whose feast is the 4th of May, I am going to explore some of the what I believe to be a “spiritual vacuum” that has opened up in Britain, starting with the rending the of Christendom under the Henry VIII during the 16th century, and the innumerable ramifications that continue to effect the British national consciousness in the present day.
The unbiased reader must acknowledge that the Catholic Church, in spite of many failings of her members, has been a source of infinite good in the history and development of mankind. She was a major source of preserving order and learning after the collapse of the Roman Empire, and integral in the rise and development of Western Civilization. Since it was separate from any governmental organization that sprang up, it also served as the potential conscience of those government systems as something above and beyond them. In theory, it was the spiritual power, distinct from the temporal powers of given countries. It provided a cohesive front for Christendom, welding together many feudal states into one.
The division of Christendom started out as a reaction against the corruption that had entered the Church due in large part to the temporal power assumed by the clerics. However, the Reformation was not at all a “reforming” movement, but rather a revolt. This is something that both Catholic and Protestants should be able to agree on today, just based on the historical fact. It did not seek to refurbish the house, but rather pull it down from its foundations. It did not seek to go for marriage counseling, but declare a bitter divorce. It did not merely oppose the injustices and corruption; if Luther and his fellow religious rebels had merely stuck with those principles, they may have become great saints of the Church.
But instead, these would-be-reformers attacked and re-wrote doctrine, and as such set themselves up in opposition to the Church Magisterium. It was a declaration of war against the unity of Christendom. It was challenging the very bedrock of their civilization. Of course it was bound to have political repercussions, and the generators of the revolt expected no less. What they did not expect was that their fiery, often honestly heart-felt convictions would open the door to spiritual luke-warmness across Europe and the world through the political domino effect. Nowhere was this more obvious than in England under Henry VIII.
By establishing the Church of England, he essentially assured that the religion of the country would be a religion of nationalism. It was not a matter of moral convictions, but political convenience. Although Henry himself remained a doctrinal Catholic in all but Papal supremacy and had not intended any major change in overall belief within his kingdom, his power-hungry actions were one step down a slippery slope. The dissolution of the monasteries, using their wealth to fill the king’s coffers and their lands to reward the king’s high-born henchmen, was a visible sign that the spiritual powers in England were being forcibly absorbed by the temporal.
Under Edward VI, Henry’s surviving son who was dubbed by the Protestant faction “the English Josiah”, a doctrinal shift took place in favor a low-church Protestantism, complete with a full-scale “stripping of the altars” and the rejection of such things as Transubstantiation, the Communion of Saints, Marian Devotion, Priestly Celibacy, etc. At least it can be said that these changes generated by the young Edward, his uncles the Seymour brothers, and Archbishop Thomas Cramner were at least partially based on genuine conviction. But even through these acts of removing the visible aspects of religious ceremony so distinctly Catholic, they were setting the stage for secular ceremony to take its place for the Protestant populace.
Under Queen Mary I, the Catholic daughter of Henry and Catherine of Aragorn, an effort was made to bring England back into the fold of the Catholic Faith and heal the schism of her father and reverse the heresy of her brother. But in a land of split allegiances, her burning of heretics, although certainly not unusual for the era, attracted negative press, which was compounded by her marriage to King Philip of Spain, who seemed more interested in using England to bolster his own continental ambitions as opposed to being a proper support for his wife. In the end, Mary died broken and betrayed, her well-intentioned plans having back-fired miserably.
Next came Elizabeth I, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, for whom he had broken with the Church in order to marry. Imprisoned by her sister Mary for suspected plotting, she was ambitious, clever, shrewd, and determined to reign and rule a queen, unmarried and unattached to anything that might check her power. She had lied to her dying sister and promised to uphold the Catholic Church, but upon ascending the throne quickly reneged and claimed the title Head of the Church in England. Although she said she would not “look into the windows of men’s souls”, this was nothing more than a ploy to avoid to the bad publicity that haunted Mary.
Steps were taken to eliminate Catholicism within her realm, making the Catholic priesthood a crime punishable by banishment or death. Those who hid priests or were caught attending mass were susceptible to the same punishment. When Pope Pius V made the understandable although politically unwise move of excommunicating Elizabeth which effectively relived subjects of their oath of allegiance, the persecutions against Catholics in England and Ireland grew worse. At the same time, Elizabeth tried to enliven the newly cemented Anglicanism by preserving some of the “smells and bells” of the old faith and introducing a new and powerful secular element to give religious fervor to the project: Nationalism.
This was the age of the Sea Dogs, pirates for Queen and Country, whose anti-Catholicism was unleashed upon the prosperous Spanish colonies in the New World. Their razing and pillaging earned them infamy, but since England had set itself apart from the rest of Christendom and their religion was in effect England herself, the rules of the high seas mattered naught and could be easily absolved by the Head of the Church, Queen Elizabeth, who was more than happy to knight their leader, Sir Francis Drake. All this did nothing smooth out relations with Spain, who understandably sought to rid themselves of a thorn in their side.
The result was the launch of the Spanish Armada, which ended in total disaster, causing relief for most of the English, Protestant and Catholic alike. The Black Legend began to be cultivated, painting anything Papist as perverted and superstitious, the opposite of everything Englishmen wanted to be. The propaganda seeped in thoroughly, and after the death of Elizabeth, new divides took full shape within the Anglican Church, between those who were closer to Catholic practice and those who were further afield!
In the reign of James I, the first Stuart king to rule England and Scotland, factions such as the Puritans and Separatists either wanted to purge or separate the Anglican Church because, in their opinion, it was still far too Papist. They, too, faced persecution, convincing many of them left the country and founded settlements in the New World. But they needn’t have worried about their king being a Catholic-lover. The Gunpowder Plot of Guy Fawkes and his fellow disillusioned Catholics certainly didn’t improve his opinion of them, and this attempt to blow up the king and parliament assured that James would continue the persecution begun under Elizabeth, even though his own mother had been the very Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, from whom he had been taken as a baby by the Protestant Lords in Scotland.
But it was in the reign of James’s son, Charles I, that the factions within the Anglican Church exploded in full light. Charles, although still anti-Catholic, was much more sympathetic to a high-church form of worship, and tried to force it on low-church sympathizers in Scotland and England. This was one of the main triggers of the English Civil War, a bloody contest that ultimately resulted in the overthrow and execution of the king and a Puritanical government that devolved into a police state bent on enforcing personal morality. It was also during this time that Oliver Cromwell led his army into Ireland and, fueling them with exaggerated stories of atrocities committed against Protestant settlers by Irish rebels, wiped out or sold off half the very Catholic population.
When the monarchy was finally restored under King Charles II, the morality and religiosity of the court and country, which had been brutally enforced under Cromwell, collapsed in a heap. It was as if after breaking off with the rest of Christendom, the people of England had a hard time knowing whether to be religious fanatics or amoral derelicts, or perhaps a little of both! While some good Protestant clergymen certainly tried, there was little real religious authority left to lead the flock. Everything was an experiment, and every time something went a-foul, a new one was struck up lickety-split. But one thing could be counted on: if something really awful happened, the Bogie-men Catholics could be blamed. Such was the case with the great fire of London, unleashing a new wave of hatred against the small body of Catholic recusants left.
King Charles shocked his kingdom by following the lead of his brother and converting to Catholicism. Then that very brother, James II, inherited the throne and proceeded to try to give religious freedom to everyone involved so as to free up his fellow Catholics being persecuted. The very anti-Catholic population went bonkers. James handled the situation badly, responding haughtily to critics and banishing or imprisoning them for refusing to bend to his will. When his infant son James was born, and baptized a Catholic, the parliament went bonkers and invited his son-in-law, William of Orange, to come over from the Netherlands and sieze the throne.
William, a Dutch Calvinist who was ironically allied with the Papal States against France at the time, agree to take up the offer in order to secure an English alliance. He proceeded with a letter of Papal support and an army stacked with Catholic mercenaries. But of course the Protestant historians preferred to overlook those minor details, and his successful invasion and overthrow of his father-in-law. One way or another, his ascension to the throne, along with his wife Mary II, came with the newly installed law that no Catholic could ever sit on the throne of England, and Penal Laws were enforced to keep the Catholics from owning property, weapons, or getting a good education. These laws were particularly harsh in Ireland, where a new Protestant hype-league was spawned called “The Orange Order”.
During the subsequent reigns of Queen Anne and the four Hanoverian King Georges, religious life in Britain took a downward spiral. Everyone was sick of religious infighting, and just threw up their hands with almost all the experiments except a luke-warm state-run Anglicanism that was more a matter of social status than religious belief. Certainly, there were some devout Anglicans who took their religion seriously, including King George III, but they seemed to be the exception instead of the rule. Indeed, the spiritual vacuum was opening ever wider, creating an apathetic society that gradually became more dependent on nationalism for its identity.
A good example of this is when the British captured Quebec, they took down a Catholic French statue of St. John the Baptist and erected on of British General James Wolfe. Meanwhile, Westminster Abbey, once the site of saints and kings, had since become a resting of predominately “secular saints.” While I have nothing against Gen. Wolfe or the present residents of the Abbey, the embrace of purely secular culture was nothing more than a blatant disconnect. One might “drink like a Londoner” and “swear like a Briton” and it was considered normality, but religion became more-or-less a thing viewed as hypocrisy by the masses.
In the British military, a moving microcosm of British society, religion sunk to an all-time low. Much of this was because upper-crust Anglican chaplains tended to be out-of-touch with the men, and were there only to provide some sense of outward structure. But few were willing to put their lives on the line for their men, and viewed it as merely another job for a salary as opposed to a mission for the salvation of souls. Of course, there were exceptions here as well, among Anglicans and other Protestant ministers of the gospel. But again, the problem remained, because the clergymen were seen as merely another wing of the secular authorities. Indeed, history shows that for a church to truly make a difference, it has to be independent of the state for its own safety.
In response to the obvious, more splinter-off groups sprung up in order to rekindle the flame of religious fervor, including the Methodist movement of John Wesley who made all the world his parish. At the same time, the laxity in views on religion that came with the Enlightenment also enabled a broadening of religious freedom for many, including the long-suppressed Catholics. It allowed others with Catholic sympathies more freedom to express this, and in spite of continued anti-Catholicism among the population, this gave rise to the Oxford Movement in the 19th century. But with the rise of Empire under Queen Victoria came the full blossoming of that jingoism that equated religion with the state. As the Sea Dogs had found it convenient to commit crimes in the name of Queen and Country, so did many war-mongering imperialists.
As the years passed, the nation of Britain became more intrinsically linked to her empire. The supposed superiority of the British system became the new religion, to be spread to the four corners of the earth. However, the glory days of empire began to lose their sheen. Two world wars changed the landscape of the national consciousness, and when the empire began to collapse, the country began to lose its sense of identity. With this loss of national identity, came the reopening of the spiritual vacuum that Nationalism had previously filled. Also, even the loose trappings of religiosity began to fall apart, as out-and-out Atheism came into vogue. But Atheism, if followed to its logical conclusion, is an embrace of cynicism, and as such, never fills that emptiness within the human soul. Another ingredient will be sought out and found.
Recently, a new form of nationalism has risen like a Phoenix from the ashes of cynicism and disillusionment with church and state, taking on attributes that tap into some deeper spiritual longing. British nationalism is now old hat and considered repugnant, and but are we not seeing a rise a sense of Scottish nationalism, with all the same negative qualities of self-proclaimed superiority and isolationism? It also makes the same attempt to make a god out of a secular state, with ideal of independence as a religious cult. But too many it seems like a spiritual oasis in the midst of the dryness that settled over the whole idea of Britain like a desert storm. If you’ll notice, many Scottish Nationalists really do take their politics to heart…perhaps even deeper than that. Any affront against the SNP is a personal affront and fly up in a fury at any opposition, almost as if they are defending a dogmatic creed.
In another avenue, there is the rapid rise of radical Islam, which has captured the imagination of many Brits, especially among the young population. It is seen a romantic and passion-driven alternative to lax and lazy Christianity meshed with the heresy of British-ism. Never mind the shocking violence it advocates, wreaking havoc on the Christians on the Middle East, and the sheer treason that it involves against Queen and Country. At least it is not luke-warm. It is something to seek one’s teeth into. If Man cannot have one thing, he will have another. As Chesterton said, “If men stop believing in God, they will not believe in nothing, but believe in anything.”
The root of this desperation to find fulfillment can be traced back to the false concept that any secular state can take the place of religion, or that any secular ideal can replace God in the human psyche. It never can, although such an attitude is often portrayed as wonderfully intellectual and modern. It is the pinnacle of Humanism, and that is its folly, for Humanism as a religion is merely inward-gazing self-acclamation. It always fails to satisfy. Let the Scottish Nationalists work their woe; in the end, their creed will prove itself as hallow as the British Nationalism of yore, if not more so. It seeks nothing but to manipulate the people into destroying the good along with the bad that is a part of Britain, and abandoning honor and sound thinking in favor of Kool-Aid-drinking hysteria. This secular cult, like the last one, is doomed to crumble.
Such is the tragedy that will continue to repeat itself if the British people do not rediscover the importance of religion, true religion, that reaches for some transcendent reality that probes the depths of desire and understanding. Paradoxically, if they wish to save their country that they once worshiped and that sorely let them down, they must cease to make it the center of their universe. They must look to God as their top priority, and all other elements will fall into their rightful places, avoiding love-hate extremes. One must not worship one’s nation, nor make it their religion. They must not put her on so high a pedestal that she will topple and fall. We must expect imperfections, and learn to deal with them in love and true patriotism, through the grace of God who will never fall short of perfection.
I have always maintained that beneath the surface, the Brits with their pomp and ceremony and constant spiritual searching are still cultural Catholics. I still maintain it. In days of old, they were one of the most Catholic parts of Christendom, called “Our Lady’s Dowry.” The pillagers of the past may have disillusioned themselves with the corruption of Catholic churchmen, but the constant experimentation has left nothing new in way of purifying fallen humanity, but rather created a series of disillusions and deceptions.
With all the present political disillusionment and uncertainty over the future of the UK, perhaps it is now time to look to the English Martyrs and their sacrifices. As Campion said, “So the faith was planted; so it must be restored.” He was speaking of the hearts, minds, and souls of the British people, who I will never cease to pray will again discover that Christ alone is worthy of adoration, and that His gift of the Catholic Church is a true home for all spiritual pilgrims in search of that all-consuming love that transcends earthly goals and expectations.
|A wooden carving of the Catholic English Martyrs|