A Scot who shook the Maynooth progressives
Three years ago I uploaded to this blog a marvellous 1973 exposé of the post-conciliar disintegration of Ireland’s national seminary: The Scandal of Maynooth (which I believe is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the roots of the decay of Irish Catholicism). The dossier provoked a massive media debate on the state of Irish Catholicism and its author Hamish Fraser engaged in a lengthy correspondence with supporters and critics in the Irish newspapers. Shortly afterwards he was interviewed by Des Moore of the Sunday Independent about his life, his communist past, his conversion to Catholicism and his sparring with the Irish bishops. The full text of the interview (published in the Sunday Independent on 9th December, 1973) is posted below:
Hamish Fraser, the Scottish ex-Communist who became a Catholic in 1948, recently attacked Maynooth College in his magazine “Approaches” and went on to describe some of the theological outpouring there as nothing short of being “The Scandal of Maynooth”. Inevitably his outburst caused Irish people to ask again: “Who is Hamish Fraser?” Sunday Independent writer Des Moore visited Frazer in his home in Scotland and apart from tracing his curious and often turbulent past, put some pungent questions to Fraser about the Catholic Church as he sees it today, particularly in the light of Vatican II. Fraser speaks out frankly here in what is bound to be described as one of the controversial interviews of the year.
Ice-bound roads led me through snow-mantled Scottish hills to the Ayrshire coast, to Saltcoats, and to the one-time Communist who has flung down the gauntlet to Maynooth and taken to task the Irish bishops.
The town in which he lives looks across the Firth of Clyde to the Island of Arran, its deserted promenade whipped by a winter wind, and 1 Waverley Place was a corner house in its sandstone suburbia.
He is a big one this Hamish Fraser — a burly man with blunt, uncompromising features and blunt, uncompromising talk. He wears a thick, hand-knit pullover over an open-necked shirt, and although he is 60, the hair brushed briskly back from a low forehead is still brown.
His speech is the terse r-r-laden speech of the Lowland Scot. And why not? He has spent 58 of his 60 years in these parts. Yet by birth he is a Highlander, and the great, great-grandson of a man who knew not a word of English until taught it by his wife from the family bible.
“They would have been of Free Church stock,” he told me. “The Church of Scotland, on the hand, was very much for the Clearances, and in those days the mother of a Free Church minister would have had the roof burned over her head for sheltering her own son.”
“The depopulation of the Highlands was the first experiment in organised genocide,” he reminded me. “There wasn’t that much difference between the fate of Ireland and that of Gaelic Scotland, but there were enough Irish left to kick up hell.”
At the age of two, young Fraser left his native Inverness for eastern Scotland. Even as a boy he was somewhat of a thinker, and by the early ‘thirties he was sharing the puzzlement of other teenagers at a world that didn’t seem to make sense.
“We found ourselves in a spiritual and ideological vacuum,” he said. “It was a period when nobody seemed to have any answers, and the young of my generation turned towards Fascism or Communism. Many were misled by ideas seductive to people who hadn’t any faith — and I had no faith. By the time I was 18 I had already left the Church of Scotland in an emotional revulsion.
“It was this atmosphere that successfully emptied Protestant churches in my youth, and I find it now coming back into the Catholic Church in the guise of Apostolicity. What they are doing in the Church at present time is supposed to be Apostolic, but to my mind it is the spirit of Protestantism invading the Catholic Church.
“We are getting a lot of verbal diarrhoea in the Church today in contrast with the Mass which is the thing that mattered.”
Hamish Fraser joined the Young Communist League in 1931. Five years later he took part in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side when he went to Spain as an officer and Political Commissar with the International Brigade.
“Unlike most Communists who returned from Spain disillusioned, I came home more convinced than ever,” he told me. “I was impressed by the fact that in Spain the Communist Party could control an entire people, and I could see the possibility of the Communist Party in Britain leading the country towards Socialism.”
Back in Scotland again he worked in the monster John Brown’s Engine and Boiler Works, where he was a shop steward and party group leader. He also undertook the organisation of Communist Party Groups along the Clydeside generally.
“At the beginning of World War II the Communist Party line was one of ‘How to Win the War,’ and the War was represented as a continuation of the struggle against Fascism,” he said. “But as a consequences of the Moscow-Berlin Pact, a message arrived from Moscow that the enemy of the international working class was no longer Germany, but France and the British Empire. It was our job to turn this imperialistic war into a civil war.
From then until 1941 the Communists opposed the War, but in June of that year the Party line switched overnight to supporting the war effort again. Assurances were given that the Party theoretician, Palma Dutt, would write a book explaining these mental gymnastics, but its issue was continually postponed.
“Fools rush in where angers fear to tread, so I decided I’d write a justification of the changes in terms of Marxism-Leninism,” Hamish Fraser told me. “The pamphlet, The Intelligent Socialists’ Guide to World War II, was published by the Party and sold out in a fortnight — there was a hunger for any means of trying to square the circle.”
Paradoxically it was the production of this pamphlet that gave rise to its writer’s disillusionment.
“I realised it was sophistry at its very worst,” he told me, “and that, in fact, it was impossible to justify really what happened except by the Communist Party of Britain being a hand-rag at Russia’s disposal.”
From that moment, Hamish Fraser, although still remaining in the Party, became a dissident member. After the disbandment of the Comintern he urged the break-up of the Communist Party in Britain so that a new British Revolutionary Party might be founded. He was still a Marxist at heart, but by 1945 he had arrived at a parting of the ways and he resigned his membership.
“Leaving the Communist Party isn’t anything like leaving one of the ordinary political parties,” he assured me. “As far as the Party was concerned I became a non-person. I ceased to exist. It was roughly equivalent to a priest leaving the Church, because we were in a sense the priests of the Revolution.
“Everything crashes in ruins before your eyes — all you have lived for. You are completely at sea, and asking yourself why has Communism gone the way it has gone.”
Enlightenment came for Hamish Fraser on first reflecting on Lord Acton’s statement in relation to the monarchy: “All power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lord Acton, he realised, had never really seen absolute power as epitomised in Russia, where all political, social, economic, and spiritual power was concentrated in the hands of the Executive.
“This concentration of power is something that can’t be divorced from Socialism,” he told me. “And I began to realise that it was the very notion of Socialism that was all wrong.”
It was not religion but its social doctrine that first interested the disillusioned Communist in the Catholic Church. Whereas the Communist solution to the abuse of private property under capitalism was to liquidate all private property and concentrate it (and therefore power) in the hands of the State, the Church’s solution was a wider distribution of property and consequently of power.
“I began to marvel,” he said, “that this church which I regarded as medieval and obscurantist, and which had been founded by a carpenter living 2,000 years ago in an outpost of the Roman Empire, could have anything relevant to say about the problems of the twentieth century. It was, in fact, the only body saying anything relevant at all.”
Meanwhile, in an effort to extricate himself from the shipyard scene, Hamish Fraser had volunteered for flying duties with the R.A.F. He was accepted, but being in a reserved occupation was placed on deferred service, so even this failed to win him a change of scene.
But inevitably the War came to an end, and at the age of 32 he commenced studying to become a teacher.
“Up to this stage the Church to me had been the quintessence of reaction and utterly detestable,” he said. “At Jordan Hill Training college my favourite occupation was Catholic-baiting, but the truth was that I was beginning, faintly, to be attracted, and in knocking others I was trying to convince myself.”
Three years after his defection from the Communist Party Hamish Fraser became a Catholic. Teaching remained his way of life until he gave it up in 1965 to devote himself to the publication of Approaches, by which time he had served as a committee member of the Catholic Social Guide and contributed over a number of years to the Catholic press.
“This was at the end of the Vatican Council period, and there had been so much misrepresentation of what occurred there that it called for clarification,” he told me. “One of the first things we did was a study of Père de Chardin, which was reproduced by a Catholic newspaper in the States and brought us a lot of subscribers.
“Oddly enough, one of the things that stood us in good stead was the fact that in the beginning it wasn’t a very professional production — it was only duplicated then. In America afterwards I was told one of the reasons we were taken seriously was that we obviously had no money, so were probably sincere.”
It was this journal under the heading “Maynooth” brusquely stated in its October issue:
The Bishops failure to deal with unorthodoxy in the Pontifical College of Maynooth is nothing short of a national scandal. The situation became so serious that a year or so ago a group of senior professors found themselves bound in conscience to draw up a document protesting to the Hierarchy about the state of affairs within the University. Copies were sent to every Bishop in the country.”
There followed a series of charges against, and condemnations of, around a dozen of Maynooth’s Professors and Lecturers — mainly in relation to their dissension from the encyclical, Humanae Vitae. Backing this up were quotations of pertinent papal pronouncements, as well as an account of actions taken against dissidents elsewhere.
The Scandal of Maynooth, as it was titled, provoked an unprecedented reaction. And the volume of correspondence it attracted — almost exclusively from Ireland — was such that two additional secretaries were required to handle it.
“And of all that correspondence only one letter was critical,” its recipient told me. “Even that one didn’t really object to what we were saying. He was one of those people who like to coo to the Bishops, and his objection was to our criticism of them.”
The contentious article was edited from material — some solicited, some offered — by distinguished Irish ecclesiastics. Documentation was such, it is claimed, that it brooked no contradiction — it was corroborated from too many sources.
Hamish Fraser himself has never been in Maynooth.
“I knew Jerry Newman (Rt. Rev. Mons. Jeremiah Newman, President, St. Patrick’s College) years ago,” he told me. “But that was before he went to Maynooth — that was when he was in Queen’s. I would never doubt his orthodoxy.”
And it is orthodoxy, of course, that all this is about. Compared to the progressives, the adherents of orthodoxy have proved relatively inarticulate, and their champions have been few and far between enough to suffer from overexposure. It would be unrealistic, however, to deny that there is a mounting wave of dismay among Catholics at successive departures from the orthodoxy which they looked upon as the Church’s sheet anchor.
Hamish Fraser and his ilk are spokesmen for the orthodox. It is conceivable that, at times, they are lured by a sense of outrage into intemperate expression of their views. But it is equally true that all too often their arguments are met with contemptuous dismissal instead of reasoned rebuttal.
“After all, the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” Hamish Fraser claimed. “No one has tried to counter any of the statements in this article. There have been attacks on it, but no one has tried to answer any specific charges.”
The question arises — are Fraser and those for whom he speaks fanatics? If rigid adherence to the letter of Papal law qualifies them for the title, then they have, indeed, earned it. If criticism of the Irish Bishops similarly qualifies them, it is a title that they might well claim must be shared by the progressives.
Or do both sides fiddle while Rome burns?
Sadly, Hamish’s son Tony (who kindly sent me his last remaining copy of The Scandal of Maynooth) died last year. Please pray for the repose of his soul and consider supporting Apropos magazine.