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Confessions of a Woke Catholic

How to live with the contradictions of identity and belief

Much like, I suspect, most of the readers on this website, I am instinctively sceptical of “woke nonsense”.

I am sad to say this makes me a terrible hypocrite.

Victimhood seeps in and shapes all that we see

I am a Catholic, you see — one of them ones the Guardian sometimes warns you about. I not only accept and believe the teachings of my Church, I embrace my identity as a Catholic and am steeped in its history, particularly its history in these islands of ours. The old faith, we could call it — the one of our forefathers before us — of Alfred and Cuthbert and Lionheart; the one of all people in these lands, before an MK Dons-style takeover came along and …

You see? You see just how easily it happens? It is so compelling. The lure of victimhood can be so powerful. Give me a platform and five minutes of your time, and I will bore you rotten with a litany of injustices borne by my forebears. It’s what makes me such great fun to be around.

In rehearsing these, the realisation dawns that actually, there are clear similarities with me the aggrieved Catholic and Brendan from TikTok with all that woke nonsense. It’s uncanny — on the general themes, if not the specific claims, there is a corresponding claim that can and very often has already issued forth from the mouth of Papist pub bores like me.

Shall we test the thesis?

Tear down statues? Well, no, of course not, but … that Cromwell statue outside Parliament wants removed for starters. Decolonise the curriculum? Well, no, of course not, but … the anti-Catholic myths and prejudices of the History curriculum in particular are a disgrace. Reparations? Well, no, of course not, but … they’re still our buildings that you stole, and we want them back. No platforming? Well, no, of course not, but … you can forget turning up at any event I’m organising with your anti-Catholic bigotry.

The parallels don’t end there. Historic discrimination and prejudice? Yep — penal laws, test acts, the “enemy within” of Gladstone, the Gordon riots. Institutional discrimination? Well, whatever Prince Andrew got up to, at least he didn’t jeopardise his place in the line of succession by becoming Catholic, huh? Lack of representation? We have never had a Catholic PM, as one waited until he left office to convert, and the other one keeps it all very secret, so draw your own conclusions.

Do I believe this stuff? No, not really. Clearly these grievances are not the same in gravity and scale, and it is ridiculous to say so — but also a little bit, yes, kind of, in a sort of tongue-in-cheek-but-if you-disagree-you’re-clearly-anti-Catholic kind of way. That’s the thing about victimhood. It seeps in and shapes all that we see, so that it becomes all we can see. It is intoxicating. It takes something that is true, but makes it true in different ways — not as facts to be observed but lessons to be imbibed, grievances to be inhabited, injustices to be protested. In it all, there are perspective to be lost.

Partly this is the weaponisation of popular history, partly the modern soft spot for tweetable right-and-wrong snippets of outrage and identity. In my own faith, we’d say it is the danger of focussing on tribal identity over living faith — the noise always comes from the shallow end of the pool — but then I am not sure we can ever quite sever the two entirely, either.

In a society floating listlessly on the present, the readiest access to identity often lies in the past and the twists and turns of our national story. The temptation is to construct our identity — and too often our origin story — in the stories to be found there. These become injected with a moral imperative which we may struggle to find elsewhere. We are not only called to take sides, but to live out those aggrieved identities in the present.

There is far more to it than just this, of course. For a fuller explanation we would need to include all the facets of the deadening ennui gripping much of the contemporary western world, the resulting thirst for meaning and purpose, and a deeply theological fissure in how we see ourselves and who (or what) we are. Whilst it may be tempting to dismiss this as a kind of bourgeois LARPing, if this is just an attempt to trivialise the phenomenon as impotent nostalgia — a sort of cultural inceldom — then we better come up with a better plan for the not insignificant number who take it very seriously indeed.

Perhaps we have to choose which set of contradictions to embrace

Are our woke comrades really so wrong to take it so seriously? There were injustices. Some of them do linger on. Our history — like that of every nation under the sun — is littered with the inhumane and the unjust, and it may just as well be that because we love our country, we are compelled to call it to order. Is it uniquely unjust, or uniquely inhumane, as some may claim? Of course not, but then what do the residents of Hartlepool or Haringey care what (for example) the French did in their past? They are residents of these islands — it is here they have skin in the game.

All of which brings me to a strange place of sharing similarities with people whose politics and moral codes sit sharply at odds with my own. I disagree with much of what they may claim, and yet I see in their demands something reminiscent of my own curated grievances. I can’t help but think that intellectual consistency demands that I at least have some sympathy with their plight.

Does this make me “woke”? Or just another voice in a marketplace of competing claims to power, identity and truth? I don’t really know. Looking around at the anti-Woke movement, though, with its counter-demands to safeguard the curriculum, and shut down protest, and ban books, and deplatform performers, I suspect I’m not alone in living out this contradiction either. These demands might be justifiable, I may agree with them, but they’re not neutral acts. Some would have me caught up in their admonitions, too, since I’m not entirely happy with the state of things either. I would challenge the same societal consensus my woke comrades would attack, albeit from a very different direction

In other words, the anti-woke reaction is as steeped in the preservation and assertion of a values-code as those who seek to pull them down. Everyone who seeks to have the public realm represent their values, even (perhaps especially) those most insistent that their values are neutral, will ultimately be caught up in the same web of contradictions, criticising an approach that they themselves would implement, that they themselves would demand.

There is nothing new in this cycle — the cast may change, but the script stays the same. It was not so very long ago that another group promised to overthrow institutional injustice, to right past wrongs, to challenge indoctrination, to denounce systemic prejudice, to hold the wicked accountable for the inhumane and the cruel, and all through their own provocative mix of (post-religious) rationality, resentment and faith in progress. In the end, they were false prophets who sowed the seeds of their own downfall: their cringe mix of “street epistemology” and cod-philosophy was shallow; their humanistic scientism had feet of clay. Whilst some, with a tinge of regret, may wish to resurrect their post-religious-pre-woke world of perceived sanity, it has passed and will not return.

If we are to find some measure of peace amidst the ensuing turmoil, we must accept there is no neutral zone to which we can retreat. Perhaps we must acknowledge that, in the end, a worldview will shape our institutions, our social spaces, indeed our children, so we had best take a view on what we want it to be. In other words, perhaps we have to choose which set of contradictions we are most willing, imperfect as they are, to embrace — or, perhaps, which set of contradictions we are most willing to endure. I very much hope you would choose something broadly aligned to my own admittedly not-very-woke code, but a brief word to the wise: Cromwell must fall.

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