It is not paradoxical to be the largest minority, but it is ironical to describe the Catholics of England that way when, if only by default of the established Church of England and other declining Christian communities, they are the bulk of practicing Christians in England.
In "Catholics: Britain's Largest Minority" (London Penguin Books, 278 pages, $15 in paperback) Dennis Sewell describes a Catholic Church that is thought of as a minority because of historic habit rather than present fact. Even that custom of a residual Protestant culture obtained for only about a third of England's Christian history.
Although a recent poll of the greatest Britons of all time ranked Julie Andrews second, between King Alfred the Great and King Arthur and included three of the Beatles at the expense of Disraeli, the English have a longer memory than Americans.
Events have seared themselves into nervous fibers that still twitch at mention of the Armada or Bloody Mary. That Whig view has pretty much collapsed in scholarly circles, but not in collective emotion.
Eamon Duffy, president of Magdalen College in Oxford, is among those who have revised the picture of pre-Reformation England. The English soul was Catholic and the Reformation was a trauma so contradictory to the national spirit that an unnatural anger set in, like blaming the mother for dying. Consequently, much anti-Catholic prejudice was irrational and all the more bitter for that, and for being wrapped up in a new king of post-Renaissance nationalism.
Sewell touches on this but his treatment is bouncy and positively rejoices in the entertaining Catholic personalities that would almost be disappointed to finds themselves a majority.
Catholics have become more than acceptable, almost too fashionable in Mayfair circles for their own claim to be a sign of contradiction. The "glass-ceiling" has been broken for Catholics in England but chiefly for two uninspiring reasons: any kind of religion is outside the serious analysis of a secularized culture, and modernist reforms have so muted the Catholic challenge to a post-Protestant but very Pelagian population, that it often comes across like a de-fanged lion in a zoo.
The liberal attempt to make Catholicism relevant has had the opposite effect, most notoriously in the degradation of the great and solemn Liturgy that was the core of Western culture. Evelyn Waugh's letters to Cardinal Heenan on the subject are the record of a wise curmudgeon and a beclouded prelate.
Sewell's sympathies lie with traditional Catholicism and he does not despair of its revival. The most kinetic thinkers and movements are in that direction. But a golden opportunity to fill the vacuum left by the Protestant decline has been lost.
Accounts of eccentrics straight out of Brideshead mix with the author's own quirky obsessions, such as Paul Johnson, and the Knights of Malta. In an ordered study, some of his diversions would be disordered. But this is an elegant potpourri that can be taken up with equal pleasure on just about any page. Even the chapters have no titles. In the scattershot are the Yorkshire squire who rode a 10-foot crocodile using skills learned from Lord Darlington's hunt, and Monsignor Gilbey whose catechism included information about Lord Holland's favorite recipes. The dabbler is no dilettante: Sewell's few pages on Chesterton summarize the great man better than whole books have been able to do.
When asked if the next Archbishop of Canterbury could be the last, Catholics point out that the last valid Archbishop of Canterbury was Reginald Pole.
Sewell lyricizes a lot of chatty people whose lives are different because of such convictions, and who share a dictum of Hilaire Belloc: "...a man who does not accept the Faith writes himself down as suburban."
The Rev. George William Rutler, a Catholic priest, is pastor of the Church of Our Saviour in New York City.)