Critics of Pope Francis on social media use many terms to describe his defenders, including “papolator,” “ultramontanist,” “pope-worshipper,” and “bergoglian.” A more clever but less-frequently used name is “Mottramist.” Mottramism is a reference to Rex Mottram, an extremely unsympathetic character from Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel Brideshead Revisited. It’s an intriguing allusion; however, the way the term is used betrays a serious misunderstanding of the point of the character and of Waugh’s novel as a whole.
For the unfamiliar, Brideshead Revisited is a beautifully written (but at points melancholy) novel about the relationship between its narrator, an upper-middle-class British artist named Charles Ryder, and the aristocratic Catholic Flyte family. Charles becomes close with the Flyte family after forming an intense friendship at Oxford with the youngest son, Sebastian. As the novel goes on he transfers his emotional intimacy from Sebastian to his sister, Julia. Charles and Julia begin a sexual affair despite being married to other people. The novel ends [spoiler alert] with Charles and Julia breaking off their affair due to its sinfulness even in the context of obviously failed previous marriages. Both end up divorced, single, and unhappy, but not without God’s grace.
The novel is in many ways a work of Catholic apologetics, and Waugh wrote in a 1947 letter to the American film studio MGM that it “deals with what is theologically termed ‘the operation of Grace,’ that is to say, the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself.” However, it comes across to many secular readers as anti-Catholic given its unflinching portrayal of its Catholic characters’ messy and unpleasant emotional lives, which their faith doesn’t seem to improve in any obvious way. Nevertheless, the novel’s ending vindicates Catholicism on several issues, such as the indissolubility of marriage and the necessity of avoiding sin even at great personal cost.
Rex Mottram, the man who marries Julia, is portrayed as an unsympathetic character in the novel. A social-climbing parvenu who has relocated from Canada to Britain after making his fortune in the business world, he seeks to marry Julia as a way of forming an alliance with a British noble family to ingratiate himself into British political life. Before they marry he agrees to convert to Catholicism, only to end up marrying her in a non-Catholic ceremony after all because it turns out that he has a living ex-wife in Canada. He then becomes a Member of Parliament who starts out as a Tory, then “flirt[s] with communists and fascists,” before finally becoming something of a center-left icon of anti-fascism during World War II.
Rex’s significance in the anti-Francis imagination does not come primarily (as one might expect) from his casual refusal to understand the significance of his first marriage in the eyes of the Church, but from this bit of dialogue with a priest during his catechetical instruction:
“Yesterday I asked him whether Our Lord had more than one nature. He said: ‘Just as many as you say, Father.’ Then again I asked him: ‘Supposing the Pope looked up and saw a cloud and said ‘It’s going to rain’, would that be bound to happen?’ ‘Oh, yes, Father.’ ‘But supposing it didn’t?’ He thought a moment and said, “I suppose it would be sort of raining spiritually, only we were too sinful to see it.’”
In this paragraph, to say nothing of countless others in the book that make clear Rex’s philistinism and inability to conceive of a reality outside the sphere of his own interests, I count three different types of mangling of Catholic belief. The first is his willingness to blindly accept anything asserted by a Church authority, regardless of whether it’s true. The second is his inability or unwillingness to understand what it is he is accepting; he does not say, for example, that Jesus must have two natures because it is what the Church teaches, but that Jesus must have however many natures the priest thinks He has. The third is his willingness to deny not only theological truths (many of which are revealed and thus by definition non-obvious) but manifest empirical reality in the interest of believing whatever he thinks he is being told to believe.
“Mottramism” in the sense that Pope Francis’s critics use the word is for the most part limited to the first of these problems. For this reason it is a limited and unhelpful characterization at best. As many papal critics would agree, it is increasingly difficult to maintain that Pope Francis’s supporters don’t understand what it is they are supporting; the absurd “spiritual rain” line implies a blind and unthinking acceptance, not a genuine attempt to hear and understand. Nobody who thinks seriously about (for example) Amoris Laetitia or the Catechism revision on the death penalty is thinking like Rex Mottram, regardless of what conclusions they come to, because Rex Mottram would be completely incapable of reflection on these subjects.
Where Peter Is has posted numerous articles arguing from theological principles that these developments of doctrine are orthodox and are in continuity with the unchangeable aspects of Catholic belief, as have other websites, to say nothing of academic journals and the bishops themselves. If anyone was to write an extended argument that it will rain if the Pope says it will (which is unimaginable), they would be wrong. However, it would at least be a considered, reflective wrongness, and in any case all serious defenders of Pope Francis, including Where Peter Is, would reject this position.
Rex’s answer, with its lack of connection not only to theological truth but to the observable physical world, could conceivably have come out of the mouth of somebody defending Pope Francis, since there are figures who are willing to say almost anything in defense of Francis’s statements and decisions, just as there are figures who will use any possible excuse to attack him. However, this disconnection from obvious realities can be turned around and applied to Francis’s critics as well. Many Traditionalists seem to be unwilling to consider that the Mass of St. Paul VI is here to stay, or that Amoris Laetitia was written to address a severe crisis in marriage and the family, rather than to create one. Even though these refusals could also be taken as norms rather than descriptions—that is, refusal to accept that these things are okay, rather than refusal to accept that they are happening—they still constitute failures to face reality as-is as a key point in theological reasoning.
In the end, the problem with Mottram is his lack of intellectual curiosity and refusal to consider any possible truths beyond shopworn conventional wisdom, received decrees from authority figures, and thought-terminating clichés. To describe defenders of Pope Francis as adherents of Mottramism is to badly misunderstand both the loathsome qualities of Rex and the nuanced positions of serious Catholics who support and defend the Holy Father.
Image: Rex Mottram with Father Mowbray in the 1981 Brideshead Revisited television miniseries.
Edit: This post (to my surprise and honor) caught the attention of the Evelyn Waugh Society, which linked to it on its own website together with the observation that I failed to produce any specific examples of the Mottramism charge in actual use against real individuals. In response to this, I did some digging and found out that the term goes back much further than I thought and didn’t always have factional or ideological connotations. It appears to date from late in the papacy of St. John Paul II; however, I personally never saw it before about 2015. Here is a Twitter personality using the word as a hashtag to describe people who believe Pope Francis’s account of his actions on the abuse crisis over Archbishop Viganò’s. Here, a blogger describes Mottramism as a “Fake Catholicism” along with Ancient Faith Radio (which doesn’t even claim to be Catholic; it’s an Eastern Orthodox media outlet). Here, somebody going by the username Dante Alighieri compares Rex’s “spiritual rain” to readers of Laudato Si’ accepting Pope Francis’s acceptance of scientific consensus on the existence of anthropogenic climate change. On the other hand, here is Rod Dreher using the term to describe a tweet by Father Antonio Spadaro that, in all honesty, raised red flags for me too. Dreher has also used the term to describe uncritical confidence in US President Donald Trump.
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.