Monday, October 5, 2015

Catholics, the English Reformation, and Liberty

Bruce P. Frohnen, Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University College of Law, writes about Catholics, the English Reformation, and the idea and ideal of liberty:

Were it true that only England provides a true history of liberty’s growth prior to the time of modern revolutions, that would be tragic from two points of view. It would show that there is in fact something “anti-liberty” about Catholicism, as Protestants often have claimed. Further, it would seem to excuse the sometimes quite oppressive and even violent treatment of Catholics by English authorities and by those who wish to follow in their footsteps today. Catholics should not need to be reminded that the English government going back to Henry VIII, and coming forward even into the twentieth-century, has been hostile toward Catholicism and Catholics. The martyrdom of numerous priests and bishops such as St. John Fisher, the sacking of the monasteries, and laws forbidding the saying of Catholic mass and even decreeing execution for priests lasted for centuries. Catholics were disenfranchised until the nineteenth-century and even in the twentieth-century social disabilities were common (e.g. J.R.R. Tolkien, being Catholic, was not allowed to dine with his Protestant colleagues at Oxford). A central justification of these injustices was that Catholics were “loyal to a foreign prince” who sought enslavement of both souls and bodies, imposing the tyrannous hierarchy of Catholicism. Even on the continent, the story often was repeated that Popes ruled their “estates” as tyrants and sought only to expand their temporal authority in order to force reconversions to their faith and re-establish a kind of absolute rule over the bodies and minds of the people. What is more, it has been this vision of Catholicism as intrinsically hostile to human liberty that has fed into an anti-Catholic sentiment in portions of the American public that has damaged religious liberty and constitutional government itself.

If true, the charges leveled at the Catholic Church and her people would be damning, indeed. Were it true that only the particular cultural institutions and developments of Protestant England, along with, perhaps, those of Protestant Holland, could produce political liberty then Catholicism would be riven by internal contradictions. Catholics recognize that, while salvation is the ultimate, highest good, liberty also is a real human good and freedom aids greatly in the development of the human person. If their religion were hostile to liberty, then, they would have to choose between salvation and freedom. Thankfully, ordered liberty is not a purely English phenomenon and Catholicism is entirely consistent with ordered liberty, not merely in theory, but also in historical practice. My purpose, here, is to examine some of the reasons for Americans’ focus on English liberty. Some of these reasons are accidental and some genuinely important. They are worth exploring for what they can tell American Catholics about ourselves and about the requirements for ordered liberty.

It is best to begin with accidental reasons. Most Americans know little about medieval and early modern history of any kind. What is more, the further one strays from English history (which has a great deal written about it, almost all of which is, well, in English) the less knowledge there is. This is not just a matter of self-centered disinterest—such “multiculturalist” arguments make just as much sense in regard to Italy or medieval Germany as in regard to Africa and the Far East, which is to say, none. It is natural and right that people know most about their own history; they always should know more than they do, but that goes for all times and all fields. American culture is predominantly British, in the wide sense, and so our historical knowledge tends to focus on Great Britain and its center, England.

There is, not surprisingly, a somewhat more sinister aspect to our ignorance of the middle ages and the sources of liberty in particular, one that applies to England as well as the continent and has ideological origins and results. The assault on courses in Western Civilization and on the study of Western history has hit hardest in the area of European history before the modern era. Americans for generations have learned increasingly little about the medieval world, becoming more and more ignorant of the development of their culture and civilization. This ignorance has allowed for ideological fantasies to gain more than a foothold on university campuses and even in the public mind.

Read the rest there. In many ways Frohnen is reflecting on the effects of the Whiggish interpretation of history, which has read into the past the defeat of Catholicism as the prerequisite for modern freedom. See Butterfield's study of this pattern of reading victory into the past: The Whig Interpretation of History. In my opinion, the best antidote to this ignorance of the medieval period is to read the works of Christopher Dawson and Regine Pernoud.

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