Let’s just leave history in the past. That’s a convenient suggestion for anyone wanting to disregard history. Yet for Catholics, history is our greatest defense; after all, we follow the same teachings as handed down by the apostles. Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman said, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”
The flip side is that history is often used against us: What about the Inquisitions and Crusades? And what was the deal with Galileo? It’s unfortunate that so many Catholics know so little about their own faith history—although there’s a positive side: usually, the attackers don’t know much either (and what they do know is often inaccurate or exaggerated).
To defend the Catholic Church, knowing and understanding history is key. In my book Catholic Truths for Our Children, I point out that historical knowledge is a way to defend and pass on the faith. Even taking into account some unfortunate moments within the Church, history is still on our side.
An especially critical time in history was the Reformation. Protestants view it as a cleansing of the decay that had crept into the Church. They believe that Martin Luther brought back the purity of the apostolic age. Yet that included changing traditions and teachings, throwing out seven books of the Bible, ending the priesthood, and dropping some of the sacraments…. and on and on. Purification is not what he did. Luther’s sort of reform really was a protest setting off a chain reaction that continues to this day.
A Reformation of Power and Desire
Years ago, when I read a biography about St. Edmund Campion, a priest martyred in the aftermath of the English Reformation (yes, killing priests and other Catholics was equated with purification) it opened my eyes to my own lack of knowledge of what Catholics had to endure as a result of the English Reformation.
Stephanie Mann detailed this period in history in her book, Supremacy and Survival, How Catholics Endured the English Reformation. As a student of history, she explained that the book was thirty years in the making. Her reason for writing it, however, goes beyond her love of history to her love of the Catholic faith. Too often, this historic period is chronicled through a Protestant filter, playing down the heroism and truth of the Catholic players.
Mann writes that Protestants often interpret the English Reformation as a necessary step in the progress of liberal civilizations. But she points out that this reformation departs from those in Europe, beginning with Luther. Rather than theological differences, it was about power and personal desire. “The English Reformation was led by a king, not because of Church scandals or abuses, but because the pope would not grant him an annulment on his first marriage,” Mann states. “The Roman Catholic Church in England on the eve of Henry’s break from Rome was a strong community, with excellent lay involvement, efforts by bishops and theologians to improve the Church and remedy abuses, a vibrant monastic tradition, and a determined apologetic response–which included the king himself–against the continental Reformers.”
As a homeschooling mom, I have had my kids read Protestant and Catholic history books alongside one another in order to contrast the effect of different perspectives on the way history is interpreted. To best understand Catholic history, one needs to read about it through Catholic eyes.
Interview with the Author
In an interview with Stephanie Mann, she explained how important a Catholic point of view is in history and why it is valuable for us to understand this historic period.
Q. What difference does a person’s religious denomination make in interpreting history?
A. To me, the crucial difference is that a Catholic views history as a continuity of development with a definite end in sight: the second coming of Jesus Christ in glory, the Last Judgment as described in Chapter 25 of St. Matthew’s Gospel, and the New Heavens and Earth. There may be cycles in that history, highs and lows, times of suffering, times of triumph, times of failure and times of reform. A Catholic knows, or should know, that the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church Jesus founded is guided by the Holy Spirit. That is the source of our hope even in dark times. You quoted Blessed John Henry Newman’s famous aphorism from his Development of Christian Doctrine–Catholics can go deep in history in ways that I don’t think Protestants can. We can take the long view and we can learn from our past.
Q. As an historian, why did you choose to write about the English Reformation?
A. I was an English major with a strong minor in History in college and then earned a Master’s Degree in English Literature. Therefore, I have studied English literature and English history for context for years. My interest in the English Reformation began when I investigated the life and works of Blessed John Henry Newman. To understand his conversion to Catholicism, I learned about the Church of England. Then, when I read Eamon Duffy’s book, The Stripping of the Altars, I realized the history of the Church of England was far more complex than I had been taught. Investigating Henry VIII’s break away from the universal Catholic Church and the authority of the pope, the vicar of Christ, I found a compelling story of heroism, suffering, and ultimate survival. I’ve narrated that story in Supremacy and Survival, which begins with the Tudor reformation in the sixteenth century. The story of what Catholics endured continues through the Stuart dynasty in the next century and ends only in the early and mid-nineteenth century when Catholics were finally emancipated and the hierarchy returned to rebuild–churches, schools, seminaries, and convents.
Q. How do these events that happened so long ago pertain to us today?
A. I think we have to be aware of the threats we face. In the United States, Catholics may feel secure because of protections our Constitution outlines, but we know that Catholics have experienced discrimination before. It has not always been to the point of martyrdom, but anti-Catholicism runs like a secret history through our country’s past. The moral direction the current administration is taking on matters of marriage, the family, health care, contraception, and abortion should alert us to danger. At the same time, the administration ignores the claims of conscience and natural law and brooks no dissension in these matters. Again, Catholics may not suffer to the point of shedding our blood, but we may lose a job, be passed over, endure ridicule, or find ourselves branded bigots. Certainly in the Middle East and other parts of the world we also see what happens when the state denies religious freedom: Catholics are definitely suffering there. Studying the English Reformation, especially through the great martyrs, reminds us of the choices we always face. We always have to struggle to be in the world as salt and light and yet not be of the world. When we choose to follow Christ in His Church we must die to self, and that’s what the English martyrs, and those who suffered imprisonment, exile, and discrimination demonstrate to us.
Also, the Catholic Church in England, the USA, Canada, and Australia is preparing to receive groups of former Anglicans as Catholics. Pope Benedict XVI announced the structure of the ordinariate in late 2009, visited Scotland and England in September 2010 and reminded Catholics of their great heritage and history. Then he beatified John Henry Newman and, in 2011, named him the patron of the first Anglican Ordinariate, Our Lady of Walsingham. Called by the Truth whom Newman had followed in the nineteenth century, these twenty-first century converts are bringing great evangelistic spirit. This is an exciting time and this history gives us the context to understand it.
Q. If the Catholic community of that era was so vibrant, why was the King able to force the reformation on his subjects?
A. That last word is crucial: subjects. England was not a free country; the monarch had the power indeed to force change–take the oaths I demand or you will die; rebel against me and you will die. The people of England did not conform easily, however–that’s why we have the great martyrs from St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More to St. Margaret Ward and St. Anne Line to St. Oliver Plunkett! It took a long time for England to become a Protestant country. That’s part of the story Supremacy and Survival tells.
Q. Who are your favorite Catholic heroes from this period?
A. That is the hardest question of all! In some ways, especially true of the priests who suffered martyrdom, their stories are the same–a young man, perhaps Anglican, realizes he has a vocation to the Catholic priesthood. He goes into exile to study for the priesthood. Once ordained, he may stay on the Continent for a time, but then he returns to England. He knows that if he is captured, he will endure torture and excruciating death. The state will attempt to bribe him–renounce your Catholic faith and priesthood, attend the Church of England service, receive Anglican communion and we will set you free! St. Edmund Campion, St. Henry Walpole, St. Robert Southwell, dozens of them faced these dangers and came back to serve the Catholics of England anyway. St. Thomas More always fascinates: his wit, his loving kindness, and his courage. St. Margaret Clitherow, protecting her family and refusing to plead in Court, which led to her being crushed to death. St. Philip Howard, dying in the Tower of London without seeing his little boy, because Elizabeth I heartlessly gave the condition of renouncing his Catholic faith–each one of them inspires me.
And the converts in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries–Newman, Robert Hugh Benson, G.K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox, G.E.M. Anscombe, Rumer Godden–so many great writers and artists! See why it’s hard for me to choose?