Friday, January 6, 2012

Some Notes on Maryland Catholicism

A reconstruction of the Catholic Church
in Saint Mary's City, Maryland, as it
would have appeared c. 1680
Yesterday I made a reference to recusant Catholicism in regard to the Maryland Catholic experience and I have received a number of inquiries asking me to explain that further.  
      As we have mentioned in a number of blogs, Henry VIII broke the Church of England from communion with the Roman Papacy in 1536 (well, truthfully,  in a series of gradual steps from 1528 until 1536) but he changed neither doctrine nor liturgy, keeping the Anglican Church a sort of non-papal Catholicism.  It was his son Edward VI (1547-1553)—or actually Edward’s Regency Council—and his (Henry’s) daughter, Elizabeth (reigned 1558-1603) who made the Church of England Protestant.  Henry’s senior daughter Mary, (reigned 1553-1558) was a Catholic, restored Catholicism, and bitterly persecuted “the heretics” (aka Protestants).  Henry had also persecuted Protestants (even after his break with Rome) and also quite brutally, far more brutally than he executed several dozen Catholics who were beheaded for treason (i.e. denying his royal authority over the Church) rather than for religious reasons (where the punishment was burning at the stake which is what he usually did to Protestants).  Edward and Elizabeth were reluctant to use religion as a reason for execution, which is not to say that they were reluctant to execute, only that they wanted another reason than matters of conscience.  Their reigns were not particularly bloody, at least as far as religion went, and Elizabeth in particular was not anxious to interfere in the conscience issues of individuals.  That is not to say she didn’t do away with a number—and not a particularly small number—of Catholics, in the hundreds. It is only that they were imprisoned, tried, and put to death for treason.  You see, Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth in 1570 (fair enough and about time for that matter) and he also absolved her subjects of their loyalty to her.  In other words, Catholics were told that they didn’t have to support Elizabeth as Queen.  This is because Elizabeth’s nearest kinsperson and heir to her throne, Mary  Queen of Scots, was a Catholic.  If the Catholics rose up and overthrew Elizabeth, England would have a Catholic Monarch again.  Pius liked that Reformation over.  But this put English Catholics in a terrible bind.  They could not be trusted to support the government.  You can imagine if Pope Benedict told modern American Catholics—“go ahead, overthrow your government,” what the outcome would be.  There were fears in American history, especially during the Know Nothing crisis of the 1850’s when many Americans believed precisely that: the Catholics would, as they grew in numbers, replace our Republican Government with a Catholic monarchy where Protestants would be persecuted.  (Check out blog entries for January 23, 26, 28, 29, 30, 31, February 1, March 7—all 2011.) There are people today who believe that Muslims will take over and impose sharia law on the United States.  They want Islam to be illegal in our country.  They want Muslims deported.  They insist that all Muslims are anti-American terrorists.  This is the exact sort of paranoia that gripped England in the years after 1570.  It was complicated by the fact that French and especially Spanish diplomats were encouraging rebellion and providing funds to anti-Elizabeth cabals.  Could you trust Catholics?  Maybe you had Catholic friends.  They seemed like nice people, but could you trust them?  Elizabeth, to her credit didn’t over react despite much pressure from much of her Council.  Elizabeth herself had Catholics among her friends and confidants and she was no fanatic.  Priests—as agents of a foreign power (the Pope and the King of Spain) and those who sheltered priests were hunted out, imprisoned, most often tried and executed.  They were normally executed by hanging until almost dead, then being cut down and gutted while still (barely) alive and then—for good measure—dismembered.  This was the punishment for treason.  Ordinary lay Catholics were usually left alone except for those who sheltered or aided priests. 
       Most of the towns in England, and London in particular, had converted early to Protestantism but much of the rural population had remained Catholic.  In some very rural places, especially in the west and in the far north, Mass was still being said in the parish churches with neglectful sheriffs turning their heads.  Also while the middle class and the “new nobility” (those families raised to nobility by the Tudors in reward for service) were ardently Protestant, many of the “old nobility” (who tended to be anti-monarchy as they saw the London Government taking away many of their hereditary rights) remained Catholic.
      Thus English society under Elizabeth and then under the Stuarts, James I and Charles I, had considerable pockets of Catholicism.  Some wealthy families were even able to retain a Catholic chaplain under the guise of being a tutor to the family children.  As the years passed and especially after the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587, the laws were enforced less vigilantly and priests, if they were careful and especially if they were far from London, could discreetly minister to the great Catholic families and the tenants on their estates.   This isn’t to say that the persecution was over but only that the laws were not always enforced with vigor.  Nevertheless, Catholics could not have churches.  Mass was said in private homes—usually those of the wealthier upper classes who could pay the fines if caught and who had enough political pull to guarantee they were left alone.  Gone were the days when there could be processions in the streets or public devotions.  Catholic devotional life was centered in the family with prayers like the rosary.  There weren’t many statues and crosses—they were hard to come by and dead giveaways that the family was Catholic.   Devotional books of private prayers were popular and the writing of English monks and nuns on the Continent such as Dom Augustin Baker and Dame Gertrude More stressed deep personal prayer—even a tradition of contemplative prayer.  Thus English Catholicism in the seventeenth century became very different than Continental Catholicism.  It was far more restrained in its devotional life, more literate than emotional, Christocentric rather than focusing on saints and miracles.  This was the Catholicism brought to Maryland by the English colonists.  Priests usually wore lay clothes in subdued colors.  The liturgy was simple and without ornamentation as it would be celebrated in private homes.  Statues and devotional objects were rare.  (Bishop John Carroll put no statues in his Cathedral, the Basilica of the Assumption, when it was built.  It was only his French successor but two, Archbishop Ambrose Maréchal, that imported statues of Mary and Jesus from Europe.) The more exotic Catholicism that many of us who grew up before Vatican II remember came to America with the waves of immigrants from Germany and Italy in the mid and late nineteenth-century, but traditional American Catholicism bears greater resemblance to the post-Vatican II practices we know today

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