Architects of Apathy

If you ever wondered why Catholicism, once the faith of British intellectual elites like Newman, Tolkien, Belloc, Chesterton and Muggeridge, became something so hated and maligned in our culture, you only have to look at the silent "teachers", our bishops and British Catholics with a platform like Catherine Pepinster. 

Pepinster was the first female editor of The Tablet in the newspaper's 176-year history. In 2017 she published the book The Keys and the Kingdom: The British and the Papacy from John Paul II to Francis.

Pepinster would be the first to admit she has problems with some areas of Church teaching, and The Tablet has long been a forum for such discussions to take place.

Although I personally welcome such discussions (I see them as the place where evangelisation takes place in the present cultural milieu), I do feel it is essential that we are properly informed about the issues. I would argue that while The Tablet has been a place where this has been discussed, that discussion only ever takes place within an intellectual vacuum where any intelligent proposal of the reasons for Church teaching is looked down on in an extremely patronising way. The only reasonable position is the secular one, as far as these people are concerned, and their job is to rationalise what they consider historic errors until they no longer challenge the modern secular narrative. They are seduced by the arguments of the secular world in such a way that they have abandoned any shred of hope that the Church may, actually, have a point. They have lost the ability to read with the Church in an attitude of metanoia.

My point here is that Pepinster and her ilk are not on the fringes of Catholicism in England and Wales; they are the mainstream. Indeed, they have been for a generation. They have little to nothing to say in defence or explanation of Church teaching and are constantly pushing for "progress", by which they mean a capitulation to the secular zeitgeist. It is those of us who defend the Church who are increasingly "fringe", attacked and derided both by those with a media voice like Pepinster and by episcopacy these positions mould and facilitate alike.

The deep irony they don't yet understand is that the very injustices they constantly feel wounded by are only caused by our lack of faith in the reality of Catholic truth. Christians really do make a difference to the world, but the sociological upsides to religious activity will not materialise unless people actually believe in it. To make these effects the justification for the activity is therefore self-defeating.

Pepinster has been doing a series of rather miserable, amoral Thoughts for the Day every Saturday on BBC Radio 4. Sadly, she has become a useful idiot for the BBC's pseudo religious broadcasts which only ever cast a sceptical, secular eye at that silly old thing called religion. Except Islam - Islam is awesome, of course.

Pepinster is perfect for this role. She has that hideous self-importance and sneering superiority that speaking as an "insider" gives her. Her claim to be Catholic allows her to damage the intellectual integrity of the Catholic faith with far more efficacy that any Atheist like that alternative Radio 4 darling Toksvig, for example, who, as Gareth Roberts demonstrated in my post yesterday, only manages to make herself look stupid and hypocritical. No, Pepinster has that veneer of insider knowledge that lends a credibility to her that the BBC lap up.

It's such a shame it has zero intellectual integrity, isn't it? I mean, less than zero. It's not even interesting.

By contrast, think about the late, great, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. He always found a way to use Thought for the Day to help people. He brought the wisdom of the Jewish faith to bear on issues all of us face every day and showed how living with and in faith, made that living more real, more cohesive.

By direct contrast, Pepinster uses her public platform to ridicule Christianity. Never failing to make Christianity look old, irrelevant and misguided. She consistently portrays it as an old idea which needs improving. Modernising, if you will. It has no merit, it's wrong on all the big stuff, but don't worry, Ma Pepinster has the answers!

In this example, one is left wondering how she can seriously be called a Catholic commentator at all, when she gets such a fundamental issue so incredibly wrong? I mean, she doesn't even hint at the real meaning, just goes straight in with a false narrative which lumps all Abrahamic faiths together in one big misogynistic pot.

Just fundamentally, any dialectic here surely must revolve around the basics; that Church teaching on human sexuality, surely, safeguards against the objectification of others & sacralises the act of intercourse by linking it intrinsically with the work of creation? Surely a better approach for a Catholic would be to explain Catholic/ Christian teaching to the secular world, rather than, as Pepinster does here, attempting to apologise for her own erroneously perceived shortcomings of Church teaching which she portrays as backwards and myopic?

Even the most basic (geographical) premise is in error. Did Christianity emerge from a desert? The Galilee is a lush paradise, at least it was when I was there!!

This has come to the attention of Dr. Gavin Ashenden, who makes some very pertinent observations in the Catholic Herald. He looks at Pepinster's comments through the prism of the Lambeth Conference, which, perhaps, gives us a prophecy for where Pepinster seeks to take Catholicism? The parallels are certainly pertinent.

Dr. Ashenden writes:

"If an unaligned observer was to look at Anglicanism today, it would see two theological and culturally opposed parties. One embraces sexual heterodoxy, incoherent multi-orientated erotic identities in the name of human freedom and development, and prioritises sexual and romantic desire; but it makes no new Christians

The other group sees itself as resisting the new anthropology. It takes a different view of desire, prioritising the longings of the soul over those of the body. It promotes sexual continence, self-sacrifice and traditional marriage for the co-creation of children. They are bringing people to Christ in increasingly large numbers.

The problem Anglicans have is that the progressives have all the power and the money. At the same time they are  intellectually and emotionally constrained by a contempt for the traditionalists they have been unable to contain.

Meanwhile, the traditionalists find themselves making connections between the manner in which the immersion in the promotion of biological sterility by the secularists is reflected by a spiritual sterility, since the progressives make no new Christians and their churches are rapidly dying. 

Much of this will have an eerie familiarity to Catholics. However, we are not just watching idly from the sidelines. This is a dispute that touches us all. [My emphasis: Isn't this the truth?]

"The formidable Catherine Pepinster took to the airwaves on the Today programme’s ‘Thought for the Day’ segment to offer some heft to the progressive programme.

But her arguments were old-fashioned, and given the acceleration of cultural change rather quaint.

As all philosophers acknowledge, our arguments take their direction and perhaps even their conclusion from the first principles we adopt. The Pepinster position was one much loved by nineteenth-century sociologists and anthropologists, but it hasn’t worn well.

It all began, she told us with the desert. The desert is a hot and difficult place and the survival of the tribe depends on having lots of children, and so tragically homosexuals were marginalised and under-appreciated in hot climates. They were unable to contribute to the social currency of biological fertility and so experienced prejudice from people who prioritised the raising of children. However not all aspects of desert culture were primitive. Their one virtue was the practice of hospitality; so if we, no longer trapped in the desert,  could only extend an affirming and non-discriminatory welcome to the non-biologically productive among us, the world, the Church and our local community would be happier places. 

But this immersion into the sociology of religion leaves two areas unexamined: desire and holiness. How do we manage human longing? What is this encounter with holiness that marks the quest for God?

The journey the Jews took as people of the First Covenant was one of learning the distinction between the sacred and the secular. [This is an excellent point: Why would anyone with any understanding take Pepinster's direction of thought when there is so much more one could say; so much more one can learn from the journey of the Israelites? When people reduce a complex, beautiful and nuanced narrative , played out over thousands of years and transmitted to modernity in a quite remarkable collection of writings, long considered to be God's revelation of self to humanity, to a base, sexual derivative, one starts to wonder if they are suffering from a kind of obsession of their own?]

Sociologists tend to see things through the single lens of ‘marginalisation’. Exclusion and inclusion define their parameters of good and bad, or virtue or vice. But the experience of the People of Israel and their training in the holiness code was more multi-layered than that.

In a universe that was richer in metaphysical variety than the progressive mind is comfortable with, what happens when you strip out the recognition of the existence of the human soul?

Professor Sarah Coakley, formerly a professor of theology at Cambridge, suggests that this was exactly what happened as part of the history of Modernity:

“It was as if the pervasive loss of the of belief in the soul caused and an intense and anxious fascination with the body as the nexus of salvation.”

So not only is sex fun, and it turns out from the immense traffic that internet pornography produces, addictive, but it subverts human appetite and desire into something that begins to look like a new religion – a new god.

If human desire, and the appetite for sexual fulfilment becomes a new religion, it is no wonder that same-sex marriage, no marriage, and polyamory have become its new denominations.

The difference between progressive and orthodox Christianity might come down to opposing understandings of the significance of the soul and the complexity of appetite and desire.

Same-sex marriage, and the other exotic variations on the sexualised and secular menu, emerge as priorities when the body takes pre-eminence over the soul, and we find ourselves unable to manage and discriminate between our more immediate longings and the pre-eminent focus of our desire.

Learning to tame our appetites, lovingly but firmly demoting our bodies, is the first step in sexual continence and spiritual discernment. 

It was not nomadic life in the desert that gave contours and shape to the sexual ethics of the people of God, it was the encounters with the transformative presence of the living God on Mount Sinai, and later the Mount of Transfiguration.

The possibility of the transformation of desire, as an antidote to the decadence of addiction, is what the Church ought to be heard to be murmuring in the public square. We need to rediscover the voices of the saints and not the sociologists.

Our arguments in this cultural crisis should not be focussed on what can or cannot be done with our genitals and our associated longing for emotional fulfilment, but on the rediscovery of the priority of our souls, and how a mixed economy of joy and asceticism can carry us deeper into heaven."

I particularly like the last paragraph there! Read the whole article at the Catholic Herald here.

I think what I am trying to get over here is that these are the people who have been preferred by the bishops to be the voice of Catholicism for a whole generation now. I can see why. Their mediocre pseudo-sociological approach fits well with the pathetic bland approach of the majority of the episcopacy. Just like Welby, as Gavin points out, the vast majority of the UK hierarchy are desperately trying to appeal to as broader spectrum of society as possible. As Katherine says in our recent chat "going out to meet the people where they are and then leaving them there".

These are the architects of the religious apathy we are living through today. And frankly, they should be ashamed of themselves!


  1. I recently listened to an informed discussion on 'Anglican Unscripted' about the Lambeth Conference this month. It dwelled on the topics that are eviscerating that Communion - same-sex 'marriage', LBGT mania etc. It seems that Mr. 'Woke' Welby had been trying to manipulate the agenda away from the topic of sex to the easier ones of global poverty and climate change. Thankfully, very many foreign bishops had other ideas and stuck to the traditional Christian teaching; Cantuar now has egg on his mitre. The liberal bandwagon had assumed that it would be a walkover.
    Listening to those bien-pensants spouting about how they wanted to re-configure church teaching to accord with the zeitgeist, I could not help thinking 'This is exactly the road Bergoglio is taking his Church!' Just wait for next year's fatuous Synod on Synodality.


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