Paul Johnson

Crisis caught up with Paul Johnson on his recent visit to the United States. In this wide ranging and candid interview, the prolific British writer speaks about a coming renewal of Catholicism, his own spiritual journey, his forthcoming book on America, and democratic capitalism. Mr. Johnson also reveals his penchant for writing poetry and painting watercolors.

Q. What is your view of the Church today? Where is the Church going?

Johnson: Let me give you an historical answer. Under Pius XII the Church was very strong internally, coherent doctrinally, but it was very static. John XXIII was quite right to convene Vatican II to open up the windows, as he put it, and let in the air of the 20th century. Looking back on it, however, quite a few mistakes were made during the Council. There was nothing fundamentally wrong, as one would expect, because the Holy Spirit was presiding over it.

Under Pope Paul VI, however, the Church began to drift badly. It was not entirely his fault. He had some weaknesses. He was indecisive and while he was pondering issues a number of other people were doing things that were most undesirable. And the Church went out of control. After a brief pontificate of John Paul I, John Paul II was elected, who, in my opinion, is the most formidable pope of modern times, one of the ablest, and one of the greatest of all the popes.

John Paul II decided from the outset that he had to arrest this drift in the Church and has very largely brought about a reconstruction of the Church along traditional lines: he has re-established the authority of the Church on matters of doctrine; he has pulled together the episcopate, which, on the whole, is now his episcopate; he has punished rebellious elements of the Church or pulled them back into line, especially the Dutch; he has given the Jesuits a hard time, which some of them thoroughly deserved. But most important, he has impressed upon all Catholics around the world, and those outside the Catholic world, that the Roman Catholic Church is a living Church with enormous power and authority and consistency.

A great many non-Catholics have said to me over the years, “I do not necessarily approve of the Roman Catholic Church, but it is a model of firmness and consistency in its teachings, and there are times when I have thought of joining it, principally for that reason, because when you are in the Catholic Church you know where you stand.” That is very much the work of this great Polish pope. If he were to die tomorrow, which I sincerely trust he won’t, that will be his monument. He has made the Catholic Church what it has always been in the past and is now again: a center of authority, of discipline, of self-discipline, and of outstanding continuity and consistency. So the Catholic Church is not in bad shape.

Q. Then is there anything wrong with the Church today?

Johnson: There are a lot of things wrong with the Church, as the pope is painfully aware. I do not need to provide a list of the problems. One of the problems is the Jesuits. They have a particular role to play in the Church and have played it very successfully over the centuries. They were the handmaidens of the pope, with a particular loyalty to him and a particular duty to him, while being an intellectual powerhouse within the Church. Within living memory there have been some 40,000 Jesuits, all of whom went through 13 years of training. There have been a very large number of outstanding intellects and thousands upon thousands of first-class teachers. They were one of the most important elements in the armory of the Church, both defensive and offensive.

Unfortunately, the Jesuits have a habit of getting themselves into trouble, as very clever men often do. They were attracted by such things as revolutionary theology. They made a great thing about the option for the poor, which admittedly was part of the litany of the Vatican Council; but they have interpreted it in such a way that the Council fathers would not recognize it. So the Jesuits became unreliable and that posed serious problems for the pope. Being a resourceful man, he looked for other weapons with which to replace them.

Q. What did the pope find?

Johnson: He found Opus Dei, a largely lay organization. Opus Dei is very important to the Church, much more important than most Catholics realize. A lot of the work they do is very ordinary, but necessary, like running student centers near universities. Catholic students go to universities and are exposed to the most appalling dangers and challenges to their faith and morals. Opus Dei centers are very good in providing friendship and support in the faith.

I have gotten to know several members quite well in recent times. They have a center in London around the corner from me. One of the priests there, a very saintly man, has become a great friend of mine.

In addition, there is the Legionaries of Christ, primarily an order of priests, whose founder is still alive in Rome. They follow very much along the lines of the Jesuits and have an even longer training for the priesthood (14 years). As of a few months ago, they had 2,700 seminarians under training. In a comparably short time, as they turn out fully trained members, they will become numerically a very important order in the Church. They are intellectual, disciplined, and orthodox.

So, on the whole, I am fairly happy about what is going on in the Church, and I am hopeful. Some of the mistakes have been corrected. It was a great mistake to abandon the Latin liturgy — I wish we hadn’t done it. I think it is impossible to bring it back, but under the present pope it has become possible to hear the Latin Mass again. When I’m in London I go to the sung Latin Mass of the Carmelite Fathers in Kensington. That takes me back to my childhood when I was in Jesuit school at Stonyhurst, where we took pride in performing the liturgical year with greater aplomb than anywhere else in England.

Q. The pope speaks about a springtime coming for the Church. Is it fair to say, then, that you agree with him?

Johnson: I think he is right. There is a springtime coming. A lot of the things he has quietly been trying to establish are coming to fruition. Take the Legionaries of Christ, for example: with a training period of 14 years, that is a long-time effort that will gradually have a big impact. It is only one small example. He has stiffened the resolution of many of the enclosed orders, and of the other orders who go out into the world. The dissenters, the ex-nuns and priests, always get the publicity. I’m hopeful that, gradually, rebellious clergy can be pulled into line.

There is an enormous amount of good going on. It’s unfortunate that the good people don’t get the publicity. Let me give you an example. I was in Spain last year and had the good fortune to attend the final vows of a discalced Carmelite nun. She was a remarkable young woman. She had wanted to be a Carmelite nun all her life. Under Spanish law no one can take even preliminary vows until age 18. Her parents were strongly opposed to her becoming a nun, especially a discalced Carmelite. But on her 18th birthday she took her preliminary vows and now at age 25 she was taking her final vows. It was in a beautiful little church with a Carmelite convent attached to it; she was in a little room to the left of the altar. The bishop asked her several questions, and she responded to each, “I agree, I agree, I agree.” Just in front of me were her parents, weeping. The bishop was very tense, but this girl gave her assent to her vows in a tremendously strong voice. There was a choir, and all the people from the little village were there. A wonderful scene, full of Spanish Catholicism. Afterward, we were all allowed to go to the visiting room to see her through a grille. She was there, a bride of Christ, in a white dress with a garland of white roses crowning her head. She was beautiful, absolutely radiant, greeting everyone. I was really moved, really impressed. This sort of thing goes on all the time, but it doesn’t get any publicity. Keep in mind that the nuns in this convent go barefoot, there is no central heating; they lead a hard life and spend their time praying for us.

Q. What projects are you working on now?

Johnson: I am writing a history of the American people. It won’t be finished for two years.

Q. What will your book say about religion in America?

Johnson: In many ways America is the most religious country on earth. Religion is part of the very bones of American history. The country was founded for religious reasons — people forget this. It is the only major country where most people go to church regularly. Although the American Constitution is secular, and for very good reasons, it doesn’t mean it is a non-religious Constitution. This tends to be forgotten. America is a very religious country. This general consensus, which is a moral consensus rather than a dogmatic or doctrinal consensus, was the cement of American unity. It was the fuel for the melting pot where millions of people who came from abroad were turned into Americans because they embraced the American view of morality, which is essentially based on the Ten Commandments.

When de Tocqueville visited America in the 1830s, the first thing he noticed was that religion was regarded as an ally of progress. This came as a profound shock to him, as he was from a country where religion was seen as an enemy of progress. But now for the first time, starting in the 1960s, there is an anti-religious spirit in America and it is growing.

I think there is an approaching civil war of religion in the United States. All kinds of issues are involved, but above all there is abortion. It is the modern equivalent of the slavery issue in some ways. It will not go away on its own. It may be an issue in the next presidential election. It’s like slavery, which was continually pushed under the carpet, but because it was a critical issue, kept coming back until it was finally resolved. In the case of slavery, it took a great expenditure of blood.

Abortion, like slavery, is a great evil. The more you know about it, the more you realize how evil it is. Interestingly enough, in the case of slavery, many Americans in the North in the 1830s and 40s easily dismissed it. Slavery was something they had no contact with. It was a statistical matter, an economic matter — it was not a human matter. Then the propagandists began to tell the truth about slavery — as in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the like — and it became a human matter. The more the slave was humanized, the more angry the North became.

The same principle operates with abortion because we now know a great deal of what goes on in the womb. We know that there is a person there. No matter how you define it, it is alive, and to kill it, when it is capable of breathing and screaming, is an abomination. Yet this is being done on an enormous scale. More are dying than during the holocaust or in the Gulags. So this huge evil is going on all the time; and the more we know about it, the more it is humanized, the more unacceptable we find it. Sooner or later that has to be dealt with — it will not go away.

Q. What advice would you give the pro-life movement?

Johnson: I think it is important to keep stressing the point that there is life in the womb, and that life is sacred. This is under challenge today. My wife recently organized an international conference in Oxford on medical ethics. This is a very important subject and will become more important in the next century. Doctors, lawyers, and philosophers were all involved. There was a chilling moment during a panel discussion: One of the women on the panel referred to the sanctity of life, and one of the philosophers, a high-powered philosopher, said, “Wait a minute. Prove to me that life is sacred. You may be right, you may be wrong. I require proof.” I found this very chilling, because the sanctity of life is one of the things we have always taken for granted. We haven’t been asked to prove it. I fear that in the 21st century we are going to be asked to prove it. We had better be prepared for that. Abortion, euthanasia, and eugenics are all part of this. We are going to have to fight big battles on each of these issues.

Q. Everyone is asserting their rights in America. The country is becoming increasingly rights-based. Is this a good thing?

Johnson: No. A society whose philosophy is based on rights is heading for trouble. A rights-based philosophy doesn’t work because sooner or later there will be a conflict of rights. When there is an ever-increasing demand for rights, there will not be enough justice to go around to satisfy all the rights. There must also be a philosophy of duties. If everyone does their duty then there is enough justice to satisfy all the rights. Although the American Constitution was based on rights, it was also based on the assumption that America was a religious country that taught people their duties from infancy. So it is vital that the Church stress duties as well as rights. Strictly speaking, in a religious society, nobody has any rights — only God has rights. All we have are duties to each other and to God.

Q. In 1980 you wrote an article in which you stated that when marriage law is destroyed, the foundation of law is destroyed. Where do we stand today?

Johnson: Marriage law is under attack. There is an attempt to make non-marital unions a legal equivalent to marriage. This is bringing chaos into the system. More important than that, beyond the legal framework is the actual breakdown of marriage, which is particularly common in Western countries, and especially among the poor. It is the principal cause of poverty; many would say it is the chief cause of poverty. Marriage and the family are the two great bastions of Christian life, of civilization, and even of the economy. They always have been and must always be. This is another battleground. Any economy that has a social structure with a strong family life is going to be a healthy economy. And, on the contrary, any economy that has a shattered family life, or a large section of the population without a family life — including a stable marriage system — is going to be a weak economy with a great deal of poverty and consequent social disorder. The central task of government is to support the family instead of fighting against it.

Q. And what did you think of the Cairo Conference on Population and Development?

Johnson: Let the doomsayers blow off steam. The assumption that there is overpopulation and that the way to deal with it is to restrict population growth is nonsense, historically speaking. From time immemorial regimes have been trying to increase or lower population growth by government action. It never works, and usually has unintended consequences. The problem of population is not a great one except that problems of poverty are written into it. But we already have the resources to tackle those problems. There is no need to interfere in the private lives of people and do the horrible things they are doing in China.

Q. Are you happy with the approach taken by the Holy See to make its case in Cairo?

Johnson: Instead of fighting the battle on dogmatic morality, I wish the Church would bring along a few historians to these conferences and let them make these vital points. Demographics is one of the hardest things to predict. Sooner or later most demographic predictions are shown to be unfounded. I’m not worried about an increase in population; we have a big world and resources are limitless. Take western Australia, for instance, which is underpopulated. They have a huge operation in dry farming because there is very little rainfall there. Yet, that part of Australia alone can feed the whole of Europe. So you see, the resources in terms of food are virtually unlimited. We’ve only scratched the surface of the world’s resources.

Q. What is your opinion of capitalism? The Holy Father appears to be less optimistic about it than, say, Michael Novak. Would you care to comment?

Johnson: Well, you really have to ask Michael Novak about that. He has done a great job of showing that democratic capitalism is not only an acceptable form of activity, but is very necessary. However, whereas Michael thinks that capitalism in itself is morally positive, I think it is morally neutral. But, overall, Michael has done a marvelous job of un-demonizing capitalism. I remember when he began this in the early 1980s. Until then, the case had not been argued at all. He has gone all over the world, and has finally succeeded in putting his case across convincingly. It is a wonderful example of persistence at the intellectual level.

Q. Is there anything in particular about the Catholic Church in America that is at odds with capitalism?

Johnson: It is not so much that the Catholic Church in America is at odds with capitalism, it’s that the pope is uneasy about it. I suppose that should not be entirely surprising. He came to maturity under the Nazis who suspended the laws of capitalism. Then he lived for a long period under socialism in a Communist regime. So he is not as familiar with the actual day-today workings of capitalism as we are. He still has the feeling that it is a horned beast.

I don’t think anyone can spend any length of time in America, keeping his eyes and ears open, without realizing that there is nothing intrinsically evil about capitalism.

I have always said that it is a great pity that the word “capitalism” was ever used. It came into use about 1900 and people therefore thought there was a kind of symmetry between capitalism and socialism. But there isn’t. Capitalism is not an “ism” at all. Nobody invented it; nobody has said this is how it works. The phenomenon we now call capitalism occurs naturally whenever mankind reaches a certain stage of economic development. It is almost inevitable that it will happen.

Further, industrial capitalism occurs when that stage of economic development has the technological means to create heavy industry. This happened especially in Britain in the years 1760 to 1790. This was something that thousands and thousands of people — entrepreneurs, craftsmen, technicians — began without any ideological framework. I’ve often said that Lord North, who was British Prime Minister when the American colonies rebelled, went to his grave without having the faintest idea that he also presided over a fundamental economic revolution.

Socialism, on the other hand, is entirely a manmade construct that is premeditated and put into operation by government decree. Otherwise, it cannot come into existence, because it is such a nonsensical thing. Only a government can make it. The two things — capitalism and socialism — are not equivalent. Maybe the pope does not sufficiently appreciate that. This is a matter of economics, not of faith and morals, so I can challenge his assumptions in good faith.

Q. Could you give us a description of your own spiritual journey? It is often said that you are a convert.

Johnson: I don’t know where that idea started. I am not a convert. My wife is; she came into the Church when we got married. My parents were very important for my faith. I came from an old, established, traditional, Catholic family. The part of the world I came from, the north of Lancashire, was not Protestantized in the 16th century. There is a Catholic atmosphere there. I often say that I don’t have a drop of Protestant blood in me. But there were periods when I rebelled against the Church, particularly when I was a young man.

Now I go to church everyday to pray, to attend Mass if I can. My prayer is very traditional. I make up my prayer as I go along. I write prayers occasionally and would someday like to produce a book of prayers like Samuel Johnson. I think prayer is very, very important and I am very interested in the way people pray. I often say to people who do not have the gift of faith, “You must pray, even though you may not believe in God. Sometime God will come to you and you will receive the gift of faith.”

Q. In your book Intellectuals, you say that the theater influences behavior more than any of the other arts. Given the popularity of music and video in America, do you think that comment holds true in this country?

Johnson: It is difficult to make a distinction between popular music presented on the stage and records and videos. Pop concerts, in fact, are very heightened theater of the most spectacular kind. As such they attract young people.

I was impressed by the importance of theater when I was a child. As part of a strategy to counter the Reformation, the Jesuits re-animated the solemn celebration of the Mass, using thousands of candles. When I was in school, they still did that. On the Feast of Christ the King, the benediction of the Blessed Sacrament would sometimes have 2,000 candles on the high altar, each connected with a tiny thread of gun cotton. The two altar boys, one on each side of the altar, would light one candle and the flame would leap to the other candles until the whole thing was ablaze. This is what the Jesuits did — they stressed the importance of theater. Along these lines, we were taught elocution and acting, and performed a lot of plays at Stonyhurst. This was part of the tradition.

Q. Do you have time for outside reading? If so, what do you read?

Johnson: Much of what I read, of course, is related to my writing. I read a lot of history and biography. I have so many books to read and am called on to do numerous reviews. The fiction I read is historical. I read a lot of Jane Austen. I know passages by heart. I read Dickens, Thackeray, Conrad, oftentimes over and over again.

Q. Are there any novelists living today that you find indispensable?

Johnson: No. The last one would have been Evelyn Waugh. I did not like Graham Greene very much, except for some of his early writing. The American novelist I like best is Alison Lurie, but I would not call her indispensable. My wife absolutely adores Saul Bellow and we met him recently in Boston. I still read Kingsley Amis because he is an old friend of mine.

Q. How about poets? Who is important today? Whom do you read?

Johnson: I don’t think there is a great poet alive today. The acclaimed modern poets, such as Philip Larkin, are nonsense. I have met Larkin, and he was very amusing, but I would not call him a great poet. Another good friend of mine, Stephen Spender, has recently been reading his poetry in the U.S. I like his work but he would be the last to claim that he is a great poet — he is a very modest man.

The poets I read are Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Byron, Pope, Tennyson, Emily Dickinson, Arnold, and Eliot. I know Eliot’s widow and I occasionally talk to her about his poetry. But Eliot does not mean to me now what he meant to me 40 years ago.

At Stonyhurst, we used to have elocution contests in reading the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. I never won one of them, but I did win a contest for reciting G.K. Chesterton’s “Lepanto,” which I still know by heart.

Q. Do you write poetry?

Johnson: I used to write a lot, but not any more.

Q. Given your extremely busy schedule — your writing and your travel — how do you relax?

Johnson: I relax by painting — mainly watercolors. I prefer to paint in oil, but I don’t have the time. I carry my watercolors wherever I go. If I stay in someone’s house, I like to do a drawing for him. I have painted quite a few while I’ve been in the United States — some in Massachusetts and New York City, others in Colorado. I give a lot of my paintings away, and I have had a number of exhibitions. I have one scheduled next spring.

Q. What projects do you want to undertake in the future?

Johnson: I want to write a book about God. I’m not exactly sure what shape it is going to take. I hope to get the arguments straight in my mind even before I finish the history of the American people. The book about God will be shorter, about 200 pages. It will be a book to sort out my own ideas on the subject and I hope it will help others to do the same. Strictly speaking it will not be an apologetic, but a personal, impressionistic book, designed to give confidence and faith to people. It will have some history in it.

One way to look at history which has always intrigued me, is to not look at what has happened, but at what has not happened. The most important thing about the 20th century is what has not happened, namely, that religion has not disappeared. It remains a very powerful force. This would have come as a tremendous shock to the intellectuals of the 19th century. These are some of the themes I want to write about in the book.

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