Arts essay: A good man who was so nearly Catholic

Dr Johnson was good friends with Jesuit polymath Fr Roger Joseph Boscovich, pictured

In one of those gorgeous verbal doodles with which he filled the pages of his absorbing (and at the time quite illegal) wartime journal, Hugh Trevor-Roper tells us that he likes

Listening to solemn music, the stately and serene music of Handel; and walking, in May, through woods planted by 18th century dukes; and drinking fragrant morning-tea in bed, reading learned and elegant and worldly biographies about learned and elegant and worldly bishops.

Does this not all sound very agreeable? Even today it is possible to breathe the varied atmosphere of that age in its literature, and what refreshing air it is: the greatest practitioners of the novel, from Defoe, who invented the genre, to Richardson, who perfected it, Fielding, Sterne, the various Gothic scribblers; in verse, Pope, Gray and the early Romantics; in prose, Addison and Steele and of course Gibbon, who produced the most readable history ever written in ours or any language.

There is much less to be said on behalf of 18th-century English religion, genial as it no doubt seemed to Trevor-Roper, who excoriated poor Archbishop Laud in a deliciously mean-spirited biography and once described himself as “Anglican, not Christian”. In those carefree days baptisms, which tended to be administered en masse and not infrequently without water, were often invalid. A parson who was keen on angling might keep his bait in the font; an ill-prepared curate, in the midst of celebrating the Prayer Book service, could be heard to ask whether any of the gentlemen in attendance happened to have a corkscrew about them.

It is difficult to see how anyone could have ever believed that the Rev Mr Roger Thwackum, in Fielding’s Tom Jones, was a sacrificing priest of the New Testament; certainly the man himself would very much have resented the suggestion.

This is not to suggest that English Catholic piety died out with the Non-Jurors. In 1729 William Law published his devotional masterpiece A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. At Oxford the spirit of the great 17th-century Anglican divines was kept alive after a fashion by bibulous dons who taught little and wrote less but drank toasts to the King Over the Water. Wesley told friends that he found the place filled with “the skulls of Jacobites”. Only a few decades before Newman arrived at Oriel it was possible to hear sermons on the sacrament of Confession preached at the university. It was in this atmosphere that the young Gibbon realised there could be no middle ground between atheism and the Church; he did not practise his faith for very long before his father forced him into lifelong apostasy, but sub specie aeterni the author of the Decline and Fall is every bit as much a Catholic writer as Rabelais.

One author who cannot, alas, be claimed for Rome is Dr Johnson. This is a great pity, not least because no eminent English writer of his century – including, alas, Alexander Pope – had more kind things to say about the Church than the Great Cham. “God bless him,” he said when he learned that the brother of his friend, Mrs Kennicott, had resigned his Anglican living and become a priest. Johnson had many dear friends among the Catholic clergy, including the Jesuit Fr Roger Joseph Boscovich, who greatly admired the doctor’s Latin conversation. He spent much of his brief visit to France at religious houses and was a great admirer of asceticism: “I never read of a hermit, but in imagination I kiss his feet,” he told Boswell, “never of a monastery, but I could fall on my knees, and kiss the pavement.”

He defended purgatory and prayers for the dead and in his will left £5 to Francesco Sastres, a layman who taught Italian, for the purchase of devotional books.

Few uncanonised men and women have more thoroughly embodied what the Catechism calls “a habitual and firm disposition to do the good” than Johnson, who throughout his life was a model of chastity and temperance, almost heroically charitable, diligent despite a chronic temptation to lethargy, not always patient in the strictest sense of the word but certainly inclined to seek forgiveness and to offer mercy, supremely kind, and a lifelong striver after humility. His moral essays in The Rambler and the religious musings collected in the Yale edition of the Diaries, Prayers and Annals make profitable reading for Catholics today.

“I would be a papist if I could,” Johnson told Boswell. Why couldn’t he? He blamed his own “obstinate rationality” and added that he could only imagine converting at “the near approach of death, of which I have a great terror”. “A good man, of a timorous disposition,” he said, “might be glad to be of a church where there are so many helps to get to heaven.” Perhaps Johnson, as unwilling throughout his life to receive assistance as he was eager to offer it to others, felt that he ought to do without such aids. I think it is likely also that there was something un-English about Catholicism in the mind of this most characteristically English of writers: the Church was beautiful, of course, but it was also for foreigners – and females (“I wonder that women are not all papists”, he once remarked).

“If ever a man, ostensibly outside the fold, belonged by the fugitive longings of his heart to the soul of the Church,” Fr Robert Bracey once wrote, “that man was Johnson.”

How one prays that he belongs to it now.