Born in 1901 of an English father and a Spanish mother, Alfred Newman Gilbey was educated at Beaumont and at Trinity College, Cambridge. He studied at the Beda College in Rome before being ordained a priest in 1929. He was chaplain to the Catholic undergraduates of Cambridge from 1932 to 1965 and in 1950 he was made a Monsignor. In 1964 he became a Pronotary Apostolic and in 1981 he was made an honorary canon of Brentwood Cathedral. He is the author of We Believe (1983), in which he expounds the moral and social teaching of the Catholic Church. He died in 1998.
Here is my interview with him from my book, Singular Encounters.
First, about your vocation. How did you know God wanted you to be a priest?
A very difficult question to answer shortly. Plainly a vocation develops Like any other living thing. I had a flying start through coming from a good Catholic home. My mother was a real Spanish Catholic, of the faith to the marrow of her bones. My father, on the other hand, came from a completely Protestant English background, but he was God’s good Englishman and also a wine merchant like the rest of my family. He and two of his brothers went out to Spain and they all fell for Spanish brides; they were all – how should I say – converted at pistol point. I don’t mean that literally, but there was really no alternative in those days. My Spanish grandfather, whom, alas, I never knew, was reputed to have said to my father, ‘You are an entirely acceptable suitor, physically, financially, socially, but my daughter’ – she was the eldest daughter and the apple of his eye – ‘does not marry a man who is not a Catholic.’ There was nothing to discuss, no argie-bargie. It was like the sun rising tomorrow. He undertook instruction for two years.
The fashion today is to dismiss people who become Catholic to marry a Catholic, but that is to undervalue that sort of conversion. Yet this is the beginning of an answer to your question: having a wonderful, very happy Catholic home. My parents started their married life in London, then moved to what was to be my beloved home in Essex, called Mark Hall – now entirely destroyed. It was in the English countryside, eight miles from the nearest church, and this was in the days of carriages nearly a hundred years ago in 1894. My father went to see Cardinal Vaughan, Archbishop of Westminster, and asked if we might have a private chapel in the house. Cardinal Vaughan said, ‘You can certainly bare a chapel but I can’t give you a priest. You’ll have to make your own arrangements if you can.’ My mother then went to Farm Street to ask if they could spare a priest, and every Saturday a Jesuit would arrive and stay until Sunday evening, having given us Mass in the morning.
In this way our background could not have been more favourable. We were five brothers, but I was the only one who, from the very beginning, felt called to the priesthood. We were brought up in an entirely Catholic atmosphere, and then we were all sent to school, again with the Jesuits, at Beaumont. The school in those happy days was run entirely by Jesuits, something that applies to very few Catholic schools now – there simply aren’t enough Jesuits to go round.
Beaumont made a great impression on me, but however much I admired our teachers, I never felt at all attracted to the Jesuit way of life. It is one of their characteristics, a great source of their spirituality, to emphasise a detachment, but possibly because I was so wonderfully happy at home I felt drawn towards something slightly more rooted. It’s always a matter of interest and admiration to me to find how wonderfully the Catholic Church uses all sorts of natural dispositions and temperaments. The Benedictines put immense emphasis on the stability of a place and vow permanent residence at a particular monastery. The Jesuits emphasise detachment, almost depersonalisation, and that aspect didn’t appeal to me.
A book that had a great influence on me was Hugh, A. C. Benson’s memoir of his younger brother R. H. Benson. There were three brothers, the sons of the Archbishop of Canterbury at the beginning of the century, all of whom were prolific writers, though Hugh was the only one who became a Catholic and a priest. He was an immensely dynamic character, writing and preaching ceaselessly, a great convert maker, and it fell to me as a little boy at Beaumont to read what his brother had written about him. This presentation of a priest was so different from any I had known that I asked one of the Jesuits how it was that Hugh Benson was, as a priest, able to lead the life depicted. The Jesuit explained that he was a secular, and this was the first time I ever heard of the existence of the secular clergy. At about the same time one of the school’s old boys, who had been called to the secular priesthood, came back from Rome, where he had been ordained and celebrated Mass at Beaumont with great jubilees.
Returning to my dear parents, however, those two strains – the Spanish and the English – gave me an immense love for England aligned with the strong Catholic tradition we had at home, and gave me a desire to be able to communicate the one with the other. As a keen fox-hunting family we were devoted to the countryside, and our friends and neighbours were nearly all rooted in that world. One was aware of how indescribably remote they were from what we Catholics considered to be the world and I was conscious of there being these two aspects of the same civilisation. I think that was the source of inspiration for me to want to be a secular priest.
I didn’t wish to go straight in, as was customary in those days, but wanted, as it were, to appear in the world first. My first attempt, largely because of the Jesuit tradition and the geographical position of Beaumont on the Thames, was to try to get into Oxford in 1919. But the Jesuits sent so many priests to the war that Beaumont was at that time very short staffed. One of the great losses we suffered was having no Greek at all, and in those days Greek was an essential qualification for getting into Oxford. Therefore I turned to Trinity College, Cambridge. Looking back, it was one of the providential things in my life that I went there, and it has been the whole of my life since. I had four very idle but very enjoyable years there which, however idle, were immensely educative. I have no academic gifts; my academic history is abysmal. I scraped past a degree after three years’ idleness, then went to Rome to study for the priesthood.
Were your family enthusiastic about your entering the Church?
My mother certainly was. They all had great awe and reverence for the priesthood, but my father hoped I wasn’t becoming a priest out of bravado, meaning because I’d been saying it for so long. It would be wrong to call him enthusiastic, but he was certainly anxious that his sons should do what they felt to be their vocations, and when it became clear that mine was the priesthood, I think he took great pleasure in it.
Your family background was not a deprived one, so do you find any conflict of perspective between your vocation and your former life?
None at all. Our family situation was fortunate indeed; not rich as people think of riches today – we didn’t have racehorses or a yacht – but a large family living comfortably. The question comes from that widespread idea of Catholics who don’t understand the difference between the religious life and the life of the secular priest. So many people now talk as though a Christian ought to be a pacifist, ought to be a communist. I always refer them to that wonderful passage in the three synoptic gospels when a young man comes to our Blessed Lord and says, ‘Master, what must I do to attain eternal life?’ Ask nine people out of ten, including Catholics, and they concertina the conversation and in so doing miss the point by quoting Our Lord as saying, ‘Sell all thou hast and follow me.’ This was not at all what our Blessed Lord said. He said, ‘Keep the commandments,’ and the young man, expecting something much more dramatic, was disappointed and said, ‘This I have done all the days of my life.’ Then our Blessed Lord says, ‘If thou wishest to be perfect, go sell all thou hast and follow me.’
He is making there a big distinction, which the Church has always observed, between those called to make the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and those not so called. People are slow t0 appreciate this distinction and don’t understand that, to start with, a secular priest literally takes no vows. He takes no vow of poverty sad if he has means of his own, he can keep them. He mustn’t, of course, go into business – that would be incompatible with his priestly vocation – but if he has money, or money comes to him, then he may keep it. Celibacy, in the case of a secular priest, is not made by a vow but is imposed by law. It was only gradually imposed on the clergy over die years, and you find early on that many a bishop has a son who becomes a saint.
People always talk as though there were just two possibilities: that of the present practice of the Catholic Church, which has been imposed by law, and that which you find in all the Protestant denominations. This completely overlooks a great historic development which is neither. In all the Eastern Churches, in the Orthodox and also in the Uniates, a novitiate will, while still only a deacon, go and find a wife and then be ordained a priest. If he loses her, he is not allowed to remarry; which seems to us a rather arbitrary rule, but it is important to realise how wide and varied the practice is. I mention it as a necessary preface to poverty because if you are, for example, a married man with wife and children, then you are not free to give up all you have. You are bound, in justice as well as in charity, to do all you can to support them.
On the other hand, if you have once taken that vow of chastity, or accepted it as the secular clergy do, then you are free to ask whether Almighty God may not wish you to follow our Blessed Lord more closely by giving up all material things. For a married man to do that would be for him to commit a great sin of improvidence. Unless a vow of chastity is taken first, then you cannot ask yourself whether you’re called to a vow of evangelical poverty. Nor, for similar reasons, can you turn the other cheek to the smiter, as I always emphasised when instructing young men at Cambridge. If you, as a man with no dependants, are going home one night in the dark, and an assailant leaps out of a doorway with the obvious intention of taking your life, then you do have an alternative. You make up your mind in that split second that either you knock him down and kill him if necessary to preserve your own life, or you say, ‘I’ll turn the other cheek to the smiter. He’s a boor, a man not knowing what he is doing.’ But if, as a married man, you come home to find your wife being beaten up and the children killed, then you’re not justified in turning the other cheek to the smiter.
How has the ethos of the Church changed? Has there been in your time a palpable shift in the outlook and practices of the faithful?
Oh, yes, enormous, but always remember, it hasn’t been sudden. People who know no history are simplistic in thinking that these vast changes are from a static to a turbulent Church. It is never one or the other. Every living thing grows and develops all the time, sometimes more painfully, sometimes less so. I talk to many young people and they will speak as if the Catholic Church they know didn’t exist before the Second Vatican Council. The same applies equally in social and political matters, as though before the Welfare State was a period of terrible deprivation, injustice and tyranny. Both are long and complex issues with deep roots, and neither Church nor state remain the same for long. There are periods of greater and lesser change, and we have been advancing through an enormous one, yet there’s all the difference in the world between how a Catholic and a non-Catholic sees these changes. A Catholic always starts with the absolute assurance that the Church cannot fail in her central purposes. Under 1,001 external changes, her identity continues as completely as it does with a human being.
Each human being has throughout life an identity no one else can simulate or take away. The Church is just like that: she is that same body, born on the first Pentecost and set to continue till the Second Coming. I am very conscious of the fact that, although the whole turn of my mind is singularly consistent, my understanding develops and clarifies all the time. Does that mean I change? Not at all. It’s my self-understanding that changes: my expression of it increases in clarity, yet the identity runs through. So with the Church. She’s that same identical body, and if she changes the language of her liturgy, that is immaterial. I have my own strong views that the change there was very ill-advised, especially in the way it was done, but that doesn’t mean to say I think she has failed in any essential, central thing. She has not. She cannot.
The Catholic Church being radically hierarchical, will it be able to continue in a world that is increasingly liberal and democratic?
It can use, or try to adapt, the machinery of democratic thought and practice, but that will never be her natural way of thinking or doing.
What you’re talking about is egalitarianism. I think it is rather misleading to bring in the word ‘democratic’ since that is a form of government. Where does it come from? From a philosophy which is egalitarian, and egalitarianism is incompatible with two basic Christian concepts. It believes that men are born equal, but nothing could be less equal than the circumstances that attend the beginnings of all our lives. The egalitarian believes that if people are not born equal, then they must be made so. That is to fly completely in the face of Nature and the facts. Ultimately it can’t succeed because it isn’t true; it has no foundation; it is a figment of the imagination of the rationalists of the eighteenth century that has now impinged on the Catholic Church. Many Catholics believe in egalitarianism and are shocked when you tell them it’s nonsense. The idea eats into the belief that our relationship to Almighty God is an individual one. John Henry Newman says in the Apologia that he could never remember a time when there were not two, and only two, self- evident beings, his Creator and himself.
To say that everyone is equal in God’s sight is absolute nonsense. Everyone is unique in God’s sight, as every father of a family will understand. To say that a father loves all his children equally would not be according to human nature. He mustn’t express the difference or show favouritism, but each child has a unique relationship to his father. The same applies to the whole of creation, not only to man. Not only does star differ from star, but God calls them by name; every pebble on the beach is unlike any other; every leaf on a tree is a unique creation; and manifest at the heart of creation is man, not merely plainly but absolutely unique, as we all are unique in our material circumstances.
We and the parents from whom we sprang were chosen out of all eternity by Almighty God. It is this that conditions the language, the culture, the timing, the colour. Equality doesn’t exist. Each of us comes to the world with a box of tools containing advantages and disadvantages in our character, and that’s the equipment, not anyone else’s, with which we have to hammer out our sanctification. Mine is unique, yours is unique. No one has the same box of tools.
During your years at Cambridge, how did you come to see the function of the Catholic chaplain and did your views change over the course of time?
I’ll answer the last question first. No. My job is absolutely clear because it was made clear by the history of the terms of my appointment. There was a long-running division of opinion in the Catholic Church as to whether, first of all, we should try to have a university of our own; an idea much derided today, but we forget that in the nineteenth-century revival of Catholicism several flourishing universities were founded in Europe. In this country we made three rather pathetic attempts to found a university with no possibility of success. The first was at Prior Park in the early years of the last century; the second was Cardinal Newman’s attempt to found a university of Dublin; and the last was Cardinal Manning’s effort to found a university in Kensington. All collapsed but all were part of a consistent policy. It came to nothing and most of us are very relieved – they would have become poor Catholic ghettoes.
That controversy was finally resolved by the pressure of the laity at the end of the last century. We were allowed to return to the ancient universities of Cambridge and Oxford, but under various safeguards, most of them rather unrealistic. One was that there should be at each of the ancient universities a chaplain whose job it was – and this was quite clear – to safeguard the faith of Catholics who went there. So it was very much a protective pastoral charge, and those were the terms of my own appointment. Many people now think it should involve a more positive, outgoing approach, but when the office started, it was certainly seen entirely in those terms.
Your early days as chaplain seemed marked by disputes with the Cambridge University Catholic Association. Did they find you difficult?
Very. It stemmed from the early days, lasted all my time and continues still. By a great political error, the wonderfully devoted collection of Catholic dons who founded the Cambridge University Catholic Association were allowed to own the premises of the chaplaincy they had been responsible for acquiring. Having done the wonderful work of acquiring the premises, they were also allowed to become the trustees, thereby producing a sort of Congregationalism unknown to the Catholic Church. Meanwhile the bishops, charged with the responsibility of safeguarding the faith of Catholic undergraduates, made no attempt to raise the funds necessary for the purpose. They were, of course, terribly handicapped by their own poverty and their difficulty in fulfilling or trying to fulfil the needs of Catholic education for the poorest classes. The whole of their efforts were, quite rightly, poured out to build Catholic schools, and they regarded going to Cambridge or Oxford as rather a rich man’s luxury. It wasn’t true then, and it’s manifestly untrue today when every student is supported by the state, but the idea they wrongly had seventy years ago was that if rich men wanted their boys to go, then it was up to them to produce the means to support a chaplain and provide the premises. That was, and is, the position as trustees of that wonderfully devoted band of Catholic dons.
When, in your early days at Cambridge, you spent a lot of your own money on the library and furnishing the chaplaincy, was it done out of generosity or impatience with the trustees?
Neither. It was wanting to have things as I thought they should be, trying to make the chaplaincy a civilised centre. Since the bishops regarded the ancient universities as an indulgence allowed to rich parents, there was consequently a feeling, certainly on the part of successive chaplains, that a chaplaincy should be a place where they would themselves feel at home. Today, of course, the need becomes to provide a welcoming atmosphere in the chaplaincy.
By the early 1960s you were still having to meet the shortfall in the chaplaincy’s budget out of your own pocket. How could that have been necessary?
The cry of poverty runs right through, doesn’t it? Chaplains were generally appointed with an eye to their having some means of their own. I was there longer than anyone, so saw more of it, but the shortfall, as you call it, was something that affected every chaplain. They were sent there with a ludicrous sum. I can’t remember what it was in my case, but it was grossly inadequate.
In the pre-war years you evidently took part in a number of evangelical events organised by undergraduates. Did you enjoy preaching in the streets of Saffron Walden or the fields of Wisbech?
Not in the least. I don’t enjoy those things at all, but my policy was a simple one. I never tried to sell these ideas to the undergraduates as I felt strongly that a man should be able to come to Fisher House without having anything asked of him; that he ought not to be badgered to join this, that or the other activity. In those days, the Jesuit schools took up what used to be called the Catholic Evidence Guild rather strongly. It was a way of trying to get the boys to take an interest in our religion. They were encouraged to join the guild, to go in for quite stiff examinations to fit them for the purpose, and to stand on soap boxes in Egham or wherever, preaching to a rather unresponsive multitude. When some young men, mostly from my own school, Beaumont, came and said it would be a good thing if we, too, belonged to the guild, I said by all means, and I’ll help you, but no one is going to be asked to do it by me.
As Catholic chaplain, did you feel under an obligation to aid in the conversion of non-Catholics who came into contact with you? Was there a conflict there between duty and social propriety?
First, it wasn’t an obligation, it wasn’t a part of my job. That was always, I emphasise, a preservative one. A fair number of undergraduates would certainly come to me, though, and say, ‘I think I ought to become a Catholic.’ I would always tell them, ‘You must let your parents know what you are doing, and you must tell your tutor or the dean of your college. You are to come to instruction and-you won’t be able to become a Catholic for at least a year.’ That was my practice. As a contrast, the most distinguished of all chaplains at Oxford was Monsignor Knox, a prominent convert who refused altogether to instruct people, and so he took a different line from me. At Oxford there were Jesuit and Dominican houses to whom he could send inquirers. I had nothing like that at Cambridge.
Is there anyone in particular you are especially proud to have converted?
No. It is always a wonderful privilege to believe one can bring anyone to a knowledge of the truth, but I would say I’ve never converted anybody. I’ve never set out to, I haven’t the gift. I don’t know how the Apostles did it. All those I’ve instructed have come on their own initiative and they’ve been a source of immense consolation and happiness. I absolutely love instructing people in belief. A number have found their own vocations to the priesthood, some to religious orders. I don’t think many have made their mark in the world or the Church so that you would know their names. I can think of nothing more satisfying a priest can do than being able to tell people interested in the faith what is involved.
By the 1960s there seems to have been some resistance among Catholic undergraduates to traditional practices at the chaplaincy. Did that distress you?
Any move away from Catholic practices upsets me, but I don’t allow myself to be distressed. I’m so profoundly confident, and when you have the gift of the faith, then you know that the Church can’t fail in Her purpose. The Church teaches us the truth and gives us the sacraments, and we ought to offer thanks for what God has given, not for the folly of men’s thoughts.
It was said of you by Peter Gregory Jones, author of The History of the Cambridge Chaplaincy, that as a great preserver of inherited values you were a historian by temperament. What were the values you wished to preserve?
That’s an enormous question which takes us right back to the structure of society. Does one, or does one not, believe in the family? The traditional sociology of the Catholic Church is that it is the duty of parents to house, feed, shelter and (using the word as widely as possible) educate those they beget. That, of course, is a very unacceptable concept in the socialist world of today, which regards it as the duty of the state to care for housing, education, sickness and old age. Thus we have egalitarianism, the French Revolution factor, catching up with the Catholic Church.
Jones speaks of the sense in which you found egalitarianism after the war incompatible with your idea of man’s relationship with God. Could you elaborate on this position?
The whole socialisation of the world has been immensely accelerated by two world wars, but this is not just a post-war phenomenon. I never found egalitarianism an attractive concept. I always instinctively believed in a hierarchical society. Looking back over my life, I’ve been extraordinarily consistent in what I believe, though I now formulate it much more fully. The family – the basis of society – is of its nature hierarchical. We come into families that are not of our own choosing and are not run by children. The first enormous impetus was the French Revolution. I always try to eschew the word ‘democracy’ because everyone uses it now as a term of undefined praise. They make their appeal to the democracy of the Greeks, of course, though there never was a more elitist society. The educated had a whole slave population to make their civilisation possible. It was nothing to do with egalitarianism and that’s why I would wish to use the word ‘democracy’ accurately.
It seems an odd distinction to refer, as you have done, to women as ‘students’ and to men as ‘undergraduates’.
To begin with, women were not members of Cambridge University. Because the university did not admit women, Girton and Newnham started as women’s colleges outside the university, and by stages, in one of those gradual processes of which I have seen so many, became incorporated. The first thing was to found women’s colleges, then to allow them to come to lectures. First they didn’t take examinations, then they could take examinations but couldn’t be given degrees, only what was called the ‘titles of degrees’. So there was a real distinction, not just one of my vocabulary. Women were not undergraduates, they were not members of the university.
You once explained your resignation from the chaplaincy as being over the principle of authority and its limits, but was that principle not focused on the opening of Fisher House to women?
If you like to say so, yes. As long as women were not members of the university, then there was a very strong case against allowing them in, and afterwards, because the position was constantly changing, the pressure increased. If the board, which was my authority, had ordered me to take in the women, I would have resigned anyway. They did not ask for my resignation, but passed a resolution that the chaplaincy should become mixed after I had gone. The real question became, should the nature of the chaplaincy be determined by the chaplain or by demand from below? At that point, I stood down on that principle.
If you ask why I opposed letting in women, it brings us back to fundamentals. Equality is a meaningless word and sex equality means absolutely nothing. The egalitarian believes that all people are the same. Men and women are not the same, they are complementary. A great friend of mine, Outram Evans, who was president of the Cambridge University Catholic Association for a long time, and my best ally, pointed out how immensely disparate the numbers were. There were 200 men and 20 women. You can’t combine the sexes, other than on a complementary basis, without destroying the whole harmony of their relationship. I am totally opposed to the equality of the sexes.
In retrospect I have not modified my view at all. If it now seems eccentric, as you put it, then that is because of this wave of egalitarianism. What is so funny is how short people’s memories are. I went up to Cambridge in 1920 when there were still these two women’s colleges that were not part of the university and the women didn’t enter the life one little bit. They used to come to our lectures and sit at a separate table, but I don’t think I ever spoke to a woman student the four years I was there, neither did any of my friends. It was an entirely male society, a very close and happy one. That idea, I suppose, is much more common in northern rather than southern Europe. I know that some Latins seem unable to form the sorts of societies we have here, and clubs are the perfect example. I would move heaven and earth to make my club, where we are now, an entirely masculine one again. That would doubtless be considered eccentric, but from the moment of its foundation till twenty years ago, it was the law. It isn’t my eccentricity at all; people just have no sense of history. Everything, even the Houses of Parliament, used to be entirely male.
My view is wholly compatible with the God-given design of women as complementary to men. They’re different, yet people won’t recognise the fact. The egalitarians have this absolute idée fixe that they’re the same. They’re not. Women don’t like each other’s company, don’t form clubs. They don’t like that to be said, of course, but the fact is plain to see. It’s a wonder how nuns can live together, but they do. Whether we’re talking about political life, the law, the Church of England, women are doing something they’ve never done before, and the fact is that it isn’t working out equally – they’re completely ignored. It’s now fifty years since women have been in the House of Commons, and with the one staggering exception of Mrs Thatcher, have any of them come to anything? No. Women are different. I wonder why people can’t see what is as clear as a pikestaff.
Would you discriminate against women?
There we have to define what we mean by discrimination. It’s like all this talk of the underprivileged. Who has a right to a privilege? They talk of the children of poor parents being underprivileged, presupposing that someone has taken something from them. Words are used quite indiscriminately and the vocabulary is so meaningless that when you start trying to define what they are saying it becomes very difficult.
Once you’re an egalitarian, you have to believe that everyone has the same rights, so called. But who has and who has not, for example, the right to vote? It’s not man’s right except by a convention in a particular civilization or country.
Through nineteen Christian centuries women have never enjoyed the same political standing as men, except accidentally; there was no idea of there being some universal right. Now everyone talks as if there were some self-evident reason whereby any country that doesn’t have universal suffrage is out of court. It’s arguable whether it’s a good or a bad thing to have universal suffrage, but there is no intrinsic or fundamental reason why it should be so. We, particularly in the West, have been racing through two world wars to a universal principle, something unknown through all preceding centuries till a hundred years ago. All of that is a staggering assumption, and there is no foundation for it in history and none in reason.
It’s quite another matter to discuss whether it’s a good thing or not. I haven’t a closed mind there. These things can be discussed, and you must discuss them and realise that what you are talking about is a relative not an absolute. It’s the same with equal opportunity. Who has equal opportunity? How can I give someone in completely other circumstances than my own the opportunities I have and have had? Only one other force can even attempt it, and that is the state, and we are back to whose duty it is to educate. Is it a matter for the state or for the parents?
What is the real theological objection to the ordination of women? Is there scriptural warrant for it or is it primarily the authority of tradition?
It is a matter of the authority of the Church, which is one single thing supported by scripture and tradition and I don’t like that separation of the two. The Protestant approach to Christian revelation is to confine it effectively to scripture, whereas I always regard the Church as teaching on Her own authority, which indeed arises from scripture and tradition. She is the authority. She’s not getting it from anywhere else. Catholics always see the Church as being the authority in Herself. Of the Annunciation, for example, it was not only Mary, it was I who heard the angel voice.
I am against the ordination of women because it is not the Church’s practice. I was dining some time ago in Trinity, my old college, and had next to me a very distinguished Anglican theologian who turned to me and said, ‘Monsignor Gilbey, what would be your reaction if the Catholic Church started ordaining women?’ I said, ‘If the Catholic Church said it was all right, it would be all right by me. I follow what the Church says and does.’
For nineteen centuries the Church has not ordained women and I see no likelihood of Her doing so. Why? Because it’s something basic to Christian life and I cannot think She’s got it wrong for nineteen centuries and will begin to put it right. It would be unprecedented against the whole background of the Church’s history to think She might suddenly do a sort of volte face. The development of doctrine is a gradual unfolding of one thing. Catholics don’t believe, for instance, that Our Blessed Lady became Immaculate in 1856 or that the Pope became infallible in 1870. It’s a gradual developing of one truth and the ordination of women would be something quite otherwise.
Why is the Church ‘She’, not ‘He’?
She is the Bride of Christ. She is always ‘She’, in all scripture and tradition. Forgive me for saying so, but I think you are always trying to get me back into what I call the Protestant position of having a view of my own about revelation.
With certain Protestant Churches already ordaining women, will any movement of an ecumenical sort be possible without some shift in the Catholic position?
I’ve never had any enthusiasm for ecumenism as the word is used and understood. When you talk of equality, it’s a concept I don’t understand, a concept that I think has no correspondence with reality and which denies two Christian concepts: first, the uniqueness of every single created being, made uniquely by Almighty God; and secondly, the fact that equality takes away the whole incentive of excellence, which, if properly understood, aspires to sanctity. Each of us should be trying to reach that height of holiness. Each man’s vocation is unique. Look at the lives of the saints. They are not made to a common pattern. They include a lot of people in the world who are considered to be eccentrics.
We have remarked how the priests of the early Church married and Orthodox priests still do. Can you foresee a time when the Church will again permit marriage for priests?
That could happen, celibacy not having been imposed uniformly on Christian priests from the beginning. There has been a constant tendency that way, but as we know from the scriptures, Peter had a mother-in-law and presumably a wife, though she’s never mentioned. In the early centuries, bishops and priests did marry, so there’s nothing inherently improbable about married priests. Celibacy was a gradually, increasingly widely imposed discipline that could be altered without inconsistency. For many centuries, though, over more than a millennium now, it has been thought to be the ideal for the clergy.
Outsiders would say that for priests not to marry must inevitably cut them of from a great deal of human experience. Would not a married clergy be better placed to understand and sympathise with its flock’s daily problems?
I wonder. I’m not saying yes or no to it, but I do wonder whether you’d say the same about them earning their livings in work or business. Would you claim it as far better for priests not to be dedicated solely to their ministry or that they’d be better able to understand the cares and responsibilities of people living in the world if they shared them? It’s perfectly arguable, but I view it all with great indifference. Of course, it was vigorously advocated in France between the wars – the idea of worker priests – but I think the authorities have now abandoned the concept altogether.
Would you have married if the Church had allowed it when you were ordained?
I don’t think so, because tradition was still so very strong. I certainly wouldn’t marry now, even if celibacy was lifted. I can’t imagine it at any period of my life because celibacy in my day has been a requirement of priests and the position hasn’t changed. If it ever should change, I would not oppose it if the Church said it was all right.
But would you be in favour of priests marrying?
I always dodge that question. It seems irrelevant, whether I would or not.
But you are an important member of the Church.
Not a bit. I couldn’t be less important. I am wholly unimportant in the administrative world of the Catholic Church.
Yet if there were to be a referendum within the Church?
I’m not a democrat, you know. I would not reply. I would not return the ballot paper.
Are you saying you believe in autocracy?
That suggests there can only be autocracy or democracy. Heaven knows how many grades there are in a hierarchical society. If you ask me whether I believe in a hierarchical society, the answer is yes, with every fibre of my being, but that isn’t necessarily autocracy. Hierarchical societies, of which there are many, starting with the family, all have a series of pyramids going up. Every army, every regiment, every corporation, every club, all have their power structures. I’m not, you see, remotely egalitarian.
You have loyally stated that if it’s all right with Rome then it’s all right with you.
It’s not a question of loyalty, but a question of what I know because of what I believe about the Church. Loyalty is something you can give or withdraw.
Is it going to be possible for the Church to hold together in the future in the same way as it did in the past? In South America priests have defied the Pope’s authority in the matter of holding political office; in the United States there has long been clear opposition to the Pope’s stand on birth control: any number of Catholics are clearly using methods of contraception in direct conflict with the Pope’s ruling.
The Church will hold together. Catholics of my generation – those who reached maturity before the Second Vatican Council – took it for granted that the tidiness of the Church at that period was the norm. People who have no historical sense find it hard to appreciate that what was taken for granted – the tidiness in theology, in administration, in running the Church – represented an exceptional period in contrast with the previous fifteen centuries. In the early Church, that of the Fathers, you find a much greater diversity of opinion and practice. The process of tidying has been a gradual one, dependent on all sorts of administrative reasons, communication and literacy.
The fact that people claim to be Catholics and part of the Catholic Church, and yet are out of step, is no new thing at all. You find it in the early centuries, the difference earlier on being that much more immediate and drastic action was. taken against them. They may now have become too numerous; I don’t know. I know nothing of what goes on in the directed mind of the Vatican, and very little of what is happening outside this country, so I can’t say how far people in positions of authority in the Church have gone out of step. You tell me there are bishops in the United States who reject the Church’s teaching. I should doubt it very much.
Have you ever disagreed with a pronouncement of the Church or felt at odds with any item in its teaching?
Not ever. I’d have to leave, walk out of the Church, if I didn’t agree. As a Catholic, you simply have to believe what the Church teaches. It is a condition of membership. A Catholic cannot reject the doctrine of the Church yet remain a Catholic. What She teaches as right or wrong – those things are a sine qua non for a believing Catholic. That does not mean to say that a believing, practising Catholic has to accept the Church’s policy on matters of administration and the like. It is possible to be entirely out of sympathy with many of the things the Church is doing, as I regret the liturgical changes, for example. You can be critical of such things, out of sympathy with them, and even oppose them, but you can’t withstand them. It might be better to drive on the right rather than on the left. You can advocate it all you like, but you can’t just start doing it. So it is with things like liturgical changes. You may think it far better to be able to have one uniform language for the whole Western Church, and you may advocate it, but you can’t in practice ignore, stand outside or oppose the existing legislation. We are committed not to policy but absolutely to dogma and morals.
Many present-day Christians would see the doctrine of Papal Infallibility as standing in the way of any sort of liberalisation of the Church. Is the Church bound to adhere for ever to doctrines defined at a particular point in history?
The Church is committed to whatever She has defined. If you are suggesting that some past pronouncement imposing acceptance as grounds for becoming a Catholic might be changed in retrospect, then the answer’s no. We must distinguish strongly between those things that can be altered and those that cannot. Policy can be altered; that can be done tomorrow. Definitions of doctrine, acceptance of which is necessary to being a Catholic, cannot be altered.
I would wish, however, to deplore as strongly as I can this approach to Papal Infallibility. What we believe in is the infallibility of the Church. First, the Church is a visible body here on earth, teaching infallibly what Christ has revealed to us in all sorts of ways. Secondly, that body cannot impose upon me error as a condition of belonging. Whenever She defines something, it must be accepted by every member and therefore must be true, otherwise She would be imposing acceptance of error. People talk about Papal Infallibility as if it were something never before heard of, but the infallibility of the Church is inherent from the very beginning.
When you say ‘Church’, do you differentiate between ‘Pope’ and ‘Church’?
No. Quite the contrary. He is a part of it. Papal Infallibility is just one stated example of conditions for being a Catholic.
If faith is a gift of God, is it the duty of a Catholic to maintains pious silence when it comes to a particular dogma in which he cannot compel himself to believe, even though he may wish to?
You can compel yourself to believe. If you have made the act of faith in Jesus Christ, and believe He is God, you will have to accept what He tells you. He came to open to us a whole cycle of knowledge otherwise unattainable. A Catholic must believe the teaching of the Church in all aspects of faith and morals.
What would you say to those who find it impossible to subscribe to the dogmas of religion, who cannot, for example, understand how a good God can permit the innocent to suffer?
That’s not dogma, it’s a fact. We see suffering all about us and know in ourselves that we all suffer to various degrees. But we also know that God is infinitely good, infinitely kind, infinitely just, infinitely merciful, infinitely loving. It takes us back, of course, to something that is a dogma: the Fall of Man. There are two plains of knowledge concerning matters of religion. The first is the plain of natural reason. We can reach, and the majority of mankind have reached, a knowledge of the existence of the Supreme Being from which there follows man’s free will, his consequent responsibility and his survival of death. That is what we call natural theology, and from there we go on to consider whether there has been a revelation, whether God has opened a whole cycle of knowledge to us that our native reason will bring us to accept only on faith. These are two completely different cycles of knowledge, the first requiring an act of reason, the second an act of faith. There was at the beginning of human history a complete dislocation of human nature that we call the Fall, made not by Almighty God but by the wickedness and sins of man.
Is the Church’s stand against contraception to be defined as a dogma?
Yes, since it rises out of the whole concept of the purpose of sex. Sex is an inducement to continue the human race. People are so imprecise, the pleasure of sex cannot be put first. Unlike Protestants, there are many things we Catholics believe which are not found in the scripture. The Church has been left to continue Christ’s Revelation.
It may seem to the outsider that the Catholic Church grudges man sexual pleasure.
We believe that the gift of sex is given to man primarily for the continuance of the human race. It provides the greatest physical pleasure known to man, precisely to give him the inducement to beget children. Who in their senses would go through the responsibilities of bringing children into this world, undertake the enormous expense of housing, feeding, educating them, bringing them up – all the annoyances and worries that lie in that – if there were not added to it the greatest of human pleasures? Many other consequences of exercising the sexual act exist – cementing affection between husband and wife, comfort, sustenance and so on – but you can’t rule out the purpose for which it is given in order to isolate the secondary consequences. A parallel is the pleasure of eating and drinking.
It’s the puritan not the Catholic who thinks that the pleasure sex gives is wrong. Likewise it’s the puritan who decries the pleasure of eating and drinking. That is very great too, though infinitely less so than the pleasure of sexual activity because the object is less important. The object of attaching pleasure to eating and drinking is really so that we may have an inducement to rebuild our bodily strength. You can’t go for the secondary consequences and exclude the first, as the Romans did, when they had a vomitorium and, having eaten and drunk as much as they could, went out and made themselves sick so as to come bad: and eat and drink some more. That is to reject the purpose for which it is given to gain the lesser consequences. The use of sex for any reason excluding the main purpose is to do exactly the same.
Plainly, every sexual aberration or sin more or less excludes the main purpose. Solitary vice rules out the possibility of conception, as does unnatural sin between two people of the same sex. Fornications and adultery rule out the possibility of bringing up the children, and you cannot, always remember, separate procreation and education: bringing children into this world and bringing them up in the love and knowledge of Almighty God is a combined operation. In fornication you are plainly ruling out the very possibility of any children born to those parents being brought up within the framework of the family. Yet that is the first duty you owe them. Likewise, with adultery, you are side-stepping the whole function of the family by begetting children outside it.
So the Church itself does not discourage the pleasure of the flesh in general?
Of course not. To exclude it would be to negate God’s purpose. God gave that gift, a most wonderful thing. It’s impossible to exaggerate the sacredness of sex because, if you go back to the foundation of all we believe, God is the sole Creator yet man is empowered to co-operate with Almighty God in the specifically divine work of creation. We rightly say that God created you, created me. How did he choose to do it? Through the sexual activities of your parents and mine. He was the Creator, but men and women take part in that creative act, a supremely god-like thing. As soon as sex is used for lesser purposes, it’s belittling the whole staggering gift, reducing it to an animal level.
Some clergy are homosexual, yet they remain clergy.
It depends on what you mean by homosexual. No one, whatever their status, is justified in committing the act of sodomy. It’s as simple as that. But if by homosexual you mean people who find their own sex more attractive and yet control their feelings, there’s nothing wrong at all. It’s no different from having a temptation to pride, or avarice, or anything. People always talk as though we can use sex as we like because it is a gift of Almighty God. Since the heterosexual can do as he likes, it’s thought to be rather rough on homosexuals that they shouldn’t commit sodomy. We are surrounded by a nine-tenths non-Christian population, and they all have the idea that any sort of sex is a perfectly normal thing. There’s no need to marry, you can sleep with anyone you like, so it’s thought to be unfair if homosexuals can’t do the same.
But if a priest is a homosexual in the sense of committing homosexual acts, should he remain in the Church, should be expelled?
I don’t know whether he should or should not. That is a question of discipline. If you are practising sodomy then you are certainly in no fit state to celebrate the Eucharist each morning. But I must again emphasise the distinction between having a temptation and giving up the struggle. You’re not a Christian at all if you give up the struggle.
Do you feel an intolerance of homosexuals or do you sympathise with their plight?
I sympathise with anyone who has committed sin, be what it may. As with a man who can’t keep his hand out of the till, I have to go on telling him that he mustn’t do it. We all commit sins, we must all try to avoid the sins to which we are most prone. If your sin happens to be to want to commit sodomy, then you must struggle against it very hard indeed. It can be done. People do get over their evil tendencies, by God’s grace. The fatal thing is to say I’m very strongly tempted and I’m not going to resist it.
If reconciliation with the Eastern Churches is a foreseeable possibility, would the Papacy ever agree to the idea of the Pope as primus inter pares?
No, he can’t step down from his position. I hope and pray that such a reconciliation will come about, and it seems to me a far less unlikely prospect than in the Protestant case. Protestantism is founded on a quite different belief, and every form of Protestantism, from extremist evangelical to extremist Anglo-Catholic, always comes back to private judgement. The concept of the East is quite distinct. It’s an authoritative concept and this explains how it is that a bishop in the East could, in coming over, bring all his people with him. It couldn’t happen in the West. If the Archbishop of Canterbury became Catholic tomorrow, he couldn’t bring a single soul with him, not even his wife.
In the East, they are what are called autocephalus churches – that is to say, the head of the Church is the head of the Church. Whatever he says goes. It’s much closer to the Catholic concept. All the Protestant sects in the West, on the other hand, take a stand on private judgement and democracy is applied to religion. In the same way that democracy is the application of equality in politics, so is private judgement the application of equality to religious truth.
Can the Church respond effectively to the intransigence of Islamic fundamentalism without itself becoming intransigent?
The Church is intransigent. She can’t change. The idea of the Church changing is as foreign to me as equality or democracy. The only thing we are interested in is the sanctity of an individual human soul. The only progress is the progress towards sanctity for the individual. It matters for all eternity what you or I do between our births and our deaths. Any progress outside that is a will-o’-the-wisp, an illusion. The great landslide was the Fall. From then on human beings have been struggling between birth and death to escape its consequence. The only moral improvement of any value is between conception and death.
The Catholic Church has placed an emphasis on private confession, but since God knows our minds and hearts, is there any theological reason why communal confession should not be equally effective in seeking forgiveness of sins?
It’s necessary to distinguish between what Christ gave us through His redemption of us and the means He chose to communicate it. He has redeemed us by suffering and death and has chosen to communicate His gift through the sacraments, which we believe to operate infallibly. In the sacrament of penance, God’s grace is given to us, brought into our souls, and so we have the covenanted means of our forgiveness. In the sacrament of the Eucharist, we receive our Blessed Lord, the Fount of Grace Himself, into our hearts. Almighty God is not tied to the sacraments, except, of course, that He’s tied to honour them. His own omnipotence cannot, however, be tied by the gift He’s made, though if you are asking whether God Almighty can work outside the sacraments, the answer is yes, of course He can. There is no limit to His power. If you are asking whether that exempts us from using the covenanted means He has given us, the answer is no, it does not. We would be very foolish to ignore them. Can He work outside them? Most certainly He can. Does He work outside them? We hope and pray that He does. But it’s not our business. There’s the short answer to your question.
There have been scandals in the Church over the centuries and the recent Banco Ambrosiano affair suggests that its administrative and financial arms have become very secular. Are these things inevitable?
Yes – because of fallen human nature. You can’t peg things. You may have the most wonderful and altruistic machinery for running the Church’s affairs, but there’s no guarantee it’ll continue. We can make it a great deal better than it is, but we can also make it a great deal worse. The answer to all the events we deplore is fallen human nature. Only individuals can make any moral advance and therefore there are bound to be scandals. If you shall hear of wars, or rumours of wars, see that you be not troubled. And, perhaps, scandals, and rumours of scandals – see that you be not troubled. There are always scandals. None of us, God knows, fulfils his obligations perfectly. The degree of failure may vary enormously with the individual.
There was the book by John Cornwell on the death of John Paul I that suggested he was murdered.
Well, as I say, human nature is fallen. You find fallen human beings everywhere. I have no idea of the particular case, but there is nothing inherently improbable in a Pope being murdered, any more than with anyone else. There’s no end to human villainy. The fact that a man is a priest, a bishop or a Pope doesn’t exempt him, or those surrounding him, from the consequences of the Fall. If you are asking whether it is possible for a Pope to be murdered by his own entourage, then the answer is yes, it is possible – though I think it wildly improbable.
You are said to be a hunting enthusiast, but killing animals for entertainment, especially fox-hunting, has come to be regarded in a poor light by very many people. Is such enthusiasm really sustainable these days?
I don’t like that notion of entertainment at all. It sounds like sadism. We must start at the very beginning. God gave man complete dominion over the whole of creation. Man is the apex of creation, and his use of it is conditioned by the good or bad it does to him, not by creation itself. People often talk as if animals had rights. Only rational beings can have rights, just as only rational beings can have duties. There are no rights involved in this at all. Consequently man has hunted from the beginning and deprived animals of their freedom – we call it domesticating them. He has made them breed and lead lives not natural to them. How can they possibly have freedom in the proper sense of the term? Freedom is the free exercise of will, and animals have no wills.
We take them into captivity, domesticate them, cause them to breed, prevent their breeding, castrate them, kill them for food, for clothing, and they have no rights to prevent it. The only question for man in his dealings with animals is what moral harm may those dealings do to him? That is why I demur at the word ‘entertainment’. It does man terrible moral harm to be a sadist. To enjoy and indulge in cruelty, to torture a cat, is sinful. To torture anything for the pleasure the act gives you is sinful.
So when you allow hounds to tear up a fox, isn’t that sinful?
No. Of all the forms of sport, hunting arouses the most animosity, the strong, popular feeling against it being largely fuelled by social considerations. It’s thought to be inegalitarian, aristocratic, but when you come to analyse it, it’s the nearest to nature of all the forms of field sport. No one raises a voice against fishing, yet in terms of cruelty or pain inflicted, fishing may be the most callous sport of all. You can play a salmon for two or three hours with a hook in its mouth. I’m not saying that’s wrong, I’m just pointing out how disproportionate the feeling is against hunting.
Hunting is the nearest to nature because you are perfecting what nature is doing all the time. At this very moment rabbits are being savaged by stoats, hens are having their heads bitten off by foxes. The whole of nature is, as Tennyson had it, red in tooth and claw. Whatever a hunter does is quite right for him to do, unless he is getting sadistic pleasure, and then he is certainly harming himself rather than the animals he kills. He is then making a beast of himself, doing himself moral harm. All Catholics will tell you the same. You can shoot birds, hunt foxes, fish completely freely, so long as you are not doing yourself moral harm.
Is it ever a worry to you that your lifestyle – living in a London club, giving dinner parties – might be misinterpreted by some members of the Church?
First of all, I think that worry is a sin. Worry means you don’t really believe in divine providence. My favourite text in the Old Testament is, ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ Worry is unprofitable thinking about disagreeable things. With regard to my lifestyle, I’m not an egalitarian and I don’t believe in a universally acceptable lifestyle. To return to the secular and the regular clergy, there are a lot of things that would be sinful in a member of an order who has abandoned the world and all personal money. He’s housed, fed and clothed, and money is not his concern, so for him to throw a party might be considered a subject of criticism. But as I have said, a secular priest keeps what money he has, what money he comes by honestly. If he chooses to entertain friends, then he is doing absolutely nothing wrong. There’s not any uniform lifestyle which it is wrong to step outside. To think there is egalitarianism is my bête noire.
Have you any regrets?
One has to distinguish between regrets and contrition. I suppose we all have regrets. Precious few in my case, I’ve been so lucky. But if you mean sorrow for sin – yes, that’s a very good thing to have. I’ve committed many sins in my life and I am sorry for them at the present moment. One has to live in the present moment; it’s all we have. One can’t touch the past. It’s the work of this moment to be sorry for the sins of one’s whole life.
Are you looking forward to the next life?
I’m not, because I’m properly concerned for the private judgement. I hope I shall not have offended God Almighty gravely. I can’t say I am certain of going to heaven. I keep hoping and praying that I shall die in the love and mercy of Almighty God and be forgiven all my sins, but that’s His business. Mine is to do the best I can. My two great temptations are idleness and vanity. I’m very tempted to do nothing, and by vanity I mean liking to give and receive human affection. Thank God I have received a great deal and given a great deal, but that tempts one to think one is important, and one isn’t, of course. So that’s a general confession I will make at my last moment. If a priest comes when I am dying I shall say these have been the besetting sins of my eighty years of life and I shall ask for absolution for them and for many others.
How would you like to be remembered?
I don’t expect to be remembered, frankly. I have made no mark on the world at all.