Friday, December 07, 2007
How Catholic-bashing became respectable
Part of an article by Melanie McDonagh in the New Statesman
It is worth asking in passing whether Jews could now be depicted with the same idiom as is now being deployed against Catholics
It's not that often a train of thought unites Nicole Kidman and Peter Viereck, the American maverick conservative. But I had been to a screening of The Golden Compass, the film that Kidman effortlessly illumines, and I was thinking about the villain of the piece, which wasn't anyone at all so much as an institution called the Magisterium. In the Philip Pullman novel on which the film is based, the other word for the Magisterium is the Church. Or, as the author explains, "Ever since Pope John Calvin had moved the seat of the papacy to Geneva and set up the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the Church's power over every aspect of life had been absolute. The papacy itself had been abolished after Calvin's death, and a tangle of courts, colleges and councils, collectively known as the Magisterium, had grown up in its place."
The clerics of the Magisterium are characteri sed by authoritarianism, hatred of sexuality, a penchant for heresy-hunting and black vestments, and an animus towards intellectual inquiry. Or as Eva Green, in the role of the witch Serafina Pekkala, hisses, they're out to get "Free Will".
This is, in other words, the pocket image of the Catholic Church carried by many British liberals - except that, for Rome, read Geneva. Which brings us to Peter Viereck and his remark that "anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the intellectual". Every group needs its bogeymen to reinforce a collective identity and, for British liberalism, that function is usefully fulfilled by the Church.
As it happens, I rather enjoyed the rollicking pace and the scary bearfights of The Golden Compass, and I devoured the books. But the mental furniture that occupies the novels and the film - the creepy cleric who doesn't baulk at poison, the glowering institution that opposes free intellectual inquiry (and, oddly, is situated in the Royal Naval College) - why, it comes from a familiar part of the English nursery, the bogey of anti-popery.
Actually, to get some idea of the suppositions on which this kind of anti-Catholicism is based you need only return to the cinema to see Elizabeth. That, too, is redeemed by a luminous actress, Cate Blanchett, but it is a remarkable summary of the old Protestant clichés about Catholicism as the other, the enemy.
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