gambling that the pontiff would die immediately after it went to press. (Thankfully for our reputation, he did.) The Herald has also been the chosen platform for many of the world’s most influential Catholic writers, including GK Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and JRR Tolkien. We will continue this tradition, including new American voices.
Whether there is such a thing as a “Catholic novelist” remains open to question. Certainly the British novelist Piers Paul Read – a regular contributor to our pages – would be regarded as a living example of the genre. Two of my favourite authors, Jay McInerney, probably America’s finest social novelist, and Joseph O’Neill (who trained as a barrister), both have Irish heritage and live in New York. Yet whether either would identify themselves as Catholic writers – in the same way that Greene and Waugh did – I can’t say.
But we’d love to find out what they – and others – think about the religion they were raised in. Our literary editor, the award-winning crime novelist Stav Sherez, will be inviting America’s best writers and critics – of all beliefs – to review books on any subject of interest to Catholics.
We’ll encourage leading US writers to follow such authors as Greene, who described himself as a “Catholic agnostic” and used the Herald as a form of debating chamber, which is what a good magazine should be. Greene chose the Herald to justify his controversial 1940 novel The Power and the Glory, dismissing “prudish Catholics who believe that a writer should never introduce into his work anything that belongs to the savage and lustful world and should concern himself only with the good and the beautiful”.
Sex and religion, of course, were never far from Greene’s thoughts, especially in the late 1940s after he met the American society beauty Catherine Walston. She decided to convert after reading his novel about a whisky priest on the run in Mexico; he agreed to become her god-father and she became his lover and muse not long after that.
While researching my biography of Greene at Georgetown University in 1999, I had a three-bottles-of-wine dinner in Washington with Christopher Hitchens. He revealed to me that The Power and The Glory was one of his favourite novels and that he admired Greene for his “conservatism”. The dinner ended in a blur but his point was that, even if you struggled with the religion, Greene had a gift for almost consecrating language. His books and essays remind us that words matter; and so they will in the new US Herald.
Unlike in Britain, where orthodox-leaning, educated Catholics are a tiny minority, America boasts a huge community of intelligent Catholics who wish to be informed and enlightened. The Herald will take a stand against the crude division of Catholicism into “liberal” and “conservative” factions. Instead, as our editor-in-chief Damian Thompson puts it, “We will be exploring the riches of orthodox Catholicism – drawing inspiration from our illustrious literary pedigree of leading Catholic writers.”
Our objective is to remain boldly independent and we will refuse to be dragged into the politicisation that has so divided the US Church. With many US cardinals now embroiled in perhaps the worst crisis in Catholic history, and factions of the Church in a seeming state of civil war, there has never been more of a need for measured opinion and reporting, combined with the highest level of “critical voice” covering the arts. And writing that is not merely reminiscent of birthday odes for the Medici princes and their popes.
Damian is the former religious affairs correspondent of the Daily Telegraph and a veteran of 25 years of reporting on Church battles. He buried himself for a few days in our recently digitised archives, and emerged with many gems that will feature in the publicity for our US edition.
My favourite is from Evelyn Waugh, who wrote the following while serving as a Herald special correspondent at a Eucharistic Congress in Budapest: “In England we [Catholics] are always a minority, often a very small one. There is a danger that we look on ourselves as the exceptions, instead of in the true perspective of ourselves as normal and the irreligious as freaks.”