May 25th is the feast day of St. Bede, who, perhaps after St. Gregory of Narek, would likely win the award for “least known doctor of the church,” of which there are a total of 37. A seventh- and eighth-century Anglo-Saxon monk who spent practically the entirety of his life at the monasteries of St. Peter and Paul in Jarrow, Northumbria. His greatest accomplishment is the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a book few Catholics have read (I’m only familiar with it because it was assigned in an English history course I took in college).
And yet, Bede truly is foundational. Not only is he the father of English history, but also the popularizer of the use of “A.D.” (“in the year of our Lord”), and perhaps an incomparable influence over the trajectory of early medieval learning, having influenced either directly or indirectly many other saints and scholars. And much of what we know of the ancient — but also very contemporary — heresy of Pelagianism (of British origin) is because of Bede’s writings.
Bede, in a sense, is emblematic of the English influence over Catholicism across the English-speaking world, and especially in the United States. Though we are often not aware of it, the English have had an outsized impact upon American Catholicism, especially what is most vibrant in it in 2022. Joseph Pearce’s Faith of our Fathers: A History of True England helps us better understand the remarkable contributions of English Catholicism.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this English influence are the many Catholics who fought to preserve the independent authority of the Church from an imperious secular state who regularly sought to limit if not supplant the role of Catholicism in public life. St. Thomas Becket (d. 1170), resisted the overreach of his onetime friend Henry II when the king encroached upon the power and wealth of the English church for the sake of his tyrannical ambitions. Hilaire Belloc writes of Becket: “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.”
Another man of similar courage was St. Thomas More (d. 1535), who refused to surrender to Henry VIII when he demanded the surrender of the clergy in order to establish an autonomous English church under the direct authority of the crown. It wasn’t just that More was imprisoned, tried under absurd charges, and executed. Before More was unjustly killed, notes Pearce, Henry VIII distributed his property to political allies, effectively vitiating the inheritance More had intended for his own family. More described the theft to his daughter as “a deadly grief unto me.” As a husband and father of four, it is terrifying to think all that I have labored to secure for my children and their own happiness would be stolen, and me helpless to prevent it
Many more English saints would die for the cause of the Church and her independence: St. John Fisher (d. 1535) was also executed by Henry VIII for his refusal to acknowledge the ecclesial supremacy of the monarch. The Jesuit polymath St. Edmund Campion (d. 1581) was hanged, drawn and quartered during the reign of Elizabeth I. The same fate befell Henry Walpole (d. 1595), a Jesuit martyr executed for refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy. In an age when Catholicism is under rising attack from practically every elite institution in the United States — government, the academy, media, the entertainment industry — these men (and women) remind us that ecclesial resistance to secular dominance is a veritable tradition.
A second example of English Catholicism’s influence is visible in its lay devotions. Pearce notes that in the Middle Ages “there were shrines of Our Lady in every county ad diocese throughout the country.” Edward III (d. 1377), it is said, even dedicated England as “Our Lady’s Dowry,” and offered the nation to her as the nation’s “protectress.” For more than four centuries, pilgrims from across Christendom flocked to the shrine at Walsingham to honor Mary.
In the early years of the Protestant Reformation, England was a land of remarkable Catholic devotion, every church having at least three, and up to 20, side altars dedicated to saints. Catholic guilds were ubiquitous, and liturgical feast days “fostered a lay festive culture of plays, pageants, parades, churches ales, village revels, may-poles, Morris dances, Christmas games, wassails and midsummer bonfires,” notes Rodald Hutton in a 2020 Catholic Herald article cited by Pearce. In other words, what we now consider as an indelible expression of the warp and woof of our Catholic calendar culture was something deeply embedded in English Catholicism, which we now continue through our own liturgical calendar traditions. Much of that, sadly, was ripped apart by the Protestant Tudor regime, as Eamon Duffy catalogs in great detail in his important work of scholarship, The Stripping of the Altars.
In the last century, English Catholic writers, many of whom were converts, have had an outsized impact on the imagination and devotion of American Catholics, through what Pearce calls the great Catholic literary revival of the twentieth century. Robert Hugh Benson’s 1907 dystopian, proto-sci-fi novel Lord of the World — in which a secular humanist state curbs freedom of speech and religion and where euthanasia is ubiquitous — was decades ahead of later works like 1984 and Brave New World that explored similar themes. Ronald Knox, the son of an Anglican bishop, was inspired by Benson’s Come Rack! Come Rope!, and after his own conversion would go on to write popular faith-driven satire, detective stories, and apologetics. The literary giant and penitent hedonist Oscar Wilde was himself a deathbed convert.
Yet that was only the beginning. G.K. Chesterton, one of the most important men of letters in the first several decades of the twentieth century, is responsible for some of the most timeless English-language Catholic writing of the twentieth century. His corpus includes apologetic works Orthodoxy and Everlasting Man and fiction The Man Who Was Thursday, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, and, of course, the Father Brown series, which continues to be adapted to the screen. Oxford professor J.R.R. Tolkien popularized, if not invented the modern fantasy genre with The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy, some of the best-selling fiction of all time that is animated by “perennial truths” informed by Tolkien’s Catholic faith.
Catholic converts Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, in turn, penned some of the best post-war fiction in the English language. Waugh’s works — such as the best-selling Brideshead Revisited, as well as other gems like the Sword of Honor trilogy, Scoop, and Vile Bodies — confronted the growing boredom and pessimism of modernity with unparalleled pathos and hope. Greene’s works — such as The Power and the Glory or The End of the Affair — though rawer and often more cynical than Waugh’s, often cleverly presented themes of faith to an increasingly faithless world. Others, particularly The Quiet American and Our Man in Havana perfected the art of dark humor.
In sum, some of the most important elements of American Catholicism — its resistance to secular interference and coercion, its popular devotional and liturgical celebrations, and its spiritual nourishment via great literature — are all deeply indebted to English Catholicism. Indeed, I have yet to mention the impact of St. John Henry Newman, whose writings (e.g. Apologia Pro Vita Sua, The Development of Doctrine) have provided intellectual ballast to our Catholic faith, and will likely inform theologians for centuries to come. Nor have I discussed Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit considered one of the greatest poets of the Victorian era.
In other words, though England may not be a Protestant nation today, it remains a profound, incomparable spiritual and intellectual resource for American Catholics. That so much of this influence occurred after England officially abandoned Catholicism should give us Americans hope given our nation’s alarming loss of faith. Yet it should also be a warning. Pearce explains:
Insofar as contemporary Englishmen have lost sight of the truth to which True England owes its allegiance, they have lost their place in the cosmological passion play in which True England plays its part. They have answered Hamlet’s conundrum of “to be or not to be” by choosing not to be.
Americans should thus take heed that the further we stray from the reservoirs of faith bequeathed to us from our cousins across the pond, the more we will be as shiftless and impotent as England has become — they have a “Minister of Loneliness” now to combat the despair common among the English, especially older ones with few family and no children.
To save both America and our Church, American Catholics must labor and pray unceasingly on their behalf, lest we suffer a similar fate to what has befallen our English cousins. Pearce at the beginning of his book cites the English poet and devout Christian William Blake and his poem “Jerusalem”:
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land
With a little adjustment, that’s a good marching call as any to appropriate in our own green and pleasant land, or as it were, “purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain.” May we pray anew that God would shed his grace on us, finding common cause even with an ancient Anglo-Saxon monk who loved his people. St. Bede, pray for us!
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