There and Back Again: A Pilgrim’s Vivid Progress

It’s not the Antichrist who tempts those who write memoirs about losing their faith, it’s the Anti-Groucho. Their sin is yearning to belong to a club that would never have anyone like them for a member.

John Cornwell’s Seminary Boy is a vividly recalled but impersonal journey to the inevitable destination shared by all memoirs about leaving the fold. Mr. Cornwell, born in London in 1940 to a family that could ill afford another child, entered a Midlands seminary at the age of 13 and, five years later, after transferring to a senior seminary, gave up the idea of entering the priesthood in favor of a life in academia. (These days, Mr. Cornwell directs the Science and Human Dimension Project at Jesus College, Cambridge.)

This apostasy is brought on by the usual causes: an inability to reconcile intellectual curiosity and a normal sexual appetite with the strictures of the Catholic Church; the growing conviction that life required something more engaged than the bloodless detachment of the seminary; and just being sick and tired of constant acquiescence to authority, no matter how petty.

If Mr. Cornwell is willing at first to submit to all that, it’s because religious education saved him from much worse: not just from poverty but from the vicious little thug he was on his way to becoming. His delinquency went well beyond rebellion; he was an incipient sociopath. Only the fortuitous appearance of the police prevented him and his gang from derailing a train by placing an iron girder on the track. And there’s worse: He tells of luring a girl into a bomb shelter and holding her down while he and his friends put their hands down her pants. “She was in my class at school and she had earlier shown a liking for me,” Mr. Cornwell writes. “She looked at me in silent sorrow as I urged the others on.” And he himself was abused, raped by a stranger he met in an underground subway passage on one of his surreptitious trips into London.

Given all that, you can understand why a place at a seminary school might seem a godsend—literally. And Mr. Cornwell was treated considerably better than many of the Catholic Church’s other charges (his experience with sexual abuse taught him to rebuff one priest’s clumsy pass). He was also, quite simply, susceptible to religion’s visceral appeal: Taking part in church ritual, he writes, “calmed me and soothed me.”

Seminary Boy dependably contains the descriptions of bad food and primitive lodging that have been the staple of accounts of English boarding-school life since Orwell’s essay “Such, Such Were the Joys.” Mr. Cornwell’s account of his first meal at the seminary gets at the combination of pointless discipline and soul-crushing dreariness that would define his life there:

“The boys were standing in silence, hands joined. Near the double doors there was a table where three nuns stood with ladles poised over enamel serving pans. After Father McCartie said grace we sat down while the students assigned to be servers queued in front of the nuns. Each boy received a portion of beans and a hunk of bread. They fell hungrily on the food, eating at speed. After several minutes there was a sharp rap as Father McCartie struck the serving table, and the boys began to talk all at once.

“James said: ‘Did you have a pleasant journey?’ No sooner had I answered and begun to tell James about my home parish than Father McCartie rapped the table again and the boys fell silent and stood up, heads bowed for grace.”

There’s an unintended irony in the presence of the word “grace” anywhere near this graceless existence, and it hints at the unintentional contradiction at the heart of Seminary Boy.

Mr. Cornwell writes as if the gray, cheerless drudgery he encountered were an affront to the very idea of a loving Christ, and he’s not wrong. His description of his home parish (probably a good deal sharper than what he told his friend James) is a definition of religion as soul-starving ritual. His priest, driven by poverty, ekes out the instruments of the mass so sparingly that, at funerals, “the charcoal was a morsel of white ash by the time we reached the graveside.” This note-perfect detail can stand for all: “At Low Mass he would ease a teardrop of wine into the chalice.”

In part, this is merely the minginess of poverty, and we all know that a degree of pageantry embellishes the Mass in wealthier parishes. But Mr. Cornwell can’t quite bring himself to admit that the flinty rituals of his home parish are also an expression of the self-denying, comfort-withholding Catholic Church.

Though Seminary Boy is ostensibly the story behind John Cornwell’s eventual realization that “the shape of human history … depended … on the responsibilities of individuals and groups,” he can’t bring himself to discard “all that accumulated religious experience.” There’s a further twist to the tale.

He writes, “This is not the place for the narrative of a life journey that, twenty years on, would find me a returning Catholic—except to say that my marriage to a Catholic woman, and the birth of our children whom she brought up as Catholics, kept the spark of faith alive in me.” Why is this not the place? Because it would utterly contradict the journey Seminary Boy describes?

Plenty in Mr. Cornwell’s later experience must have confirmed for him the arrogance and disdain for the outside world that led him to leave the church in the first place: His other books include histories of Pope Pius XII’s coziness with fascists and Pope John Paul II’s intransigence on social issues. And he’s of course aware of the revelations of sexual abuse and church cover-ups, and the church’s use of unwed mothers as slave labor in Ireland’s Magdalene laundries (ditto the child evacuees from England in Australia during World War II). He must know, too, that the church refuses to moderate its views on contraception though it has an enormous influence in Africa, where AIDS is rampant.

This may not be the place for a narrative of Mr. Cornwell’s later life, but if that later life seems to contradict both his own experience and certain damning historical facts, then Seminary Boy is less a spiritual and intellectual journey than a U-turn—it’s the story of how John Cornwell discovered a way back into that club that didn’t want him in the first place.

Charles Taylor has written for Salon, The New York Times, The New Yorker and other publications. He’s a frequent contributor to The Observer. There and Back Again: A Pilgrim’s Vivid Progress