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May 25, 20186481Views

Reformation, Recusancy and Regnans: A Response to Peter Hitchens

Niall Gooch explains a Catholic perspective on the politics and religious issues in the persecutions of the English Reformation

This piece is a response to Peter Hitchens' article Latimer and Ridley Are Forgotten, published at First Things


Peter Hitchens is a fine writer, and a frequently fascinating one. It was through his blogging that I discovered the wonderful painter Eric Ravilious, and a quite remarkable book called The Man on a Donkey, one of the best I have read in recent years. His writing played a key part in my discovery of the poetry of Larkin and Eliot, the novels of John Le Carre and Josephine Tey, and the unsurpassed ghost stories of MR James. His detailed argument that the deliberate targeting of German civilian areas during the Second World War was immoral actually changed my mind on that issue.

I say this to establish that I generally approach his blogposts, columns, reviews and articles with the expectation that – even if I disagree – I will find things to mull over, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.

Enough throat-clearing: on with the show. I have a reasonably substantial bone to pick with Mr Hitchens. In a recent essay, in the journal First Things, he makes the argument that the Catholics killed under Elizabeth were not really martyrs in the same sense as those Protestants killed under Mary, as the former were executed for essentially political reasons rather than simply for being Protestants. Elizabeth would have been happy to live and let live, at least by the standards of the sixteenth century, but the very real threat from England’s Catholic enemies on the continent, backed by the Papacy, meant that Catholics were a potential fifth column and so had to be treated more harshly than Elizabeth might otherwise have wanted. I think this is a fair summary. Elsewhere in the piece is a substantial discursus on whether Henry VIII was a Protestant, and Mr Hitchens comes to the conclusion that he was not.

Now I am not going to claim that Hitchens is entirely wrong. Elizabethan England did face a serious threat from Catholic Spain, backed up by an overreaching and worldly Papacy, and there were Catholics who were seeking to overthrow the government. It is also true that Henry’s religious views were not straightforwardly Protestant, as that word is usually understood. Similarly, I agree that the sixteenth century Papacy had become hopelessly and indefensibly entangled with worldly politics. Pius V was overstepping his authority with the assertions in Regnans in Excelsis about Elizabeth’s right to rule over England. While there is undoubtedly an interesting question mark over Elizabeth’s political legitimacy, it is not and was not the Pope’s job to declare on such matters.

However, there are a number of parts of Hitchens’ argument with which I disagree, and where I do not think he has given quite the full picture. I suppose in the interests of full disclosure I should confess to being a left-footer myself, albeit not one of the 'militants' who by his mildly melodramatic account make their 'supreme headquarters' at the Brompton Oratory. I am boringly orthodox in belief, but by temperament, training and background, my approach to faith tends to be eirenical and poetical. My father is an Anglican priest and my mother is a Northern Irish Presbyterian. I share Mr Hitchens’ love of the Book of Common Prayer, Choral Evensong, cathedral closes and all of the other glorious legacies of the Church of England as it once was.

One of the most problematic sections is his contention that dissatisfied Catholics under Elizabeth could and should have acted as the 'Church Papists' did, attending Anglican services and mentally crossing their fingers as and when required.

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. The problem with this argument is that it fails to take into account Catholics’ own self-understanding and their own right to define what it means to be a member of their church (as does Hitchens’ claim that Henry VIII died a Catholic, of which more anon). He states that 'the main Anglican services, for those who do not know them, are both beautiful and unobjectionable. They contain nothing contrary to Catholic belief'. This misses the point. As he must be aware, the Mass is the central Catholic act of worship. Mattins and Evensong according to the Book of Common Prayer are indeed beautiful, but they are not the Mass.

We come tantalisingly close to the heart of the problem when he refers to the rarity of Communion under the rubrics of the Edwardian Prayer Book, and notes that its phrasing is 'carefully ambiguous'. It does not seem to have occurred to him that this is a direct and deadly blow at proper Catholic observance. Catholics were and are expected to hear Mass every Sunday; it is the liturgical heart of Catholic Christianity, and if you prevent Catholics from hearing it under pain of law you are cutting them off from what has rightly been called 'the source and summit' of their faith. Catholicism is a sacerdotal, sacramental faith, dependent on priests. Not everyone wants careful ambiguity in their liturgy, especially members of a minority faith who wish to hold on to their beliefs and practices and pass them down to their descendants. It is worth noting too that many Catholics in the sixteenth century would have considered attendance at Protestant services not simply spiritually inadequate, but seriously morally wrong.

Perhaps Hitchens is happy with a studied liturgical vagueness that enables people with wildly differing views to worship together (there is something to be said for it, certainly). Perhaps he thinks it best if we adopt a doctrinal minimalism, and a liturgy and devotional life stripped of priestcraft. No doubt he disagrees with the prominence given to the Mass, but then as an old-fashioned Anglican – in the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies – he would say that, wouldn’t he?

Fundamentally, his mistake is to refuse to accept the Catholic account of what is important in the Catholic life.

We see this in his throwaway remark that the smells ‘n’ bells Anglo-Catholicism of St Mary Magdalen, Oxford, is 'more Catholic' than Pope Francis, and also in the assertion that Henry VIII died a believing Catholic. As with the argument that Catholics should have just quietly accepted the prohibition of the Mass, this does not account for Catholics’ own sense of their identity. Membership of the Catholic Church, like membership of any denomination or congregation, is not simply a question of private belief. The core of Catholic self-understanding is the recognition of the Bishop of Rome as the focus and source of the unity and teaching authority of the visible church. Henry decisively and publicly rejected the authority of the Pope, gathering to himself the authority to alter the doctrine and practice of the Church. Whether or not he actually used that power is irrelevant. Simply seizing it, and enforcing his seizure so ruthlessly with the administration of the Oath of Supremacy, was in and of itself an act of rebellion against, and disdain for, the Church. Subordinating every aspect of church governance, discipline and liturgy to his own will was an extraordinary act of schism. Hitchens’ suggestion that 'Henry’s defiance of papal authority over control of the national church was no greater' than that of Louis XIV of France seems far from self-evidently true, given that the eldest daughter of the Church remained Catholic long after Louis was dead. Again, we run into different understandings of what it means to be Catholic, and Hitchens’ reluctance to let the Church define her own boundaries. It is in any case simplistic to say that Henry continued to believe Catholic doctrine until the end of his life. The years after the Act of Supremacy saw considerable swings in Henry’s religious policy, usually under the influence of different churchmen and/or wives.

In assessing Henry’s attitude to the distinctive components of Catholic faith and practice, there is also the little matter of his total destruction of consecrated religious life in England and Wales. Hitchens seeks to minimise this difficulty by noting that Mary did not restore the lost religious communities, and drawing the conclusion that monasticism cannot therefore have been very important to Catholicism. 'Had restoration of the monasteries been essential to maintaining or restoring a Catholic England,' he suggests, 'she would not have accepted the dissolution.' The problem here is with the dubious assertion that Mary 'accepted the Dissolution'. This is an odd way to describe her position, and a slippery use of language. Hitchens adduces no evidence that Mary 'accepted' the Dissolution, only that she was constrained by the considerable political difficulties of re-establishing religious communities, which is not the same thing at all. Mary reigned for only five years. It seems highly likely, given what we know of her, that had she lived longer she would have considered the restoration of consecrated religious life to be a key part of her reassertion of Catholicism in England.

There are other points made in Hitchens’ piece that deserve consideration (I shall pass over without comment his curious and, as far as I am aware, mistaken claim that John Henry Newman ridiculed Evangelicalism). First, his complaint, in the service of his revisionism about Henry’s break with the Catholic Church, that the Holy See’s refusal to annul Henry’s first marriage was influenced by political considerations. This is probably true, and yet it does not follow that the marriage of Henry to Catherine of Aragon was actually invalid. Such things can and will be debated eternally; for a superb and magisterial discussion of the canon law issues surrounding the King’s Great Matter, I recommend JJ Scarisbrick’s classic biography, Henry VIII.

Second, his frequent return to the point that Edmund Campion and the other Elizabethan priest-martyrs knew the dangers they faced, and that they sought out martyrdom. He emphasises several times that they were aware of the illegality of their travels to the Continent to train as priests, and of their return to England. As he says: 'we cannot pretend they did not know that their defiance, however pious, would be treated as treason and disloyalty, and with good reason.' Quite apart from the fact that no one pretends anything of the sort, it’s not clear to me why this matters in the moral assessment of Elizabethan policy towards Catholics. The Protestant martyrs under Mary knew the consequences of their refusal to recant. Latimer, Cranmer and Ridley, of whom Hitchens writes glowingly early on in his piece, all knew that they could avoid a horrific death by professing Catholicism. Everyone who fights against unjust and cruel laws knows that they may be horribly punished for doing so.

The underlying issue is that Hitchens has set up a political frame through which to view the actions of the Catholic underground in Elizabethan England, and cannot escape it. Having convinced himself that recusants who continued to seek out Catholic sacraments were just being difficult, when they could simply have popped along to Evensong and mumbled their way through any tricky bits, he seems to view the actions of Campion, Sherwin and the rest as a sort of vainglorious self-indulgence.

But once again he is not considering the actions of Catholics on their own terms; he refuses to consider the way in which they themselves would have understood and defended their behaviour. He writes of Campion 'he was so sure of the rightness of his cause that he was ready to place himself in the service of a foreign power and commit earthly treason to remain loyal to his celestial monarch. It is no slander to him and to those like him to say that he was not the same as those who died under Mary for the Protestant faith. He falls into a different class of martyrdom.' This simply doesn’t make sense as a criticism of Campion. Any Christian should be willing to put allegiance to Christ above allegiance to an earthly power, and that is exactly how Campion would have accounted for himself; not a foreign agent, but a priest of the Church of God serving the people of God under oppression. The undoubted political context, the intricacies and hypocrisies of post-Reformation power politics, does not take away from that fact. To say that Campion et al did not die for the faith is to view Catholicism purely as a political phenomenon with no genuine religious content.

The need for the Catholic Church to maintain a certain amount of temporal and political influence stems from its status as the one truly global and multinational Christian church (having, in the words of Hitchens’ beloved King James Bible, 'a great multitude…of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues'). To argue that Catholic martyrs were not true religious martyrs because of this transnational nature hints at a view of the Christian faith as something that should be an adjunct to national identity, subordinate to the demands of the state, rather than as something that transcends, and stands in judgment over, national governments. Hitchens laments that 'if Roman Catholicism had not been so preoccupied with asserting its power, it could have saved many good men and women from horrible needless deaths, and done no harm to the faith of Christ crucified. What a pity that politics triumphed over religion.' There is a kernel of truth in this statement, but it is a double-edged sword. It could easily be turned against Henry VIII, who sought an annulment to which he was almost certainly not entitled, and then violently seized control of the national church causing endless misery and destruction, in the service of his own dynastic ambitions. Equally, one might ask what harm would have been done to the faith of Christ crucified if English Catholics were allowed to hear Mass and confess their sins to a priest unimpeded by Elizabeth’s sadistic torturers.

The Vatican was a political power in the sixteenth century, and Hitchens is right that the Elizabethan persecutions have to be understood in the context of Regnans In Excelsis, but it was not merely a political power. It was also – and primarily – a Christian church, whose priests had the care of souls and who had a duty before God to minister to their flocks. This duty was not obviated by the corruption and folly of their masters. It is an extremely strange reading of history to contend that the priest-martyrs are not true martyrs for the Christian faith because they could have remained in exile in Douai twiddling their thumbs while English Catholicism dwindled to nothing.

A friend of mine recently noted the pointlessness of refighting the sixteenth century battles, and I am inclined to agree. There is a pressing need for Christian unity in the face of the uniquely threatening conditions of modernity. I don’t particularly like devoting polemical energy to the events of four hundred years ago. Nevertheless, it is important for all Christians to understand what was at stake in those strange, hard, terrible times.

Niall Gooch

Niall Gooch

Catholic writer in London, amateur poet and whodunnit enthusiast


Twitter: @niall_gooch


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    Having read both Mr Hitchens' article and this reply, both of which I found immensely interesting, I think the main point is that it is dangerous to argue about events in the sixteenth century through the preconceptions of later ages.

    Hitchens as an Anglican rightly wishes that more people appreciated and understood the place of figures such as Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer in England's religious and political history. However, in doing so he makes mistakes in evaluating how sixteenth century contemporaries thought of these issues.

    This authors response, while measured and interesting, also makes similar errors. For example, the arguments on both sides, about the faith of Henry VIII tend to ignore the complexities of the historical reality. Hitchens is right that Henry died as a Catholic. He hated Luther, believed in transubstantiation, and passed the Act of Six Articles (1539), which reasserted traditional Catholic doctrine. Equally, there was nothing incompatible with Catholicism in disliking monasteries - Erasmus and many humanists of the period also attacked the principle of monastic life.

    However, it is true to point out he had broken with the Bishop of Rome, which complicates his Catholic identity. Nevertheless, defying Rome was hardly enough to destroy one's identity as a Catholic - see Emperor Charles V's imprisonment of Clement VII in 1527.

    As well as that it is far from settled that Henry VIII himself dissolved the monasteries. Historians still debate this but recent scholarship has suggested it should be seen as an ad-hoc process, rather than a deliberate plan. Also that it was more likely encouraged by evangelicals like Cromwell, than the King himself.

    This same ambiguity and difficulty can be extended to how Protestants and Catholics later constructed the martyrdom/execution of their allies or opponents. Religion was politics, and vice versa, in this age, and arguing about whether Latimer or Campion were truer martyrs is a matter of political allegiance and perspective.

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    Thanks for this piece that articulates my own inchoate discomfort on reading Hitchens' article, though (like you with Ulster Presbyterian heritage) I had sympathy with bits of his argument. In one way I am surprised at his praise of Elizabeth's "mild" policy: it seems to me a perfect prototype for the modern "soft" totalitarianism that is remarkably effective at driving out public Christian expression through the threat of loss of livelihood, the disqualification of officers of state from holding certain views, and the occasional high-profile legal crushing of a person who sticks out their neck too far - not a method that normally attracts Peter Hitchens' respect.

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    T. Graham - Isn't it totally anachronistic and pointless to analyse Elizabeth's policies by modern standards? Medieval heresy trials by the Catholic church are not something we would agree we, nor the Test Acts excluding them from public life after 1660. You really can't expect Elizabethans to think in terms of toleration. Disqualification of Catholics from office and fines for recusancy were perfectly acceptable moves in attempting to build a godly Protestant nation, which Elizabeth's advisers were.

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    My point was not to judge Elizabethan policy by our standards but to suggest that the praise of a particular set of historical policies always has a resonance within our own era and context.

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    The problem of the author of this article is that as a Roman Catholic he sees the Roman Catholic Church as the only real true apostolic Church. Which is of course nonsense. The true catholic apostolic church "died" with the East/West schism of the 11th century, especially because of the megalomania of Rome. So we can either accept that we are all different strands of the catholic apostolic Church founded by Christ, or we can go our own separate ways as we've been doing for the past few hundred years. Percy Dearmer was right, there can't be any reunification until Rome ceases to assume it is the only true church.

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