The Catholic Left in the 1960's

Author: 

Matthew Thompson

A review of Catholic Progressives in England after Vatican II by Jay P.Corrin (2013, University of Notre Dame Press).


This examination of the Catholic left in England in the 1960's begins by outlining the history of the Church in the nineteenth and twentieth century when Catholics in Britain belonged to one of two culturally divergent groups: a massive majority of working-class Irish immigrants and their descendants and a much smaller minority of aristocratic recusant families who had held on to their faith following the English Reformation of the 1500's. This meant that not only were there very few middle-class Catholics - in contrast to the Church in the rest of Europe and to the Anglican and Nonconformist churches here - but also that the English Church produced very few intellectuals committed to exploring new economic, social, political and theological ideas, on the one hand because the working-class Irish Catholics were denied access to education beyond elementary level and on the other because the aristocratic English Catholics had no interest in doing so. Corrin shows how this changed as a result of two factors.

The first was the conversion to Catholicism in the mid-nineteenth century of two of the Church of England's leading thinkers, John Henry Newman and Henry Manning, both of whom became Cardinals and in Manning's case, unusually for an English Catholic prelate, became involved in the London dockers' strike in 1889. In the 1920's and 1930's, another convert, G.K. Chesterton, championed Distributism which saw itself as an alternative to both capitalism and socialism and advocated returning to a pre-industrial society of small farmers and craft workers organised into guilds (after Chesterton's death in 1936, many of his followers gravitated towards fascism, notably his cousin A.K. Chesterton who edited the BUF publications Action and Blackshirt and in the late 60's helped to found the National Front).

The other factor was the 1944 Education Act which enabled young working-class Catholics of Irish descent to win scholarships to grammar school and from there go on to university. It was from among these young men and women that the Catholic left of the 1960's largely formed itself. Corrin outlines the influences that shaped them: their involvement in CND and the Catholic pacifist organistion PAX, the intellectuals who had quit the Communist Party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and set up the New Left Review and, crucially, the Second Vatican Council held between 1962 and 1965 in which the Catholic Church “opened its windows” to the modern world by reshaping its liturgy - most noticeably by allowing Mass to be celebrated in languages other than Latin - and by initiating a dialogue with other Christians, particularly the Anglican and Orthodox Churches, as well as with other faiths, especially in respect to improving Catholic-Jewish relations.

Corrin looks at the Catholic left in England in the 1960's largely through the focus of the journal Slant which was published between 1964 and 1970 and whose best known editorial board member, the literary theorist Terry Eagleton, had been influenced as an undergraduate at Cambridge University by the radical Dominican priests Laurence Bright and Herbert McCabe. Slant was notable for its freewheeling dialogue with other leftists, including Tony Cliff's International Socialism, the CPGB's Marxism Today and libertarian Marxists and anarchists around the Solidarity group. He is particularly perceptive in locating the demise of the Catholic left - as with the wider revolutionary left - not just in the failure to grow beyond more than a few hundred members, break out of its middle-class, academic milieu and begin to implant itself and win influence in working-class communities at parish level but also as a result of the conservative backlash in both the Church and society which led on the one hand to the stalling and partial rolling back of the reforms introduced by the Second Vatican Council (including by those who had initially supported them, most notably the theology professor Joseph Ratzinger, later to become Pope Benedict XVI) and on the other to a neoliberal attack on the post-war consensus around welfare provision, full employment and industrial relations.

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