In England, and thus by extension the English-speaking world, we inherit a tradition which has been called the “Black Legend,” through which English Catholicism has also been viewed. It makes the Catholic Church the centre of anti-English activities, a cruel, intolerant organisation characterised by the Inquisition. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs provided a foundational text here, portraying Queen Mary I as “Bloody Mary,” a theme now so ingrained as to be to some extent immoveable.
In his influential “A History of the English-Speaking Peoples,” Churchill captures this legend in his treatment of England’s history as one of struggle against the Catholic Powers of Spain and France. The implication of a special English “destiny” was one passed into the American DNA via the idea of “manifest destiny.” All good stories have a villain, and the Catholic Church makes an excellent one in this narrative.
On top of these older narratives, we have a newer one, propagated via aggressive modern secularism, which is hostile to Christianity, but particularly so to the Catholic Church. This new narrative has widened its scope beyond the old victims, who were mainly white male; women and children have been included in the charge sheet. The Church is portrayed as anti-women because of its stances on abortion and contraception; indeed there are some areas where even praising this is seen as “offensive.” It is also hostile to “LGBTI” rights. And then there is child abuse and its cover up. As ever, there would be no smoke without fire, and on the last of these issues, the Church still seems a little tone deaf in some places, and, of course, the large areas where it is not get no attention from its critics.
All of this amounts to a sustained narrative which creates difficulties being a Catholic in the public square. So how do we tell a different story without simply being accused of a biased “revisionism” for its own sake?
In the first place we need to get our history right.
If there was a time when Christianity was alien to England, it was before the invasion of the Emperor Claudius in A.D. 43. By the time of the great rupture we call the Reformation, Christianity had been in these Islands for nearly 1500 years. It did not arrive in the seventh century with St Augustine. Bede is clear that it was already here, and what is sometimes called the “Celtic” Church seems simply to have been the Christianity that was already rooted here before the early fifth century when the Romans withdrew.
England, then Wales and Scotland have a longer history of being “Catholic” than they have of being anything else. Indeed, as Cranmer, Laud and the whole Anglo-Catholic tradition exemplify, a very large section of English Christianity saw itself a a reformed Catholic Church. Beowulf, Chaucer and Shakespeare are all products of Catholic culture, as is our education system, as is our law and morality. Reasons of State made it necessary for the English and then the British State to play up the separation from Rome; but that was not the same as separating from what Christianity had given to England, and indeed, Britain.
If we could examine our history afresh and tell this story, rather than the grand narrative of Churchill, then we should make steps in a positive direction. This is not about “revisionism” for its own sake, but it is, as with “Black” and “Women’s history,” a recognition that unless the story of a neglected group is told, it is hard for us to ass that group in a proper historical context.
I would suggest that viewed from this angle, the narrative is one that unites us. The story it tells is of the way in which the Faith created a civilisation with values and norms which are still needed; created an art which still influences us; and created a culture which still matters.
It is not, and never should be, a matter of denigrating in turn those who have denigrated the Catholic Church, but rather one of emphasising the values of the Faith and their positive legacy and continuing influence. It is of saying that Catholics is not “Irish,” or “Spanish” or “other,” it is part of the English spirit. But who will tell that story, who will write that curriculum for out schools, and who will promote the attempt to correct the balance? And equally important, who will do it in a non-partisan manner which recognises that no story is wholly black or white?
I would suggest that if prominent Catholics are looking for good causes, they might do worse than work towards the creation of an Institute that might begin and promote this good work.
We have schools and universities which are world-class, but we have inherited a tradition of reserve and perhaps have so thoroughly taken on board the need to “keep our heads down,” that we have hesitated to take the lead where we are able. We would not want to be accused of being sectarian, not least by those who are.
But there is nothing sectarian in capturing again the ways in which Catholicism is part of our heritage. In 1852 Newman delivered a series of lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England which repay study. He outlined the problem and part of the solution. We are still looking for Catholics who will go forward with the task he outlined then. Shall we, in our time, say the way is too hard and the task too difficult? It was in Newman’s day. It is harder now. It will get no easier.