Catholicism at the Root of the English Identity

Author: Mark Langham and Justin Bedford

Catholicism at the Root of the English Identity

Mark Langham and Justin Bedford*

A faith that once experienced exclusion and martyrdom has now become a unifying element

In the church of Santo Spirito in Sassia, not far from St Peter's Basilica, is preserved an image of the 'Madonna of Ine', the gift of an eighth century king of England who founded a Saxon hostel, ancestor of the English hospice in Rome which this year celebrates its 650th anniversary. The image is early testimony to an English Catholic tradition that was to flower in the Middle Ages in art, literature and music, marking the intellectual and geographical landscape of England with Cathedrals, Universities and Abbeys, and connecting it firmly to the traditions of the Western Church.

Another image in Rome, in the Church of St Thomas of Canterbury in the Via di Monserrato, depicts student priests being tortured and executed for their Catholic faith. No details are spared, but in case of doubt the image is annotated with names, dates, and method of execution. This is the other side of the English Catholic tradition; exclusion, persecution — and ultimately martyrdom.

It is in both these worlds that English Catholicism has been formed; at once deeply rooted in Catholic devotion and a sense of oneness with the ancient faith of the land, while also feeling on the margin, not accepted, not quite English. In the uneasy landscape between these two realities, English Catholicism has struggled to find its identity.

The trauma facing English Catholics is how a nation, so steeped in the Catholic faith that it was known in the Middle Ages as the Dowry of Mary, should in the space of a generation turn upon the ancient Church, tear down its images, outlaw its liturgy — and deny its Englishness. The original version of the National Anthem prayed for deliverance from "popish tricks", and until 2011 a Catholic could not marry the Monarch (he or she still cannot be one). It had once all been so different; the first Archbishop of Canterbury, Augustine, carried with him from Rome the blessing of Pope St Gregory, while in 664 the Synod of Whitby linked the English Church decisively to Rome. The Venerable Bede saw faithfulness to Rome as the standard of orthodoxy, St Benet Biscop imported Roman monastic practices and plainchant, English saints carried the faith of Rome into Europe — and pilgrims flocked to the Eternal City. Seven hundred and fifty English pilgrims travelled to Rome for the holy year in 1500, and the King of England claimed the Roman hospice as "noster hospitalis". English scholars from the circle of Thomas More studied in Italy: John Colet, Thomas Linacre, William Warham. There were Italian bishops of Salisbury and Worcester. Artists from Italy were welcomed at English courts — Italian craftsmen installed the largest cosmati pavement north of the alps in Westminster Abbey in 1268; Cardinal Wolsey adorned his palace with the works of Mantegna, while the tomb of King Henry VII was the work of Michelangelo's contemporary Pietro Torrigiani. Nor was the movement solely in one direction; the music of John Dunstable was sung in the chapels of Europe, while exquisite alabaster carvings from Nottingham are still to be seen in the Cathedrals of Spain, Croatia and Poland. The bonds seemed unbreakable.

Yet within fifty years of the Reformation, this once devout Catholic nation, bound to Rome by ties of faith, scholarship and art, had repudiated its Roman allegiance, torn down its great monasteries, and executed the priests who once routinely administered its religious life. How this happened is the subject of current and passionate academic debate. The effect on the English Catholic consciousness was, however, devastating and enduring. Catholics felt themselves on the fringes of society, a hunted and hated minority. Bewildered and resentful, they saw their ancient Cathedrals and churches now in the hands of the reformed religion. Catholic festivals were banned, Catholic devotions meticulously rooted out. Cut off from their past, England
became for Catholics a foreign country. They were condemned as un-English — and traitors, following the excommunication of their Sovereign by the Pope. Even recently a correspondent to the London Times
pointed out that the great historical foes of England, from the Spanish Armada to Napoleon and even Hitler, were all Roman Catholics. The myth runs deep.

The post-Reformation Catholic community was small, scattered, fearful. Those who remained survived by keeping a low profile. Following the attempt by Catholics in 1605 to blow up the King and Parliament, the leader of the English Catholics recommended compliance with an oath of loyalty proffered by King James I (he was excoriated by St Robert Bellarmine). In the eighteenth century Bishop Challoner advised Rome not to establish a Catholic hierarchy in the American colonies for fear of offending the British Crown. This strand of caution remains a strong element in English Catholicism; in general there is a suspicion of showy religion, a fear of speaking out too loudly, an impulse to use persuasion rather than assault.

In these years of persecution, the English Catholic tradition was expressed most safely in writing. The Jesuits Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell, the convert Richard Crashaw, used the richest age of the English language to give wings to their faith. Bishop Challoner himself gave English Catholics one of their enduring classics in The Garden of the Soul. The prevailing mood was one of unostentatious tenacity. It was thus with some horror that these careful English Catholics regarded the nineteenth century advent of ultramontanism, an importation of triumphal forms of Catholicism. No one epitomised this more than Nicholas Wiseman, first Archbishop of Westminster, who trumpeted the re-establishment of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850, declaring "the silver links of that chain which has connected England with the See of Peter are changed into burnished gold" — to which Queen Victoria retorted, "Am I Queen of England or am I not?"

Cooler heads emerged. John Henry Newman and his fellow Anglican converts were instinctively attuned to the English temperament. "The true gentleman" according to Newman, "carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast". Their contribution enabled modern English Catholicism to assume its distinctive flavour, deeply loyal to Rome but shy of ostentation, proud of its ancient heritage but willing to adapt to new circumstances. This Catholicism appealed alike to aristocrat and workman (famously, the Duke of Norfolk was spotted worshipping next to an Irish labourer). It remained distinctively literary, boasting famous names such as G.K. Chesterton, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, J.R.R. Tolkein. As it grew in confidence, more tangible signs of the Catholic presence appeared: Cathedrals were built for the new English Sees in Westminster and Birmingham. The architect Pugin championed the Gothic revival as an avowedly Catholic art form in civic and ecclesiastical settings. English Catholics helped to transform the social landscape as well: Cardinal Manning resolved the 1889 Dock Strike and sat on a Royal Commission into poverty. The network of Catholic schools and agencies established in the nineteenth century still makes a vital contribution to English life.

Long caricatured as "the Italian mission to the Irish", in more recent years, English Catholicism has been enriched by immigration from Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia, swelling its numbers with those who proudly profess their faith, unencumbered by the complex history of Catholicism in this land. English Catholicism currently has an international character and universal reach which is the envy of other Christian communities.

And gradually, Catholicism has assumed its place at the centre of the nation. The momentous visit by Queen Elizabeth II to Westminster Cathedral in 1995 was, in the words of Cardinal Basil Hume, the healing of four hundred years' feeling of exclusion. The hugely successful visits of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have confounded critics and touched a deeper sense of tolerance and fairness in the hearts of English men and women. In a society where values are changing swiftly and old certainties called into question, Catholicism is one of the anchors of identity, that contributes to the national discourse, and unites rather than excludes. This is the message that H.R.H. The Duke of Gloucester, cousin of Queen Elizabeth, will be bringing to the Venerable English College when he visits on 1 December, commemorating the Day of the English Martyrs alongside the student heirs of Campion and Sherwin.

The 650th anniversary of the English Hospice in Rome centres on the ancient buildings in the Via di Monserrato, site of the Venerable English College that is the successor of the Hospice. The two foundations reflect the two identities of English Catholicism: the former evokes the ancient faith of the land, the latter the years of persecution and exclusion. Yet, as the two foundations occupy the same site, so the two aspects of the English Catholic tradition have never been wholly distinct; one dwells alongside, or inside, the other. It is this which contributes to the perseverance, and vitality, of the faith in our land.

*Respectively, Member of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and Deputy Head of Mission, British Embassy to the Holy See

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
5 Decamber 2012, page 8

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