Commentators have been noticing the parallels between the HHS Contraceptive Mandate handed down on January 20, 2012, and the Tudor religious mandates of the sixteenth century. In 1534, Henry VIII had himself declared the Supreme Head and Governor of the Ecclesiae Anglicanae (the Church of England) and separated Catholics in England from the ecclesiastical authority of the Pope, taking that power to himself by an Act of Parliament, the Act of Supremacy. In 1588, his younger daughter Elizabeth I’s first Parliament passed laws requiring her subjects to acknowledge both her Supremacy, modeled on her father’s, and the Uniformity of the Church of England, based upon the Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-nine Articles developed by Thomas Cranmer. Thomas Cranmer was the Archbishop of Canterbury for both Henry VIII and Edward VI, burned at the stake as a heretic during the reign of Mary I.
Henry VIII’s actions gave him control over the Catholic Church in England, as he regarded himself as a good Catholic (perhaps a little more Catholic than the Pope) who continued to believe for instance in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist and who left a will providing for prayers and Masses said for his soul after death. He required his subjects to accept this change, demanding loyalty through the Oath of Succession and the Oath of Supremacy, both of which denied the Pope’s authority over the Catholic Church in England. St. Thomas More, as MSNBC’s Chris Matthews recalled, was found guilty of treason and beheaded because he refused to accept this Tudor mandate that violated his Catholic conscience:
“I guess I grew up watching movies like Becket and A Man for All Seasons and seeing the church and state go to war with each other and being told stories from the Old Testament about the Maccabees, about people, families being told you got to eat pork,” he said. Matthews added that it is “frightening” to him “when the state tells the church what to do.”
Elizabeth I’s actions meant that Catholicism, even as her father had defined it after 1534 (sans monasteries, for example), was outlawed in England. When Catholics resisted, refusing to attend Church of England services, mounting a rebellion in the North of England—and when Pope St. Pius V issued a Papal Bull excommunicating Elizabeth and proclaiming her Catholic subjects free to disobey her—Parliament passed a series of recusancy laws. In an editorial in the Catholic World Report, “Twenty-first century Recusants” Matthew Cullinan Hoffman saw some parallels between those laws and the Obama administration’s HHS Mandate against Catholic consciences:
“Intentionally or not, the administration’s policy smacks of the methods established by England’s Queen Elizabeth against Catholic “recusants,” who refused to participate in the worship services of the Anglican Church during the late 16th century. Although Elizabeth’s regime, and those that followed for the next two hundred years, did not provide a penalty for Catholic belief as such, they found a simple and devastating way to coerce Catholics to violate their consciences: the recusancy fine, which was levied against those who absented themselves from Sunday Anglican worship or failed to receive communion once a year.”
Chris Matthews and Matthew Cullinan Hoffman are making reasonable connections. Even an anonymous poster to my local newspaper’s “Opinion Line” saw the point. The Wichita Eagle allows readers to post brief statements which appear both in print and in an on-line extra. This astute student of history commented, “Like Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy, the Obama administration’s HHS mandate is an attempt to seize control of all Catholic institutions. But Catholics are only the beginning. If this decision stands, freedom of religion is dead in this country.”
I would even point to some Stuart Mandates of the seventeenth century, when additional legislation during James I’s reign forbade Catholics to become soldiers, lawyers, doctors, pharmacists, or hold any position of authority in their community or their government. Passed in response to the Gunpowder Plot, they effectively cut Catholics out of civil society. The HHS Mandate makes no provision for the consciences of individuals, either, and in a worst case scenario we could see Catholics who refuse to violate their beliefs resign from certain positions and professions.
When President Obama announced an accommodation that really did not change the dilemma for Catholic agencies at all, I thought of James I’s Oath of Allegiance, also issued after the Gunpowder Plot. He attempted to offer it as an accommodation to Catholics who could not swear Elizabeth I’s Oath of Supremacy. If they would not swear this new oath, Catholic nobles could not serve at Court—and the Catholic community became internally divided over whether or not one could swear the Oath and remain loyal to the Catholic Church and the Pope
Further restrictions on Catholics serving in Parliament or at Court would come during the Exclusion Crisis of Charles II’s reign, with Test Acts aimed at keeping the king’s Catholic brother and heir off the throne. Catholics in England were not free to worship or practice their faith in their homeland until a series of Catholic Relief Acts were passed in the late eighteenth century and in 1829, when the Catholic Emancipation Act finally gave them true freedom as Catholic English citizens. Nevertheless, in 1850 when Blessed Pope Pius IX re-established a hierarchy in England, Queen Victoria was not amused, and her Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, proclaimed the action “Papal Aggression”!
There are distinctions to be made, however, between the sixteenth century Tudor Mandates and the twenty-first century “Obama Care” HHS Mandates. One of them is certainly that we live in a representative democratic republic with a United States Constitution guaranteeing that we have no Test Acts for public office and protecting the free practice of religion in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. We have the rule of law and a balance of powers between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.
Sixteenth century Catholics had no effective representation or legal recourse: St. Thomas More may have defended himself ably at trial and exposed Sir Richard Rich’s treacherous perjury, but when the monarch can issue an Act of Attainder that does not identify charges or provide evidence, the accused is guilty of treason before or without trial. EWTN, Belmont College, Priests for Life, and other religious organizations have the option of filing suit against the Federal Government—imagine filing suit against Henry VIII or Elizabeth I!
Twenty-first century Catholics have the internet and the entire web of social media to express their opposition to the HHS Mandates or any other attempt to restrict religious freedom in the U.S. English Catholics faced the choice either of conformity to the state church (or at least a pretended conformity) or paying fines, trying to find a hunted missionary priest to hear confessions and offer the Mass, and possibly suffering imprisonment, torture, and execution. The missionary priests who returned from the Continent to serve those underground Catholics knew they faced the same destiny if captured. Yet St. Anne Line, St. Swithun Wells, St. Margaret Clitherow and many more laity aided those missionary priests. St. Edmund Campion, St. Robert Southwell, and St. Henry Morse, just to name three of the great Jesuit martyrs, kept returning to England in spite of the danger.
Acknowledging both our blessings of living in a great nation founded on religious liberty, and the sixteenth and seventeenth century recusants’ example of loyalty to Jesus Christ and His Church in a country where that freedom was denied, we Catholic laity and our bishops and priests can turn back this Mandate through the Courts or Congress.