Catholic art once stood out for its magnificence. The good news is it is slowly coming back
I was in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, last week, nosing around a sarcophagus, when a man with a beard asked if I was who he thought I was. It turns out I was – and we had a lot in common. We’d both been at Cambridge 10 years ago; we were both visiting for a day; and we both decided that the only thing we really wanted to see was the Fitz.
“Nothing changes,” I said, waving my arms about, encompassing the whole university.
“Well, there is one thing,” he replied, and I knew what he meant.
“Gender neutral toilets?”
“Oh, yes.” Except that all the Fitz had really done was stick a “gender neutral” sign on the disabled lavatory door, which was cheating because disabled restrooms have always been open to all – and used by everyone. I’ll pop in if there’s a queue for the gents and savour the enormous space: it’s like relieving yourself in Versailles.
I only went to the Fitz a few times when I was a student, but I’m convinced its Renaissance collection had an impact on my conversion to Catholicism. Here was a different way of seeing God and man: beautiful but slightly alien figures on a fantastical landscape. Cities of continuous stairs. Green concentric hills. The little Renaissance room offered some of the few splashes of colour in Cambridge, a spectacularly cold and lonely place that retains the monastic style of living without the joy of faith.
Catholic art stood out for its magnificence. Our faith is, or should be, red blood, wine, mystery. Why, in the Sixties, the Church become so obsessed with copying the brutal style of Protestantism I cannot comprehend. After I converted, I found everyday Catholicism could be drab. The chaplaincy chapel was decorated like a school gym with – does my memory deceive me? – a fold-out table for an altar. Yuck.
There is good news though: the slow restoration of glory is proceeding through the Church. The chaplaincy appears to have been dramatically upgraded, and I dropped by Our Lady and the English Martyrs, the town church, to find that Gothic is enjoying a second revival. Back in my day, Confessions were heard out in the open; you and the priest knelt either side of a temporary wooden partition. This reminded me of the sliding wall on ITV’s Blind Date. I could hear Cilla Black saying, “Here’s our Graham with a quick recap of tonight’s sins!”
But now proper, pleasing confessional boxes line the walls. The next step must be to remove the hideous altar plopped down in no man’s land, which is draped in a gaudy cloth and looks like a magician’s table. If everyone could only turn the other way for a moment, I would gladly make it disappear.
I knew there was something wrong about the Covington episode before the world changed its mind about it. At first people thought the footage from the Lincoln Memorial showed schoolboys mobbing and taunting a Native American protester. As Nathan Phillips bravely banged his drum, Nicholas Sandmann, a student at Covington Catholic High School, was accused of a very teenage crime: smirking. “Honest question,” said the intellectual Reza Aslan on Twitter, “Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?”
The thing is, anyone who’s lived in Washington, DC will tell you that if you stand on a street corner long enough, someone is going to walk up to you and bang a drum in your face. And sure enough, other footage suggests that Mr Phillips approached the boys, not the other way around, and that Mr Sandmann, in his own words, felt “threatened”.
But would it have mattered if the original interpretation of what happened was the right one? Say the boys did mock Mr Phillips – was it right of him, a grown adult, to confront an adolescent and start drumming away a few inches from his nose? Was it right – in any reality – for Reza Aslan to speculate about hitting Mr Sandmann? My answer to Mr Aslan’s question is, “No, I’ve never wanted to punch a child’s face, including those who have done wrong to me or to anyone else.” Why? Because they are a child and I am an adult, and part of being an adult is understanding that distinction and acting accordingly. That’s why we give gentler prison sentences to young offenders and why, even if children insult us, we refrain from knocking out their milk teeth.
There will always be smirking teens and there will always be angry old activists: these are constants and they don’t worry me. What is scary is that we seem to be running out of adults, people who are inclined to say, “Calm down. Get the facts. Think before you act.” Everything nowadays is hyperbole and escalation, made so much worse by the internet. Perhaps we should take away Mr Aslan’s iPhone? If you can’t play nicely with your toys, you can’t keep ’em.
Tim Stanley is a journalist, historian and Catholic Herald contributing editor