Malcolm Muggeridge Converted After Reading ‘Humanae Vitae’
Muggeridge delivered an impassioned defense of Humanae Vitae in 1978, four years before he became Catholic
Malcolm Muggeridge was a reluctant convert. The renowned British journalist and satirist, who had a reputation as a womanizer and a “compulsive groper,” lived much of his life as an avowed atheist. He likened his attitude toward faith to a gargoyle on the top of a cathedral – looking down, grinning and laughing at the absurd behavior, the vain strivings, of men on earth. Muggeridge examined religion and faith with the eyes of a journalist, from the outside – looking down, like the gargoyle, without venturing in to meet the faithful on their own terms.
But Muggeridge the skeptic became a Christian in 1969, and much later – in 1982, at the age of 79 – Muggeridge, with his wife Kitty, finally crossed the threshold into the Catholic Church.
The Influence of Mother Teresa
It's often reported that it was Mother Teresa of Calcutta who spurred Muggeridge toward conversion. He made a documentary on the Missionary Sisters of Charity; and so he had the opportunity to spend time with the saint in India, interviewing her and watching her serve the poorest of the poor. He later referred to Mother Teresa as a “light which could never be extinguished” and told her story in his 1971 book Something Beautiful for God. And there's no doubt that Mother Teresa's exemplary influence played an important role in Muggeridge's conversion. “Mother Teresa is,” he wrote,
...in herself, a living conversion; it is impossible to be with her, to listen to her, to observe what she is doing and how she is doing it, without being in some degree converted. Her total devotion to Christ, her conviction that everyone must be treated, helped, and loved as if he were Christ himself; her simple life lived according to the Gospel and her joy in receiving the sacraments—none of this can be ignored. There is no book that I have read, no speech I have heard, or divine service I have attended; there is no human relationship or transcendental experience that has brought me closer to Christ or made me more aware of what the Incarnation means and what is demanded of us.
But there were other important influences as well. Muggeridge was relentless in his pursuit of truth, and he found himself poring over the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo and the 14th-century book of Christian mysticism The Cloud of Unknowing. He produced a television series for the BBC in which he explored the thought and works of Saint Augustine, Blaise Pascal, William Blake, Søren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And just before he took the plunge and committed to the Catholic Church, Muggeridge read and heartily defended Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae.
Muggeridge's Conviction That Life Is Sacred
Even before reading the encyclical, Muggeridge had reasoned that human life was sacred, and that contraception would cause serious harm to attitudes, behaviors and interpersonal relationships – leading inevitably to the downgrading of motherhood and an increase in sexual perversions. In January 1968, he resigned his post as rector of Edinburgh University, in protest of a students' campaign for contraceptive pills to be made available at the University Health Centre. (That resignation was announced in a sermon at St. Giles Cathedral, which was later published as “Another King.”)
The release of Humanae Vitae on July 25, 1968, reaffirmed Muggeridge's conviction regarding the sanctity of life, and confirmed his positive attitude toward the Catholic Church. Ten years later, by that time a Christian (but not yet a Catholic), Muggeridge delivered a talk in defense of Humanae Vitae at a symposium at the University of San Francisco. “I find myself in a most difficult position,” he said,
.... After all, I am not a Catholic. I do not have that great satisfaction that so many Catholics enjoy. At the same time, I have a great love for the Catholic Church, and I have had from the beginning a feeling stronger than I can convey that this document Humanae Vitae, which has been so savagely criticized, sometimes by members of the Catholic Church, is of tremendous and fundamental importance, and that it will stand in history as tremendously important. And I would like to be able to express this profound admiration that I have for it; this profound sense that it touches upon an issue of the most fundamental importance and that it will be, in history, something that will be pointed to both for its dignity and for its perspecuity.
For Muggeridge, God's purpose for human life shone through with clear splendor in the teaching of this document. “Life,” he said, “any life, contains in itself the potentialities of all life, and therefore deserves our infinite respect, our infinite love, our infinite care.” The idea that we can simply get rid of manifestations of life which may be inconvenient or burdensome to us, or that we can rid ourselves of the consequences of our carnality, is, Muggeridge warned, from the devil.
Muggeridge delivered his impassioned defense of Humanae Vitae in 1978. Four years later he did what had once seemed unthinkable. To the shock of his media colleagues, Thomas Malcolm Muggeridge crossed the Tiber, entering into full communion with the Catholic Church. In 1988 he wrote one last book about that historic conversion, Conversion: The Spiritual Journey of a Twentieth Century Pilgrim.
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In time for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae July 25, 2018, Ignatius Press has re-released Christian Married Love, a collection which includes Malcolm Muggeridge's speech, plus four other insightful defenses of Church teaching by noted theologians and writers. Two of the talks, “A Meditation on Ephesians 5” by Hans Urs Von Balthasar and “The Ethics of Marriage: Beyond Casuistry” by Louis Bouyer, were delivered at the same USF conference at which Muggeridge delivered his remarks. Bouyer, a former Lutheran, contrasts what he calls the “would-be theologians who launched incredible propaganda against Pope Paul and his teaching” with non-Catholics and even non-Christians who praised the pope for upholding the sacredness of sexuality and human life.
Also included in this timely book are “Eros and Agape” by Jean Guitton, and “A Summary of Karol Wojtyla's 'Love and Responsibility'” by Joseph De Lestapis, S.J.
Christian Married Love is available in Catholic bookstores or through Ignatius Press.