The Catholic Church lost a great ally on January 12 when conservative philosopher Sir Roger Scruton died at the age of 75 from cancer. Scruton was not Catholic but Anglican—the author of Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England. Yet he was a friend of Rome, telling the Catholic Herald in 2015, “I’ve always been drawn to the Catholic Church because of its respect for tradition, for the apostolic continuity it represents and for its attempts to imbue ordinary life with sacraments.” Moreover, Scruton’s prolific academic and literary work promoted many of the same truths and beliefs we hold dear as Catholics, and it is for this reason that we should mourn his loss and pray for his soul.
Though raised in a British working-class family, his academic prowess secured him slots at a grammar school and then Cambridge, where he studied philosophy. While studying for his doctorate in France, he witnessed the famous Parisian student riots of May 1968. Scruton was disgusted by the justification of student violence with “ludicrous Marxist gobbledegook,” which led him to recognize that he “wanted to conserve things rather than pull them down.”
In 1974, Scruton was one of the founders of the Conservative Philosophy Group, which welcomed speakers like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, and was attended by Margaret Thatcher. Though he lectured at the University of London, his growing conservative credentials undermined his academic career. He was one of the first lecturers to be “canceled,” and was frequently berated and protested by students of the campuses he visited.
Scruton was an ally of the Church during the Cold War of the 1980s. He helped establish underground seminars in what was then Czechoslovakia in order to promote knowledge and scholarship under the Soviet dictatorship. Courses were offered in philosophy, Hebrew, history, musicology, classical architecture, fine art, and theatre among other topics. The seminars were periodically raided by Soviet authorities. Scruton was arrested and deported in 1985.
He was in Poland when Pope John Paul II was elected. He wrote of the experience:
I saw the electric effect. Now there was another source of authority outside the country which was independent of the Communist Party, but which nevertheless had international standing. It had a huge impact on ordinary Polish people. There was a revival of the faith and the martyrdom of Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko was probably the beginning of the end for communism.
For his support of dissidents under the Soviet Bloc, Scruton was awarded multiple medals by the Czech government. The Polish government awarded him the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland.
Scruton also maintained close relationships with Catholics and Catholic institutions. He wrote of two such Catholic friends: “Both lived in constant and fruitful communication with the person they called Holy Mother Church, whom they believed to be animated by the Holy Spirit, and whom they loved with a fervor that surpassed their most ardent earthly attachment.” He also was a fellow of Blackfriars, Oxford, and on the academic advisory group of Benedictus College in London. He declared: “in my experience, Catholic institutions are the only open-minded ones in terms of higher education.”
He was also a great defender of beauty, understood in a classic, conservative sense that shares much with Catholic thinking. He contributed to the 2009 BBC series “Why Beauty Matters,” in which he championed traditional conceptions of art, while censuring its modern, deconstructionist forms. He argued that belief in God is intimately bound up with good architecture. He explained:
Who can doubt, on visiting Venice, that this abundant flower of aesthetic endeavor was rooted in faith and watered by penitential tears? Surely, if we want to build settlements today we should heed the lesson of Venice. We should begin always with an act of consecration, since we thereby put down the real roots of a community.
He argued for architecture that amplifies our humanity, fosters human flourishing, and unites neighborhoods, rather than indulging in what he called “eccentricities and original gestures.”
He articulated a conservative vision of society, one attached to family, friends, religion, and one’s immediate environment. He criticized Islam, homosexuality, and globablist, corporatist networks that undermined national and local forms of life. Such beliefs intensified antagonism towards him from the Left, especially after the British government installed him as chair of its new Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, an initiative to promote more beautiful (and liveable) urban spaces.
A reporter from the New Statesman purposefully took several of his statements out of context in order to make Scruton appear antisemitic—an egregious misdeed, for which the publication was later forced to apologize. Yet the damage was done, and Scruton was sacked. (The reporter celebrated by drinking champagne and calling Scruton a racist and a homophobe.) Though he was reappointed in July 2019, he was already beginning to succumb to cancer.
Scruton was prolific, authoring more than fifty books on philosophy, art, music, politics, literature, culture, sexuality, and religion, as well as novels and two operas. His How to Be a Conservative and Sexual Desire are especially influential. He was also known as friendly, charitable, and accessible—something to which Rod Dreher attested in his memorial for the philosopher at The American Conservative, one of many publications for which Scruton wrote.
Sadly, Scruton never made the move to Catholicism. He explained: “There are two reasons why I held back from joining the Catholic Church. One is that it requires a bigger leap of faith than I’ve been able to achieve. And the other is that, because I’m divorced, I couldn’t possibly get married a second time in the Catholic Church.” All the same, Scruton was a powerful force for truth, goodness, and beauty in the world, which overlapped in great measure with the mission and teachings of Rome. Maybe that’s why he carried a St. Francis of Assisi prayer card with him everywhere he went.
Scruton is one Anglican thinker who is worthy not only of our intellectual interest but our prayers. May he rest in peace.
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