Faith of our Fathers: Legacies of English Catholic History

Our opening lecture on 28th February  set the scene for an exploration of how we can be confidently Catholic in our country today through looking to the legacies of our past. John Morrill, Professor of British and Irish History at Cambridge and a permanent deacon in the Diocese of East Anglia, spoke on Faith of our Fathers: Legacies of English Catholic History.  In his lecture he showed how English Catholicism, forged in the age of dungeon, fire and sword, and emerging confident and affirmed into modern times, has constantly been enriched by its ready acceptance of Irish, continental and post-colonial influences.

The Lecture in full:

I have been very fond of Solera Madeira and have been ever since I was an undergraduate in the early 1960s and my college was clearing a wine cellar to make room for a student bar and was selling off an 1862 solera for fifteen shillings a bottle. A cask of fortified wine was laid down in 1862 and after a while a small amount was drawn off every year and the cask replenished from other casks of younger wine. So it was always changing, but it was always the same. A hundred years on, there was still some of the first wine in the cask just as there was wine from all the intervening periods. The result is wonderful, although the risk with any solera is that if just once sour wine is added, that too will never disappear.

Schools, parishes, nations, national churches are also soleras. That is why each one is distinctive. All the people that have ever been part of a parish, school, a diocese or a nation help to give it a distinctive flavour, helping to create a distinctive taste in each and every institution. English Catholicism itself is a solera made up of old and new wine that binds it to the universal church, and old and new wine that is uniquely English, with more than a hint of Irish. Men and women made their mark and moved on and new men and women took their place. The new men and women are shaped by what they encounter but they contribute their own gifts and subtly reshape what is shaping them. English Catholicism is always changing, but the processes of change are shaped (not determined) by what has gone before.

This lecture will look at that process, concentrating on the period since the great disruption of the Reformation and the long experience of the English Catholic through the decades of 'dungeon, fire and sword', of persecution and proscription, via the era when Catholics achieved religious liberty but not religious equality, down to the present time when it is, by some measures, the most dynamic ecclesial community in the land. Given the constraints of time (space), I am confining myself to England, because the Scottish and Irish (and even Welsh) stories are soleras in their own right.


In preparing this lecture, I am drawing heavily on several years of reading which led up to the publication of a 715 page anthology of Catholic writing which was published last year - Firmly I believe and truly: the Catholic tradition of Catholic England - which draws on Catholic writing in the English language and in print since 1483. I and my co-authors chose to begin in 1484 so as to show that Henry VIII's schism in 1534 did not create a new Catholicism but transformed an old one. The book opens with a personal prayer of contrition published in 1484, the very first work of Catholic spirituality ever published in the English language, and this is followed by two more works printed by Caxton in the same year, a life of St Winifred, the saint of both North Wales and of Shrewsbury, and the translation of the vision of Heaven granted to Adam of Eynsham in the early 1200s, and preserve in manuscript over the intervening 250 years. They are testimony of late medieval English Catholicism's strong sense of its own history. And this sense of continuity was not lost during the disruptions of the sixteenth century. I can say with authority, having read an estimated sixteen million words of catholic spiritual writing between 1480 and 1690, that writers of the penal times remained acutely aware of the Englishness of English Catholicism as they did of the links back to the scriptures via the Fathers and via the Catholic renewal inaugurated by the Council of Trent and the creation of centres of study and prayer for English exiles (male and female) and seminarians in the Low Countries, in Spain and in Italy.

Thus Fr Thomas Stapleton, a prebend of Chichester under Mary Tudor, who spent his last 30 years at Louvain and Douai, made his priority in the 1560s a noble translation into English what he tellingly entitled The History of the Church of  England: compiled by the Venerable Bede, Englishman (1565), to which he added two substantial (50-page) prefaces, one addressed to Queen Elizabeth herself, the other to all concerned readers. As Stapleton makes explicit, Bede has chronicled 'a fortress of faith first planted among us Englishmen and continued hitherto in the universal Church of Christ'. This use of Bede to deny to Protestants their favourite claim that the Church of England was truer to 'primitive' Christianity than the corrupted Catholicism of the pre- and even more post-Tridentine Catholic Church, was important for Catholic self-definition. This is a lethal subversion of much Protestant rhetoric in the 1560s, and, strikingly, it went unanswered.

Across England and Wales the gaunt ruins of more than 800 religious houses were a perpetual reminder of the greed and paranoia of Henry VIII. Although in his own generation and for half a generation afterwards, Protestant propagandists poured out bilious accounts of the corruption and worldliness of monks and friars, this ceased to be part of Protestant polemic thereafter, leaving the Catholics possession of a corporate memory of a world betrayed. Shakespeare could speak in his sonnets of the 'bare ruined choirs were late the sweet birds sang' [sonnet 73] and Ophelia's first mad song in Hamlet would evoke the poem ascribed to St Philip Howard which bitterly recalls the vandalism of the Reformation: In the wracks of Walsingham recalls that:

Owls do shreak where the sweetest hymns lately were sung

Toads and serpents where the psalmers did throng...

Weep, weep O Walsingham whose days are night

Blessing turned to blasphemies, holy deeds to spite.


Importantly this poem is in the same metre as the traditional 'Walsingham Ballad', of ancient origin but available in cheap print since the 1490s, and it became one of the most popular of songs, and it was set to a popular tune which in turn was the basis of many keyboard variations by leading composers including Byrd and Bull. It thus crossed over from elite to popular culture and back again. The ruins retained their power to reprove and Catholic medievalism in the hands of a Chesterton of a Belloc could and did reignite indignation down to the recent times.

According to one plausible report, the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was carted from Walsingham to Chelsea to be burnt close to the former home of St Thomas More, mocking his piety, and the destruction of holy places was paralleled in Catholic memory by the literal destruction of the bodies of  Catholic martyrs in two great waves in the later 1530s and in the 25 years from 1580, forty of them today of course the martyrs of England and Wales. They too were memorialised in word and song, and John Wilson's English martyrologie (1608) carefully documented a British martyr for each of the 365 days if the year, from Roman times to his present. Their memory was kept fresh by Richard Chaloner's Lives of British and Irish Saints, first published in 1745 and rarely out of print since. Standing tall in this great list are St Thomas More and St John Fisher for their unflinching witness to generations yet unborn. Amongst the 450,000 books, articles and essays itemised in the Royal Historical Society Bibliography of British History, Thomas More has more index hits than any other English historical figure, 50% more than Henry VIII, satisfyingly, and more even than Oliver Cromwell or Queen Victoria.

The quiet heroism of More and Fisher, or Campion and his brother Jesuits who left the seminaries with less chance of surviving for two years on the missions than a 2nd lieutenant in the trenches in World War I was to have, has had a powerful hold on the Catholic imagination for centuries. It has engendered the right kind of pride, a willingness to undergo the petty martyrdoms of disdain and bias in the workplace and public discourse that has sustained many in their faith. This is indeed Fr Faber's


Faith of our fathers, living still,

In spite of dungeon, fire and sword;

O how our hearts beat high with joy

Whenever we hear that glorious Word!


Across Europe in the early modern period there were massacres and atrocities in the name of God. But the English (and here I do mean English and not British) story is unique in the way in which a Protestant state set out to put Catholic priests on trial simply for being Catholics priests (it was treason just be a seminary-trained priest) and to use the rituals of trial and public execution as a form of terror. The English Penal Laws (there were no Scottish Penal Laws and nothing like the English Laws even in Ireland until the 1690s) created unique forms of persecution and unique forms of witness that are still remembered and treasured. A total of 342 Catholics executed for their faith in the 150 years from 1535, sixty per cent of them in the quarter century from 1580. Even when we set the 282 men and women burnt for heresy in just three years by the Catholic Mary I, the 141 priests and 80 layfolk tortured to death in the quarter century in and after 1581 is a lot of suffering.

And it was not just the witness of those half-strangled, eviscerated and quartered, potent though that is, and vivid too for anyone whose has seen the memorial pictures in the old refectory of the English College in College, young men in formation being shown the fate of thos who were senior students when they joined the seminary, for there were much wider forms of persecution: Margaret Clitherow pressed to death with heavy stones because she refused to plead guilty or not guilty to a charge of harbouring priests; dozens of men imprisoned without trial for refusing to promise not to resist the authority of the state, or for possessing devotional objects, especially crucifixes; perhaps as many as one in three of these died in prison, often from the insanitary conditions. The financial pressure on most Catholic families was severe and unrelenting from 1580 to 1640.  Many houses would be ransacked on a regular basis in searches for concealed arms etc. Catholics were always at the mercy of local 'discretion', and few were not regularly fined for non-attendance at Protestant services. These are the penal laws and when we add the constant threat and uncertainty to the acts of persecution, the heroism of those who kept the faith deserves to be remembered and is remembered.

In times of lesser persecution since, and in times when the Church has failed to live up to their example, they have helped those in despair to keep the faith. I bet most people here could give me a clearer account of the days of dungeon, fire and sword than of the Council of Trent or of other defining periods of global Catholic History. They are very much part of our particular solera.


But then, so is another less familiar story, and I tell it not to be a party pooper but to draw encouragement from the story of a Church divided against itself, a story initially disconcerting but ultimately enriching. It is  a story of bitter internal feuds within a divided and confused Catholic community, a community in which many priests defect to Protestantism, most Catholics collude with the Protestant state and in which Nicodemism was rife (Nicodemism after Nicodemus, the secret disciple who 'came to Jesus in the night' and otherwise kept his status and authority in the Jewish Sanhedrin, only finally coming off the fence at the Crucifixion); and in which some Catholics did preach revolution, the violent overthrow of the Tudor and (later) Stuart state. What were the authorities supposed to do in the face of clerically-led plots to assassinate Queen Elizabeth or blow up the whole royal family and House of Lords as in 1605, let alone clerical conspiracies with Catholic governments abroad to aid invasion and promote regime change?

Most priests on the mission were not arrested, tortured, killed. In fact between 1570 and 1603, 800 priests were ordained in the English seminaries in the Low Countries, Rome, Spain. Of these, 280 never returned to England, but served abroad or died young. So 520 returned to England. Of these 520, 144 were executed under the penal laws; 180 were imprisoned and deported but not executed; but at an absolute minimum more than 50 (one in ten of those on the missions) defected to the Church of England and about 180 served out their lives in England under constant threat but never apprehended because the authorities saw them as men who preached moderation and political obedience (indeed many of these told Catholics [in express defiance of Rome] to attend Protestant worship but to close their ears to what was going on by reading, humming Catholic hymns etc [against which there was no law!)

I am not saying that the regime unerringly identified or acted against those who advocated holy war against the schismatic heretic Protestant state. It often got the wrong men. But it is to say that the Elizabethan state operated within the same constraints as the modern secular state faced by militant Islamists. How could it take out the militants without radicalising the moderates. The Penal Laws were indeed draconian, but the Queen and her councillors placed some restrictions on what was enacted and many restrictions on how far the code was enforced. Thus a majority even of the priests arrested were deported rather than executed; more importantly the oaths of supremacy and allegiance, for repeated refusal of which increasingly severe penalties were prescribed, were not allowed to be administered more than once or at most twice; fines for non-attendance at protestant worship were either not collected or were collected at a low rate specified by one Act (12 pence a week) rather than at the higher rate specified by a later Act (£20 per month) and by the 1590s Catholic families could buy a season ticket to be released from the obligation to attend protestant worship, an obligation very deliberately imposed only on heads of households not on their wives, children or servants. By the 1620s when the persecution was hugely reduced in scale and effect, Catholics were offered a measure of religious liberty but were denied religious equality. For most of the next 200 years, Catholics paid higher taxes and were excluded from public life, denied access to universities, inns of court, the professions, and public office as local magistrates, membership of Parliament etc. 

So English Catholicism had to learn not only to be heroic but also to be meek; to witness on a day-to-day basis by unobtrusive living-out of faith. Blind eyes were turned to Catholics using the Church of England for rites of passage that secured property rights; to the burials of Catholic in medieval and now protestant churchyards at night; to Catholic use of church courts to prove their wills, and a myriad of other interactions. And with the contact went a growing respect at an individual level. Protestant leaders hated Protestants but had a soft spot for their local Catholic neighbours, whose persistence in their faith was a source of grudging admiration. We can be sure of this because of the constant stream of conversions, relentless indeed since the sixteenth century to the present. There has never been a time, from the unleashing of the penal laws to the 1960s when the number of Catholics, both as a number and as a percentage of the population, has not been growing, and in every generation, anything from 10 to 20 per cent of those born to Catholic parents lapsed. This includes most of the great recusant families who claim unflinching loyalty to the Church throughout the penal times. Almost every one of them lased out of and a generation or two later returned to the Church, drawn back by the witness of their ancestors. And many of course did not return; but for every Catholic who lapsed, up to double that number in each and every generation entered into full sacramental union with the Church. Indeed, as far as I can determine, in most generations down to the present, at least one in four of the clergy were men born to non-Catholic parents and baptised, if at all, as Protestants. So English Catholicism, despite its image as a fortress church, defined by heroic defiance and self-sacrifice, has had far more porous boundaries with the majority cultures than is widely recognised. Most Catholics accommodated themselves to the minimum demands of the state and the state attenuated its demands to make it possible for them to do so. This is a less heroic form of witness but it is an form which will be always with us. And it is not the case that those who suffered quietly and accommodated, by the meekness of their submission, attracted fewer converts than the heroism of the martyrs. This is a controversial point to which we will return.

But let me next turn to another point, at once uncomfortable and yet with a reassuring sting in its tail. English Catholicism has always been bitterly divided. This too is a story which is true of every century. Such things as divide us today all have precedents and parallels in each preceding century. Divisions began with the disastrous papal bull Regnans in Excelsis which absolved English Catholics from their obedience to the heretic tyrant Elizabeth and encouraged all of them to overthrow her, including by assassination. It was this Bull which provoked the first cluster of the penal laws which in turn led to more plotting against her and to more repression. The leaders of the mission (Cardinal William Allen and Robert Persons SJ) certainly worked for the violent overthrow of the regime. in the writings which his priests helped circulate in England Allen repeatedly defended the validity of the bull Regnans in Excelsis, and he actively sought the armed implementation of the bull and the deposition of Elizabeth in 1572, 1576, 1583, 1586, and 1588. In 1586 he told the pope that the 'daily exhortations, teaching, writing and administration of the sacraments ... of our priests' had made the Catholics in England 'much more ready' for an invasion, and that no good Catholic now 'thinks he ought to obey the queen as a matter of conscience, although he may do so through fear, which fear will be removed when they see the force from without'. The priests, he added, 'will direct the consciences and actions of the Catholics ... when the time comes'. The Jesuits generally wanted Catholics to refuse all compromise with government attempts to compel conformity; but there were plenty of priests who urged a more pragmatic line, of partial conformity and a dual allegiance to Church and Queen - the line being drawn at sacramental fidelity to the Church. The acute polarisation resulted in angry exchanges and even physical violence amongst Catholic prisoners locked up together; the refusal of many priests on the mission to submit to the authority of a papally-appointment  Jesuit claiming jurisdiction over them as archpriest or as bishop in partibus infidelium, or the Jesuits submitting to a secular priest with a similar jurisdiction. Much dirty linen was washed in the public domain in tracts and pamphlets. A second area of bitter dispute arose over the willingness of groups of liberal Catholic clergy and laymen to reach accommodation with the state by negotiating a binding oath of allegiance that would be taken by Catholics guaranteeing that they would never use violence against existing political authority and specifically denying the Pope's claims, widely used in the early modern period , to depose heretic rulers, in exchange for a suspension of all laws banning  Catholic worship or enforcing attendance at Protestant services. This was an issue from the moment the Protestant state imposed a new oath on Catholics following the Gunpowder Plot, which, let us remind ourselves, was a plot to blow up the whole royal family and much of the aristocracy, but in various forms it recurred throughout the seventeenth century, leading to violent exchanges in print and in public conferences across the sevcnteenth century, especially while Oliver Cromwell was head and state and under the more benign reign of Charles II. All this raises issues for us at a morally just as challenging if effectually less dramatic fashion.  In working for a reduction of the stage at which abortions can take place as a lesser evil than uncompromising opposition to the state's provision of each and every abortion, we find a similar pragmatism that some will deplore and others find prudent and better than ineffective witness to a greater truth.

Thirdly, and at a  more personal level, there were fierce disputes about whether priests could condone, and admit to the sacraments, those who, out of fear or concern for their family's welfare, were 'nicodemites', attending Protestant services (often humming and reading books to blank out what was being said around them) as well as the Mass. Again, modern parallels abound. Exchange schismatical activity in the sixteenth century for sexual irregularity in the present and you will find challenges of a type. We face the dilemma that they had and we have: if we turn people away will they ever come back; if we journey with people through their frailty and difficulty with the church's teaching, will we bring them to deeper understanding. There is no simple answer in my view. And that is the lesson from the past. Our problems are the latest manifestation of problems that are ever with us.

All this rests on a central tension each and every one has to live with. How can we evangelise in a world that distastes us. How far do we try to live in the world as it ought to be rather than how it is, living out the Kingdom of God and taking the consequences; or how far do we accept the brokenness of the world and seek to ameliorate it. The first is the way of the martyrs, the second is the way of most people are most of the time.  Every Catholic in early modern England suffered for their faith. Many sought to bear the marks of discrimination without retaliation, but sought to place limits of the suffering their actions brought upon them.

In the infant English College of Rome, at the height of the persecution in the 1580s and 1590s, Cardinal William Allen and Robert Parsons S.J. discussed cases of conscience with the men about to go to  on the missions with a one in four prospect of torture and death. One principle above all underlay their advice: the most natural right of all is the right to life and to the right of self-preservation. Denying your faith was death to the soul; but avoiding drawing attention to yourself was to retain the prospect of serving God and his Church for longer. So a priest on the mission could abandon his breviary if his life was in danger; a priest who felt there were spies around could decide not to sing the Mass, even on Easter Day; a Catholic who was in an inn when a Protestant invited all present to stand, take off their hats and join in a grace, he or she could join in; if a man who was disobedient to the church and was not yet ready to attend schismatic services asked to be admitted to the sacrament of confession or to attend Mass, he was to be so admitted. Successive Popes allowed Catholic Queens to attend Protestant services to avoid secular scandal; permitted Catholic Queens to agree to their children by Protestant Kings to be baptised and brought up as Catholics; refused to send diocesan bishops to England and thus denied all Catholics for many generations the sacrament of confirmation. In all these cases, popes thought first of the greater evil of increased persecution if they took a hard line. In each case, both in Allen's and Parsons' cases of conscience and papal high political calculation, there are startling modern parallels that come to mind. To give just two: think of how successive popes reached accommodations with totalitarian regimes across the 20th century in order to maintain the sacraments. Faith was never denied, but political obedience was guaranteed - even by allowing 'Communist' governments to veto appointments in the Church - but freedom of worship was granted. And in admitting people to the sacraments, substitute sex for schism and see what happens. The British are brought up in a common law system in which reasonable rules are made and expected to be enforced. Roman law is based on the highest possible rules of conduct and then allowances are made for human frailty. Preach perfection and allow for human frailty. Do not judge. Evangelisation is pilgrimage, journeying with those with imperfectly informed consciences.


The eighteenth-century has been portrayed as English Catholicism's time as a 'humble hidden state'. Persecution had ceased, discrimination was still rampant, but in its quiet testimony in the face of opprobrium and contempt, there was inexorable growth. There was no evangelical stridency, just quiet witness and although at least one in four Catholics lapsed in each generation, double the number was drawn to a faith that was firm and unambiguous. It was still a time of mission, with very few churches, and the handful that there were made to ressemble classical temples or public libraries. Most Catholics could only expect to hear Mass said monthly and the habit of daily prayer and devotion was instilled by a number of exceptional manuals in English, most obviously and most importantly Bishop Challoner;s Garden of the Soul (1755 and much reprinted thereafter).  In the eighteenth century as in the century before and, there were no diocesan bishops, few church buildings, only occasional access to the sacraments and yet the Catholic community grew in numbers and as a proportion of the population decade by decade. As we look at declining numbers of priests and the closing of so many religious houses, we need to take courage. The model which served so well in the century after 1850 is not the only model through which the Holy Spirit can work.

That said, in the the eighteenth century, there were the same tensions and disagreements as in preceding centuries  between those who looked to Rome for leadership and impetus, those who looked beyond the Alps (ultramontanes), and those who emphasised local accommodation and put the emphasis on English in English Catholicism and called themselves 'cisalpines' --- this side and not the Rome-side of the Alps - and there were sharp disagreements about whether to embrace or to excoriate the Enlightenment exaltation of human reason, but these differences were less disabling than the centuries before and after. It was a century not only of understated witness but of consolidation. At the same time, Catholic writers and preachers challenged the hegemonic view of Britishness as enshrined in common law and (the book of)  Common Prayer, with a strong counter-narrative of reformation as deformation and of catholic sufferings - great writers like Richard Chaloner, Charles Dodd, Alban Butler and culminating in John Lingard. So there was a distinctively Catholic art of memory. The lie was also given to the idea that Catholics were cultural aliens, unassimilatable  into polite society. It was a Catholic, Thomas Arne, after all, composed Rule Britannia and set the National Anthem; while John Turbeville Newton, a Catholic scientist - a priest indeed - was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1747, and Alexander Pope succeeded John Dryden as the most influential poets of the Augustan and Georgian Age. Catholics were no longer isolationist; they were affirmed but they were also discreet, in that 'hidden, humble state'.


This was the Catholicism that was to be challenged and transformed by the huge migrations of the nineteenth century resulting from Revolution and poverty. By 1790 there were about 70,000 baptised Catholics in England and Wales, mostly rural and northern. By 1850 this had increased tenfold to three quarters of a million. There had been two transformations: the flight of more than 1,000 French priests and Catholic refugees from the terrifyingly anti-Catholic French Revolution (more than 2,000 priests were slaughtered during 'The Terror' and more than 20,000  of the 27,000 ordained man abandoned their vocation to save their lives); the French brought with them some devotions not previously strong in England  but which took hold here, most notably devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. But more important than the arrival of the French was the repatriation of major religious houses of both male and female religious. As a result of expulsions and persecution, Ampleforth, Douai, Downside, Oscott, Sion, Stanbrook, Walworth, Ware and Wardour were re-planted in England, many with financial support from aristocratic families. The Augustinians, Benedictines, Cistercians, Carthusians, Jesuits were all back and junior and later senior seminaries were being discreetly established. But these developments were swamped by the huge migration from Ireland, a trickle from the 1790s, a stream from the 1820s, a flood by the 1840s. If there had been a census before 1801, which there wasn't, the proportion of Catholics who were Irish would have been tiny. Already by 1821 it was 40%; by 1831 it was 50%, but 1851 it was 75%, When the hierarchy was restored in 1850, its priority was to provide for an urban, working class, Irish population largely undertaking unskilled and semi-skilled labour in the midlands and south. Irish navigators, navvies, were building the canals, railways and later the infrastructure of modern sanitation and energy provision in the new metropoles. Two startling statistics we need to observe: in the national census of 1851, over 750,000 self-identified as Catholics. In the first census of mass attendance carried out by the 21 newly established bishops in 1853, attendance was 253,000. Only one in three Catholics attended Mass. Plus ca change...  And it has been calculated that 30% of all Irish families lapsed in the second or third generation. Before we think ours is the first age to haemorrhage young people, we need to recognise that it was ever thus.


The first generations of diocesan Bishops had two priorities. The first was to increase the number of priests, from 500 in 1850 (1 for each 500 Mass-goers, 1 for every 1500 baptised Catholics) to 3,000 in 1900, 1 for every 250 Mass-goers, the third highest ratio in the world at that time. The second priority was to build schools rather than churches. There were fifty Catholic schools by 1850, but over 1,000 by 1900 and more than 85% of all baptised Catholics attended Catholic schools. The fact that four times as much was spent on schools as on churches in the 1850s and 1860s was crucial. It was financially impossible for the state, when it introduced universal primary education in 1870 not to cut a deal with the Catholic bishops in which the Church would pay for the school buildings and the state for the teachers and an education respectful of Catholic teachings and belief. Reinforced by the 1944 education, this unique alliance of Protestant state and Catholic Church to provide free denominational education is something that still makes British Catholicism distinctive. Thereafter, spending on schools and churches levelled out, and the decades either side of 1900 saw the creation of many of the Cathedrals, including Westminster Cathedral, and the number of churches only reached 1,000 early in the 20th century, less than one per market town. Across the 20th century the number was to increase to almost 3,000 and the number of churches continued to expand at the same rate across the century even after the sharp decline in the number of priests and attendance at Mass since 1965.

The very powerful Irish and working-class nature of the church through and beyond the nineteenth century tended to reinforce a less intended dimension of English Catholicism: that fortress-church mentality that looked for self-sufficiency, keeping ourselves- to- ourselves, reinforcing the emphasis on catechesis rather than evangelisation that was also a legacy from the penal times. With the urban catholic church went the Catholic club, the Catholic internal welfare systems and centrifugal organisation like the CWL, the UCMs, the SVP. The focus of social life, and to an extent economic life, as well as spiritual life was the parish complex, with church, school and club all close together. One of the most striking statistics from the Victorian and Edwardian heyday is that in 1901, 82% percent of all Catholic marriages was endogamous, ie between two Catholics. The figure for 1961 was 55% and 2001 less than 30%. The rise of the welfare state, the huge growth of leisure industries, the rise of radio, TV and popular media with a strongly secular and mildly anti-Catholic bias have all eroded the hegemony of parish social life. The decline in sacramental numbers since the 1960s - mass attendance, marriage in church, ordinations - is exceeded and constantly anticipated by the collapse of the clubs and societies and the social life of parishes, the number of parishes with clubs down 80%, membership of UCM and CWL down 75%, etc. And as charity for members of the parish has declined, so CAFOD has grown.

But of course, as the inward-looking, fortress side of the Church has declined, involvement in outward-looking, more evangelising activities has increased. Organisations growing in strength at the same rate as the older ones are declining including J&P groups, CAFOD groups, collaborative ecumenical activities including soup kitchens, homeless shelters, a wide range of lay ministries.

We will return to 'numbers' and apparent decline in a moment. But first let me finish up the story of what we can learn from the late nineteenth century. Yet again, alongside the edifying story of growth and startlingly right priorities, there is a story of dissension and woundedness. As Sheridan Gilley, doyen historian of  Victorian Catholicism puts it: 'anyone who delves into Roman Catholic archives will be impressed by the energies which Catholics devoted to fighting one another.' This is often summed up as the antipathy between Newman and Manning, and certainly the issue of papal infallibility and the traditional tension between ultramontane and cisalpine, unconditional obedience to Rome or the principle of subsidiarity was as central to the debates and ill-tempered disputes in the later 19th as in the later 16th, 17th or 20th centuries. My point really would be that there is nothing new in the tensions that we are aware of nowadays, and which, I would suggest, are at the mild end of the historical spectrum. And of course Manning, whose role in building the infrastructure of English Catholicism was immense, nowadays gets a less good press than Newman. No-one sees Manning as a doctor of the Church. And what did Newman teach us? What Eamon Duffy is teaching me about what Newman taught us is this: that throughout Christian History three things have always struggled against one another in constant and unstable tension: authority, tradition and conscience. If any one of the three comes to dominate the others, trouble follows. In the later 19th century Newman feared the claims of authority, the ruthless anti-modernism of successive popes, and especially of Pius IX in his later years. But Newman would not be warning is against authoritarianism now, but against the claims of unbridled conscience, of uninformed conscience. The great distortion of our day is the belief that what feels right to each of us, is right. Respect for authority and an understanding of tradition  ('the democracy of the dead' in Chesterton's glorious phrase) are part of any informed conscience, along with a life of prayer and openness to God. Newman would not have had the problem with Blessed John Paul II or Benedict XVI that he had with Pius IX. He would have had much to say about the pervasive antinomianism of our day.

And one final reflection on what the Victorians leave with us. We have seen that across the heavier Penal Times a high proportion of the clergy were converts who had been baptised as Protestants. It was the same in Victorian times. More than one in five of the clergy in the 1880s were former Tractarians, some 450 of them who, with 20,000 laymen and ten per cent of the House of Lords, were converts to Catholicism. Once again, looking back from the present, plus ca change...


I have thinking some dangerous thoughts because I was invited to draw lessons from History and as a historian I normally resist claiming that History is a guide to the future. But I am emboldened by my solera analogy. The present is shaped by the past, even if the future is not determined by it. The present tastes of the past. And there is much to celebrate in our history. English Catholicism is a branch of the vine that was planted by Christ and takes sustenance for Him. It is part of a global Church that has always grown and is still growing in numbers year by year both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of mankind. It has been like that ever since those eleven frightened men unlocked their door on the first Easter Day and ventured forth. So I refuse to be alarmed by the evidence of decline in this country and in the Western World since 1961. There are 20 million new Catholic Christians in China, 10 million in Korea. When we look at the bigger picture what is happening here is disappointing but not disastrous. The proportion of Catholics at Mass weekly has dropped to one in four but only one in three attended in 1851 and for that matter in 1961. And one in three attend Mass at least once a month. There are far fewer members of religious orders at the sharp end of education and medical care, but disproportionate numbers of Catholic laypeople taking their place. Catholic education is under attack but retains a distinctiveness of purpose and witness. There is a considerable loss of nerve and confidence. But our history not only gives us much to live up, but also provides us with much evidence that despite internal disagreements, especially about the extent to which it is possible and desirable to work with rather than against the value-systems and power-structures of the world within which we live, our dilemmas are not new,  but are specific manifestations of perpetual problems for people of faith. As a historian I can tell you, there is no rational explanation for the ever-greater  Catholic witness of the past 450 years. As a theologian I can tell you that there is an explanation that satisfies both Faith and Reason: the action of the Holy Spirit.

Faith Matters Series