Hopkins' Catholicism

Why become a Catholic?

Why exactly did Hopkins become a Roman Catholic? He was already quite religious. Nor was it exactly a popular move on his part. To answer that question, we need to look at three elements which appealed to him.

1. Intellectual appeal

John Newman had already become a Catholic, and presented to thinking Anglicans a set of closely reasoned arguments why it was wrong to remain in the Church of England. Newman claimed that:

  • It was a compromise Church
  • It did not match up to the teachings of the Bible
  • It lacked real historical authority for its existence
  • It had bishops, like the Catholic Church, but historically these bishops did not have any authority. They belonged to a breakaway denomination from the Catholic Church, and the Catholic Pope had certainly not given them any authority to continue being bishops after the denomination had broken away.

2. Emotional appeal

Hopkins was attracted to some of the Catholic practices that were missing in most Anglican churches. Although many High Anglican Exeter cathedralchurches were re-instating the rituals of burning incense and striking bells during the service, for Hopkins:

  • There was more possibility of devotion in the Catholic Church, without being too taken up with the liturgy, that is, the order of service in worship
  • He especially liked the sacrament of confession, which was obligatory for Catholics, not just voluntary, as with the Anglicans. It was rather like having a father figure who would always listen to you and always forgive you
  • He was attracted to the veneration of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who Catholics believed had been born and lived without sin just as Jesus had. There was something more feminine, more maternal here, more mystical even, that attracted many Victorian artists and poets, such as the Pre-Raphaelites.

3. Spiritual appeal

Hopkins found in the Catholic Church

a) A way of knowing Christ, God's Son, the second person of the Trinity:

  • more personally, not as a teaching or belief, but as a real person of whom he could be spiritually aware
  • through the Catholic Mass, or communion. More about the mass?
More about the mass: The Mass or Eucharist is derived from the events of the Last Supper when Jesus is recorded as giving bread and wine to his disciples, saying, ‘This is my body … this is my blood' (e.g. Matthew 26:26-28). Catholics take these words literally whereas Protestants do not, believing that Jesus' words should be understood symbolically or metaphorically. However, to Catholics, when the priest says these words, the material bread and wine are actually turned into Christ's presence, hence the term the Real Presence. This particular teaching is called Transubstantiation. Hopkins came to believe this very devoutly.

b) Emphasis on God coming to dwell in his Creation, in what is generally called the incarnation:

  • through Jesus taking human form
  • in a wider sense, (Hopkins believed) that nature was an incarnation of God - that it retained something of his presence.

This isn't quite the same as the pantheism that Wordsworth felt for a while. Nature isn't God; but God's presence is there and God can be ‘read' in nature; it is his ‘book'. This gave Hopkins the belief he needed to experience the beauty of nature in the right way.

Faith embodied through poetry

The Catholic Hopkins' poetry is full of the presence of God. Other Victorians struggled with belief and often experienced a sense of God's absence. More on Matthew Arnold?

More on Matthew Arnold: A fellow poet, Matthew Arnold, who was Professor of Poetry at Oxford at the time Hopkins was there, wrote a famous poem, ‘Dover Beach', which expresses this absence. He uses the image of the tide, now far out, to suggest that, for him, the 'sea' of belief in a divine being and purpose was at its lowest ebb. For him, all that was left was human love. Elsewhere, he suggests poets should become the new priests of a secular religion. So we have the two extremes: full presence of the divine God, and full absence.
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.