To claim that a low opinion of Catholics and Catholicism could be found in various quarters of the British establishment through to modern times would hardly constitute a revelation. To add that such sentiments were still abroad in mid-twentieth-century Oxford would probably not have you rocking back on your heels. But what happened when convinced anti-Catholics of the established order had an actual personal encounter with the Church, its people and institutions?
No doubt some came away with their prejudices confirmed, but there were times also when these prejudices were overturned, more or less completely.
This is certainly true of two Oxford men: Quintin Hogg, later Baron Hailsham of St Marylebone and Lord Chancellor from 1979 to 1987; and Captain WH “Warnie” Lewis, former soldier, historian, and brother of CS Lewis.
Hogg neither swims nor flies
In his memoirs, A Sparrow’s Flight, Quintin Hogg provides a potted history of the various flavours of religious conviction, many of them concocted in the north of Ireland, that went into his upbringing; an upbringing he summarizes as that of “a strict Protestant within the Church of England”. From his relatives he heard that the Church of Rome was “corrupt, superstitious, idolatrous and much to be distrusted. Above all she was always eager to make converts, and extremely devious and ingenious in making them.”
He was warned against “auricular confession, relics, transubstantiation, the Pope, indulgences, the Latin Mass, and, perhaps above all, the Jesuits”. Anglicanism, on the other hand, appeared to encapsulate “all that was decent, commonsensical, progressive, well-educated and undogmatic”. While Hailsham’s actual religious beliefs waned significantly through adolescence and early manhood, he certainly arrived at Oxford in 1925 still in full possession of the anti-Catholic prejudices acquired from his family.
The breaching of this wall of certainties came with an invitation from Fr Martin D’Arcy to a meal at Campion Hall, run by the Society of Jesus. There, Hogg met Preston-born Tom Corbishley, who went to become a Jesuit priest and was well known for his work in the field of ecumenism. They became lifelong friends. At Oxford, Hogg also grew close to Clare Asquith, a convert to Catholicism (along with her mother and siblings) and Hogg’s cousin.
A passionate mountaineer, he delighted too in summer reading parties in the French Alps at the chalet of ‘Sligger’ Urquhart, the first Roman Catholic to act as a tutorial fellow in the University of Oxford since the sixteenth century.
Hogg did not cross the Tiber.
Writing his memoirs, he was still able to list elements of Catholic faith and practice that remained objectionable to him: the Tridentine Mass, which he regarded as “a perversion of the primitive rite” was one; papal infallibility another.
Nevertheless, in the act of meeting and engaging with actual Catholics, Hogg’s inherited assumptions about the religion and its adherents were turned on their head. He found “a diverse and intelligent group of Christian people who actually believed and practised their religion in an organized, regular and wholly unsanctimonious way, always ready to discuss, but equally resolute to defend, their beliefs and practices”.
Indeed, Hogg felt that his contacts with Roman Catholics at a formative period of his life had a decisive influence for good on his soul: “In the restoration of my faith in the Christian religion, I am sure that they operated as a sort of preparatio evangelica in the barren years of unbelief.”
Contrary to what he had learned from his family, the beliefs his Catholic friends held were “things that had to be taken seriously and were things not at all inconsistent (…) either with Christian virtue or with the real essentials of the Christian religion”.
Moreover, Catholics had preserved their beliefs “inviolate under constant discouragement and frequent persecution”. These friends have given him “inspiration and courage” when his own courage had begun to fail. They had even told that he might in the end achieve salvation, but “if so, only by my invincible ignorance”.
Capt Warren “Warnie” Lewis: “Hers was the first face he saw”
Warnie Lewis’s close encounter with Catholicism was of a very different but no less resounding kind. Having retired from the army in 1932, he went to Oxford to live with his brother, who at that point had not yet emerged from academia to claim his place in history as the revered Christian apologist and author of children’s fiction. Warnie devoted his time to helping his brother, writing books on seventeenth-century French history, and being a member of The Inklings.
Warnie Lewis was also, however, a very heavy drinker, prone to going on long binges that caused all kinds of trouble and concern for his brother (whom he and all their friends called ‘Jack’). One of the most serious incidents took place when Warnie went to County Louth in the Republic of Ireland in 1947 to meet an old army friend who didn’t show up. Warnie went on one of his binges which led to him ending up in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda.
The hospital was run by the Medical Missionaries of Mary, sisters who aimed at “making their lives a perpetual act of charity animated by an intense and fervent spirit, combined with the fullest professional efficiency”. Their external religious practice was “unostentatious”. Their dress was plain and “adaptable to varying conditions of time and place”. So it needed to be: the sisters were at the disposal of the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda Fidei to go to any part of the world.
As well as foundations at home in Ireland, they could be found in Boston and Naples, but especially all over East and West Africa, running close to fifty hospitals (general and maternity), clinics and bush stations, as well as four leprosy settlements with eighteen segregation villages, in which they treated more than ten thousand patients.
The hospital in Drogheda made the news last year when – in a rare small victory in Catholic Ireland’s long, inglorious retreat – a local grassroots campaign prevented the hospital being given a new secularized name. Objectors invoked the memory of Mother Mary Martin, founder of both the hospital and the Medical Missionaries of Mary, citing the respect and affection in which she is held in in Drogheda, Ireland and throughout the world.
Mother Mary was one of the first faces Warnie Lewis saw when he regained consciousness following his epic bender. This must have given him something of a fright.
The darkness, and the dispelling of it
As he wrote in his diary, to a Belfast-born Protestant such as Warnie Lewis was, there had always been “something sinister, a little repulsive, almost ogreish about the practice of the R.C. religion”. As for convents, he thought they would be “grey and secret” places, with “sad faced women gliding about noiselessly; rarely speaking and never smiling, spying and spied upon”. However, these preconceptions did not survive contact with ‘the enemy’:
There could be nothing more preposterously unlike the truth: the first thing that strikes you is the radiant happiness of these holy and very loveable women, from Mother Mary Martin, their superior, down to the youngest novice; whatever else it is, it is a life of joy and laughter.
When Lewis eventually explained to the nuns his prior expectations, they “exploded into delicious mirth”.
Following that initial stay in 1947, Warnie Lewis retreated to Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital at least once every year. He was there in 1964 when Mother Mary, knowing of Warnie’s books on the reign of Louis XIV, told him that she was willing to give him a room in the hospital which he could use for writing.
Warnie responded by saying that he had one more book to write, which would be Cardinal Mazarin and his Three Daughters, and that he would “dedicate it you, Mother”.
“You might write such a book,” the nun replied, “but you’ll not dedicate it to me!”
Warnie Lewis came to see Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital as a “little fortress of happy, valiant Christianity”. However, Lewis, like Quentin Hogg, did not convert. A story does exist that, at one point in the 1950s, he came very close to making the “final gesture”, but Joseph Pearce puts this idea firmly to bed in his book CS Lewis & the Catholic Church. While the drums of Ulster may have sounded in the distance for Hogg, they seem to have played much louder in the heads of the Lewis brothers.
Nevertheless, Warnie Lewis’s encounters with the nuns of Drogheda meant that some of his most fundamental assumptions about Roman Catholicism were overturned, just as Quentin Hogg’s were when he was invited in to dinner at Campion House. Shock, delight and gratitude permeate both accounts. Opening doors, it seems, led to opening minds.
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