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Gavin Ashenden: Why I’m becoming a Catholic

In the early 1980s, as a young Anglican priest I became a smuggler. I crossed the Iron Curtain with Bibles, books and medicines for Orthodox and Catholic Christians deprived of them all.

My trips to Prague in particular involved carrying suitcases of theological books to furnish an underground Catholic seminary so that priests could continue to be trained and ordained despite a ban on ordinations in the state-controlled Catholic Church. The underground Catholic Church there was the only organised and ideological alterative to totalitarianism.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, I thought that was the end of Marxism. I, and many others, were wrong. Little did I know that my experiences of the underground Catholic Church in Czechoslovakia would act as a catalyst and an example to bring me to my true spiritual home.

Marxism is back, but in a different form; what we might call Marxism 2.0, cultural or neo-Marxism. This is the engine driving what most people know as the irritant of political correctness. It is more than an irritant, it is a new assault on liberal democracy and the Christian Church.

It has recently begun to discriminate against Christian beliefs and attempts to silence Christian voices in the media, workplace and the public square. What began as a campaign against wearing the cross at work has shifted gear to the exclusion of Christians from media, politics and public service.

For 25 years I worked in one of our more progressive universities, as a chaplain and academic, lecturing in the Psychology of Religion. I had become a sympathiser for progressive causes, but I felt a growing unease: behind the progressive value system there was emerging a determination to promote the twin and related evils of thought-crime and the ending of the freedom of speech.

University culture is (or was) about 10 to 15 years ahead of life on the outside, and I saw that this secular “crusade” against the faith would soon spread throughout our liberal democracy, and at stake was freedom of speech, freedom to believe, and freedom to evangelise and to worship.

In each generation Christianity has to either convert its surrounding culture or be converted by it. The history of the West is the history of this struggle.

As an Anglican I believed for some time that I had the advantage of working out my faith in a broad Church, which gave me plenty of room for exploring. That may have been the case until Anglicanism began a sudden capitulation to the increasingly intense and non-negotiable demands of a secular culture.

I watched as Anglicanism suffered a collapse of inner integrity and as it swallowed wholesale secular society’s descent into a post-Christian culture.

Above all, in the redefinition of “love”. This involved a replacement of the values of self-sacrificial compassion with a culture of growing narcissism. It was associated with a narrowing concentration of view that restricted itself to seeing humanity through the lens of categories of power, the redistribution of power and so-called privilege.

Faced with the complexities of a spectrum of cultural complexity, driven by a Marxist pursuit of equality of outcome, instead of offering a Christian critique, it swallowed it wholesale, like so much of liberal Protestantism. Instead of confronting this demolition of Christian culture it sought to placate it.

All the Churches in the West face the same challenge. Some friends have warned me that I will not find the grass any greener on the Catholic side of the fence. Of course I won’t. The Catholic Church faces exactly the same spiritual, cultural and political crisis. But pilgrimage is not about comfort, it is about truth and integrity.

Three things in particular drew me home into Catholicism.

The first was an examination of the encounter between the children and Our Lady at Garabandal in 1963 (which has not been authenticated by the Holy See). Curious and sceptical, I was watching the film footage with a child psychologist friend who noted that “whatever was going on with the children it was essentially real, as ecstasy among children could never be faked.”

And from there I found the whole history of Our Lady’s apparitions beginning with Gregory Thaumaturges in the 3rd century through to Zeitoun in Cairo in 1968 and indeed the present day, deeply compelling. Circumstances brought me a friendship with Abbé René Laurentin, the Catholic Church’s expert on Marian apparitions, and my theological perspective blossomed into a deep dependence on the rosary. Curiously, this was accompanied by an unwanted visitation of metaphysical evil which only the rosary seemed to overcome.

The second was the discovery of the phenomena of Eucharistic miracles. The fact that they were unknown among those who celebrated the Anglican version of the Eucharist carries obvious implications.

It is of the greatest relief to belong to an ecclesial community where the Mass is truly the Mass. It is a relief to celebrate an unembarrassed relationship with Our Lady and the saints (especially in my case companions that include St Padre Pio, St Faustina and St John Vianney). It is a joy to belong to and be in mystical communion with figures I have long loved such as St Martin of Tours, St Augustine, St Anselm, and fully reconciled to the Petrine office.

But the third reason is the Magisterium. Faced with the increasingly lethal assault on the faith in our day and time, I found there was no theological means to draw orthodox Anglicans together in ecclesial unity. You can find a different Anglicanism for each day of the week. I came to realise (too long after both Newman and Chesterton had already explained why) that only the Catholic Church, with the weight of the Magisterium, had the ecclesial integrity, theological maturity and spiritual potency to defend the faith, renew society and save souls in the fullness of faith. Deus vult.

Gavin Ashenden is a former Chaplain to the Queen and bishop in the Christian Episcopal Church