Malcolm Muggeridge & His Conversion to Catholicism

Malcolm Muggeridge & His Conversion to Catholicism April 1, 2020

[edited in 1991: mostly his own words, with just brief comments of my own; published by The Coming Home Newsletter, March / April 1997]

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Malcolm Muggeridge’s spiritual evolution is fascinating (as is all that he writes). As early as 1925, Muggeridge wrote to his father: “I want God to play tunes through me. He plays, but I, the reed, am out of tune.” (1)

In 1958 he wrote in his diary:

Christianity, to me, is like a hopeless love affair. It is infinitely dear and infinitely unattainable. I . . . look at it constantly with sick longing. (2)

In 1966 he was a self-professed “religious maniac without a religion” (3). He declares, “I don’t believe in the resurrection of Christ, I don’t believe that he was the son of God in a Christian sense,” (4) and says he is “enchanted by a religion I cannot believe” (5). Due to various studies, experiences and personal influences, Muggeridge had become a Christian sometime between 1966 and 1969, but not in the “born again” fashion:

My evangelical friends are always rather disappointed that I can’t produce a sort of a Damascus road experience – you know, that I was such a person and then suddenly this happened and I was such another person. But I can’t. (6)

Biographer Ian Hunter had a cloudy crystal ball when he opined in 1980: two years before Muggeridge “poped,” as the English put it:

Given his attitude to the church and clergy, it is amusing to read a news story every so often that Malcolm Muggeridge has just, or is just about to, join the Church . . . the Roman Catholic Church seems to be most often favored. In the highly unlikely event he were ever to join, this might well be where he would wash up . . . If he did, parallels with G.K. Chesterton would undoubtedly be drawn . . . In any case, whatever inclination he may have had in the direction of Rome has been extinguished since Vatican II . . . Temperamentally, Muggeridge is a nonjoiner, a free-booter who owes allegiance to no institution . . . or denomination. (7)

Always disdainful of liberal Protestantism (especially Anglicanism, like the three illustrious converts already described), Muggeridge had very mixed feelings about Catholicism through the years. Some excerpts of his ambiguous opinions will follow:

How silly, and how characteristic of the times, is the idea that truth is to be got by going back to, say, the Sermon on the Mount, or leaving out of account the historical fact of the Church, as though it were a sort of later parasitic growth. (8)

There are a lot of things to admire in the Roman Catholic Church – its survival, its plainsong, its authentic internationalism, the tough, obstinate battle it has waged against the 20th century; above all, the fact that, with all its villainies and chicanery, it has managed to keep the allegiance of the poor . . . The Protestant churches have long ago become, like N.A.T.O., a headquarters without an army. (9)

Roman Catholics are . . . altogether, in certain respects, very appealing to me, but on the other hand there are other aspects which are very unappealing. (10)

I know that Mother Teresa cannot understand the hesitations and doubts which make it impossible for me . . . to see it as other than an institution which a mortal hierarchy and priesthood can make or mar, sustain or let collapse . . . She wrote: . . . “Today what is happening in the surface of the Church will pass” . . .

What is more difficult to convey is the longing one feels to belong to the Church; the positive envy of those the bell calls to Mass . . . What joy to be one of their numbers! . . . Why not, then? Because, for me, it would be fraudulent . . . However much I long for it to be otherwise, the bell does not ring for me . . . The Church, after all, is an institution with a history; a past and a future. It went on crusades, it set up an inquisition, it installed scandalous popes and countenanced monstrous iniquities . . .

Today . . . the Church . . . has decided to have a reformation just when the previous one – Luther’s – is finally running into the sand . . . If ever it became clear to me that I could enter the Church in honesty and truth, I should rush to do so, the more eagerly and joyously because I should know that it would give happiness to Mother Teresa . . . It is probable, in any case, that so potentially discontented and troublesome a member would be refused admission anyway. (11)

The only Church I would join is the Roman Catholic Church, which I have a sort of insane love for. But I would be an awful nuisance as a Church member . . . I wouldn’t want to join a church that would accept me. (12)

If I were to find myself Pope . . . I should . . . meditate upon the . . . confusion, strife, and lunacy following Pope John’s Vatican Council and the amazing decision resulting therefrom to have another Reformation . . . My first venture . . . would be to reissue Humanae Vitae . . . reinforcing its essential point that any form of artificial contraception is inimical to the Christian life . . . The divorcement of eroticism from its purpose, which is procreation, and its condition, which is lasting love, consequent upon the practice of artificial contraception, was proving increasingly disastrous to marriage and the family. (13)

I take a very pessimistic view of the Catholic Church, despite the very brilliant Pope you’ve now got . . . The things in it that hold my admiration are the very things that it’s turning its back on . . . I can’t join it; and I’ll have to meet my Maker not having joined it. Probably I’ll get a frightful pacing in purgatory for it, but I can’t help it. (14)

One reason for my hesitating so long before becoming a Catholic was my disappointment at some of the human elements I saw in the Catholic Church. In spite of the following letter from Mother Teresa I held back, and a number of years went by before I could make up my mind:

“You are to me like Nicodemus . . . ‘unless you become a little child . . .’ I am sure you will understand beautifully everything if you would only become a little child in God’s hands . . . The small difficulty you have regarding the Church is finite. Overcome the finite with the infinite . . .” . . .

As Hilaire Belloc truly remarked, the Church must be in God’s hands because, seeing the people who have run it, it couldn’t possibly have gone on existing if there weren’t some help from above. I also felt unable to take completely seriously . . . the validity or permanence of any form of human authority . . . There is . . . some other process going on inside one, to do with faith which is really more important and more powerful. I can no more explain conversion intellectually than I can explain why one falls in love with someone whom one marries. It’s a very similar thing . . .

It was the Catholic Church’s firm stand against contraception and abortion which finally made me decide to become a Catholic . . . The Church’s stand is absolutely correct. It is to its eternal honour that it opposed contraception, even if the opposition failed. I think, historically, people will say it was a very gallant effort to prevent a moral disaster . . .

I have found a resting place in the Catholic Church . . . Father Bidone, an Italian priest . . . and Mother Teresa have been the major influence in my final decision . . . (15)

On November 27, 1982, Malcolm Muggeridge and his wife Kitty were received into the Catholic Church: the journey completed:

Our entry into the Church is settled, which gives me, not so much exhilaration as a deep peace; to quote my own words: A sense of homecoming, of picking up the threads of a lost life, of responding to a bell that had long been ringing, of taking a place at a table that had long been vacant. (16)

FOOTNOTES

1. Ian Hunter, Malcolm Muggeridge: A Life, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1980, 219.

2. Ibid., 220.

3. The Daily Telegraph, 28 January 1966.

4. Hunter, ibid., 225.

5. British Weekly, 16 September 1965.

6. William F. Buckley and Malcolm Muggeridge on Faith and Religious Institutions, New York: Nat. Committee of Catholic Laymen, Inc., 1981, 4.

7. Hunter, ibid., 232-233.

8. Ibid., 233 / Diary of 16 November 1934.

9. The Observer, 15 December 1968.

10. Muggeridge, Malcolm, Jesus Rediscovered, Bungay, Suffolk: Fontana Books, 1969, 199-200.

11. Muggeridge, Malcolm, Something Beautiful For God, New York: Harper & Row, 1971, 53-56, 58.

12. William Murchison, “The Cheery Doomsayer: An Interview With Malcolm Muggeridge,” National Review, 9-16-77, 1050.

13. Muggeridge, Malcolm, “If I Were Pope . . .”, National Review, 6-9-78, 706.

14. Buckley & Muggeridge, ibid., 28-31.

15. Malcolm Muggeridge, Confessions of a 20th-Century Pilgrim, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988, 138-141,134-135.

16. Ibid., 13.

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Related Reading

Malcolm Muggeridge: The Iconoclast (Old Links Page) [4-18-16]

Malcolm Muggeridge & Mother Teresa: A Blessed, Fruitful Meeting [9-6-16]

The Holy Collaboration of Mother Teresa and Malcom Muggeridge [National Catholic Register, 6-20-18]

G. K. Chesterton’s Conversion to Catholicism (In Brief) [1991; published by The Coming Home Newsletter, Sep. / Oct. 1996]

Cardinal Newman’s Conversion Odyssey, in His Own Words (September 1839 to December 1845) [3-19-15] [see also the Spanish version (shorter version) ]

Cardinal Newman’s Conversion Agonies: Jan. 1842 to Feb. 1844 

My Conversion and Converts web page.

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Photo credit: From the Amazon page for the book, Malcolm Muggeridge: A Biography, by Gregory Wolfe (Intercollegiate Studies Inst; Paperback edition: April 1, 2003).

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