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William Oddie FAITH Magazine November-December 2009

Christian Courage

There is an ever present question for those of us who have never had to face a period of real and overwhelming adversity. How would our faith survive if we were indeed faced by such a trial - and if it did, how much would it be a source of strength?

By "adversity", I don't simply mean what Shakespeare calls "the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to". An experience like bereavement can be truly terrible, but it is a natural part of life, and it comes to us all. But what about the kind of experience which may be so utterly unnatural, as well as being distressing, that it is potentially utterly and finally destructive? I am thinking in particular of the disgrace and imprisonment of one previously held in high esteem: an experience so horrific that in this country such a person would be placed under a 24 hour "suicide watch".

The answer has nothing at all to do with the associated consideration of whether or not such adversity is in some way deserved. I have only ever personally known one person who has undergone such a trial (a trial in both senses of the word): Conrad Black, who appointed me editor of The Catholic Herald about ten years ago and who is now serving a six year prison sentence in Florida. And I ought, before going any further, to declare my own firm belief - having followed his trial as it ran its course - that his conviction and imprisonment were gross miscarriages of justice. He himself continues to insist on his innocence and to believe that in the end the American legal system will discover it. I very much doubt whether he is right in this; but I hope he is.

All that is by the way, except that those who think that his present ordeal is undeserved are more likely to be concerned about how he is bearing up. The answer appears to be that he is enduring his imprisonment remarkably well, and that his Catholic faith has had a great deal to do with this. The Catholic Herald in September published a long article by Lord Black, abbreviated from an even longer chapter, which will appear in a book about the conversion to Catholicism of a number of well-known Canadians. It contains the following:

The Catholic life in the prison where I write is active and intellectually stimulating. Confidence that there is at least some sort of an organising principle in the world, the experience that worship sometimes produces -which can enhance an understanding of travails and observations - and some metaphysical background, do provide a hinterland for perceptions, and with it, relative serenity and proportionality, even, and perhaps especially, in times of extreme tension, poignancy, and adversity. And there have been some.

That's all; the article isn't about life in prison, or how he came to be there, but about what he obviously thinks more important, how he came to commit himself to belief in the Catholic religion in the first place: but that, too, is relevant to his endurance of his present situation. It was Cardinal Emmett Carter of Toronto who after he had hesitated and agonised for months finally gathered him in:

The Cardinal [said] that I was "at the door", but that the one point I had to embrace if I wished to enter, and without which, all Christianity, he boldly asserted, "is a fraud and a trumpery", was the Resurrection of Christ. If I believed that, I was eligible; if I did not, I wasn't. What he was asking was not unreasonable, and I reflected on it for a few minutes and concluded that since, as defined, I believed in God and in miracles, I could at least suppress doubt sufficiently to meet his criterion. I considered it a little longer to be sure that I wasn't allowing momentum, contemplative fatigue, or my great regard for him to push me over the finish line.

After a silence of perhaps five minutes, I said that I thought I could clear that hurdle. He asked me if I wished to be received. I did, and was, in the chapel in his home a few days later, on June 18 1986. I thought of Pascal's attribution to Christ: "You would not have sought me if you had not already found me"; and of the statement by, I think, one of the saints, that "All the way to God is God, because Christ said: 'I am the way.'" I have taken the sacraments at least once a week since, and have confessed when I feel sinful. This is not an overly frequent sensation, but when it occurs, I can again agree with Newman that our consciences are "powerful, peremptory, unargumentative, irrational, minatory and definitive". The strain of trying to ignore or restrain an aroused conscience canbe intolerable. Confession and repentance, if sincere, are easier, more successful, and more creditable. Though there are many moments of scepticism as matters arise, and the dark nights of the soul that seem to assail almost everyone visit me too, I have never had anything remotely resembling a lapse, nor a sense of forsakenness, even when I was unjustly indicted, convicted, and imprisoned, in a country I formerly much admired.

It is difficult not to admire Conrad Black's determination to make something positive out of this dreadful experience. Last year, an article in The Daily Mail which was positively dripping with schadenfreude (oh, how his enemies have relished his downfall) could barely restrain a sense of admiration, despite the article's vicious tone:

...the Mail has learned that far from being cowed by the whole experience, Conrad's bombastic self-assurance throughout the trial continues to serve him well, protecting him from the self-pity that might otherwise have engulfed him.

By all accounts, while not exactly "flourishing", he is certainly bearing up well...

Dubbed "Lordy" by his fellow inmates... after initial jail work as a dishwasher, [he] has been "upgraded" to work in the library, where he has virtually unlimited access to newspapers and email...

"Conrad remains very snobbish, despite having the same daily routine as all the other prisoners," said a source. "He said he was shocked by how uneducated most of his fellow inmates were" [...]

No matter, since they now have "Lordy" to bring some of his sparkling intellect and insight to bear.

Of late, Conrad has been holding lectures in American history which have been attended by both inmates and guards alike. The talks have been so successful - and entertaining - that they have been moved from the library to a bigger venue within the prison to accommodate demand.

It is perhaps just as well he remains busy, given that the U.S. prison service does not much allow for leniency when it comes to early release, and Black is likely to serve at least 85 per cent of his sentence, making him past 70 by the time he regains his freedom.

Conrad Black, I firmly believe, received a very severe sentence because he fought his conviction (a colleague who made a "plea bargain" was rewarded for giving evidence against him with a light sentence of six months) and because in the post-Enron era the highly politicised American system has been reconfigured to savage anyone perceived as a "fat cat" who falls into its clutches. The difference, though,

is this: that through the Enron fraud, millions of people lost their savings, their pensions and their livelihoods. Nothing remotely similar has been the result of the supposed offences for which Conrad Black has been imprisoned.

The judge ought to have given this consideration more weight. When she was considering her sentence, I was asked to be one of those who wrote to her asking for clemency. The text of these letters is now in the public domain, so I can quote here part of what I said, though for all the difference it made to this hard-hearted woman, I might have saved my breath to cool my porridge:

After his departure [from the Telegraph], stories of his personal kindness and of good done by stealth began to surface; in particular, of one columnist, dying of cancer, who on his instructions remained on salary, and whose medical expenses were paid, to the end. I understand that there are similar stories about his Canadian newspaper empire.

In short, this is a man of stature and great humanity, the balance sheet of whose life shows that he has done immensely more good in the world than harm. I am not familiar with the American law on the charges on which he has been found guilty. But it is surely the case that there are no blighted lives (apart from his own) as a result of anything he has done: there are undoubtedly, however, many whose lives he has touched who will share my deep belief that he has now suffered enough.

As for his "arrogance" and "bombast" I will end by quoting an article written (before his sentence was handed down) in the Canadian paper The Gazette, by L.Ian MacDonald, a former employee of this outstanding newspaperman, who was a proprietor who, for all his great power, always (as I can testify) supported his editors - and where they needed him, his journalists - through thick and thin:

Is Black the author of his own misfortune? Well, a public company can't be run like a private one, not where the rules of corporate governance are concerned, particularly in the United States and especially in the post-Enron era. In hindsight, Black might have saved himself a lot of trouble by not listing on the New York Stock Exchange in the first place...

Here's what I know about him, as a friendly acquaintance of many years: His humanity and humour, neither of which has been much in evidence in the Chicago media circus, shine through.

[One anecdote] of a mutual friend will illustrate, and if NickAuf der Maur were here, he would tell [it] himself.

When Nick was struck with cancer in 1996, he had to suspend his column during his treatments, and since he was a freelancer here with no benefits, he would be losing his only source of income at a time when he needed it most. Conrad very quietly sent word he should be paid for the duration of his illness [my italics]. Then when Nick died in 1998 and we were putting together what became the bestselling book of his columns and tributes from friends, Conrad was delighted that we asked him to contribute. He made the deadline, stayed within the word limit, and in one of the best pieces in the book, told stories of Nick at his own expense.

His Catholic Herald article can still be read online at: http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/ features/. As Damian Thompson commented in his Telegraph blog, "Why not read the whole thing before rushing to judgment?"


Faith Magazine

November - December 2009