It’s not hard to be depressed if you’re a conservative Catholic in 2021 America. That’s especially the case if, like me, you marvel at a country that seems to have radically changed in just a single generation. If a drag queen had shown up at my public elementary school in suburban Northern Virginia in the early 1990s, my teachers would have run him (her? zher?) out on a rail. Now teachers are the ones inviting drag queens to school (or perhaps they play the role themselves!). I knew a socially outcast kid in sixth grade who bragged about his collection of porn magazines—now every sixth grader with a phone can have a digital porn collection. And how many of those old schoolmates of mine, now in their late 30s, even have kids? Not many.
Raising a family of four children in that same suburban Northern Virginia—even with a great homeschooling co-op, an excellent Catholic diocese, and strong publicly-funded infrastructure (thank God for public libraries)—can seem, given the broader cultural currents, like King Cnut trying to stop the ocean tide. Given the odds stacked against people like me, will my little domestic church make any ultimate difference? The story of England, over which Cnut reigned in the eleventh century, is instructive in understanding why my pessimism is perhaps premature.
For it was England, after all, that over the course of the last fifteen hundred years, produced some of the most remarkable exemplars of sanctity, many of whom are beautifully described in The English Way: Studies in English Sanctity from Bede to Newman, recently reprinted by Cluny Media. And, as much as it is fashionable to bad-mouth colonialism and imperialism, it is England that enabled the spread of so much good across the globe, bringing to peoples who until only a few hundred years ago were remote and unknown such goods as modern medicine, representative government, and yes, the Christian faith.
One might cite, for example, the early Anglo-Saxon clerics Bede, Boniface, and Alcuin, who all lived before A.D. 800, a period during which the island suffered regular warfare and foreign invasions. Bede, the monk of remote northern England who became a doctor of the Church, made the Church Fathers accessible to the English people and bequeathed to posterity the Ecclesiastical History of the English People. The missionary Boniface, the “Apostle to the Germans,” converted many from the unruly Germanic tribes when he felled the pagan shrine of Donar’s Oak. Alcuin, in turn, spread Christian education at Charlemagne’s court during the Carolingian Renaissance in what is now France, Belgium, and western Germany.
In effect, in an age of violence and paganism, English clerics helped lay the foundation for the glories of medieval Christianity, not only in their native land, but across Western Europe. But it was not only clerics who did so. King Alfred (c. 848-899) protected and preserved the English Catholic faith from Viking intruders. As G.K. Chesterton notes in his chapter on the brave monarch: “The Christian system was already coming within a century of its first thousand years; and many doubted whether it was not dying, as they do now, within a century of its two thousand years.” Like Charlemagne, Alfred labored to restore and expand Christian civilization in his kingdom, including distributing his translation of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care to his bishops.
Similarly influential is the influence of St. Thomas Becket (d. 1170), who resisted the overreach of his one-time friend Henry II when the monarch sought to extend his political control over the English church. Readers are no doubt aware of Becket’s courageous death at Canterbury, but what did martyrdom at the hands of bloodthirsty Norman knights actually accomplish? Hilaire Belloc explains: “His heroic resistance prevented the assault of the temporal power against the eternal from being fatal at the moment when, precisely, it might have been fatal.” To put it bluntly, “he saved the Church,” checking secularization for another four-hundred years.
That “four-hundred year” comment refers to the English Reformation, during which Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I martyred some of the most well-known English saints: John Fisher, Thomas More, and Edmund Campion. Fisher, a cardinal and theologian, rejected Henry’s self-proclaimed title as head of the English Church and was beheaded. More, says Chesterton, “wanted England to continue to exist; and especially the England that he loved,” which was, namely, Catholic. Yet he, too, died defending not only the pope, but, argues Chesterton, “defying the sort of man who wants to be Pope.” Campion, considered perhaps the most brilliant Englishman of his day, impressed two different queens with his intellect and public speaking. When, many years later, he was martyred for his covert actions as a priest, some of his blood spilled on a young Henry Walpole, who would in turn also become a priest and martyr.
Of course, the England that would come to rule the seas (and about one-quarter of the world’s population and landmass in 1921) was not a Catholic one—the martyrdoms of English recusants earned many converts, but not enough to overturn the English Protestant church. Nevertheless, it was an England indelibly marked by her Catholic history and saints. It is impossible to imagine a British Empire without the influence of Bede or Becket, whose moral character and passion for Christ and Christian civilization was embodied, however inchoately, in the Protestant British who conquered and governed as the world’s first truly global superpower.
Or, in some cases, not so Protestant British. Sir Alan Burns, who at different times governed the British colonies of the Bahamas, British Honduras (Belize), Nigeria, and the Gold Coast, was himself a devout Catholic. “The Last Imperialist,” as Bruce Gilley calls him in his book of the same title, was both an ardent defender of British imperialism and an outspoken critic of racism, or what Burns called “color prejudice.” Indeed, as Gilley notes, many of the empire’s colonies in the Americas, Africa, and Asia were far better governed in the decades leading up to independence than they were in the post-independence period, which was (and often still is) defined by corruption, nepotism, and violent instability. Yet, says Gilley, the universalizing ethos of British imperialism “created its own demise by asserting the centrality of human dignity, rights, and national identity that must lead to self-government.”
Understood another way, the missionary impulse propelled many brave Brits to traverse the seas seeking to communicate Christian civilization to distant peoples (less-noble motives like greed and power-hunger, of course, motivated many other Brits). Sadly, as secularizing trends increasingly de-Christianized the British people, its empire had less and less to offer the world. As Patricia Snow has recently observed, “separated from the Church, like a branch broken off from a vine, the ascendant Protestant culture that formed the character of the English-speaking world for generations finally came to an end.”
Yet who, if anyone, could have predicted the longevity of Britain’s remarkable spiritual journey? She seemed, at so many junctures, to be a land finally deprived of her Christian soul: in the eighth and ninth centuries, when pagan Vikings descended upon her; in the twelfth century, when an English king sought to usurp the authority of the Church; and in the sixteenth century, when a different English king by the same name achieved exactly that. Through it all, the English saints spoke and acted with a singular clarity in favor of Christ and His Church, and their influence was felt even into the twentieth century, in places and among peoples those saints didn’t even know existed. There is now a Church of St. Thomas More in Malaysia, a former British colony.
In other words, the decision of an English government official in 1534 to stand his ground now results, almost five centuries later, in Catholic conversions in Malaysia. “Each man who has achieved, has achieved something other than he intended,” writes Hilaire Belloc in his reflection on St. Thomas of Canterbury. The witness of the English saints thus gives hope that we simply cannot predict what remarkable effects will follow from virtuous, faith-driven choices we make today. In the case of the English saints, their lives preserved and expanded a nation…for centuries. Perhaps, then, there is still reason for hope if we ourselves are willing to do our part, however seemingly insignificant. As Chesterton said almost one hundred years ago: “the final triumph of heathenism is not so near to us now as it was to him [Alfred] then. As he weathered the storm then, we have every reason to hope that we shall weather it now.”
[Image: St. Thomas More (left) and St. John Henry Newman (right)]