It’s summer time and the papers are full of suggestions about what to read. As in asking twenty well known people what they’re reading on their holidays. Yes, maybe a lazy way of filling a few pages in the silly season but it’s also instructive as it gives a glimpse of what’s available.
At the moment I’m reading Tracing the Cultural Legacy of Irish Catholicism, From Galway to Cloyne and Beyond, edited by Eamon Maher and Eugene O’Brien. It’s a collection of thirteen essays mainly by academics, which attempt to explain why the Catholic Church in Ireland has been brought to its knees. In other words, what happened between the Pope John Paul’s visit to Galway and the Cloyne Report into the sexual abuse of children, what’s happening now, and what may happen in the future to the ‘lost legacy’ of a Catholic culture.
Even though it’s very well worth reading, for one reason only I hesitate to recommend it because it costs £85 (that’s sterling) or €95 in our money. What a pity that Manchester University Press has thereby effectively ensured that the general reader probably won’t buy this important book. Needless to say I didn’t buy it myself. (After all, there’s a reasonable limit to every obsession).
As with any anthology, the standard is mixed. Most of the articles are excellent but a few suggesting a return to the past are a toxic mixture of naivety and unreality. What is particularly galling is the constant repetition of the widely discredited belief that if something is explained properly that Catholics will automatically accept it. They won’t. That mantra – if you listen carefully I’ll explain where you’re going wrong – is the essence of condescension, especially where adults are concerned, because as we know adults have minds of their own and Catholic adults nowadays tend to use them. Relying on authority, loyalty and a presumed, though clearly diminishing, respect to make unconvincing teaching credible is a failed strategy, as almost everyone now knows. As is the oft-repeated put-down that Catholic church teaching is unchanging. It isn’t, as any competent theologian will know.
Another book that tackles the changes taking place in Catholicism is Chris Patten’s ‘First Confession, A Sort of Memoir’. Patten has had a quite extraordinary life and an impressive CV: a Conservative cabinet minister once described as ‘the best Tory Prime Minister we never had’; the last Governor of Hong Kong; the man who sorted out policing in the North; Chairman of the BBC; Chancellor of Oxford university; President of the Vatican’s Committee on Communications; and an enlightening and entertaining writer.
A proud and unapologetic Catholic, Patten traces his early religious upbringing – serving Mass in Latin, being taught to say the Rosary, leading the May procession – and concludes that ‘so much of the bone and marrow of my life was learned as part of my religious education and early religious practice’.
However despite his gratitude for what he learned as a child, as he grew older Patten became increasingly outspoken about his discomfort with what he called ‘the authoritarian anti-intellectualism of the Catholic Church’. Patten would prefer that Catholicism was ‘discussed in a more rational way that goes back to its roots, to what really matters and the way decent people – whether Catholic or not – live’.
Like many another today, Patten has difficulty understanding why the Catholic Church does not hold on to ‘the essential message encapsulated in the Sermon on the Mount’ while being a little more like the world it serves and more ‘understanding of the lives of those who are practising Catholics’. He also has difficulties, in debates about Catholic teaching, with the Catholic obsession with sexual behaviour: ‘The Catholic Church, which I am happy and proud to regard as my home, has got sex badly wrong’.
People like Patten – intelligent, incisive, committed – who declare their Catholicism ‘as a fundamental part of who I am’ need to be given respect. While people like him are prepared ‘to overlook the ‘occasional absurdity, even pernicious absurdity’ in Catholicism ignoring what they’re saying is the equivalent of shooting ourselves in yet another of the few good feet we’ve got left.
Patten credits Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council for giving him and many others ‘the sort of hope and inspiration as Catholics that kept us actively in the Church’. He rings a bell for many others when he concludes that he is ‘easily enthused whenever what Rome is saying sounds like the New Testament’. Patten’s book is not inexpensive at €23.99 but is worth every cent.
While I can heartily recommend the two books mentioned, part of the problem with looking for good books is that reviews can’t really be trusted. Ireland is a small place and writers tend to meet writers so blurbs tend to be just blurbs and books tend to be reviewed not always because they’re worth reviewing but because the writer knows someone who knows someone. So A reviews B who reviews C who reviews D who is reviewed by A . . . and so it goes on in ever widening circles.
Recently a first novel was reviewed in a national newspaper and received such stunning notices that I decided to buy it. Even though it was a first novel, the covers were littered with lavish compliments from established writers. But, if it was a first edition, how did they know it was so good? Who gave them the unpublished script? Unless their rave reviews were cajoled out of them or they shared publishers or . . .
The best advice on books is always from someone who knows us, knows what we like and recommends a particular book. That happened me with ‘Solar Bones’ by Mike McCormack. I hesitated to buy it because I distrusted the reviews but I was told I would enjoy it and I did. Little wonder that it has been long-listed for the Booker prize.
Treat yourself to it these summer days.