Sunday, September 19, 2010

The English, and History with a Capital “H”

The picture of the octogenarian Queen receiving the octogenarian Pope in Scotland as a head of state is History, with that capital “H.” The Queen, the defender of the faith that came down through Henry VIII and built an Empire, with the successor to St. Peter.

Political and religious enemies for centuries, besides the fact it’s an Englishwoman receiving a German, both who were alive during the London Blitz. The 20th century is not yet entirely over.

From The Guardian's post visit editorial: "The pontiff's taking of tea with a Queen whose coronation oaths swore her to defend "the Protestant reformed religion established by law" is quite something. The papal praise poured on Sir Thomas More – the martyr who died defending the pope's power against the crown – in Westminster Hall would once have been likened to the gunpowder plot. The 5 November celebration is a reminder of the historic reach of anti-Catholicism in popular culture, just as the Act of Settlement is testimony to the sectarian origins of Britain's high politics."

The Pope addressing Parliament, the Pope in Westminster Abbey, two events connected to the very heart of English history. We’ll have to see if these actions will have any actual meaning for our 21st century.

I admire English Catholics. When the Reformation came, staying true to Catholicism meant financial and social ruin and possible death. It’s that supreme individual understanding of the point of it all--a belief that they would lose their eternal souls if they followed Henry--that makes the criminal acts of the 20th century institutional Church all the more obscene, if that’s possible.

Pope Benedict made several non-apology apologies on the visit for the moral bankruptcy of the church that allowed pedophile priests to work freely within its ranks. Every statement he makes about it angers me because he continually deflects straight out responsibility. Just one example from hundreds:

"I think of the immense suffering caused by the abuse of children, especially within the Church and by her ministers.”

“Especially within the Church and by her ministers
” !! This is a debating tactic, to connect the specific to a larger situation to imply that the specific is not unique. Well, the pope is not responsible for the generic concept of children who are abused, so nobody cares what he “thinks” about that larger suffering. Just take responsibility for the “especially” part, and cooperate with civil authorities to see that priests are punished under the law of the land, as well as those who enabled them.

Garry Wills explains how even the beatification of John Henry Newman is an intellectual manipulation by Benedict:

“Pope Benedict XVI is the best-dressed liar in the world. And in England he presided over the best set-designed lie imaginable.”

And Then There’s the Real Church
Though England is a secular Christian country, there is a very real “otherness” for its Catholics. When I was at University in Southampton, I was put in a particular dorm flat where everyone was Catholic, from Wales, Scotland, and England. And everyone on the other floors were not. It's the only time I was segregated like that as a Catholic. I can respect that given the history there, it was the safe thing to do.

But the "others" are of course in the stream of life too. When I was in London last summer I was shopping in Selfridge’s and wanted to get to the noon Mass at Westminster Cathedral, the main Catholic cathedral, but not a real tourist definition.

I didn’t have much time so I jumped in a cab. Because I’m American I thought the cab driver would assume I wanted the tourist destination of Westminster Abbey, so I repeated Westminster Cathedral, not the Abbey twice, and the driver said, in one of those great colorful London accents, “I know it well, luv, I got married there 40 years ago.”

That’s what’s important. English Catholics in simple, daily life.