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Sunday, July 6, 2014

A rare, royal, Catholic book.....

is being reprinted for a new generation by St. Gabriel Communications International. The title and author may surprise you. It is nothing less than "Defense of the Seven Sacraments" by Henry VIII, King of England, the apologetic masterpiece that earned him the title "Defender of the Faith" by Pope Leo X. Yes, all this is simply full of those little ironies that pound home the ultimate tragedy of the division of Christendom, not least that the current Anglican Queen still holds the above-given title.

    In the cases of Luther and Calvin and Zwingli and Knox, I believe misguided zeal and conviction had quite a bit to do with their rebellion against the Church. But I highly doubt anyone can claim (with a straight face at least....unless it's part of a dry British comedy) that Henry VIII was motivated by any deeper sentiments than lust and self-interest when he broke ties with the Holy See. As for those who helped facilitate his usurpation of Church titles and property, most just as drunk with power and didn't care who or what they hurt in their plow to the top. This condemnation falls the strongest of all on the apostate Catholic bishops who bent to king's will or made a point to take control of a diluted state-run church for themselves.

    I do not wish to generalize here. There were certainly very devout Reformation-era Protestants in England, many who wound up burnt at the stake rather than ditching their convictions. While I still believe they were on the wrong track, their evident honesty and courage does them credit. But they were not the ones who split England away from Rome and set the groundwork for The Church of England. No, instead it was a king who beheaded Catholics and burned Protestants for his own selfish ends, a wife-murderer and sex-mongrel who destroyed almost everything he could not dominate.

    His daughter Elizabeth may have been less overtly monstrous, but she was equally self-interested and a vixen when it came to church politics. Basically, she saw the opportunity for consolidating more power for herself through what her father had done and took full advantage of it. Her promised not to "look into the windows of men's souls" was one of the most dishonest stump speeches ever given. Yes, she promised Catholics could "quietly" hold their beliefs -- but without priests. And she knew full well Catholicism couldn't continue without priests, and intended to humor and disarm until the Catholic Church in England was dead.

    And where did Anglicanism take her realm? What became of the state-run religious experiment? To put it bluntly, it ran amuck, and modern Britain is living proof of it. While traditionally Catholic countries have sunk into the swamp of indifference, they at least retain some visual vestiges of a very visual faith. The very things that makes Catholicism hard to kill are her outward signs, the things drummed into us as children that are bound to resurface in later lives. It is, by its very nature, a robust and colorful expression of the human interaction with the divine. Anglicanism, by contrast, was something of a compromise from the start, a little too tame, a little too muted, a little too watered-down. And being a form of rebellion itself, other rebellions against her were sure to ferment and weaken her.

    There are so many different elements of this reality, but a very poignant one is that Britain did become a virtually self-worshiping country when her sturdy religious faith became inextricably linked with the state as opposed to being an independent entity. Hence the rise of jingoism, and the arrogance of imperialism, in a nation in which self-achievement became a god and xenophobia was the norm. Religion literary faded from the front-lines and became, for many, nothing more than a feel-good farce. Again, I don't mean to generalize, and I am more than happy to give praise to fervent Anglicans (and Christians of every stripe) from the past and the present. But even they often admitted they were fighting upstream in a luke-warm bathtub, and I heartily believe they were deceiving themselves by clinging to the old justification that Catholicism as the root of all evil and refusing to embrace the solutions she readily provided.

    Anyway, all these things paved the way for the atheism and agnosticism that has swamped Britain today. It was easy to drift from a luke-warm state-run Church to religious nothingness. And that is the greatest tragedy of Henry VIII's betrayal. But all this, melancholy as it may be, makes me more fascinated by the reprinting of "Defense of the Seven Sacraments", and the bold fact that it is dedicated to our current queen. The pamphlet calls it "a daring contribution to the cause of authentic Christian re-unification in this new millennium marked by rising de-Christianization." The project has been put into motion:

Under the Aegis of the Medieval Patroness of "Merry England" (Mary's Dowry): Our Lady of Walsingham

 Authored by a King:  Henry VIII

Assisted by a Saint:  Sir Thomas More

Acclaimed by a Pope:  Leo X

Dedicated to a Queen:  Elizabeth II

In Memoriam of the Crusader of the 20th Century:  Plinio Correa de Oliveira

To quote the introduction by James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, from the 1907 edition:

"It is rare, inasmuch as it has probably been printed but twice in nearly 200 years. It is a royal book, by reason of its kingly author. It is Catholic, because no Catholic could write a more orthodox treatise on the subjects explained by King Henry VIII. 

    "He expounds such crucial dogmas as the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, indulgences, the mystery of the Real Presence and the Mass, the Sacrament of Confession, divorce, etc. And all this he has unfolded in as Catholic a manner as St. Thomas or St. Francis de Sales, or St. Alphonsus Liguori could have done. 

   "I hope, therefore, that the work may be widely and carefully read, especially in this country, but indeed also in England, the land of its birth."

    While ruminating on all these things, and watching that classic of classics, A Man for All Seasons, I was inspired to write words in tribute to St. Thomas More and all the Catholic Recusants to match the powerful Tudor-era theme. The following is the result:

A Man for All Seasons

Foolish men have prattling tongues
Yet the wisest use no words
Purest songs go unsung
Though the din, though the din
Is heard

Foolish men seek out a name
Yet the wisest hold their own
Set aside without shame
Standing strong, standing strong

What’s the price, what’s the price
Of God’s truth?
What’s the sum, what’s the sum
Of Man’s worth?

Wild winds are blowing, strange seeds are growing here
Long time refusing, harsh voices causing fear

Foolish men cling to their lives
Yet the wisest lay them down
Truth’s the daughter of time
Not the court, not the court
Nor crown

Foolish men will fade away
Yet the wisest never die
Seasons pass, yet they stay
Ever more, ever more

Sir Thomas More bids farewell to his daughter as he is led to his execution



  1. I've been meaning to comment on this for weeks! Your poem is so, so beautiful--I can just imagine Loreena McKennitt singing it in her ethereal strains . . . I'll have to go back and watch the film so I can get the actual Tudor melody in my head again. No doubt I'll be singing it all around the house once I do :-) Well done, Pearl!

  2. Thank you very much, Mary! Coming from a prolific poet and musician like yourself, it's a real compliment! And yes, the Tudor melody is absolutely impossible to shake once it gets in your head! That's what caused me to sit down and write; it wouldn't go away! ;-)

    Gosh, Loreena McKennitt?? I would be honored, ha, ha!

  3. Sadly, it won't allow me to post all of this in one go so this is part 1:

    Wow, where to start with this one!? I should imagine that there are precious few other books in the world written in such robustly eloquent defence of the very thing its author would later go on to devote exceptional energy to obliterating.

    I've previously been fortunate enough read extracts from it and can readily understand why the Anglican church would be so keen to forget its existence; it is stridently, even violently, anti-Protestant in tone and its authoritative explanation and scholarly justification of various aspects of Catholic dogma (including, most significantly and ironically, Papal supremacy) and practice only serve to make King Henry's separation from Queen Catherine and, consequently, the Holy See all the more indefensible. "For by thy words thou shalt be acquitted, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned." (Mt. 12:37) Do you think that were Clement VII not so much in Emperor Charles V's power that he would have eventually granted the annulment and then the whole Reformation would never have taken off?

    Sadly, we shall probably never know just how much of the final text that St. Thomas was responsible for; I don't know about you and many believe, now as then, that the dear saint wrote all the learned theological arguments and simply allowed his royal master to organise it all into chapters, interpolate the odd incendiary passage about Martin Luther and put his own name on the cover but I disagree. The young Henry was undeniably devout, no mean scholar and very different from the fool he sometimes pretended to be. Indeed, this book evokes not only supreme irony as you said but also a sense of great tragedy for we can see very clearly within its pages the virtuous king that Henry was and would I think have continued to be were it not for the unfortunate combination of circumstances which allowed all of his lust, greed, hatred and arrogance, hitherto kept relatively in check, to be unleashed simultaneously and in so destructive a manner.

  4. And part 2:

    Begetting a legitimate male heir had clearly become a mania with Henry who witnessed three sons and two daughters by Catherine be miscarried, stillborn or die within a few months of birth - I for one cannot imagine what that would to any man's mind, let alone anyone as arrogant Henry, and he clearly found it easier to blame his wife, God and the Church rather than acknowledge the painful but obvious truth.

    That it was Henry's faulty genetics rather than those of his "wives" is very clear; both of his sons by Anne Boleyn died in infancy and, indeed, the only two known sons of his ever to survive to adulthood, Edward VI (a notoriously weak, sickly youth) and the illegitimate Henry Fitzroy, both died of tuberculosis aged 15 and 17 respectively. Henry, at least subconsciously, must have known the truth but he was prepared to put away his devoted Queen, sever himself and his kingdom from God's Holy Church, and execute anyone who attempted to oppose him rather than accept God's plan like a good Catholic and pray for guidance. And for all of the bloodshed, persecution and misery his actions caused, the Tudor dynasty was extinct within just sixty years of his death. How can we not pity such a man?

    Finally, I regret to say that I must agree with your assessment of the present Anglican church and the moral state of the UK in general but I feel I should put in a word or two in defense of the English Catholic bishops who, with the notable exception of St. John Fisher, took the Oath of Supremacy. Not every man is born for the martyr's crown, you know, and Henry was a king who could inspire terror if nothing else. Surely, even for a bishop, compliance out of fear is far less sinful than compliance out of greed or hope of advancement?

    Of course, we are, inevitably, viewing their actions with the considerable benefit of historical hindsight but the majority of bishops, like Stephen Gardiner, simply did not view Henry's actions as the end of English Catholicism that we now know it was but rather as just one of a long series of moves in the great game of political chess the king was playing with the Catholic Church. The very idea that the separation would prove permanent, that the Pope and the monarch would ultimately fail to be reconciled (as so many rulers throughout Europe had managed in various disputes with the Papacy over the centuries) appeared inconceivable to many at the time; indeed, after the bigamous second marriage, news of Henry and Cranmer's excommunication by Clement VII was withheld from the newly-crowned Anne for fear the shock would cause a miscarriage.

    Truly, never did an English king change so much with so little intention.

  5. Hi, John!

    Thank you another very insightful, historically intuitive comment (broken into parts...which is the best kind since they never shy away from going in depth, lol)!

    Is it not more of a tragedy that Henry VIII had so much good in him...and was ultimately swallowed up by his vices, to the point of being the devil's tool in rupturing the Catholic faith in England?

    I do agree with that Henry had enough know-how to put together the treatise on his own initiative, and Thomas More insisted that that was how it was. The man did have real talent, and seemingly real belief in his faith, and he always considered himself a "catholic" till his death. In fact, it was said he begged mercy from Our Lady of Walsingham on his deathbed.

    I never heard the theory about Henry VIII being the one who passed on genetic defects to his children, and then struck out due to pride! That really puts things into perspective, and adds to the sheer irony that after wreaking such destruction to pass on his line, the Tudor dynasty vanished within a generation.

    Yes, of course, fear can grip even the best of us and make us cave in on our convictions. And it is also true that the Bishops such as Stephen Gardiner could not have known how ugly things would get and that England would be forever torn from The Holy See. With the pope as a political as well as a spiritual power, interdicts and excommunications were often placed on countries and individuals then lifted as result of diplomatic efforts. But I cannot help but think that if all the Bishops had stood firm against Henry's usurpation in unison, even he could not have destroyed their solidarity. It was a combination of good intentions, bad intentions, and all too human fears based on a luke-warm political correctness that brought down The Church in England.

    But there is always hope. St. John Vianney said that England would one day convert, now plagued by the descendant of Anglicanism which is Agnosticism/Atheism. Let us pray to Our Lady of Britannia that we live to see it.