Thrust and Counterthrust

What was most at stake in the Reformation was freedom. The Catholic Church was freedom's defender, and not merely by defending Europe against the Turks. It was the Church that nurtured the artistic freedom of the Renaissance and the Baroque. It was the Protestants who smashed religious art as idolatry and sensualism. It was the Church that sponsored the literary freedom of the humanists, and the Protestants who condemned it as paganism. It was the Church that affirmed man's free will, and the Protestants who insisted that every man's fate was determined before he was born. Most of all it was the Catholic Church that stood opposed to the absolute power of the state. It was the Church that claimed to be a universal, independent, and superior court of appeals to the edicts of kings, while the Protestants made religion a department of government to be controlled by princes (in Germany), or the city council (in Geneva), or the monarch (in England and Scandinavia). There is, in fact, a much underappreciated libertarian streak within the Catholic Church. It was seen in Pope Gregory IX's alliance with republicans and the capitalist city-states of Italy against the Emperor Frederick II; it was seen in Renaissance Catholicism, to the scandal of the Protestants; and it was seen most especially in the conflict between the Church and the Tudor Dynasty in England.

The King's Good Servant, but God's First

The lever that separated England from the Catholic Church was a woman. She was popularly known as the u201Cgoggle-eyed whore,u201D but her given name was Anne Boleyn.

King Henry VIII had been married to Catherine of Aragon — the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, the aunt of Charles V — for sixteen years before he became obsessed the slim, longhaired, manipulative femme fatale who would cleave England from the Church. Her grounds were that she would not consent to be Henry's mistress. She insisted on being his wife, despite the complication that he was already married to a woman from the most powerful family in Europe, who had borne him six children (only one of whom survived), and who was piously Catholic and therefore unable to contemplate divorce. It was Anne who provided the simple remedy: Simply change England's religion….

… If Christendom was stunned by the executions of Sir Thomas Moore and Bishop John Fisher, the king was also beyond religious rebuke. When Becket was murdered at Canterbury Cathedral, King Henry II did penance, walking part of the road to Canterbury barefoot and being scourged by monks at the altar of the cathedral. But King Henry VIII held himself liberated from papal discipline, and he would certainly not lower himself to be scourged by monks. Thomas Cromwell even had Becket's shrine destroyed and the saint condemned as a traitor. The Church was the king's, not the pope's. Even the pope's allies — the duelists Charles V and Francis I — ensured that Pope Paul III's draft excommunication of the English king was suppressed. Catholic monarchs saw no reason to quash the one Protestant principle of which they approved: the divine of right of kings.

The English Reformation, necessitated by lust, was enforced as a simple power grab. England had no Luther or Calvin. The Protestant revolt was not even — at least in the king's mind — Protestant, for he continued to uphold virtually the entirety of the Catholic faith…. If Henry beheaded and disemboweled recusant Catholics, he did the same to vocal Protestants in a spirit of fair play and frank equality before the law that was truly English.

Thomas Cromwell, however, sided with the Protestants — not out of religious belief, for he had none, but because they were allies in centralizing power under the king. For Cromwell, the destruction of shrines, the abolition of holy days, the branding of Becket as a traitor, and the rest of the sledgehammer Protestant program, were a way to deny rallying points for Catholic resistance. When Cromwell himself finally fell victim to the royal chopping block, it was because he betrothed the king to a Protestant princess, Anne of Cleeves. Her religion did not offend the king, but her looks certainly did. So Cromwell had to go, begging for his life. Faced with death, he made a sudden execution eve conversion to the Church that he had done so much to destroy in England.

December 18, 2001

An excerpt from the highly recommended Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church, a 2000-Year History by H.W. Crocker III.

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