Catholic Converts

(This is a footnote to Greece versus the Puritans.)

They say Bach was a closet Catholic; indeed his son converted.  But I hear austerities in Bach that I associate, perhaps wrongly, with Luther.  I feel about Bach's music the way I do about India: I can love it but I can't like it.

Anthony Burgess thought everybody was a closet Catholic.  There are such people.

His hero Graham Greene thought Henry James was a closet Catholic, which I think unlikely.  Greene himself, the twentieth century's idea of the Catholic novelist, was in fact a convert with a Protestant upbringing.  "The power and the glory" is not a part of the Catholic Lord's Prayer.

His hero (Greene's, not the Lord's) Evelyn Waugh, also a candidate for the Catholic novelist, was also a convert with a Protestant background, which, when one finds it out, somehow seems it should have been obvious all along.  Waugh strained to be what he didn't feel himself to be, Catholic and upper-class. 

His hero, T. S. Eliot—"I am an Anglo-Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature and a royalist in politics"—also started out as a Protestant, and for that matter as an American. 

And the third candidate for the Catholic novelist, Muriel Spark, was, yes, also a convert.

What's with these people?

The phrase "Anglo-Catholic" bears looking into: Henry VIII, something of a religious scholar, regarded his Church as "Catholic" no matter what the Pope said, since Christ had given power into the hands of all the bishops, not just the Bishop of Rome, including the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Hence its Scottish and American versions are called "Episcopal," the Greek word for bishop.

But civil wars and the pull of history gradually inclined Anglicanism towards Protestantism—you won't find any images in an Anglican church—and then the pendulum swung back again and in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, people like Newman and Eliot and Auden spoke of themselves as Anglo-Catholic, and the American Episcopalian-raised James Agee simply as "Catholic."

Discovered God in
The Age of Anxiety
And spent the rest of his life worrying about the legitimacy of Anglican bishopry and notions of sexuo-spiritual propriety. 

Nevertheless, when my Anglican mother became a Catholic to marry my father she felt, and always continued to feel, that she had "changed religions."

But this is nothing beside the number of people whose names we know that were death-bed converts: Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, Paul Verlaine, Buffalo Bill, Kit Carson, Gustav Mahler, Dutch Schultz, Bob Hope, John Wayne, Tennessee Williams—and the art historian Kenneth Clark, whose work had always been an argument for Catholic and Mediterranean values.

It all reminds me of Roman Polanski at Cannes in '68 when communism was the thing.  I've been there, he said, and I escaped.

The same might have been felt by Mozart and Bunuel, whose abandoned Catholicism remained so important to them.

I'm attracted to the sacramental view of life I grew up with—there's a gorgeousness about it quite apart from the coerciveness—but as a matter of taste rather than conviction; a form of nostalgia.

And what of conviction?  As Socrates said, "The best theory about the gods is no theory at all."

No comments:

Post a Comment