Sunday, 19 September 2010
Most loyal subjects
The papal visit has caused me to reflect on Catholics and the fate of Catholics in my period of special study – seventeenth century England. The story begins with the most infamous terrorist conspiracy in English history and ends with the deposition of king: it begins with the Gunpowder Plot and ends with the so-called Glorious Revolution.
It’s difficult to imagine the hostility and suspicion with which English Catholics were perceived from the reign of Elizabeth to the flight of James II. In modern terms they might be said to have occupied then the position that some sections of the Islamic community do now.
To a degree the fear of the Protestant state was understandable. After all, in 1570 Pius V issued Regnans in Excelsis, a bull describing Elizabeth I as a heretic, releasing her subjects from obeying her orders and threatening excommunication against any who did. Elizabeth, who had hitherto pursued a policy of toleration, had little choice but to begin a campaign of repression, particularly against perceived agents of the Vatican. The Jesuits were obvious targets, but even ordinary priests were drawn into the net.
But it is one of the great misconceptions, a Protestant retrospective, to put it another way, that Catholics were always ready to obey the Pope in political as well as religious matters; they were not, either before or after the Reformation. By and large English Catholics remained loyal to Elizabeth and her successors, the aberration of the Gunpowder Plot notwithstanding. More than that, as the century progressed they were among the most loyal, as the Civil Wars proved.
After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Charles II, who had direct and intimate experience of Catholic loyalty, retained a sense of gratitude, evidenced by periodic attempts to reduce the penalties and restrictions with which the community was burdened. But his good intentions were invariably frustrated by a Parliament deeply hostile to the ‘recusants’, so called because of their refusal to attend Anglican services. They continued to be barred from public office and compelled to pay fines for non-attendance at church.
Even so, life, though difficult, was not impossible, especially for England’s great Catholic families, particularly strong in the north. Then came an unexpected disaster, the greatest and most vile fabrication in English history – the Popish Plot. In modern terms it was a ‘conspiracy theory’, one conceived in the mind of a half-mad clergyman by the name of Israel Tongue but more generally associated with his principle collaborator, a wholly unsavoury individual by the name of Titus Oates.
By a mixture of verisimilitude, perjury and pure speculation Oates managed to convince the authorities that there was a grand Catholic plot to kill the King. In itself it might have come to nothing but for one crucial element: James, duke of York, the king’s brother and heir, had long been suspected as a secret papist, confirmed after he refused to take the Test Act of 1673. So, the plot to kill the king acquired an additional plausibility: that he was to be replaced by a Catholic.
In the three years from 1678 to 1680 England was gripped by a kind of collective insanity, with stories of dark riders and secret meetings across the land. Perfectly innocent Catholics were indicted on a charge of high treason, convicted and subject to the hideous butchery that followed on no more that Oates perjured evidence.
James did eventually succeed after the madness had reduced and the lies had been exposed, but the suspicion remained, not helped by his own political clumsiness. In 1688, in fear of a permanent Catholic monarchy, he was deposed by a group of aristocratic conspirators, an oligarchy whose rule was to become self-perpetuating. In one of their first acts Catholics were excluded from the royal succession, which remains the position to the present day.
For me the Popish Plot is both acutely fascinating, an insight into political pathology, and deeply shameful, even though historians are not allowed feelings in such matters! But these days are over, the hysteria is long gone, my interest is purely intellectual and academic. Not quite, sadly. I felt a renewed sense of shame over the churlish reception of Pope Benedict by some sections of our national community, shamed that his message was being drowned out, as the Spectator lead puts it, by the mendacious caricature of him as a former Nazi apologist for child abuse. It all fits with unregenerate bigots like Ian Paisley, whose imagination has not moved much beyond the days of the Popish Plot, as well as self-righteous clots like the laughable Peter Tatchell, the conscience of all gay-kind. English Catholics deserve better; they’ve earned it, my goodness, how they have earned it.
I’m not a Catholic, as I previously said, but I am a romantic. The papal visit fills me with a sense of occasion, a sense of history. I fail to see how one could not be moved by the whole thing, unless one had a soul of clay. For the first time in our history, in the history of Christianity itself, the head of the Catholic Church came to our island on an official visit. More than that, he gave a speech in Westminster Hall, in the very place where Thomas More stood trial for his life, holding to a simple principle that there was a higher duty than duty to the state. More, as a Catholic, believed in miracles. Even so he could never have conceived that the miracle of time and of circumstance would bring the successor of Saint Peter to a place where he once stood alone.
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish; Earth has no sorrow that Heaven cannot heal.