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Catholic Progressives in England after Vatican II

02 January 2014 | by Jay P. Corrin | Comments: 0

New slants on church teaching

Professor Corrin’s study is narrowly focused on Slant, a journal founded by a handful of Catholic undergraduates at Cambridge, which ran from 1964 until 1970, and its ramifications on the Catholic scene in England at the time. It’s a fascinating story.

English Catholicism before the Second Vatican Council, according to Corrin, was largely an anti-intellectual, inward-looking, almost apolitical subculture, with little sympathy for Catholic Social Teaching. There was, however, a dissenting minority. Beginning with The Servile Society, published in 1912, Hilaire Belloc launched a stream of attacks on “plutocratic capitalism”, and these radical ideas were powerfully developed by the Chesterton brothers and Eric Gill. In the 1926 general strike, for instance, while Cardinal Bourne condemned the workers (as did The Tablet), G.K.’s Weekly gave them unqualified support. Later on, the coming of the welfare state was not generally welcomed by the bishops or by better-off Catholics. According to the Bishop of Leeds, Henry John Poskitt, no doubt worried about the impact his Education Act of 1944 would have on faith schools, R.A. Butler must have slept “with a copy of Mein Kampf under his pillow”. In due course, the act led to the opening of the universities to a generation of working-class youngsters, including the founders of Slant.

Corrin sets English Catholicism in the context of wider church history, taking us in a racy summary from the aloof authoritarianism of Pope Pius XII through to (in Corrin’s view) the victory of the “progressives” at Vatican II and the subsequent confusions created by the encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968). Corrin then turns to the Slant movement, drawing copiously on conversations and correspondence with participants, notably Terry Eagleton, Bernard Sharratt, Martin Shaw, Adrian and Angela Cunningham and Christopher Calnan (the last three lately dead), as well as with Neil Middleton, the publisher who soon embedded the journal in the Sheed & Ward list of intellectually demanding paperbacks with the same “progressive” concerns. Corrin tries to unravel the movement’s complex intellectual context. In the background lay New Left Review, founded in 1960, which made international left-wing ideas and experience accessible to a hitherto somewhat isolated British readership. Then, Raymond Williams, the Welsh scholar and novelist who had commanded a tank unit in Normandy, and who taught for years outside university circles, returned to Cambridge in 1961. The Long Revolution appeared that year, sealing his status as the most eminent local left-wing thinker. As far as Marxist influence went, Marx’s Paris Manuscripts came out in English translation in 1959, introducing the concept of alienation and seemingly setting out a kind of socialist humanism attractive to many progressive thinkers.

But as the Cunninghams insisted, Slant also owed a great deal to Chestertonian distributist ideals. Moreover, Adrian Cunningham was secretary of the Catholic Nuclear Disarmament Group, consciously in succession to the pre-1939 Catholic peace movement, and this was another essential ingredient in the Slant cocktail. Influenced more perhaps by Pope John XXIII’s initiatives, such as the great encyclicals Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris, than by any specific document of the Second Vatican Council, this handful of students at Cambridge realised that they did not need to break with their Catholic culture and upbringing but could rethink their faith in a way that, in a wider perspective, was not without possibilities and even antecedents in anti-capitalist politics. (It is not difficult to imagine a new generation of students drawing similar conclusions from a reading of Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium.)

Their mentors, theologically, were two young Dominicans at Cambridge, Laurence Bright and Herbert McCabe, editing The Life of the Spirit (now defunct) and New Blackfriars respectively, as well as travelling from one university chaplaincy to another, to Newman Association meetings, and so on, arguing for Vatican II’s “progressive” ideas. Bright, who died of cancer aged 58 in 1979, had been a physicist at Oxford before becoming a Catholic. As Corrin reports, there was absurd Oxford gossip about his being a Soviet “mole”. McCabe, since his death in 2001, and with the posthumous publication of several significant works, is increasingly recognised as one of the finest theologians of his generation.

Corrin also includes chapters on post-Vatican II liturgical changes (highlighting Brian Wicker’s Culture and Liturgy) and efforts at Marxist/Christian dialogue, and there are accounts of the resignation of Charles Davis from the priesthood and of McCabe’s dismissal from New Blackfriars in 1967 for asserting in an editorial that the Catholic Church was indeed “corrupt”, while denying that this was any reason to leave it.

Catholic Progressives in England After Vatican II will stir older memories: you need to have been born before 1945 to remember much about all this. No doubt a few will contest some of Corrin’s claims. There are surprising slips. The Dominicans returned to Oxford in 1921, not 1872, and to speak of “the strong Dominican presence at England’s institutions of higher learning” (my italics), back then or even now, is an exaggeration. And, while he tried his vocation at Woodchester in his youth, Brocard Sewell was not a Dominican but a Carmelite friar. Whether or not Sewell was a “right-wing Bellocian devotee”, as Corrin says, his attack on the Church’s teaching on contraception was as high profile as any move by Dominicans associated with Slant and cost him much more.

On the whole, however, Corrin is readable and reliable. Of course, as he might have elaborated, “progressive Catholics in England after Vatican II” met in many other contexts and institutions besides the Dominican-run Spode House in Staffordshire. For a start, in Sewell’s heyday, Aylesford Priory brought together Catholics to renew their faith in the light of the council, without post-Marxist concerns. Then again, as Corrin says, the Downside Symposium Group, in which Laurence Bright was prominent, overlapped with Slant contributors. The same people reappear in different contexts. After all, Terry Eagleton and Cardinal Heenan were cousins. It was a small world.





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