Friday, August 11, 2017

Putting the Roman in English "Roman Catholicism"

Father Dwight Longenecker writes for the National Catholic Register:

Since King Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church to found the Church of England, you would imagine that Anglicans would never claim to be Catholic. But they do.

When I lived in England I often heard members of the Church of England say, “We’re Catholic too; we’re just not Roman Catholic.”

The theory is that the English Church was always Catholic, but in the 16th century it was “reformed”: The popular idea is that jolly old King Henry VIII saw that the monasteries were full of fat old monks and he went through and tidied things up a bit. The Church had become fat, old and corrupt, and Henry and his children, Edward and then Elizabeth, straightened things out, streamlined a few things and got everything shipshape.

This is not only a complete whitewash of the depredations, iconoclasm and wholesale destruction of the Catholic Church, but it is also a misreading of English Catholic history. Along with this view of the English Reformation is a strange idea that the Church in England was, from the beginning, separate from Rome and that only in the Middle Ages onward was it under Rome’s thumb.

While I usually don't like the use of the term "Roman Catholicism"--it ignores the Eastern Rite communities in the Catholic Church--in the case of this article, it makes perfect sense. Reading Father Longenecker's article, I was reminded of a book I read six years ago, The English Church and the Papacy in the Middle Ages, which I reviewed here:

Introduction by C.H. Lawrence
Chapter 1: The Celtic Church and the Papacy, by Kathleen Hughes
Chapter 2: The Anglo-Saxon Church and the Papacy by Veronica Ortenberg (new for the 1999 edition)
Chapter 3: From the Conquest to the Death of John by Charles Duggan
Chapter 4: The Thirteenth Century by C.H. Lawrence
Chapter 5: The Fourteenth Century by W.A. Pantin
Chapter 6: The Fifteenth Century by F.R.H. DuBoulay

The first chapter is refreshingly free of the Thomas Cahill-type conflict between Celtic and Roman Catholicism in which the Roman Catholic Church is rigid and evil and the Celtic Church all humane and wonderful. Instead, Kathleen Hughes surveys the interaction between the Papacy and Celtic bishops and culture without that polemic edge, while still covering the issues about the of Easter and discipline throughout the Church.

In the second, new chapter for the 1999 edition, Veronica Ortenberg describes the very close relationship between the Catholic Church in England  and the Papacy during the Anglo-Saxon era, including of course, Pope St. Gregory the Great sending St. Augustine of Canterbury to Kent. She demonstrates how devoted Catholics in England at that time were to the Popes as the successors of St. Peter, how regularly bishops and laity travelled to Rome on pilgrimage, and how much correspondence, usually requesting and offering papal guidance, was exchanged.

As expected from the title, the third chapter covers, although with the assumption of the reader's prior knowledge of the outline of events, the conflicts between Henry II and St. Thomas a Becket, and John and Innocent III, noting that in the latter case, at least, once the crisis was resolved John gained a great deal of support from the pope, especially after making England a vassal of Innocent III.

Father Longenecker's argument accords with the material presented in this book as he concludes:

Was the Anglican church founded on some pure, serene and ancient apostolic church that existed in Britain for 600 years before the arrival of St. Augustine sent by Pope Gregory? There’s no evidence for it.

Instead, the British Church was started by Romans, converted the locals, and remained linked to Rome even after the legions departed from Britain. After that, the missionary efforts to the British Isles were of Roman origin.

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