Sometimes I feel like a bit of a fraud. I never intended to become a public Catholic: I converted to Catholicism expecting it to fix me on the quiet. But when I saw the Church being attacked, I felt a call to defend it, and year by year I became an amateur evangelist. I do radio and TV, write columns, give speeches, and with that comes a sense of duty to accentuate the positive and win people to the cause.
I mean every word I say or write, but if I’m going to be a public Catholic I have to do so with integrity and I need to express the full truth. That means admitting that sometimes I’m angry with God. Sometimes I don’t like myself. And I suffer from doubt the way others suffer from a bad back.
You might not want to read about another man’s personal problems, but what I have learnt over the years is that a lot of what you feel – and worry that only you feel – everyone else feels too, and it helps to know that. For a start, I’m not always certain what to say. I make bad life choices, regret them, try to reverse them and make things worse (I hold the distinction of going into a pay negotiation, playing “hard to get” and coming out with less than I was originally offered).
I gossip. I take others for granted. I am only truly happy, I think, either delivering a lecture to a faceless crowd or alone with a friend, no pretensions, no lies, just you and me and each other. Oh, and I will from time to time pop into the garden for a smoke. So, arrest me.
Why share this? Because I worry that I might give the impression – and the Church does this a lot – that it’s easy out there, that all you need is a bit of faith to get you through. We are surrounded by Christian images of perfection that, inspiring though they are, don’t always reflect the messy, dirty realities of our lives, and unless we Catholics are completely honest about that we will come off as unreal. I’m exasperated by sermons that talk in abstractions. I believe in the sacraments – of course I do – but the most profound, lifelong challenges cannot be negated in three Hail Marys and an Our Father.
I don’t believe that and I don’t think Pope Francis believes that, which is one reason why I have a soft spot for him. I’m a trad and I love the Old Rite and I’m nervous about a lot of what Francis says about theology, but I don’t think this Pope looks down on anyone and I like that he talks to us as we really are. We’re not a flock of dumb sheep. We’re human beings.
A lot of religion can be understood as a metaphor for trying to work out what it means to be a full human being, “the whole man”. I’m struck by how difficult it is to be whole without other people. I’ve got a habit – and it’ll land me in trouble someday – of writing to people who’ve been a bit disgraced. They’re all men and they’re probably all as guilty as sin. But I look at them and think, “No one will talk to that poor sod right now,” and I know that that’s worse than physical death. So, I write and say: “I’m thinking of you.” That’s all.
This is the heart of my Catholicism: crossing boundaries, being where others won’t go, talking to the isolated. I’m a social conservative not because I hate anyone; hate is the Devil’s brew. I’m a social conservative because I worry that no one has said to the pregnant teenager: “You don’t have to have an abortion. I’ll help you through this.” Or to the person just diagnosed with dementia: “Don’t be afraid. Don’t think about euthanasia. I’m here for you.” Or to the wee boy who looks in the mirror and sees a girl: “That’s OK, it doesn’t matter, I love you regardless. Just give it time to discover who you are. It’s an adventure we can take together.”
We’re never truly alone with God but, reader, it’s perfectly normal to feel like you are, because I often do, too. There are small comforts: wine, cigarettes, Radio 4. But I know the chasm inside that you feel and I know it can be impossible to fill.
I know the faith can’t always do the job and please correct me if I ever suggest that it can. The best I can offer is to tell you that, whatever your pain, it is mutual and universal. And Jesus felt it too.
Tim Stanley is a journalist, historian and Catholic Herald contributing editor
This article first appeared in the October 19 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here