The Church Universal

Though she might herself be universal, I would not expect the Catholic Church ever to dominate the whole planet. Why? Because if that were the divine intention, it would surely have been achieved by now, two thousand years after the mission started.

I take long walks; I think about these things. It is thinking like this that got me into the Catholic Church in the first place – slowly, though in retrospect, surely. For the Catholic Church I joined was not what existed on the 31st of December, 2003. I did not even find that Church especially attractive. It looked to me more like the Anglican one I was leaving, if writ much larger. More of a bad thing isn’t necessarily a better thing.

And note, that was the Church of Saint John Paul II, whom I unquestionably admired; and soon of beloved Benedict XVI, whom I had considered the finest living mind in Christendom, long before I became a Catholic. Yet I was fully aware from history that there could be good popes, or bad; that even the best imaginable pontificate would be passing.

Rather, it was the “Church of the Ages” into which I was received. It took me half a century to get there; would have taken me only half that time (from birth) had there not been serious obstacles to both understanding and action that delayed my crossing of the Tiber.

In retrospect, they were foolish things; the more foolish, the better I remember them. What can I say, except mea culpa? What can anyone say?

The truth is that I was driven away from the Catholic Church I vaguely intended to join, at the time of my Christian conversion, because the priests I then met were liberals. They had no time for “true believers,” only for social revolution. It had seemed the Roman Church was dead.

That was 1976, and in England – I think perhaps the spiritual and cultural nadir of Christendom. And any recovery since has felt less like true recovery than like the “dead cat bounce.”

Of course the Church, in the West, is in a bad way; she has been in continuous, visible disintegration throughout my adult life – since Vatican II, quite obviously, and less obviously before.

There was a deliciously low-budget film, made with good actors, in 1973. It was recommended to me this last week, and I am still somewhat in thrall – mostly to its imagery and voices.


Brian Moore (1921-99) wrote the screenplay and the underlying novella. He was of that last generation of talented writers who could, more or less, make a living from their loss of faith. This was because they could still remember what the faith was; and so could present real tensions; a real sense of loss.

I do not think one can lose what one has never purchased, never touched, never in some sense inhabited. Those who claim to be “recovering Catholics” today are, invariably, glib. Their revolt against the post-Conciliar Church is not against something convincing. Indeed the movie, both intentionally and unintentionally, explains this.

Though very much a product of the early 1970s, it seems strangely relevant today. It is set in what was then the future – at the end of the twentieth century, in an obscure monastery on an island in Western Ireland, that had survived the Middle Ages, largely intact, because Oliver Cromwell never got quite that far. It was still offering the Latin Mass on Sundays, to villagers on the mainland in the time after “Vatican IV” – which had apparently ruled that Catholics should no longer believe in miracles, or the Real Presence.

Thanks to the visit of a television crew, the anomaly of these Irish monks had come to the attention of the wide world. People by the thousands were flying in to participate in that Mass. This was a problem for Rome, which was in the advanced stages of ecumenical negotiations with the Buddhists. It rocked their boat, and so the Father General of the monastic order had sent out a hip young American (Martin Sheen), to put an end to it. His confrontation with the charming old abbot (played by Trevor Howard) supplies the plot.

Now, Brian Moore wrote a trick ending in which the abbot, secretly an atheist, relents. He sees himself, finally, as only a foreman: he must obey his superiors, just as his monks must obey him. He will crush their inchoate rebellion. In the last analysis, he knows how to be firm.

At a time when a parallel crisis is developing in the Church, on a much larger scale, the film feels strangely prognostic. It seizes upon the dramatic possibilities, when the monks’ vowed obedience to God comes into conflict with their vowed obedience to their duly appointed ecclesial superiors.

This happens, and is extremely painful, because extremely destructive. What would happen if, to use an extreme case, the pope told us one thing, when Christ had said another? Of course it would pull the Church apart; at least, that part of the Church inhabited by the faithful.

So what is one to do? Fast and pray is the monks’ spontaneous answer. Which, in the movie, they are ordered not to do. The screws are being turned on them. In the main frame, the screenwriter dwells only on the personalities of the two “post-Catholic” protagonists; but he has given us a good glimpse of what is happening to all the “little people” in the background. And he does allow, at the very end, the possibility that God may still sort it out.

God will, I have no doubt. In the meanwhile, this is just like the world. The struggle to maintain Catholic faith, in the face of the world and even “post-Catholic” authority, will go on. So long as the world remains, there will be no final victory here; not until Time itself unravels.

But Christ’s Church is immortal; men come and go.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: