Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Belloc Sums Up Clement and Cranmer

Anna Mitchell and I will be talking about Hilaire Belloc's chapters on Pope Clement VII and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in Characters of the Reformation on the Son Rise Morning show after 7:45 a.m. Eastern/6:45 a.m. Central. Please listen live here.

Belloc notes something supernatural about Pope Clement VII's ultimate decision not to grant Henry VIII the annulment/divorce he requested:

We may sum up the situation by saying that if a stronger and more direct mind had been at work in the successor of St. Peter the English schism would have arrived with less loss of honour and moral authority to Rome. But we must add that much as Clement's weakness and shuffling must be regretted, he never passed the boundary beyond which there is abdication or denial of authority. He never compromised the fundamentals of the Papal power and of its awful claim to moral supremacy among men. There is something supernatural in all this. 

We always have to be careful in history not to exaggerate evidence of the supernatural, nor to ascribe to supernatural causes what may legitimately be ascribed to natural ones, but here there seems to be evidence of supernatural guidance. Just one step too far at one moment in Papal history would have compromised the Papacy in the eyes of posterity and have given solid argument against its claims. That moment fell in the reign .of Clement VII. And in that moment the Papacy did not fail, even though the Pope had sailed so very near the wind. Clement just might, at the most critical moment when he was being hardest pressed, bullied, not knowing what to do between the great contending forces of which he was the victim, he just might, I say, have overstepped the limit. He might, for instance, have issued a Bull in which he declared the original Papal power of dispensation for marriage with a sister-in-law to be void. He might have got out of his difficulties by allowing the verdict of the universities to be, not advisory to the Holy See, but upon an equality with it. He might have taken any one of half a dozen steps, each of which would have been, for the first time, an admission by a Pope that the Papacy was not what it was. And, by a sufficient margin, Clement happily was preserved from so fatal an excess of weakness. 

He was preserved from it by that Divine safeguarding of the Church which never fails; but he was also preserved from it by that element in him which, for all his faults, remained strong: a recognition of what was essential to his office.

On Cranmer's ultimate decision--his recantation of other recantations--Belloc is not so sympathetic:

Then, when he had been degraded from his episcopal office and function and condemned, he saw too late that they might really intend to put him to death, though hitherto to execute an Archbishop for heresy was a thing unheard of. He therefore made one recantation after another in the hope of saving his life. These recantations became stronger and stronger as he went along, until at last he wrote out and published one of great length, in which he stretched to the utmost his professions of remorse and penitence. He threw himself upon the Divine Mercy, declared he was not worthy to live, said he deserved his fate, especially as he had led so many into error; and compared himself to the penitent thief on the cross, declaring that he could rely upon nothing but the infinite charity of Christ for such a case as his. 

Up to the last moment he did not know whether these protestations of his had been effectual or not in deceiving the authorities. On the day fixed for the execution he was taken to St. Mary's Church in Oxford for his recantation to be made as public as possible and for a sermon to be preached upon it. The rule was, of course, that on such public recantation the prisoner for heresy was pardoned, and Cranmer had his recantation all ready to read. But while he sat there listening to the sermon preached about him, there came a phrase in that sermon which suddenly destroyed his hopes. The preacher had been told by the Government to announce their decision that they could not pardon Cranmer after all. 

He then did a dramatic thing. He went up to read his recantation, but at the most critical point in it suddenly declared that all he had said in favour of the Church and against his former errors was insincere, and had merely been said in order to save his life! Now that he had to die anyhow he would confess that he was utterly opposed to the Catholic system and the Papacy and all the rest of it.

Of course, Cranmer had already been condemned to death as a traitor for supporting the succession of Lady Jane Grey to the throne. Mary I had delayed the executions of the usurper, her husband, and Cranmer. Belloc is clear that Cranmer would have renounced his Evangelical beliefs if it would have saved his life; only because he realized that renunciation would not save his life would he stand up for them.

Image Credit: Stained glass window depicting the Oxford Martyrs.

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