Huh? What kind of title is that? You probably haven’t spent much time pondering how columnists get their ideas, and even more specifically, how an historically impaired columnist asked to write on recusant England gets her ideas.
Searching for the Recusants
Well, that unasked question is now going to be answered.
First, we live in denial that the due date will ever arrive. We rather pray or hope that perhaps a column will drop out of the sky and solve our problems for us. Since, contrary to our expectations, that doesn’t happen, we are astonished one day to receive an imploring if not frantic email from the managing editor, saying “When will we be receiving your column?” This customarily sends said columnist to the internet searching for a quick course in recusant England and hoping a little knowledge will help stimulate the brain cells. Interesting items are found that probably distract more than assist. I found an essay on a first portfolio of Hamlet that the author thinks proves that Shakespeare was not only a Catholic but a recusant Catholic. That thrills me since for sometime Hamlet has struck me as a profoundly Catholic play; it was also fascinating to see the difference between an early draft of Hamlet and the finished project — the difference between genius and mediocrity. But I didn’t really find suitable material there.
So I went to the library and checked out a few books by my favorite Church historians, Hilaire Belloc and Phillip Hughes. I read a few chapters and learned a great deal about some Catholic heroes heretofore unknown to me, like Cardinal William Allen who founded the seminary at Douai which sent many a priest for service in England and Father Robert Persons, S.J., who did the same at the English College in Rome. Certainly it was most pleasant to read about the Jesuits and their attempts to restore Christendom. I began to put aside some considerable disgruntledness with an order that comfortably houses the most zealous dissenters. What we owe the Jesuits is undoubtedly beyond telling — both good and bad!
Finding the Hidden English Martyrs
Mostly I learned how much I don’t know and I reflected on how absurd it is for me to write on something I know next to nothing about (after all these years of teaching stuff I know almost nothing about, such pangs of conscience are quite unexpected!) . Nonetheless some relevant memories were reactivated, that could serve as a basis for a column. I remembered one lonely day during the year I spent in Rome when I was crossing the Piazza Farnese only to hear “Professor Smith, Professor Smith”; I turned and saw some young men in cassocks running towards me. They, seminarians at the English College, had recently heard me give a talk at the North American College. The English College was only a few steps away and they invited me for evening prayer, dinner and a tour. Evening prayer was beautifully sung; dinner was Italian rather than English fare so it was delicious, and the tour acquainted me with fantastic murals of the martyrdom of English priests — young men who snuck out of England for their seminary studies in Rome, and upon ordination snuck back into England to face almost certain death within about a year and a half. (And my heart was complaining about a lonely day in Rome!; God really knows how to deliver a rebuke when one needs one.) Conversations with these young men led me to understand that persecution of the faithful still continues in some diluted form – the seminarians who hosted me, for instance, were not too sure it would be wise to introduce the “Humanae Vitae lady” to their professors—they could get smeared in the process!
I also remembered two different trips to London. One where my parents and I took a long Sunday morning trek across London to visit the parish church of St. Thomas More. It was now an Anglican church and in the record of his life displayed at the church, there was no mention of his martyrdom or sainthood. I was livid. In fact I was in a state of high pique for much of the trip as we visited beautiful churches, at one time Catholic and now Anglican; churches in which places properly occupied by religious paintings, reliefs, or votive offerings were occupied by coats of arms of various Anglican luminaries. I had not done my homework sufficiently and was hardpressed to find Catholic England, although the Internet has some useful information; and since I try always to be a pilgrim and seldom a tourist I was very frustrated. As I began to get a sense of the extent of the confiscation of Catholic property during the Protestant Revolt, I started developing a deep dislike of the English, which was only fortified by a walking tour narrated by a struggling actor, who casually noted that the spot on which we stood was where St. Thomas More’s head rolled. A sacred spot that he used for comic effect. I must confess I was thinking decapitation would be too good for the young actor.
Some years later after I gave some talks at a few Opus Dei houses in London, my hosts took me to the Tyburn Convent housing the 105 Tyburn martyrs, among them Edmund Campion, S.J. I said some fervent prayers that the blood of martyrs would return this great nation to Catholicism. This “recusant column” project led me to a wonderful website about these martyrs and the church commemorating their holy deaths. Worth a visit.
The bravery of those who did not cooperate with the easy shift of most from their Catholic faith to Anglicanism, the profound hunger for the sacraments that led many to harbor priests and to risk their very lives and the lives of their loved ones is a grand story and witness, much worth pondering in this day, when, even in a culture of remarkable religious freedom, Catholics often betray their faith on the slightest threat from secular authorities. Many examples leap to mind.
So Here is Where the Hopitals Come In
For instance . . . in the bioethics class I teach at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, we have been discussing the challenges that face Catholic hospitals when they merge with secular hospitals. The great challenge, of course, is what to do about the “reproductive services” offered at secular hospitals that violate Catholic moral teaching (I deplore the sectarian sound of that phrase — what I want to say is “services that are immoral by all reasonable standards of morality”.) Some great curiosities surround these mergers. Catholic hospitals adamantly refuse to participate in mergers that would involve any hint of cooperation with abortion but start devising the most twisted and convoluted legal arrangements and engage in hair-splitting moral reasoning to continue to provide sterilizations and the provisions of emergency contraceptives for treatment of rape. Rarely is any attempt made to prohibit doctors from prescribing contraceptives — this practice seems not even to register on the radar screen of those detecting moral conflicts.
I am not altogether clear on what moral principle makes it intolerable to cooperate in any way with abortion but makes it tolerable to permit some complicity or at least the appearance of complicity with sterilization and contraception. Consider the arrangement wherein a Catholic hospital rents one of it floors to a virtual “community” hospital (a legal fiction established for this one service) for sterilizations and emergency contraceptives. The rationale for these actions is that the hospital — and the important care it gives, especially to the poor — may well fold if the services are not provided and one should tolerate the scandal involved in the mediate cooperation with evil since it is under duress that such evil is being tolerated.
Some of us have sincere doubts about the fragility of these hospitals and believe they may thrive and flourish all the more if they refused to perform illegal reproductive services. (Many Catholics doctors who have bravely chosen not to provide reproductive services have worried a great deal about financial repercussions but have generally done well and some better than when they were prescribing contraceptives.) Still, there is some evidence that those who must have their abortions and contraceptives are willing to do what they can to destroy Catholic health services and will sue under various ruses to prevent the mergers. Thus, there certainly may be some kinds of mediate or remote cooperation with evil that could “technically” be permitted, but much must be done to avoid scandal. It is necessary for those who are forced to cooperate with evil to do what they can to avoid scandal—to avoid having others conclude from their actions that they are not bothered by the evil with which they cooperate. One would think that a hospital that tolerates cooperation with evil it would rather avoid, would, for instance, instruct the local priests to educate their parishioners about why the evil involved (say contraception) is evil and why any cooperation or complicity might be necessary and tolerated. But that rarely happens.
In fact, it is sometimes the proposal to pursue a merger that reveals to a bishop that the staff at the local Catholic hospital is not exactly faithful to Catholic teaching. Consider that some bishops, when learning about sterilization procedures done at Catholic hospitals, have given the hospitals a date after which such services must be stopped. Would they do the same if Catholic hospitals were doing abortions? Would they not insist that they immediately cease and desist? What if they were counseling a man or women involved in an adulterous relationship; would they give them a deadline after which they should stop? (Now that I ponder the question I fear that some would in fact counsel staying in an adulterous arrangement until one’s finances were secure!)
Well, I have strayed far from the topic of recusant England though the uniting thread should be clear. In 17th century England most bishops, priests and laypeople repudiated their faith; only a few who would be holy risked their lives and some paid the price of their lives for their fidelity. We need those few now and always. We should not allow the fact that we live in a land that at least pays lip service to religious liberty to lull us into thinking that we are exempt from the obligation of holding fast to and professing the truths of the faith when it is costly to do so. Holy Martyrs, pray for us!
© Copyright 2002 Catholic Dossier
This article is reprinted with permission from Catholic Dossier.