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reformation revisited

Peter Hitchens is invariably witty and provocative. His recent essay (“Latimer and Ridley Are Forgotten,” June/July) is no exception. Although diverting, it errs in at least one crucial respect: its assertion that the “judicial murders of Thomas More and John Fisher were political in origin, not religious.” Parliament’s Act of Supremacy (1534), which declared Henry VIII and his successors the Supreme Head of the Church in England, was not ordinary politics, even for the sixteenth century. Thus, from the point of view of Henry VIII, More, and Fisher, the claim’s revolutionary nature was clear.

As for the king, love for the Mass and the sacrament of confession and his hatred of Luther cannot support Hitchens’s contention that he “had no fundamental quarrel with the Vatican.” The king’s “new title” involved cutting off England from the Catholic Church and establishing a secular ruler to govern the Church. Thus, it gave Henry and his successors absolute authority, inter alia, to “reform, order, correct, restrain, and amend” all matters touching church doctrine. This power grab would have made Louis XIV, and even ­Constantine, blush.

As for More and Fisher, who were executed for not approving the royal supremacy, their sacrifice cannot be cast as a miscalculation. They knew they were dying for an indispensable truth and that their sacrifice would resonate through the centuries. (More’s letters from the Tower of London supply ample evidence of this knowledge.) “Papal authority,” or, more accurately, the unity of the Catholic Church, was not “an issue peripheral to Christ’s teaching,” as Hitchens would have it. Rather, ecclesial unity was a corollary of that unity required by Christ himself for his continued presence (see, e.g., John 17:21). For More and Fisher, the king and Parliament’s unprecedented arrogation of authority and rupture of Christendom foreshadowed the introduction into England of ­heresies—for starters, those of ­Luther and Tyndale, his English acolyte. Thus, Hitchens’s idea that the execution of More and Fisher was merely “political” is untenable.

But it is also ironic. When interrogated regarding the Act of Supremacy, More and Fisher were already incarcerated for refusing the Oath of Succession, which required them to swear that the marriage of Henry VIII and Katherine was properly annulled and that any issue of Henry and Anne Boleyn were rightful heirs of the throne. More made it clear that he was ready to accept the succession because the matter was within the competence of Parliament. Yet he refused to take the oath because—and this we safely infer despite More’s ­silence—it would require swearing to a falsehood, namely, that the marriage was actually null and void. When later questioned about the Act of Supremacy, More and Fisher refused to answer precisely so that no one could accuse them of treason. Thus, in their opposition to the crown, they assiduously avoided “politics,” that is, any conduct that could be interpreted as seditious. Although executed as traitors, they died for a central truth of their Christian faith. That practically all of More and Fisher’s contemporaries—or Hitchens, for that ­matter—failed to share their understanding and foresight does not change this fact.

David R. Oakley
princeton, new jersey

Peter Hitchens dramatically claims that “Mary’s Protestant victims were dying by the dozen within months of her accession.” Mary came to the throne in July 1553, but the first of the Marian martyrs—the biblical translator John Rogers—was executed more than a year and a half later in February 1555. Hitchens also labels the Catholic vernacular Bible a “paradox.” But English Catholics, such as Sir Thomas More and John Fisher, were not opposed to an English Bible in principle, but rather to the circulation of tendentious, heterodox translations and to idiosyncratic interpretations of God’s Word. It is not in the least paradoxical that the Douay-Rheims Bible (NT, 1582; OT, 1609/10) was produced by English Catholic exiles who saw themselves as the intellectual and spiritual heirs of individuals such as More and Fisher. If we are to recover the lives of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas ­Ridley, as well as the unique contributions of ­Anglicanism (as certainly we should), it is essential that we do so with ­historical accuracy and rigor. This will keep us from returning to confessional ­mythologies.

It will also help us make sense of the world in which we live. Hitchens complains that there “are numerous churches and schools dedicated to the ‘English Martyrs,’ but the martyrs involved are always Catholics.” This is largely because the practice of patronal dedication of churches and schools stems from a theology of intercession, which individuals such as Latimer and Ridley vehemently decried. Though Anglo-Catholics embrace this belief, they do so against the judgment of their early Anglican forebears. It would be disrespectful to drag them out posthumously to serve a theology that they both repudiated and labored to root out of the English Church.

Moreover, martyrdom means bearing witness. Thus it is hardly surprising that the Catholic Church celebrates those who bore witness to its faith, rather than those who bore witness against it. In any case, More, Fisher, Latimer, and Ridley all agreed with St. Augustine that what made the martyr was not his death, but rather the cause for which he died. In our ecumenical age, this is an uncomfortable truth. Nevertheless, if we are to take the Christian past seriously, allowing for what G. K. Chesterton called the “democracy of the dead,” we cannot afford to overlook uncomfortable truths.

Jonathan Reimer
society for renaissance studies
vancouver, british columbia, canada

Peter Hitchens asserts that to equate Mary’s and Elizabeth’s persecutions is wrong, as the Elizabethan regime was far more tolerant. After all, he suggests, Catholics could have stopped being so fastidious and attended Anglican services instead of creating trouble. No one, he claims, would have been forced to do anything against his conscience (except perhaps reject the sacramental understanding upon which the whole system of Catholicism stands, not to mention the indispensable primacy of the pope). This is testament to the resilience of Elizabethan propaganda, which equated Catholicism with rebellion. But this is also true of the Protestants executed under Mary. Most Catholic theologians of the time (Leonard Pollard, Thomas ­Watson, Felipe de Meneses, Alfonso de ­Castro, etc.) equated ­Protestantism—and any other denomination which deviated from Catholic dogma—with ­sedition and held that Protestants ought to be ­punished if they would not conform. In this respect, the 284 victims of Philip and Mary’s fires were no different from the victims of the ­Elizabethan regime.

Hitchens also wrongly claims that Catholic martyrs chose to die and thus should be classed differently from Protestant martyrs. He again fails to see that the same could be applied to Protestant martyrs under Mary, who bravely chose to defend their faith rather than conform, as inquisitors invariably insisted they do (in the case of Richard Woodman, a startling thirty-two times before he was burned). Elizabeth may not have wished to “open windows into men’s souls,” but like her sister, she was quite ready to destroy their ­bodies when they threatened her authority, as the 450 to 600 she executed in the aftermath of the Rising of the North discovered. If Hitchens is going to apply his twenty-first-century sensibilities to events of the sixteenth century, he should at least do so with both groups, and not just with the one he identifies with most.

Gonzalo Velasco Berenguer
university of bristol
bristol, united kingdom

Peter Hitchens replies:

My thanks to David Oakley, ­Jonathan Reimer, and Gonzalo Berenguer for their intelligent interest in my article. But I fear they have all, in differing ways, mistaken my purpose. I had hoped I had been complimentary enough toward Roman Catholic martyrs, and ­condemnatory enough of the cruelty visited on them, to have driven away any thought that I was ­trying to revive divisions or score points in some sort of interminable cricket game between Rome and Canterbury.

My first point is simple. It is perfectly possible that a different pope, or the same pope under different political influences, would have granted Henry’s request for an annulment. I happen to think that the recent ­Kennedy annulment, which I believe loyal Roman Catholics must accept as fact, demonstrates beyond doubt that Thomas More either misunderstood his own Church’s position on the dissolution of marriage (which I doubt), or was engaging in politics. I am sure those with a deeper knowledge of the history of annulment than mine can come up with other examples which make the same point.

This was a political matter, beyond doubt. Roman Catholic portrayals of Henry VIII as a Protestant are ­simply historically untenable. It was precisely because Henry believed so very strongly that his marriage to Anne Boleyn needed papal permission that he pursued the matter with such passion. It could be argued (I would argue it) that it was the Vatican, not Henry, which forced the issue by applying ­unexpected and inconsistent rigidity.

David Oakley asserts that I am wrong to say Henry had no fundamental quarrel with the Vatican. I would say this is his opinion, and that I do not share it, and that he cannot show by any fact that his view is more correct than mine. The “introduction of heresies” into England long ­predated these times. I was taught in school that the fourteenth-century reformer John Wycliffe, very much an Englishman, was “the Morning Star of the Reformation.”

Jonathan Reimer takes me to task for saying that the period between July 1553 and February 1555 is “a matter of months.” Yet so it is. Being less than two years, it is not a “matter of years,” and (given the necessary delays in passing laws through Parliament) is not very long. The point he seems to miss is that Elizabeth’s executions of Roman Catholics did not really begin until 1585, seventeen years after her accession, under strong external pressure and following plots against her life and the outbreak of a highly dangerous foreign war in which the Roman Church publicly sided with her would-be assassins and enemies. Mary’s persecutions have no such excuse, were driven entirely by dogma, and began as soon as practicable after her accession. As for the paradox of the Roman Catholic Church nowadays using a vernacular Bible, why bother to pretend that it is not one? It was certainly the case after Wycliffe that death was the prescribed penalty for anyone found in unlicensed possession of Scripture in English.

I do not “complain” that churches and schools dedicated to “the English Martyrs” in my country are ­invariably commemorating Roman Catholic martyrs. I just state it as an ­interesting fact. In my childhood, this was contentious. Now, nobody under the age of sixty knows that it was, or is aware that there were any other English ­martyrs.

Finally, does Berenguer ­really think I am not grieved by the ­breaking and burning of human creatures, whoever they are? In his failure to see the distinction between the nature of the two monarchs’ differing repressions, he likewise fails to see the necessary difference this creates between the victims of these two distinct policies. In both cases these were brave men and women, and we should honor them, as I thought I had clearly done in my article. But some people will always prefer a quarrel to an armistice. I often do, in political matters. But not in this case.

zionist matters

I commend Gavin D’Costa (“A New Zionism,” June/July) for pointing out clearly what I did not—that all orthodox Christians are soft supersessionists insofar as they acknowledge that the messiah’s coming has superseded the age in which he had not yet appeared. Yet I take it from D’Costa’s other writings that he agrees with me that we must reject hard supersessionism, the idea that the non-messianic people and land of Israel are no longer theologically significant to God.

But I do want to respond to his principal critique of both The New Christian Zionism and Israel ­Matters—that just as Reinhold Niebuhr was “insensitive to Palestinian concerns,” these two books show no “sustained or serious recognition of the justice of the Palestinian cause.”

My first response is to point to the chapter in The New Christian Zionism by Aramean leader Shadi Khalloul, who lives in Israel as a non-Jewish (Christian) minority citizen. Although the Arameans are neither Arabs nor Palestinians per se, most lump them in with Palestinians as non-Jews living in the Jewish state. We perceive that Khalloul’s view of Israel—which is positive but not ­uncritical—is similar to that of many Palestinians who dare not or cannot speak with Khalloul’s openness.

Second, I and the others in this volume believe that Palestinians deserve a homeland and state, but lack Palestinian leaders to guide them in that direction. Mahmoud Abbas and Yasser Arafat refused credible offers from Israel that could have advanced those ends. Hamas wants only the destruction of Israel. To acknowledge those painful realities is not to be uninterested in justice for Palestinians. Third, we provided evidence in both books that Israel did not steal its land from Palestinians. For some (but not for D’Costa), this denial of a central part of the Palestinian narrative means we are uninterested in justice for anyone other than Jews. But this is not the case, as we hope fair-minded readers recognize.

Finally, we do not accept exaggerated Palestinian claims to the land. The Jews have been present in the region for more than three thousand years. But from the second through the nineteenth centuries, “Palestine” was never clearly distinguished from a much larger “Syria,” and often meant only the coastal strip along the Mediterranean—separate from the inland regions called Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. Palestinians’ political claims are recent. In 1937, local Arab leader Auni Bey Abdul Hadi told the British Royal (Peel) Commission, “There is no such thing as Palestine. ‘Palestine’ is a term the Zionists invented. . . . Our country was for centuries part of Syria.” Until 1967, Arabs on the West Bank thought of themselves as Jordanians.

Nevertheless, the Palestinians have been a self-conscious people on the land for a half-century. Some Arabs can trace their families back for centuries. Many lost their lands in 1948. There are legitimate aspirations for a homeland and state that responsible leaders, using the political arts of negotiation and compromise, might someday realize.

Gerald McDermott
beeson divinity school
birmingham, alabama

In his review, Gavin D’Costa rightly expresses puzzlement at the virtual disappearance of Christian Zionism in Britain after World War I. Even before secularizing trends reached their current height, British Christians were losing interest in the fate of Israel. That is a surprising development in the country that not only produced the Balfour Declaration, but also much of the covenantal theology that has played such an important role in the United States. Andrew Crome’s recent Christian Zionism and English National Identity, 1600–1850 shows how deeply British (the Scots were important, too!) the Puritan approach to these issues was.

So what went wrong? D’Costa alludes to the victory of “middle-ground Anglicanism” over more biblically grounded Reformed Christianity. And that is certainly part of the story, comparable to the role of ecumenical Protestantism in ­America. But another aspect of the story bears further reflection: the way the ­understanding of Jewish election that underlies Christian Zionism undercuts the authority of monarchs who claim a divine right to rule.

First, the Jewish understanding of covenant emphasizes that the people’s consent is the basis of political legitimacy. Even God himself did not impose his law on Israel against its will. Moreover, the eschatological role that many Reformed Protestants give the restored Israel suggests that human regimes will be replaced with a revived theocracy at the end of time. In this view, kings are, at best, vice-regents who exercise authority on temporary loan from the Lord.

These implicit challenges to monarchy explain why Anglicans tended to oppose Christian Zionism as early as the seventeenth century. As I discuss in the book, archbishop-to-be William Laud denounced Christian Zionist arguments in a sermon preached in the presence of James I. For Laud, the problem with Christian Zionists was not so much their theology as their politics. Specifically, they suggested that Gentile kings and Gentile nations would ­eventually have to accommodate themselves to the hegemony of an ethnically, if not religiously, Jewish ruler and state.

British Christian Zionism reached its peak, by contrast, among Laud’s Calvinist enemies in the period of the republic. This was not only because British Calvinists were devoutly biblical, but also because they challenged the divine right of kings. Some of their arguments were repeated more than a century later in the pamphlet literature in support of American independence from the British crown.

Among the reasons for the endurance of Christian Zionism in the ­United States, in short, is the intertwining of our heritage of republican government with hermeneutic and eschatological positions favorable to Christian Zionism. Even in the nineteenth century, when Britain seemed better suited than the United States to provide diplomatic and military support for Jewish return, awareness of this connection persuaded some American Christians that God reserved that role for their own nation. As a political scientist rather than a historian or theologian, it was this profoundly “theologico-political” connection that first attracted me to the topic of American Christian Zionism. I thank D’Costa for ­prompting me to reflect on the inextricable relation between religion and political theory.

Samuel Goldman
george washington university
washington, d.c.

Gavin D’Costa replies:

I’m glad to clarify my point about supersessionism to Gerald ­McDermott. There should be a distinction between hard and soft forms of supersessionism. Hard forms are equivalent to what are often called punitive, economic, and structural supersessionisms, which rule post-biblical Judaism out of the picture in three different ways. Like McDermott, I think hard supersessionism is no longer theologically justifiable. The Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews appears to agree, but does not make this distinction between hard and soft, which slightly muddies the water. In my view, soft supersessionism is intrinsic to the Christian faith—­something David Novak nicely recognizes in his discussion of Edith Stein (“Edith Stein, Apostate Saint,” October 1999). She believed that Jesus is the Jewish ­messiah and that there is a unique and distinct “add-on” in Christianity which also transforms the Judaism Stein was born into. Novak accepts this logic and sees it can be held without theological anti-Judaism. Jon Levenson makes the equally telling point that Judaism is always supersessionist in a different manner, unless being a Gentile idolator is suddenly a good thing and ­requires no attention.

On the issue of Palestine and Palestinians, it is good to have such a clear statement on the matter from ­McDermott. I am in total agreement with his closing paragraph. Perhaps Catholics and new Christian Zionists have a lot in common after all.

Samuel Goldman’s further reflections are fascinating and helpful. I do not disagree with his argument regarding Reformed Protestant influences, but I register one minor puzzlement: Anglican monarchical models had as their prototypes religious monarchical Jewish typologies, corresponding well (anachronistically) with some later forms of religious Zionism. Henry VIII’s favorite kings were David and Solomon, whom he viewed as instantiations of his own model of kingship. About them he could quote verbatim passages from the Old Testament. His personal psalter has drawings and marginalia that show his deep interest in Davidic kingship. In short, Henry’s theocracy was thoroughly Jewish. Believing in the monarchy does not necessarily lead to a loss of the Christian Zionist vision and philo-semitism. It has the potential to fuel it.

pernicious pedagogy

As a former high school theology teacher from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati who graduated from a Newman Guide university, I feel a kinship to John Thomas Goerke (“Failing in Formation,” June/July). I share his concerns about the state of Catholic education, the poor formation of our colleagues, and the paucity of good resources available to help. I understand the difficulties of handling real-life questions about deadly domestic violence and IVF in the classroom; I once had to address abuse allegations against our priest principal that monopolized the evening news.

Three of my six children attend our parish school, so I recognize the “severance of the intellectual from the spiritual” that Goerke identifies as plaguing the Catholic system. But I found his rant against ­Matthew ­Kelly unhelpful to our cause. ­Goerke’s fiercely condescending article that accuses Kelly’s Teach, Lead, Serve of being condescending fails to acknowledge any value in this attractive, ­accessible, faithfully Catholic program for teacher formation. Kelly created a resource to engage non-theologian teachers at the level where most of them are. I suspect I’m not alone in having several acquaintances whose faith blossomed after an initial burst of motivation from a talk or book by Matthew Kelly and what Goerke snidely labels as the “B.V.O.T” message. This is not useless postmodern drivel. It has a place, and it is making a difference.

When I was teaching in Cincinnati fifteen years ago, our obligatory religious in-services required us to meditate on the enneagram and listen to readings about why we shouldn’t hate the devil. We’ve come a long way. TLS is not the Summa, but it’s a solid, Catholic contribution, and Goerke is short-sighted to condemn his archbishop for commissioning it.

Gina Loehr
mt. calvary, wisconsin

John Thomas Goerke replies:

I am heartened and grateful to hear from a fellow teacher, especially one who sees the serious problems in Catholic education today.

But I admit your claim that TLS is “attractive, accessible, [and] faithfully Catholic” perplexes me, and all I really have in response are questions. Doesn’t “Holy Moments” (section 1, chapter 8) seem more Pelagian than Catholic to you? Doesn’t trying to “create” our own holiness foster the nasty sort of pride? What do you think upon reading that ­Matthew Kelly has “never seen a statue of a teacher”? Doesn’t your mind ­immediately turn to every statue of Elizabeth Ann Seton or John ­Henry Newman or (I’m serious) ­Jesus that you have ever seen? Don’t you wonder what he was thinking? Or if? Would you open your classroom conversation about same-sex attraction by noting (as the book does) that “anal sex . . . is harmful”?

And when you look through TLS, at the typos and blank pages and prayers written by Matthew Kelly, at the severe poverty of references to other Catholic thinkers, and at lush essays about “the flame of learning” and really tone-deaf rhetoric and totally confusing organization of ­topics—when you look at all of this—don’t you start to think that TLS (no matter how noble its aspirations) is not really the best version of itself? I don’t think it is. And I hope you won’t, either.

Photo by Joan Campderrós-i-Canas via Creative Commons. Image cropped.