Monday, June 7, 2010

Being English = Being Anti-Catholic?

The Catholic Herald has an editorial today about the history of anti-catholicism and anti-papalism in England, which bears out Owen Chadwick's comment in the Penguin history of the Reformation, "Suspicion of Rome became almost a part of the national character, a part of patriotism, a part of the Englishness of a man":

At the very centre of the national psyche there seems to be a basic suspicion of Catholicism which can be difficult to pinpoint: but it has certainly reared its head recently. The front cover of Private Eye with Pope Benedict on the balcony and the crowd in St Peter’s Square supplying the crude – but hardly unforeseeable – punchline may have shocked some and offended others, but it certainly should not have surprised anyone, as it belongs to a great tradition of English anti-Catholic satire: a tradition which has its roots in the dark days of the penal laws, and its high-water mark in the decades which followed emancipation.

During the penal era, anti-Catholicism was, of course, government policy. It has been argued that the excommunication of Elizabeth in 1570 provided the ideal opportunity for the Cecil administration to implement its abiding achievement: the propagation of the idea it was impossible to be a Catholic and a good Englishman. Against the historical backdrop of Armada, Gunpowder Plot, Civil War, the flight of James II, Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745, and almost constant war with France, it is easy to see how anti-Catholic feeling was easily sustained in the nation's consciousness.

Rome’s disassociation from the Jacobite cause in 1766 paved the way for the Catholic Relief legislation of the late 1770s, which in 1780 set off rioting in London: and while it is unlikely that more than a handful of the mob cared one way or the other for the Pope, they still rallied to the cry of “no Popery!”

In that context, vehement anti-Catholicism was found in both the mainstream press and satirical journals. Rome was Babylon, and the Pope its Whore: he was the Scarlet Lady, the Antichrist, whose followers were enslaved in his service, and who would cheerfully murder all good Protestants in their beds, given the chance.

The author, Serenhedd James, goes on to discuss the violent reaction of the English press to the restoration of the hierarchy in 1850 and the slight abatement of anti-catholicism in the last century or so. The editorial cartoons he describes sound just like some of those printed during the Know Nothing period in the United States by Thomas Nast (above).

James concludes by noting that the common Englishman does not believe that when Pope Benedict XVI visits Scotland and England this September he will dissolve Parliament, force Queen Elizabeth II to submit to his authority and establish the Inquisition throughout the British Isles, but he still distrusts Catholicism and the pope.

Of course, people can disagree with the Church because of our teachings: for Anglican or Protestant believers that can be a source of dislike and contempt. People can also distrust the Church because of the scandal our sins can cause; but anti-catholicism is also a prejudice that goes beyond reason or contempt to hatred and bigotry.


  1. As a Catholic, I find it very sad that something admirable in itself (patriotism) can be used to turn people against the Faith.

  2. I wonder, Matterhorn, if it is nationalism rather than patriotism that turns people against the Faith. Nationalism smacks of superiority and fosters conflict and resentment, while patriotism demonstrates love of the homeland.

  3. If I'm not mistaken, the English were notoriously xenophobic even before the reformation. The Tudor regime took full advantage of this fear. (and in Mary's brief reign, xenophobia/fear of the Spanish match, worked up emotions to outright rebellion)

  4. You are correct, Tubbs, except that the people of England did love and support Catherine of Aragon, also a Spanish princess. Cromwell and Henry VIII proclaimed how exceptional the English were in the founding documents of the English Reformation--check out Edwin Jones' "The English Nation: The Great Myth".

  5. What I don't understand is the defense given for English anti-Catholicism that a Catholic monarch would be a puppet of the Pope. Even the "worst" examples they always bring up, Queen Mary I and King James II, were often at odds with Rome and did not go along with whatever the Pope said. I'm also stunned by the implication that monarchs like Edward III, Henry V, Edward I or Henry II were somehow subservient fake-sovereigns because they were Catholic. I'm simply put at a loss for words as to how anyone could hold such a contradictory view.

  6. MadMonarchist, anti-Catholicim is bigotry, an irrational fear and hatred, so it does not make sense. You are exactly correct about Mary I and James II--Mary defied the Pope when he wanted Reginald Pole returned to Rome on suspicions of heresy!

  7. Why has no one noted that before Henry VIII's and Elizabeth I's bloody genocidal purges, Catholicism in England was alive and vibrant?

    The monasteries not only pioneered progressive forms of farming, they also fed the poor. The monks had no dependents, and so provided the bread and butter of many a peasant(even the Calvinist Adam Smith acknowledges this much). When Henry began looting, it was not only the monks who became dispossessed, but the monastery's laymen and their families were also left to starve.

    And the looting itself! 'The people miss their pretty things' was something often said concerning the discontent the common Catholic felt at the nobles and merchants robbing their churches.

    This bigotry was deliberately instilled in Englishmen, and no modern, educated Anglo has a right to hold to it. Serenhedd James, for the sake of candour, could have pointed out this much.

  8. Jacobitess, I think that someone has noted the fact of Catholicism's lively vibrance before Henry broke away from the universal Catholic Church, Edward supported a Calvinist program of religion, and Elizabeth established and consolidated the Church of England--that is the thesis of Eamon Duffy's Stripping of the Altars, and a theme I discuss throughout the first part of Supremacy and Survival.