When I told my literary agent friend that I wanted to write a book about converts to Catholicism during the sixty heady years before the Vatican Council, he was in no doubt about their motives. “It was the glamour!” he declared. He was thinking Brideshead Revisited, Brompton Oratory liturgy, altar boys and incense and possibly the Sistine chapel ceiling.
Well, actually, it wasn’t the glamour. At least, not in the case of the converts I am looking at. As a group, they include some of the most interesting figures of the century. There’s Oscar Wilde who converted on his deathbed; Lord Alfred Douglas; Aubrey Beardsley who was received just before he died; Hugh Benson and the frightful Frederick Rolfe; Radclyffe Hall; Evelyn Waugh; Eric Gill and David Jones; Graham Greene; GK Chesterton; Edith Sitwell; Muriel Spark and perhaps Siegfried Sassoon. But there are other figures in this story; the celebrated Proust translator, C. Scott Moncrieff, Ronald Knox, translator of the New Testament, Ernest Dowden, the poet, plus the engaging figure of Arnold Lunn, the mountaineer.
Even at this early stage, I can tell you the reason they converted wasn’t the beauty of the liturgy or historic churches or grand recusants, though all these things probably helped. Most of them converted for the same reason as Newman more than half a century earlier: because they felt the Church’s claim to be the Church Christ left to the apostles was true. Indeed one of them, Muriel Spark, whose family was Jewish, came to the Church through Newman. Ronald Knox, Hugh Benson and Alfred Douglas, like him, came to the Church from Anglo-Catholicism.
The period between the death of Oscar Wilde and the Second Vatican Council, about sixty years, was a time of astonishing growth for the Church in England. More than half a million people became Catholics. The high point, some 12,000 conversions in one year, happened right at the end of the Fifties. Of course, the motivations for becoming a Catholic varied; some, like my grandmother joined the Church because they were marrying a Catholic. And this period, especially between the wars, was febrile in its beliefs; other people gravitated to Marxism, that other faith system, or to spiritualism – though Radclyffe Hall found it possible to flirt with spirits as well as join the Church. She, like Scott Moncrieff and several other converts, was homosexual and found a way to accommodate her faith and sexuality – certainly it wasn’t a deal breaker for many of them.
There are some common themes in their stories. Herbert Bland, one of the founders of the Fabians – whose wife Edith Nesbit, became a Catholic at the same time as he recovered his baptismal faith – spoke for many converts when he said trenchantly that if you were going to be a Christian, you might as well go for the real thing. For almost all of them, it was primarily an intellectual conviction that drew them to the Church as well as an attraction to lived Catholicism.
Several wrote accounts of their conversion. Lord Alfred Douglas – in common with many of his and Oscar Wilde’s circle, including Lionel Johnson, who introduced them, his father and Robbie Ross – became a Catholic, years after Wilde’s death. In his case the reason was characteristically idiosyncratic. “What finally converted me to Catholicism … was Pope Pius X’s Encyclical Against Modernism, ” he explained in his autobiography. While he was editing a literary journal, The Academy, he came across a copy of “this stately and magnificent piece of argument” for review. He took it home to read and “it had the effect of convincing me that the Catholic Church, in communion with the See of Peter in Rome, is the only true Church… my conversion had come entirely through the intellect. I felt no emotion about it. On the contrary, I felt in some ways that to become a Catholic would be a tiresome necessity.” It was only later that he felt a profound emotional attachment to the Church – when a series of catastrophic mishaps (some self-inflicted) meant he had lost everything of value to him. “The ritual, though I always liked it and thought it beautiful, did not influence me in the slightest degree, nor has it ever done so to this day,” he wrote.
A later celebrated conversion account was by Evelyn Waugh who wrote an essay, “Converted to Rome – why it happened to me” in the Daily Express in 1930. He mentions, and dismisses, the assumptions other people made about conversion. “I think one has to look deeper before one will find the reason why in England today the Roman Church is recruiting so many men and women who are not notably gullible, dull-witted or eccentric. It seems to me that in the present phase of European history the essential issue is no longer between Catholicism, on one side, and Protestantism, on the other, but between Christianity and Chaos”. In this, Waugh was very representative of his age.
He and Douglas were not the only converts to insist that aesthetic considerations weren’t paramount. Ronald Knox observed testily in his Spiritual Aeneid that if one wanted lovely liturgy and aesthetic ritual, the Anglo-Catholic tradition had all that, with the additional delicious attraction that it might well annoy a visiting bishop from the more Protestant wing of the Church. Hugh Benson felt the same. The Great War helped crystallise the choice for Knox’s friends: at the front, there wasn’t a menu of Anglican options available to the troops…corporals would, as Anthony Burgess observed, divide up the ranks with CofE on one side, Catholics on the other and “fancy buggers” (everyone else) in between. For those seeking confession when death was so near, the only option was a Catholic priest.
It was in the war that Charles Scott Moncrieff became a Catholic – or realised he already was a Catholic. When, at Easter, he was asked whether he would be leading the Catholics under his command to Mass and then, whether he was a Catholic, he simply answered “yes”. The point he made in his letters was that he had felt more at home in the unprepossessing tin roofed church in Winchester with its barely articulate priest than in the loveliness of Winchester Cathedral which he had known from school. For him, as for others, the faith of the ordinary people he encountered as a soldier in France was profoundly impressive.
Eric Gill too was influenced by the faith he experienced in a Catholic country. One telling episode was his visit to the aesthetically unprepossess ing Benedictine monastery in Louvain in 1913. In a conversation with one of the monks, Fr Anselm, conducted with the help of a French dictionary, he tried to explain that only part of the Catholic faith should be interpreted literally, the rest symbolically. Fr Anselm was having none of it. “Pas symbolique, pas symbolique” he kept saying. Gill, the sculptor, was impressed by the simple certainty, the solidity of the faith. Indeed he found the completeness of Catholicism compelling. As his friend Jacques Raverat observed, “you have to accept the whole of it, suddenly, because it is so marvellously wedded into a whole.”
While most of the converts were formerly Anglicans, this is not to say they were believers. Graham Greene was insistent that the question for him was whether to accept God or not. His experience of being received into the church was of an unremarkable ceremony conducted on a dark afternoon in Northampton Cathedral without fanfare and preceded by the really disagreeable business of making a confession of the sins of his entire life.
For him, as for the other converts, there was little glamour about becoming a Catholic, or even a sense of elation when it happened. Rather, most of them had the feeling that they had come home. And so they had.
Some readers will remember those generations of converts before the Vatican Council and may even be among them. I should be glad to learn of those readers’ experiences of conversion or of those they knew, even at the distance of a generation or two.