Once these grand, aristocratic families wielded influence in spades; now you’re more likely to see them mucking in at church fetes than bending the ear of the Nuncio

Are posh Catholics losing their historic influence in the English Catholic Church? That depends what you mean by “posh” and “influence” – maybe even “Catholics”. Some of the grandest are no more than tribal members of the Church. Many “couldn’t tell you the difference between the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth,” I’m told by a very well-placed source.

But let’s not get bogged down in dogma or definitions – because there is a straightforward answer to this.

Posh means drawled vowels, high social status, a bit of money (lost fortunes count). Influence means changing decisions – not necessarily having power directly, but knowing the people who do, and knowing them well. Catholic means not being wet about your faith.

Historically, upper-class Catholics – including members of the clergy – had influence in spades. Take Cardinal Manning, an Old Harrovian son of the Governor of the Bank of England (and, of course, a convert). In Eminent Victorians, Lytton Strachey describes Manning as a “tall, gaunt figure” often seen passing “in triumph from High Mass at the Oratory to philanthropic gatherings at Exeter Hall, from Strike Committees at the Docks to Mayfair drawing-rooms, where fashionable ladies knelt to the Prince of the Church”.

Strachey isn’t quite sure how this came to be in Victorian England. He wonders if it’s to do with a “superior faculty for gliding adroitly to the front rank” (unquestionably a skill that survives among Catholics today).

But well-born Catholic priests are a rare thing in 2015. “The vast majority of clergy in this country count as non-posh, because so many have Irish roots,” says a down-to-earth priest.

“Besides,” he adds, “posh lay Catholics” – the modern equivalents of those fashionable ladies in their Mayfair drawing-rooms – “don’t really care about priests. They mostly just take whoever is there.”

All the same, you can’t help noticing that the posh laity have their favourites. One name that springs to mind is Fr Alexander Sherbrooke. It would be unfair to call him a “society priest”. But his star has certainly risen since the restoration of St Patrick’s, Soho Square. He’s an Old Etonian, but not at all grand: Mother Teresa is his role model, and he demands that his parishioners – some of them distinctly well-off – get their hands dirty, feeding the homeless once a week for example.

Fr Julian Large is adored by the traditionalist and “Euro-toff” crowd at the Oratory, where he is now Provost. Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP, I’m told, is the “definite darling of the older recusant families”. (The fact that he’s related to the Duke of Norfolk doesn’t do any harm.) And Canon Michael Brockie is said to have a loyal fan base in Chelsea, at Holy Redeemer.

From this shortlist you might get the impression that most posh Catholics live and go to Mass in London. They don’t. They’re dotted all over the place and support their parishes. “They’re very good at mucking in at the church fete and generally supporting their local Catholic communities, especially if they have a historic connection with the place,” says Fr Large.

Sadly, that means having to put up with some very questionable liturgy and what Nancy Mitford would have described as “non-U” practices. One priest, in a particularly fine baroque church, was recently heard to start a solemn Good Friday service with a helpful announcement about the location of the church’s “toilet”. The congregation shuddered.

They are a stoical bunch, though, posh Catholics – and any inverted snobbery is mostly undeserved. “There’s a proper sense of duty alongside the privilege,” says a well-connected source. “They tend to quietly get on with it.” He was thinking of Catholics with Tyburn martyrs in the family tree who worry about the church roof and get stuck in as primary school governors rather than trying to bend the ear of the Nuncio. This isn’t “influence” per se, but without it the fabric of Catholic life would begin to fray.

The posh Catholics of the past wielded influence in less subtle ways. By the late 1870s, Strachey recounts, the majority of Catholics thought that John Henry Newman deserved to be made a cardinal. So the 15th Duke of Norfolk, “representing the Catholic laity of England”, put the idea to Pope Leo XIII directly when he was next in Rome. To the dismay of Cardinal Manning, “the offer of a Cardinalate was immediately dispatched to Newman”.

Not all that much had changed a century later. After Cardinal Heenan died in 1975, England’s premier Catholic thought he knew just the chap to succeed him. As the 17th Duke of Norfolk, Miles Fitzalan-Howard, told Fr Michael Seed: “I decided that Basil Hume was the right man for the job… Basil was head of sports and captain of nearly everything [at Ampleforth]… just the type we needed to shake the doldrums out of the Church and provide some real leadership.”

So he went straight to Rome and lobbied Pope Paul VI. With the help of William Rees-Mogg, editor of The Times, and Archbishop Bruno Heim, the Pope’s representative in Britain, who was friendly with the Queen Mother and obsessively interested in the lineage of the English aristocracy, he succeeded.

Years later, as the Telegraph reported after the Duke’s death in 2002, he “also urged the Vatican that Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, his own diocesan bishop at Arundel, was the man to succeed Hume”.

Grand Catholics, then, could still pull strings around the turn of the millennium. This was partly because they went down so well in Rome, and still do. Vatican officials, I’m told by a priest, are “very susceptible to the idea of aristocratic English Catholics”. If you are an English gentleman, “it really does count in Rome”. Perhaps this is something to do with the authenticity of English titles, which are bestowed only by the monarch. There are no bogus or semi-bogus aristocrats.

Until recently, England also had its own society priests. The most famous was Mgr Alfred Gilbey, who lived for years at the Travellers Club (“a saintly snob,” I’m told by someone who knew him well). Another was Dom Alberic Stacpoole MC, an Ampleforth monk who was a “deadpan purveyor of gossip” according to his Telegraph obituary. If you sat next to him at dinner, he was likely to ask about which club your father belonged to.

These are clergy straight from the world of Evelyn Waugh. Brideshead Revisited celebrates the ultra-poshness of pre-war recusant families. They were determined not to be outdone by Protestant grandees, many of whom dismissed the Church in this country as “the Italian mission to the Irish”.

In Rome today, there’s one stand-out English gentleman, and that’s the Grand Master of the Order of Malta, Fra’ Matthew Festing. The son of Field Marshal Sir Francis Festing, and Ampleforth-educated, he is only the second English Grand Master since the order was founded in the 13th century.

I gather that he loathes his style of address – “Most Eminent Highness” – and the flummery that often goes with it (he dismissed the motorcycle outriders that accompanied him on trips around Rome). But he is said to be on friendly terms with Pope Francis, and wields immense power at the head of the order, which – as well as taking heraldic quarterings extremely seriously – carries out an impressive range of humanitarian work.

“Our aid workers were on [the island of] Lampedusa long before the ladies and gentlemen of the press were aware of the migrant crisis,” says a Knight of Malta. A priestly source confirms that “if truly posh Catholics wield any influence today it is probably in the area of charitable endeavours”. This doesn’t mean lobbying big companies to reduce their carbon footprints: it means going to Lourdes and caring for disabled pilgrims.

In Britain, who are the Grand Master’s equivalents? The present Duke of Norfolk, Edward Fitzalan-Howard, feels “a bit uncomfortable” with his inherited Catholic role, according to someone who knows, although he is a practising Catholic. The House of Lords Act hasn’t helped: the Duke was allowed to keep his seat because of his ceremonial duties as Earl Marshal, but he took a “leave of absence” from the Upper House in 2012.

After him, there are Tory MPs. These are men like Iain Duncan Smith, the devoutly Catholic architect of the Government’s welfare reforms, and Sir Edward Leigh, a man of a very orthodox faith who isn’t afraid to speak up for it.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the principled and popular MP for North East Somerset, will undoubtedly have an impact in the EU referendum campaign. When I ask him if he has influence in Church matters, though, he denies it and jokes that if he did have any he’d be in favour of a “strong papacy, an obedient laity, Latin Masses and sermons that last no longer than three minutes”.

Rees-Mogg, known in Westminster as “the Hon Member for the Early 20th Century”, points out some historical trends. For centuries, he says, posh Catholics had influence in the recusant Church because – until the influx of Irish Catholics to Britain – “they were all there was”.

The names of these recusant families – Weld, Petre, Stonor, Throckmorton, Eyston, and Stourton among others – are associated with the great Catholic schools: Ampleforth, Downside and Stonyhurst especially. But though these schools are going strong, these days the old families are often more likely to have a stained-glass window or a library named after them than to have a son or daughter at the school. This, I think, is the key to understanding the future for posh Catholics.

Being from a grand family only gets you so far these days. You have to be successful in your own right; hence the emergence of “the new Catholic posh”, who include Lord Patten and Lord Guthrie.

A few decades ago, some of the most distinguished Catholic schools in the country allowed their academic standards to slip. Clued-up Catholics noticed this – so they started sending them to Eton and other Anglican schools. This has only started changing since the millennium, the introduction of girls and, most recently, lay headmasters – such as the supremely academic Dr James Whitehead at Downside.

Ampleforth, I understand, was “furious” when Edward Stourton, the rather grand BBC presenter, sent his sons to Eton, but it was justifiable: Eton is academically in a different league, and – as one OE puts it – Catholics are “extremely well looked after” there by their chaplain.

The best schools have started to move with the times: they want clever kids, not posh kids. (Rumour has it that a new Catholic independent school in London is in the offing: Catholics from well-connected families will be welcome, so long as they pass the entrance tests.)

For this and other reasons – such as the failure of some Catholic institutions to teach the Catechism properly, and the sex abuse scandal – there is undoubtedly “a weakening of Catholic identity” going on, says one source, which means the younger generation will probably exercise less influence as Catholics.

In short, then, yes: socially smart Catholics are becoming marginalised. And even those that do rise to the top in future will be less vocal about and interested in their faith, if they still practise it at all. They may even – horror of horrors – pronounce “Mass” like the rest of us, rather than “Maass”, as their parents did. They will be posh, well-educated and successful in their own fields. Just for goodness’ sake don’t ask them to explain the Immaculate Conception.

Will Heaven is the comment editor of The Sunday Telegraph

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (3/7/15).

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