The long road between London and Rome

Faith of our Fathers

Joseph Pearce, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2022, 384pp., pb, £16.36

WILLIAM McIVOR is irreligious, but finds much to admire in an account of English Catholicism

Nobody can accuse Joseph Pearce of lacking ambition. Faith of Our Fathers attempts a history of Catholicism in England, and the cultural and social impact of the Church, from the earliest times to the present day. So immense a subject could fill a score of worthily turgid tomes, but this is a fleet-of-foot single-volume study that dances across almost 2,000 years of English history, giving tantalising glimpses, and a surprising amount of detail, into its subject matter. It will surely inspire readers to investigate further those historical periods, or cultural, social and philosophical areas, they find of most interest.

The author is a practicing Catholic, edits a well-known Catholic literary and cultural magazine, the St Austin Review, has written a number of well-received volumes about Catholic literary figures, and the Ignatius Press is a Catholic publishing house. Readers will not be surprised, therefore, to find that Faith of our Fathers is written from a joyfully enthusiastic Catholic standpoint.  As an equally joyful and enthusiastic atheist, this reviewer is not put off by such a fact – better this than tediously ‘unbiased’, dispassionate, indeed passionless, writing – but readers should be aware this history could have been written from other standpoints.

Faith of our Fathers covers three distinct epochs in England’s religious history: ‘Merrie England’ from the legend of Joseph of Arimathea to the coming of the Tudors – secondly, under Henry the Eighth the horrific persecution of the Catholic faith, that continued for nearly 300 years – and finally, as attitudes changed from the late eighteenth century onwards, the rebirth of the Church alongside a cultural blossoming brought about, at least in part, by a growing number of Catholic literary converts.

The earliest stages of ‘Catholic England’ date from the first century, with the supposed coming of Joseph of Arimathea. As Mr Pearce notes, it can be difficult, if not downright impossible, to distinguish myth from history in these early centuries, before England was indeed England, following the Anglo-Saxon incursions into previously Celtic lands. He argues, however, that what was significant is the fact that the myths were believed  – because the populace wanted to believe them, thus indicating a natural affinity between the mindset of the ‘proto-English’ and early Church teachings. This is, I believe, an important truth.

It is a curious fact that religions often migrate from their original point of origin. Broadly, Christianity shifted from the ‘Holy Lands’ into Europe. Islam moved westwards from the Arabian peninsula to the Arabs lands north of the Sahara, but not significantly into the lands to the south. Buddhism originated in India but made most progress in East and South-East Asia, leaving Hinduism dominant in Siddhartha Gautama’s homeland. Doubtless there are many reasons for these phenomena, but I would suggest that there is one major factor at work. The differing religions have their own distinct characteristics, differing greatly in what they preach and how they preach it. The various peoples on this planet also have greatly differing desires, as regards what they seek in a religion. Like plants which are found growing on the soil that best suits their needs, creeds take root among the peoples that most appreciate them and their values. That the early Church took root so readily in early England tells us much about both the early Church, and the early English.

The first part of Faith of our Fathers is uniformly interesting, but it is when we come to the second part that Pearce’s passion for his subject really shines through. The story of how Henry VIII fell out with the Pope, dissolved the monasteries, declared himself head of the Church in England and commenced the persecution of Catholics is well known, but the author’s passionate abhorrence of these events brings them vividly to life.      

Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries has considerable resonance for today’s world: wise leaders do not lightly get involved in wars, because of the ‘Law of Unintended Consequences’. Henry did not declare war on another country, but he effectively declared war on the Church and sought to win over nobles by bribing them with stolen Church land and property. The consequence was that said nobles gained greatly in wealth, and hence power, relative to Henry  ̶  surely not what he planned. There is an obvious parallel today: Vladimir Putin’s desire to unite ‘All the Russias’ was not inherently an ignoble idea, but the method chosen, the military invasion of Ukraine, has had the unintended consequence of creating an anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine that will last for decades, if not centuries.

Henry was, in due course, followed by the Catholic Queen Mary, or ‘Bloody Mary’, as Protestant Whig historians dubbed her. Pearce acknowledges that atrocities continued under her reign, this time against Protestants.  However, he points out that all the atrocities the medieval mind was capable of devising – hanging, drawing and quartering, burning at the stake, racking, flogging, etc – were enthusiastically carried out by Elizabeth against Catholics, to an extent that made Mary took like a novice in the atrocity stakes. For example, following the Northern Rebellion against her rule, a merciless Elizabeth had some 800 Catholics hung, without trial. This led Pope Leo V to excommunicate Elizabeth from the Catholic Church. It is beyond my comprehension why this should have irked the Protestant Elizabeth, but irked she clearly was: anti-Catholic laws were then enacted which, by the time of Elizabeth’s death had led to the execution of 189 people, including 126 priests, who were found guilty merely of practicing the Catholic faith. At least they had a trial before their execution – so that’s all right then…

The Jesuit Fr. Edmund Campion, martyred in 1581

Other events during Elizabeth’s reign also illustrate the Law of Unintended Consequences at work. As Pearce points out, at the time of the Spanish Armada, Catholics were still, despite all persecution, likely a majority in England. Philip of Spain doubtless thought of his ‘special military operation’ (where have I heard that expression recently?) as liberating that majority from tyranny. Apart from the fact that the Armada was a naval disaster, it also meant that Elizabethan spin-doctors could portray it as a great patriotic triumph: a major foreign power had been prevented from invading England, thanks to gallant Protestant defenders. The further persecution of ‘traitorous’ Catholics could then be justified.

For almost 200 years after Elizabeth’s death, Catholics continued to be persecuted, until by the early eighteenth century there were no monasteries, convents, public places of worship, and fewer than 100,000 adherents, where once there had been millions. It makes for grim reading: one is left with the unpleasant feeling that the message – obviously unintended – of this section of Faith of our Fathers may be that brutal persecution simply works.

As said before, this reviewer is not a religiously minded person. Nonetheless it was with some relief that I came to the third section of Faith – detailing the ending of Catholic persecution, starting with the first Catholic Relief Act in 1778, which led eventually to the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act.

The nineteenth century saw a growing realisation of the bias of ‘Protestant history’. Pearce gives an interesting example: the fifteen-year-old Jane Austen who, “wrote her own ‘History of England’ which lampooned and satirized the anti-Catholic stance of conventional history books.”  As Pearce puts it, “In supporting Mary Stuart against the anti-Catholic Tudors the young Miss Austen was countering the pride and prejudice of her times and was exhibiting the sense and sensibility that would make her one of the finest and most perceptive novelists of the following century.”

The author argues that, as the nineteenth century advanced the Church started to experience ‘a second spring’, both culturally and theologically. He gives two exemplars: Augustus Pugin who designed the Houses of Parliament in a neo-Gothic style, and John Henry Newman, a major Anglican theologian and lodestar of the Tractarian Movement, whose conversion to Rome in 1845 caused shockwaves to run through the established church.

It is when we come to the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries that we find Pearce on his ‘home ground’ as it were. (And I am not referring to his beloved Stamford Bridge!) Pearce’s first major work was Literary Converts, his account of a number of prominent authors, whose conversion to Catholicism greatly enhanced the standing of the Church in the literary world.  To what extent their conversion enhanced these authors’ contribution to English literature depends on their readers’ sensibilities; readers of this review can form their own conclusions.  However, their conversions undoubtedly greatly enhanced the standing of the Church in the literary world. Pearce is now well-known for his later biographies of numerous Christian literary figures, including Tolkien, Chesterton, Belloc and Solzhenitsyn.

The prominence of literary Catholics was one of the factors behind the growth of the Church, to the extent that Pearce can now confidently assert that the Catholic Church attracts more regular adherents than the moribund Anglican Church. A major reason for this, he argues, is that the Catholic Church has largely stayed true to its own eternal values, whilst Anglicanism has sought to find favour with ‘modernists’ by fawning on every passing fad, both religious and secular. It is here that I might venture a small criticism: ask a thousand people what they understand by the term ‘modernism’ and I suspect you will get a thousand different answers. We can make a reasonable guess what it means to Joseph Pearce, but for the avoidance of doubt it would have been helpful if he could have defined exactly what he means by the term.

One of the haunting memories left after reading Faith of our Fathers is the extent to which some people in medieval times – laity as well as clergy – faced the most agonising and degrading deaths, which they could have avoided by renouncing and denouncing their beliefs. Instead, they preferred to suffer the torments of the rack or stake. One is left to wonder what our present-day leaders – religious or secular – would do if faced with such deaths. Would they hold true to their beliefs?

This inevitably leads to another sobering thought: what would I, what would you do in their place? It has been this reviewer’s pleasure to have known Joseph Pearce for over 40 years. In that time, I have seen him stand up to threats, including that of imprisonment, that would have broken many others. He is of course human, so I do not know for certain how he would react if he ever felt his joints dislocating and his tendons snapping on the rack, as was the Elizabethan practice. But this I can say with certainty: of all the people I have ever met he is the person most likely to hold fast to his faith, regardless of the cost. His very personal journey equips him admirably to understand the doubts, fears and sufferings of all those over the centuries who sought to stay true to the faith of their fathers.