Union Interview: Melanie McDonagh

Morwenna Jones 26 April 2014

Melanie is a lead-writer for the Evening Standard and a contributor to the Spectator.  She is a former President of the Cambridge Union and a practising Catholic. 

As I prepared for my interview with Melanie, reading her articles in The Evening Standard, I was struck by her candour and honesty.  Here was someone who wrote openly about her experience of Catholicism, expounded some of the myths surrounding her church and even liked Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, Noah, which I originally thought Christians the world-over had boycotted.

In person, she doesn’t disappoint and, compared to her co-proposers of the motion, “This House believes that the Catholic Church is a Force for Good”, she is remarkably candid about her faith, flaws and all. 

“Catholicism asks an awful lot of an awful lot of people”, she says as we discuss the compatibility of Catholicism with relationships and sex at university.  “It’s very difficult, there’s no doubt about it.  The Church has the idea that sex is most fully expressed in the context of marriage and in the context of a marriage that’s open to new life whether or not new life comes of it.  That’s the ideal of Christian marriage and that’s the ideal of sexuality”. 

In one breath she adds, “Obviously, practically everybody falls short of that”.

Seeing the look of surprise on my face as I think of the Cambridge Christian Union admitting this, she elaborates.  “Just because practically everybody who falls short of it doesn’t necessarily mean that the thing is wrong in itself”.  She describes how, for her at least, the Church’s teachings on sexual relationships are “the ideal and the aspiration, it’s not fulfilling in a lot of people’s lives but that isn’t to say that what the Church says isn’t good and true”.

It’s hard to disagree with her and say that monogamy and the fairy-tale of waiting until marriage aren’t the (frequently unobtainable) ideal, but what about Catholic views on homosexuality?  In her articles and in her speech, McDonagh frequently goes to great lengths to prove that the Catholic Church isn’t all about sex, yet she replies frankly, “It’s not true that I’ve never had a sermon about sex”.  She describes in detail one sermon in Cambridge when a chaplain told students that it was wrong to have sex with someone you weren’t married to.  “There was this sharp intake of breath” she chuckles, “people couldn’t believe what they were hearing”.  The other she describes in noticeably less detail.  It apparently occurred “around the time when the bishops of England and Wales were talking about same-sex marriage”.  Carefully, she mentions that the sermon was not “doing-down homosexuals” but that the focus was upon “relationships between men and women and bringing up children”.  

She doesn’t discuss this any further but she does go on to talk about the Church’s heavily criticised Pro-life agenda, focussing on its teachings on contraception.  Having summed up her own position in one of her articles as “I’ve never quite been able to believe in Catholics – Africans or otherwise – who are so scrupulous that they couldn't possibly use condoms, but will resort to prostitutes”, she isn’t as scrupulous as one might expect.  Interrupting me as I recite the above she explains how “The pope says that you can use a condom to protect yourself from your husband or wife if they have an STI- it’s to do with intention rather than sex itself”.  This intention, for McDonagh, is crucial to the question of contraception and indeed everything we do in life, defining whether a thing is good or bad.  

An example of this is Catholicism, clearly a good thing that’s seen as bad, she argues, and this view becomes increasingly obvious as we talk about how Catholicism is seen more widely.  “I just think that there’s a lot of black propaganda around to be honest with you”, she says, before describing attitudes towards Catholicism as “reflexive hostility”:

“It’s just a series of sort of stereotypes and it’s very difficult actually to penetrate this.  It was David [Greenwood, who opposed the motion] who spoke about ‘psycho terrorism’ and I simply don’t recognise that from my entire experience or life as a Catholic.  Despite lapses in odd months, from my early infancy I’ve had a Catholic education and been exposed to Catholic sermons, Catholic liturgy, Catholic engagement and I’ve never felt ‘psycho terrorised’.  It simply isn’t a reality”.

Indeed, the reality of Catholicism for McDonagh is a million miles from the Catholicism attacked by Greenwood.  It manifests itself in generosity and philanthropy.  Although she doesn’t believe herself to have been ‘psycho terrorised’ she does admit  “my religion takes me to task for my own failures”.  Comically, she describes one “awful” confession in Yugoslavia, when “I was accused of trampling on the poor the weak and the vulnerable in my own pursuit of riches!”  But she hastily adds that the confessor had “got it all wrong”. 

In fact, McDonagh fervently believes in her Church not just as a good thing, but, as the motion argued, as a force for good.  For her, “There is qualitatively a difference between the philanthropy you’ll get from a secular organisation and the philanthropy that you’ll get from a profoundly Christian organisation that sees Christ within the person”. 

Moreover, somewhat amazingly after having spent an evening listening to the opposition endlessly accuse the church of narrow-mindedness, she believes that this is something she’s never experienced.  As we draw our interview to a close, she remarks “I can only say that the experience of Catholicism transmitted by the side that is not Catholic doesn’t actually have any resonance on my experience of the Catholic Church”.  Unfortunately, as the debate revealed, the ‘side that is not Catholic’ accuses the Catholic Church of violations of human rights, psychological terror and, most importantly, speaks up for the for the countless victims of child-abuse. 

As we finished, Melanie spoke about an idyllic, faithful Catholic life.  But, comparing her experience to those of others, or examining how she accepts the Church ‘taking her to task’ for her mistakes, it’s hard not to be sceptical when she says that she finds the Catholic church ‘liberating’ rather than ‘terroristic’.