Friday, July 6, 2012

Protestant Martyrs and Catholic "Liberty"

The burning of Archbishop Thomas Cramner
in the reign of Bloody Mary
I recently was shown this slide-and-music presentation regarding the Fortnight For Freedom and the challenges facing the Catholic Church in the United States to preserve its religious freedom in face of the threats to it by liberal secularism represented by Democratic Party and the Obama administration.  This video is a stirring presentation designed by one Margie Sindelar to make it clear to the viewer that we must make a choice between our Catholic faith and the Affordable Care Act sponsored by President Obama—there is no middle ground; there is no compromise.  Ms. Sindelar shows us images of Pope Benedict representing truth and  President Obama incarnating falsehood.  The former is the good side, of course; the latter, as we all know, the evil side.  The one, in the words of the soundtrack hymn, “Once to Every Man and Nation,” represents bloom and light; the other darkness and blight.  It is very simple really.  Doesn’t require one to think much about the issues—just watch the video and run out and vote against the Reign of Evil currently occupying the White House.  Here is the link to Ms. Sindelar’s video.

And below are the lyrics of its soundtrack—James Russell Lowell’s poem “Once to Every Man and Nation” put to the music of Thomas J. Williams. (An alternative melody sung in some churches is Haydn’s “Austria”—you would recognize it: it is the melody to Deutschland Deutschland Über Alles, the anthem associated with Hitler’s Germany.)   
Once to Every Man and Nation

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever with the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.

Lowell wrote the poem as a young man in 1845, the year after his marriage and it was published in The Boston Courier in December of that year.  Though his student-days reputation at Harvard had been one of a troublemaker Lowell went on to make a name for himself as a poet, critic, and editor.  He was active in the movement to abolish slavery and he saw the role of the poet was to be a prophet who called society to account.  He had that Whig optimism that characterized 19th century liberalism. 
But here is the irony.  Lowell came from a Church family—his father was a Unitarian minister.  Now 19th century Unitarians were not the vague humanists of today but were still well within the Christian orbit.  They were more Arians—Christians who reserved the fullness of Divinity to the Father but seeing Jesus as his Son come to the world to teach us through the scriptures an enlightened path that would lead us to a better world.  Like most New England Protestants, the standard pieces of religious literature in the Lowell home were the Bible and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, sometimes known as The Acts and Monuments.  This book, first published in 1563 by Anglican clergyman and polemicist John Foxe, recounted a long history of martyrdoms and persecutions stretching back into antiquity in which Foxe managed to make every victim a Protestant—even those long before Luther—and every tyrant an agent of the Pope. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was standard reading in every English (and New England) home from Puritan times down to the 20th century and it was one of the strongest—if not the strongest—factor in creating an anti-Catholicism that portrayed the Pope as the evil enemy of Christ and his faithful, the Anti-Christ, desirous of forcing his false doctrines on them to the cost of their religious liberty.   The “burning martyrs” to whom Lowell referred in this poem-turned-hymn were the Anglican Divines put to death by burning at the stake under the reign of the Catholic Queen “Bloody” Mary.  The “cause of evil” of which Lowell wrote was Catholicism; the “truth” contrasted with it was Protestantism.  Lowell tells us that innocent and pure Protestant Truth was given the portion of the scaffold by the Catholic Queen—in the wrong—on the throne.  All this makes it a bit ironic that Ms. Sindelar uses this particular hymn as the stirring motivation to win people to the Catholic cause against that evil heir of Bloody Mary, President Obama.  But that is what happens when people don’t know their history. Tut, tut. 
In the Protestant mind of James Russell Lowell, Catholicism with its desire to force its doctrines on good bible-believing Christians is what had threatened religious freedom from the days of those first Protestants—the Apostles—down to his own day.  Lowell saw Protestantism as standing for that freedom of conscience against the tyranny of Catholic Doctrine.  It should make us think for a moment or two. 
Is the freedom that some are seeking in our name the prerogative to impose Catholic doctrine on the larger society—this is the very thing and Lowell and American Protestants had feared from the colonial days of Puritan New England until Vatican II and the Declaration Dignitatis Humanae  that made freedom of conscience a principle of Catholic Doctrine.  There is nothing wrong with winning our countrymen and women to our Catholic faith and its moral principles—indeed to enter into a dialogue leading towards truth is part of our mission as Christ’s Church—but do we truly want to impose unilaterally our principles on others before they come to the truth of the Catholic faith?  Would this not be the true threat to religious liberty when the doctrines and morals of one religious tradition become the standards of the civil and criminal law applicable to all?   As I said in yesterday’s blog, I have my concerns about the Obama Administration’s understanding about the mission of the Church but I am not afraid that my religious liberty is in jeopardy.  To be frank, I am concerned that the religious liberty of others may be in jeopardy due to the extremism of some of my coreligionists.       

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