There’s a passage in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass where Alice meets Humpty Dumpty, perched on his wall, and is startled to find him using the word ‘glory’ to mean, in effect, ‘q.e.d.’, and says so.
“When I use a word,” the scornful egg replies, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
Alice counters by raising the question of whether a word can be made to mean so many different things, and the egg responds by saying: “The question is which is to be master — that’s all.”
The episode sprang to mind the other day when reading Peter Hitchens’s idiosyncratic take on the English Reformation as mapped out in an article at firstthings.com.
‘Latimer and Ridley are forgotten: a Protestant understanding of England’s martyrs’ is a disastrous piece of writing, repeating hoary fictions like Latimer’s supposed last words to Ridley, nodding but once to the Tudor monarchs’ activities in Ireland, shrugging off those as who died under Elizabeth as having sought martyrdom, and never once even considering why many of England’s Catholics could not in conscience go through the motions of the new regime while hoping it would pass.
After describing Oxford’s monument to Bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, both of whom were burnt to death in 1555, two years into the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary, Hitchens describes the adjacent Church of St Mary Magdalen as “now a fortress of the most Catholic version of Anglicanism, much more Catholic than the present Pope” raising the question of what on earth he means when he writes ‘Catholic’.
If that weren’t confusing enough, Hitchens refers to Henry VIII – after his breach with Rome – as a ‘Catholic’ monarch. The basis for this risible claim seems to be, simply, that Henry regarded himself as Catholic, and that he held to certain Catholic doctrines. Well, perhaps so, but certainly this is not how the Church in Henry’s day regarded him, and it is not how he looks when scrutinised through the lens of canon law.
Under canon law, after all, the Church “subsists in the Catholic Church governed by the successor of Peter and the bishops in communion with him”, with the baptised who are fully in communion with the Catholic Church being those “who are joined with Christ in its visible structure by the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical governance”.
The last one – ecclesiastical governance – is not an afterthought. Unity with the bishops and especially with the Pope are essential to Catholic identity – something that is too often forgotten and dismissed by those who sneer at our current Pope, or Catholics in general.
Henry utterly rejected the authority of the Pope – and not merely in temporal matters. As time went on his views of such Catholic mainstays as monasteries, pilgrimages, Purgatory and the intercession of saints strayed some way from the Faith – it is hard to claim, after all, that Henry’s vigorous campaign against the shrines and cults of English saints was an expression of an even vaguely orthodox Catholicism.
Lest we be tempted to read this as simply a thuggish variant on Erasmian Catholicism, one should note that central to Henry’s self-understanding entailed an almost Hebraic notion of kingship, seeing it as a supreme spiritual responsibility entrusted to kings by God, but long concealed from them by the machinations of the papacy.
Claiming the monarchy as a supremely religious office meant, of course, that opposition to the monarch’s claims could be painted not merely as heresy but as treason, but Hitchens omits the underlying fact, and instead boasts of the “unavoidable conclusion” that Ss Thomas More and John Fisher were executed for political offenses, not religious ones.
Overall, it is hard to see Hitchens’ thesis that Catholics executed under Henry and Elizabeth were put to death for purely political offenses as anything other than a ludicrous and cynical debating stance, one that masks the reality of the Tudors’ religious claims. It’s sad to see such sectarian nonsense being trotted out nowadays.+