Reviews

Telling truths about ourselves

Working-class housing.

Reactions to stories can sometimes say a lot, and so it was when Cruxnow.com and others reported on how Pope Francis revealed that he consulted a psychoanalyst for a few months in the late 1970s.

At one level our reaction to this story should be: “Nothing to see here.” Argentinians, after all, tend to see therapy as important to self-development and positive health, and Argentina has the world’s highest number of psychologists per capita.

Sadly, this tends not to be the way nowadays, and so it was dispiriting to see one priest commenting on Twitter, with the approval of a few of his peers, that “I suppose this accounts for his pathological obsession with other priests’ mental health”.

Aside from being a classic instance of how the Pope seems never short of people who make his comments and revelations all about them, this was a case study in how to stigmatise mental problems – just as in recent weeks has seen the indignant reaction to the term ‘neurosis’ when used to describe how we can all struggle with emotional baggage from prior experiences.

Luckily, others were more sensible and sympathetic, with another priest commenting on Facebook that this was an important step in destigmatising mental ill-health. “It’s good to talk,” he said.

Self-disclosure

Similarly, Tommy Tighe, the author of The Catholic Hipster Handbook tweeted from @theghissilent: “Pope Francis sharing he went to a psychoanalyst is very good. Hopefully more Catholics will seek out therapy thanks to his self-disclosure.”

Self-disclosure, meanwhile, was the name of the game in an extraordinary blogpost by English Catholic teacher Michael Merrick at michaelmerrick.me. Michael’s blog is too rarely updated, but always worth a look, one especially interesting post being ‘The Federation Hymnal’, arguing for a genuinely Catholic music curriculum in Catholic schools, one that would equip children with the musical foundations of a liturgical life.

‘Notes from Nowhere’ is a very different beast.  A painfully honest piece of confessional writing, it’s a fascinating attempt at articulating how university education and youthful pride removed Michael – at least mentally and culturally – from his roots, and how he realised this and sought to heal that breach.

“As time has gone by, I realise how intensely proud I am of them, and of the great fortune it is to have been raised as a working-class kid, as one of them. This background was not an obstacle to be overcome, which is what arguments for social mobility nearly always collapse into, but a fertile soil in which to plant the seeds of future success,” he notes. 

“It is only with passing years, and the challenges that come with raising your own children, that such issues find a way back to the now, to be chewed over and answered once again, ugly truths and all.”

Part of these issues, he says, concerns how graduates tend to be more socially liberal than non-graduates, such that people of working-class backgrounds can find professional lives far from comfortable.

“You must grow accustomed to the objects of derision and mockery being people like your family, those you grew up with, those you know and love,” he notes, highlighting how words like ‘bigot’, ‘xenophobe’ and ‘racist’, even if thrown about in the abstract, can hit very real targets: grandparents, parents, friends, neighbours, fellow parishioners.

“It becomes personal,” he says, “and it jars.”

Grappling with divisions and suffocating conformity, he says: “We often see the faults in those we love, but we naturally get defensive if somebody from the outside decides to make it an object of their own crusade.”

Unfortunately, he says, attempts to straddle divides, especially at times of conflict – Brexit, say, or during debates over same-sex marriage, demand a price: “It is always the rejection that each side of this conflict remembers, never the embrace.”

It’s not a perfect piece – I look forward to arguing with Michael about it in person someday – but it’s a beautiful, personal and genuinely important piece of writing. It’s worth far more than the time it takes to read.