The True History of the Catholics in England

The English Catholic Community 1570-1850

by John Bossy
Oxford University Press, 446 pp., $24.95

The English Catholic community has not hitherto been well served by its historians or publicists. In this century, the reality of a fascinating story has been hopelessly blurred by the romantic pseudo-medievalism of Belloc and Chesterton and, more recently, by the equally misleading nostalgic snobbery of Waugh in Brideshead Revisited.

As a result, the history of the community that is current today is roughly as follows. In pre-Reformation England, Catholicism was embraced by the bulk of the population. Over the next two centuries it slowly shrank, thanks to vigorous proselytization by Protestant preachers, reinforced by savage political persecution. Remnants of the medieval faith were preserved among a minority of wealthy landowners, thanks to the heroic efforts of dedicated missionary priests, many of whom suffered martyrdom for their pains. In the nineteenth century the community was transformed and revived by the removal of religious and civil disabilities—the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed in 1829—as well as by the influx of large numbers of Irish urban workers and the establishment by Rome of a formal episcopal organization.

The usual image we get of English Catholics is one of a perpetually backward-looking group who dreamed and plotted for a century and a half to restore the pre-Reformation church with the aid of Catholic kings, assassination schemes, and a serious attempt to wipe out, at one blow, the total ruling elite of the nation—the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. It was a dream that failed, leaving behind it little but a record of martyrdom, disappointment, and betrayal.

Meanwhile the raw materials for a new and more sophisticated interpretation of the problem were being assembled in the sixty-odd volumes of documents published by the Catholic Record Society. A few notable local studies were also being written, especially of Yorkshire by a Benedictine, Hugh Aveling; and anthropologists and sociologists were providing novel theoretical models for the analysis and classification of religious institutions, communities, rituals, and behavior. By the 1970s the stage was set—and now Dr. Bossy has arrived to fit it all together.

His story bears only the most tenuous relation to the traditional one. According to him, the first 200 years after the Reformation saw the creation of a healthy and growing sect, arising out of the ashes of the dead pre-Reformation Church. This community was a genuinely new one, a sect which owed little or nothing to the church of Cardinals Wolsey and Pole. By 1620 it was led by a close-knit intermarrying group of aristocratic and gentry families, inspired by, but the patrons and masters of, some 700 regular and secular priests. It was an upper-class, lay-dominated, domesticated, nonproselytizing sect—one of several which could not stomach the flabby inertia and lack of spiritual zeal of the Anglican clergy.

It is not at all clear at present just why some landed families took to Catholicism between 1570 and 1620 while others remained carelessly Anglican and others became zealous Puritans. Dr. Bossy points out that on the eastern slopes of the Pennine Chain of hills,…

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