31 July 2008

There Will Always Be (Catholic) England...

...unless there's no England at all. George Weigel:

In 1850, Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman wrote his fellow-Englishmen from Rome, announcing that Pius IX had restored the diocesan hierarchy in England and that he, Wiseman, would be cardinal archbishop of Westminster.

"From Out the Flaminian Gate," a pastoral letter longer on baroque rhetoric than ecumenical diplomacy, caused a perfect storm in Protestant England. Queen Victoria wondered whether she remained the sovereign. Lord John Russell, the prime minister, said he would rely on the good sense of the English people, who "looked with contempt on the mummeries of superstition." The Anglican archbishop of York warned that Rome was plotting Anglicanism's "captivity and ruin."

As things turned out, Anglicanism proved quite capable of arranging its own sad ruin. Today, Catholics (their ranks bolstered by a substantial number of Polish immigrants) are the largest number of Christian churchgoers in England. The Church of England is the Christian community to which most Englishmen know that they, and their parents and grandparents, once belonged. England's cause, and Anglicanism's, are no longer thought to be the same.

Which was once the case, and for centuries. At the level of national mythology, modern state-building in 16th century England had a premier Catholic villain: the Spanish bogeyman, Philip II, with his Armada. Perhaps more importantly in ordinary people's lives, the formation of the modern state in Tudor England went hand-in-(mailed)-glove with the state-sponsored and state-enforced demolition of traditional Catholic piety in favor of Protestant doctrine and practice, in what historian Eamon Duffy dubbed "the stripping of the altars." By 1688, with the staunchly Protestant William and Mary enthroned and James II in exile, to be an English patriot was to be Protestant. Catholicism was dangerously "other."

That the storm of controversy Nicholas Wiseman caused in 1850 is inconceivable now --- that contemporary calls for England's conversion would likely meet yawns rather than outrage --- says a lot about the land that once produced such great Christian allegorists as John Bunyan, John Milton and C.S. Lewis.

"English = Protestant" has been replaced by a new equation: "English = Multiculturally P.C." Evensong is still sung superbly in King's College chapel, Cambridge; but the psalms and canticles echo amidst the real absence. Bunyan's Pilgrim has come to an even deeper slough: not of despond, but of spiritual apathy and boredom.

Into that slough now rides Father Aidan Nichols, the distinguished English Dominican theologian. His small book, The Realm: An Unfashionable Essay on the Conversion of England, makes a bold claim about the past and a bold wager about the future: "England is in fact inseparable from Catholicism, unimaginable without it."

Here's the whole thing. Via First Things blog.


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