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Still Here: The Case of British Catholics

O n November 5, 2010, the English once again observed Guy Fawkes Day, commemorating a failed Roman Catholic plot in the seventeenth century to blow up the Houses of Parliament during the opening ceremony of the new session, when the king would have been present, and to restore a Catholic monarch in his place. Since then, children have set off fireworks and burned effigies of Guy Fawkes, the plotter who was captured guarding the barrels of gunpowder under the parliament building.

When I was a boy, my grandfather wouldn’t allow me to have anything to do with Guy Fawkes Day because it was fundamentally anti-Catholic. But while its origins were doubtless meant as a reminder to the English people of papist treason, its links to perhaps the first terrorist attempt in London are long since forgotten, and it survives as a children’s street ritual—and a fading one at that in an age of video games and other high-tech distractions.

What of the Catholics? Outlawed in the immediate aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, they remained virtually an underground movement until at least the early eighteenth century. Laws against recusancy—refusal to attend Anglican services—were in force from the reign of Elizabeth I to George III, though not always enforced with equal severity. The Vatican has always regarded the English Reformation in the sixteenth century as the development that gave the Protestant movement its momentum in Europe. Until the Second Vatican Council, which in the 1960s ushered in a new spirit of ecumenism, prayers for the conversion of England—“Mary’s Dowry,” as it used to be called—were recited regularly in the Catholic churches of Europe. Even today British Catholics steer clear of the term “conversion,” to avoid offending the Anglicans. They speak of “restoration.”

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W hen the Jesuit John Carroll was appointed the first bishop of the United States in 1790, he had to go to England to be consecrated by another bishop. But there were no public Catholic churches in England, so Bishop Charles Walmesley performed the ceremony privately in the chapel of Lulworth Castle in Dorset. The poet Alexander Pope, who as a recusant Catholic was barred at the time from living in London, was probably among those present.

But that was then. English Catholics have since become woven into the fabric of British society. Two popes have visited Britain to a warm welcome—Pope John Paul II in 1982, and Pope Benedict XVI last September. An Anglican prime minister (Tony Blair) converted to Catholicism—although he waited until he had resigned to make the switch, so a Catholic has yet to occupy 10 Downing Street.

And in January, three Anglican bishops, unhappy with the introduction of women clergy and other changes in their own church, said they planned to take up the Catholic Church’s recent invitation to become Roman clergy. The
4.2 million-strong Catholic minority in England and Wales (eight percent of the population) is both more active and more resilient than in most European countries.

In an age of secularization, one million Catholics (according to recent surveys) say they are regular churchgoers; so that while priests in such predominantly Catholic countries as Spain and Italy celebrate Mass on Sundays in near empty churches, this is not the case in Catholic Britain.

By contrast, the Church of England, a.k.a. the Anglican Church, with its twenty-five million baptized members, is in slow but definite decline. Only 1.7 million Anglicans go regularly to church. Anglicanism is officially the religion of England and Wales (but not Scotland); Britain is the only European country besides the Holy See where there is no separation of church and state. The queen, as head of state, is also head of the Anglican Church, and a number of Anglican bishops sit in the House of Lords as the so-called “Lords spiritual.”

In other respects, England’s Catholics are so integrated into the mainstream that they normally attract little attention—compared, for example, to the country’s now vocal and highly visible two million Muslims. But with Pope Benedict’s visit, Catholics found themselves suddenly the focus of curiosity and attention, and even attacks, as British anti-Catholics suddenly found a strident voice.

True, the main target was the Pope himself, slammed by demonstrators for his church’s opposition to gay marriage, women priests, and stem cell research, and for the recent spate of sex abuse scandals by pedophile priests. But clearly some of the criticism rubbed off on the church that was hosting
the pontiff.

In the end, though, despite the demonstrations, and partly because expectations had been low, the pope’s visit was still considered a hit. Columnist Anne Applebaum suggested in the Washington Post that as opposition increased, so did public interest in the papal visit, boosting attendance at Pope Benedict’s public appearances and increasing the crowds in the streets. Assessing the trip, the Independent newspaper said, “You could at least make the case for saying [the pope has] emerged from this trip looking statesman-like, looking successful and—most unlikely of all—looking popular.”


W hat emerged from the scrutiny in the press, the blogs, and the endless hours of often heated television discussion was confirmation of the quiet but profound change in English Catholicism.

In Brideshead Revisited , the novelist Evelyn Waugh portrays an aristocratic family of Catholics as dysfunctional and eccentric, with their own chapel in their stately home, and their resident priest. In class-conscious Britain even Catholicism is socially stratified. This was Waugh’s reference to the aristocratic families in England and Wales descended from high-profile recusants like the Howards—the family name of the Duke of Norfolk—who managed to hold on to faith, heads, and lands. Their dissent added strength to Catholic resistance.

But because the growth of Catholicism since the nineteenth century was the result primarily of immigration, the larger image of English Catholics was for years synonymous with Irish culture, and Catholics were seen as loyal to a foreign religion—just as some in the United States warned that presidential candidate John F. Kennedy would, if elected, be taking secret orders from the Vatican.

Paradoxically, the two successful papal trips to Britain almost three decades apart helped integrate English Catholics. As did a robust Catholic intellectual tradition that included G. K. Chesterton, Waugh, Graham Greene, and the historian Antonia Fraser—the last three being converts to the church, Fraser at the age of
fourteen.

British writer Paul Vallely, a onetime adviser to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, also gives credit to the late Cardinal Basil Hume, archbishop of Westminster, for Catholics’ acceptance into the mainstream. A thoroughly English figure, he gave out no flicker of inappropriately divided allegiance, whether to Rome or to Ireland. Hume was widely popular, even outside the Catholic community: Queen Elizabeth II called him “my cardinal.” His time in office saw Catholicism become better accepted in Britain than it had been for four hundred years.

“English Catholics have gone through a process in which it is possible to hold onto a distinct religious identity, with distinctive values, and yet become completely British,” Vallely declares, “and in doing so to bring our values to bear influentially on the mainstream of society. It has been, of course, a long business.”

Some barriers remain: The Act of Settlement of 1701 barring anyone in line of succession to the British throne from being a Catholic, or from marrying one, remains in force. A few years ago, Prince Charles himself showed more interest in the Catholic faith than was healthy for the royal heir, and Queen Elizabeth II is said to have told him to snap out of it. (Before her marriage to Prince Charles, Camilla Parker Bowles, a Catholic, became an Anglican in compliance with the centuries-old law.)

There is an obvious contradiction in a monarch being a Catholic when he or she is also expected to be head of the Church of England. (The law makes no such exclusion in the case of Jews or Muslims.) But some constitutional lawyers even question whether a Catholic could be prime minister. The 1829 Emancipation Act that granted civil rights to Roman Catholics says no Catholic adviser to the monarch can hold office, either civil or military.

It might be unclear whether Catholics can occupy 10 Downing Street, but as a group they nonetheless remain a considerable force when it comes to deciding who does. Prior to the 2010 elections, the Catholic bishops waded into the campaign with a pastoral letter critical of the financial collapse under two successive Labour governments, and what they called the decimation of social capital and the loss of human dignity.

One important factor in the Labour Party’s subsequent defeat in a very close result, according to British analysts, was a drop in traditional Catholic support from fifty-three percent in 2005 to forty-three percent in 2010.

Who benefited? David Cameron’s Tories. The party most closely identified with the Anglican Church got twenty-four percent of the Catholic vote, said to be the highest ever. Given British Catholics’ growing numbers and increasing integration into the mainstream, this is a change that should be seen as portentous.

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