This essay was topical when written, because recently there had been serious flooding in parts of England, but it may not be topical by the time when you begin to read it. On the other hand, even if no longer topical in reference to the specific event which prompted it, it has a longer ‘life-expectancy’ when considered in relation to its broader background (climate-change, and the religious parallels of that – both of which subjects will be with us for a considerable time).
Climate-change is a very technical subject in which (despite the highly-publicised ‘band-wagon’ which has developed) probably comparatively-few people have much knowledge-based significant interest. Probably the prevalent levels of understanding and interest regarding religion, and “religious parallels” of climate-change, are no greater (and may be lower) than those regarding science. Furthermore, it is alarmingly clear that people who regard themselves as Catholics and who are classed officially as Catholics cannot be relied-on to support Catholic doctrines and morals. Those doctrines and principles should be paramount. The apparently-dominant reluctance to adhere to that dispute-arousing outlook compound the difficulties of getting it publicised.
This attempt can begin with a statement which seems unlikely to be disputed. A flood is a misfortune which is somewhere on a scale between slight and catastrophic.
If someone came along and said ‘Oh, I think that’s an exaggeration. Whether a flood is a misfortune is a matter of opinion,’ probably most people would think that he must be joking. If they realised that he meant it, probably they would regard him as a ‘nut-case’ and give him no further time. Suppose, however, that the opinion expressed in all seriousness by the ‘nut-case’ began to be accepted and expressed in all seriousness by other people. In an anecdote told many years ago, a priest was quoted as follows: “Imagine that tomorrow morning you suddenly found that everyone was walking on his hands. Your reaction would be: ‘How silly!’ and you would continue to walk on your feet as God intended. But let us suppose that after a week, or a fortnight, or even a month, they were still walking on their hands and you were the only person walking on his feet. Wouldn’t you begin to ask yourself: ‘Is it possible that I am the only sane person left? Isn’t it more likely that all these people are sane and I am odd?’ ”
That is what has happened in Britain - where we are, and where our influence as Catholics should be exerted. Wayward ideas have been adopted by a majority of people. The ideas are wayward because they are contrary to the truth. Majority opinion is not the same as truth. Catholicism is built on truth, but Britain has largely rejected it since Henry VIII and the Protestant revolution (yes, revolution; it was not a “Reformation,” becauae it did not reform the faith but deformed it). Result: action is judged according to what a majority of people are believed to think at the relevant time. Instead of sticking to the truth, people bow to ‘consensus,’ ‘democracy,’ ‘human rights,’ ‘tolerance,’ ‘freedom’, ‘diversity’, and ‘liberalism’. Anyone who promotes Catholic principle is asked, ‘How can you say that you are right and others wrong?’ ‘How do you know?’ ‘What right do you have to impose your views?’ People who wish to advance contradictions of Catholic principle seem never to be challenged with those questions.
In practice the outcome depends on who holds power. Intellectually the matter comes down to authority. What is the authority behind the argument being put forward? Ultimately it is either objective truth or majority opinion. Many advocates of majority opinion say that objective truth does not exist, or at least is impossible to know. That is called ‘relativism’. It is the opposite of Catholicism.
You may be wondering ‘what is the connection between truth and floods?’
Seemingly a large majority of scientists believe that floods such as those in Britain recently are symptoms of change in the world’s climate, and that the change has not happened naturally, in the sense of being a process independent of human activity, but that human activity has caused it. Whether something is a fact does not depend on whether a majority of scientists believe it to be true. It is a fact if it is reality, and reality is itself regardless of how many people believe it. There must be many examples of scientists having been mistaken, when later discoveries showed that an earlier belief was untrue. So truth is independent of what people believe. However, those of us who are unable to understand science, and unable even to comment on, far less to contradict, what scientists say, have no alternative to reliance on the apparently-dominant opinion that climate-change has been caused by people, from which surely follows logically a conclusion that people have – indirectly – caused the floods.
There is a religious parallel to that. In our lifetimes, there has been a change in the religious climate. That change has been caused by people. Just as the meteorological climate is affected by what people put into the atmosphere, or don’t prevent from getting into the atmosphere, so the religious climate is affected by what gets into circulation. We have been told many times that the burning of what are called ‘fossil fuels’ causes what are called ‘greenhouse gases,’ which damage the atmosphere and have harmful physical results. The circulation of false opinions damages the religious atmosphere and harms people’s spiritual health. That is a subject in its own right – a large one – which would have to be examined on another occasion.
Returning to the floods, you may remember complaints that what were thought to be adequate defences were proved to be not adequate. Apart from climate-change, what was the reason for the floods? Was it the quantity of water, or was it the inadequacy of the defences? You could say, ‘It was the quantity of water, because if there had been less of it the defences would have prevented flooding.’ You could say, ‘It was the inadequacy of the defences, because if they had been adequate the increased quantity of water would have been kept under control.’ Which is right? Each is. The floods occurred because each is right. It was the quantity of water and the inadequacy of the defences which resulted in the floods. Surely that is one lesson, and surely another is that equal attention should have been given (and should hereafter be given) to trying to avert climatic conditions which produce excessive rain and to maximising the defences in case rain-limitation is impossible or insufficient.
The appropriate religious parallel is that in our lifetimes there has been an enormous increase of irreligious and anti-religious disposition, and insufficient attention even to the maintenance – far less to the strengthening – of defences against it.
It has been said that trees are useful for flood-defence. Apparently their leaves filter or absorb harmful elements in the air, which helps to keep the atmosphere clean, and their roots strengthen the ground and so help to prevent saturation causing land-slides. Although Britain may have been much less affected by those factors, in some parts of the world vast areas of trees have been cut down or burned, and air-pollution and land-slides have resulted.
The appropriate religious parallel is that many people have in effect destroyed their religious up-bringing, inhaled a constant flow of irreligious and anti-religious attitudes, and consequently have been caught up in land-slides which have swept away religious influence in their personal lives and in their societies.
One specific, and literal, illustration of that comes from a book by a journalist named Peter Hitchens. He was born in 1951, and therefore was young during the avalanche of immorality which became known as the ‘Swinging Sixties’ and gave us the amorally-permissive society which is now taken for granted as perfectly natural, normal, and proper. He writes for the “Mail on Sunday.” He should not be mistaken for his brother, Christopher Hitchens, who died a few years ago. At one time, they were united in hatred of religion. Peter, however, repented, and in recent years (perhaps for longer than that) he has been doing his best to make up for the damage which he helped to cause. He was an example of people who have destroyed their religious upbringing and contributed to the destruction of religious power in society. He wrote, in his book entitled “The Rage Against God,”“I set fire to my Bible on the playing fields of my Cambridge boarding school…in 1967. I was 15 years old. …I was engaged at the time in a full, perfect and complete rebellion against everything I had been brought up to believe.” He proceeded then to describe the forms of behaviour which his rebellion produced, and which turned him (as he wrote on page 35) into a thoroughly obnoxious person even before he had left that school in Cambridge. He described it, on page 1, as “the carnival of adolescent petulance, ingratitude, cruelty and insensitivity that was my Godless period.” On page 8, he described the burned Bible as “a gift from my parents and until that moment [i.e. the moment when he burned it] treated with proper reverence, and some tenderness. But this  was my Year Zero. All that had to go, especially if it had any sentimental associations. We were all free now, and this was one of the things we had to be free of. At that moment I knew, absolutely knew, that it was the enemy’s book, the keystone of the arch I wished to bring down.”
Two more features of floods which make them so unpleasant have direct parallels in what has happened to the religious landscape around us. One is pollution. Floods would be bad enough if they made everything wet, but the water carries all sorts of impurity, especially effluent, which can be fatal if ingested. The other is uncontrollability. Flood-water gets everywhere, seemingly often quickly and extensively, and pops up in unexpected places. It gets into the drinking-water supply-pipes, can come up through kitchen sinks and through toilet-pans, and even through gaps between floor-boards.
The appropriate religious parallel is that in our lifetimes it has become, and it remains, almost impossible to avoid being exposed to moral or doctrinal pollution in one form or another. It has become, and remains, pervasive and influential.
As well assimilarities between meteorological and religious climate-change, with particular reference to floods, there is an important difference.
Except for trying to escape from it and find shelter, the people surrounded by a flood must wait for the water to disappear, and then clean up, and eventually restore the previous arrangements (because that’s what most people want). In Britain (and the same appears to be true in many other countries) there has been no religious parallel with that, but the very striking and lamentable difference that in society and in the Church many people are relaxed about – and even strongly defensive of – what the flood brought in. That illustrates a point made by Pope John Paul the Great during his visit to Ireland in 1979, since when there has been in that country an anti-Catholic revolution unsurpassed in extent and tragedy. In Limerick on 1st October, he spoke about divorce. He said that for whatever reason it is first introduced, it inevitably becomes easier to obtain, and eventually comes to be regarded as a normal part of life. Perhaps you recognise also other subjects which prove how right he was, but let us stay with divorce for a moment. Lord Denning wrote in 1984, “There is no longer any binding knot for marriage. There is only a loose piece of string which the parties can untie at will.” In a lecture on 10th May 2011 (organised by Christian Action, Research & Education), Mr. Justice Coleridge said that “in 1977 an unnoticed, non-statutory procedural change, introduced into the process to save time and so money, reduced divorce to a simple form-filling exercise and no attendance at court of any kind is now required or has been in 33 years.” A few weeks later, in July, during an interview on BBC Radio 5, he said that because of this form-filling exercise “you’ll get your divorce in six weeks if everyone agrees” and “obtaining a divorce is easier than getting a driving-licence.”
That is just one example of what has engulfed this country. There could hardly be a more appropriate example in the context of talking about floods and religious parallels, because in 1970 Mr Justice Latey published a book in which he described the history of English law relating to divorce. It was just after Parliament passed the Divorce Reform Act 1969, the liberalising law which (to use an appropriate and, as events proved, accurate expression) ‘opened the flood-gates’. The title of the book was “The Tide of Divorce,” and his final sentence in it predicted that as a result of that Act “the tide of divorce will rise rapidly and may overflow.”
The driving force behind such events is something called ‘secularism,’ and a good summary of its meaning was provided helpfully by Peter Hitchens in “The Rage Against God.” He wrote that “It is not widely recognised that secularism is a fundamentally political movement, which seeks to remove the remaining Christian restraints on power, and the remaining traces of Christian moral law in the civil and criminal codes of the Western nations.” The head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, said that “Secularism would like us to be closed in a little box of Sunday worship. … Separation of Church and State has become separation of faith values from society…”
Pope St. John Paul and Pope Benedict had a good deal to say in opposition to secularism, but had no effect in destroying or even weakening its grip. Pope Francis seems, judging by reports of his spontaneous comments and from what he has written, comparatively unconcerned about it, but he has acknowledged at least that “secularization tends to reduce the faith and the Church to the sphere of the private and personal. [B]y completely rejecting the transcendent, it has produced a growing deterioration of ethics, a weakening of the sense of personal and collective sin, and a steady increase in relativism.” “[W]idespread indifference and relativism, linked to disillusionment and the crisis of ideologies which has come about as a reaction to anything which might appear totalitarian [,] not only harms the Church but the fabric of society as a whole. We should recognize how in a culture where each person wants to be bearer of his or her own subjective truth, it becomes difficult for citizens to devise a common plan which transcends individual gain and personal ambitions.” Unfortunately, his indication of antidotes was ‘woolly’. He wrote that “In response, we need to provide an education which teaches critical thinking and encourages the development of mature moral values.” “Critical thinking” is a double-edged sword, which can be used in opposition to Catholic principles, and relativists portray Catholic moral values as immature, in the sense of being unworthy of people who are truly grown-up and able to make up their own minds. So it seems unlikely that either of those ideas is capable of doing anything useful to fill what Pope Benedict called an interior desert of Godlessness, and what Pope Francis called “a vacuum left by secularist rationalism.”
Far more disastrous than any of the floods in Britain was the gigantic wave in the Indian Ocean which surged across Indonesia. There was no suggestion that it was caused by climate-change, but it certainly did cause a flood. Instead of giving it a plain English word the journalists kept calling it a ‘tsunami’. The “Oxford Dictionary of English” advises readers that ‘tsunami’ is a Japanese word. In English-speaking places why not use English? Probably because ‘tsunami’ is shorter than the “Dictionary” definition: “a long high sea wave caused by an earthquake or other disturbance.”
The ‘tsunami’ is relevant in the present context because there is a religious parallel with the natural event, and it is very appropriate to what has happened in Britain in our lifetimes.
At the 2012 Synod of Bishops to discuss what is called “the new evangelisation,” the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington DC, Donald Wuerl, said that the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council coincided with a “current of secularism sweeping the Western world,” especially Europe. He said “It’s almost a if a tsunami of secularism washed across Western Europe, and when it receded it took with it…foundational concepts” such as marriage, right and wrong, and objective order, and that at the same time Catholic standards had been loosened, with preaching and teaching and education being drained of “content.” Nothing seems to have changed. The Cardinal said that the result of poor teaching was “diminished allegiance from two generations” of Catholics. “Diminished” implies that some still exists; depending on how you measure it, that’s debatable.
What is the parallel between the so-called ‘tsunami’ and the wave of secularism? The ‘tsunami’ was caused by an earthquake. A distinctive feature of an earthquake (indeed, it may be the distinctive feature) is that it is caused by unseen forces, under the surface. On the surface, everything seems normal. Sometimes there are warning rumbles and shakes, and on other occasions there are none and the earthquake occurs suddenly. If you are old enough and your memory is good enough, it is fascinating to realise the similarities between – firstly – the social ‘earthquake’ which started in the 1960s, and the after-shocks and the huge wave which transformed the landscape, and – secondly – the ‘tsunami’ in the Indian Ocean, and – thirdly – the parallel equivalent disasters recognisable from a religious point of view.
A very good summary of the events was given by a well-known journalist named Andrew Marr. After working in the newspapers-world, he became the BBC’s Political Editor. He made one or two excellent series of documentaries. One was called “The Making of Modern Britain,” covering the first half of the twentieth century, and the other was called “A History of Modern Britain,” covering the second half.
“A History of Modern Britain,” was accompanied by a book of the same name. His “History of Modern Britain” is especially enthralling for those of us who lived through the decades which it covered and remember a great deal of the events. Particularly striking were comments, in his television-series, about the late 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s. Notice the link with the underground pressures which build up and eventually cause earthquakes, such as the one which was followed by the ‘tsunami’. Summarising what he said: in the 1950s everything seemed quite settled and peaceful, with no significant disruption of conventional attitudes and behavioural norms. In the book which accompanied the television series, he wrote that “For the vast majority the early sixties were experienced as a continuation of the fifties. … Authority figures, police, teachers, judges and above all parents, were still clothed in the semi-military sense of order that derived from wartime experience” He added that under the surface unseen changes were occurring. There were some visible changes, some of those perhaps stemming from or ‘fuelling’ the hidden ones, but they were too slight to disturb the prevailing sense of calm. In the book, he wrote that “Little islands of change were all around.” To illustrate, he made brief mention of immigration (“changing small patches of the country…, though it had barely impinged on most people’s lives”), “a growing snappiness and lightness of design” (he mentioned clothes and the shape of cars), “an aesthetic escape from the seriousness of the immediate post-war period, which took different form year by year”). “[B]ut,” he added, “[such change] was experienced as a continuum not a revolution”
It was not only in our part of the world where that happened, and many people alive today would remember extensive publicity of events in America. Seemingly, America in the 1950s was remarkably similar to Britain at that time. According to Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., “People did not want to be bothered by public issues.” How strikingly similar to English Catholics! “They sought security rather than adventure” (a quite reasonable preference, of course), “comfort rather than challenge. Society seemed to reward those who lacked rough edges, [avoided] eccentricity, and played the company game….[There was] a pervasive, benign, and invincible conformity. America had become, it was said, a case of the bland leading the bland” (surely that is perfectly and lamentably applicable to the Catholic Church in England and Wales now)... ‘The strongest sustained attention of Americans,’ said [the] president of the Columbia Broadcasting System, is now, daily and nightly, bestowed on television as it is bestowed on nothing else’...[T]he best-selling religious books of the period purveyed a ‘cult of reassurance’ ” (the only style which is displayed in today’s Catholic Church in England and Wales). And then Mr. Schlesinger added just what Andrew Marr said: “Yet…under the complacent surface of the fifties other tendencies were at work.”
So it seems that in Britain and in America, as the Fifties drifted towards the Sixties, it was (to borrow a well-known phrase from the First World War) true to say that ‘all was quiet on the Western Front.’ Contentment to the point of complacency seems to have prevailed. Harold Macmillan was reported by “The Times” on 22nd July 1957 to have said that most people here had “never had it so good,”but in several places in the Gospels Our Lord warns us to be always watchful, because we may be called at a moment when we are not expecting it. For example, the parable of a rich man who was so complacent after a good harvest, and with his barns full etc., that he thought ‘I’ve got plenty stored up for many years, so I’ll take things easily and have a good time,’ and God said to him, ‘This night your soul will be required of you, and who will then have your hoard?’
Although major social change is surely a multi-faceted process, some facets of it are more conspicuous (not necessarily more influential, but at least more conspicuous) than others. Probably one event was, more conspicuously than others, the one which (depending on which of the equally-applicable metaphors you prefer) ‘changed the climate’ of Britain or enabled the ‘subterranean movements’ to cause the ‘earthquake’ which started the ‘tsunami’ of secularism which engulfed Britain: that event was the 1964 General Election which gave power to the Labour Party for the first time since 1951. Andrew Marr called the result “Roy Jenkins’ Britain.”
Roy Jenkins, M.P., was a member of Harold Wilson’s Government. He became Home Secretary. Andrew Marr named the legal changes for which Roy Jenkins had argued in the 1950s. From those listed by Mr. Marr, here are the ones which seem the most significant if assessed by reference to Catholic principles and which, if assessed by surely any sociological standard, have proved to be the most far-reaching: limited legalisation of homosexual acts, an end of Governmental authority to ban theatre-shows or to require changes in them, and a fundamentally-different attitude to abortion and divorce. Those objectives were achieved between 1967 and 1969. Andrew Marr wrote that Roy Jenkins has either been praised or demonized as the man more responsible for the permissive society than any other, but that those measures were private members’ bills, for which he was not personally responsible but which he assisted by ensuring that there was plenty of time, and things worked out just as he had hoped.
In Britain a reaction against Roy Jenkins’ promotion of a permissive society was the formation of something called The Responsible Society. It changed its name years later to Family and Youth Concern, with a charitable arm called the Family Education Trust. Both of them are worthy of support.
Why did the revolution happen? What caused the underground forces which caused the earthquake which caused the tsunami? People who are unable to analyse the matter adequately could resort to the fatalistic speculation that various factors just built up and converged with each other to produce widespread rebellion. Was it Lenin who said that nothing can defeat an idea whose time has come? Perhaps more important than the question of why the revolution happened is ‘why did it succeed?’ Considering that question can reveal useful lessons – if we care enough to learn them. Again, the metaphors of a flood and the defences against it can be used.
Firstly, the revolutionaries (the human counterparts of a flood) knew what they were fighting, and that one of their main targets to be overwhelmed was the legal and cultural influence of Catholicism.
Secondly, the word ‘fight’ may not be entirely appropriate. Whether it is appropriate depends on the interpretation. Is it the same thing to fight against someone as it is to fight with someone? You can fight against someone even if he does not try to defend himself, but fighting with someone implies that he is participating in the fight rather than just standing there being hit. Catholic teaching is that defence against an unjust aggressor is justifiable. Reflecting Our Lord’s warning to have more fear for someone who can harm the soul than for someone who can harm the body, the Church teaches that “moral evil [is] incommensurably more harmful than physical evil.”
Therefore – this is the third lesson – fighting back against moral evil (meaning false ideas and sinful conduct) is obligatory. We cannot describe fighting back as ‘flood-defence’. The inundation has spread too far for that. Writing that “in large measure” our mass-media have produced the profoundly-changed British society which has developed – “much of it trashy, tawdry and shallow” – former BBC journalist Robin Aitken added that, “[ i]ndividually, we have not willed this culture into existence, it is the work of many hands, but it has arrived nonetheless because there has been no apparent way to stop it, nor any concerted attempt to do so.”In the 1960s, we could see the flood happening, but as far as defending society was concerned – or, more precisely, defending it from being flooded with gravely-sinful rebellion against Catholic principle – no effective defence existed. The revolution succeeded because most people did not really want to defeat it.
That is, of course, now history, and it has had direct equivalents in the Church. Both in society and in the Church, we are living amid the results of revolution.Robin Aitken wrote that “[t]he first step in reversing the process is to understand it.”Unlike everyone else, however, Catholics have a personal defence against falsehood and sin, although you would not think so from listening to people who should be its greatest publicists. It is the teaching authority of the Church, called by the technical word of ‘magisterium,’ comprising the Pope and the bishops in communion with him. It is mentioned very rarely (like much else which is distinctively Catholic), but its pronouncements are available in print for anybody who is interested.
Some of the people who should be the magisterium’s greatest supporters denigrate it by portraying it as like walls around a castle. They contrast their unfavourable opinion of a ‘fortress Church’ with the more ‘positive’ and ‘friendly’ and ‘understanding’ ideas which continue to be promoted now as for several decades past. A former chief representative of an anti-Catholic organisation predicted that the “walls” of religion would not be thrown down, but would be “breached from the inside.”In other words (and this is what has happened, and still happens), there are people in the Church who instead of making it a strong defence against flood-water will make holes in the walls so that the water gets in. As Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner wrote in 1968, “The greatest dangers are always so particularly dangerous because they go unnoticed. It is the same in the Church. She is always threatened by dangers. The greatest are those from within.” “The faith is,” wrote Pope St. Pius X, “threatened less by open denial than by the subtlety and falsehood of those perfidious Liberal Catholics, who are wolves in sheep’s clothing,” and he added that priests must expose the plot to the people. If any priest did, he would probably be ordered not to do it again.
The magisterium is not only a personal defence against falsehood and sin, but also the foundation for rebuilding. In the Church and in society at large, we need people who will re-build Catholic teachings which the flood swept away. In society at large, that is particularly the task of the laity, who should (of course) be encouraged by bishops and priests to do so. Unfortunately, a huge majority of the laity are lapsed, and the steadily-diminishing number who still fulfil their minimum duty of attending Mass have been systematically sedated by soporific sermons which steer well clear of conflicts between reality and religion. Any of our adversaries who listened to one, or who inspected a typical parish notices-sheet, would find no evidence that the Church is even interested in what its enemies are doing, far less engaged in efforts to defeat them. These are huge problems, which frustrate the few who wish to rectify the situation.
If you have the will to try, send your thoughts to FLI.
Continuum, 2010, p.7.
“Landmarks in the Law,” Butterworths, 1984, p.176.
Longman Group, 1970, p.168.
Op. cit., p.119.
Speech to Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops; “The Catholic Times,” 7th October 2012, p.4.
“Evangelii Gaudium,” paragraph 64.
Ibid., paragraph 61.
Ibid., paragraph 64.
St. Peter’s Square, 24th April 2005; also Good Friday 2009.
“Evangelii Gaudium,” paragraph 63.
“The Catholic Times,” 14th October 2012, p.8.
“The American People in the Fifties,” in “The National Experience: A History of the United States since 1865,” 5th ed., Part. 2; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., at p.794-796.
“A History of Modern Britain,” op. cit., note 14, at p.251.
Ibid., and at p.257.
“Catechism of the Catholic Church,” paragraphs 2263-2267.
Matthew 10:28; Luke 12:4-5.
“Catechism of the Catholic Church,” paragraph 311.
“The Noble Liar,” Biteback Publishing Ltd., 2018, p.12.
“Humanism,” H. J. Blackham (first Director of the British Humanist Association); 2nd edition; The Harvester Press, Ltd., 1976, p.63.
“Nature and Grace,” Sheed and Ward, 1968 edition, p.47.
Letter to the clergy of the Dioceses of Venice and Mantua, 5th September 1894.