Lessons for Today, after Obergefell, from Catholics Who Were Persecuted under Elizabeth I

Published June 29, 2015

National Review Online

Four days before the Supreme Court of the United States announced its discovery of a liberty right for couples of the same sex to “marry,” I spent a pleasant morning rambling through Oxfordshire with my friend, Father Alexander Sherbrooke, who had arranged to celebrate Mass at Stonor House, home to the family of that name for 850 years. The house chapel, which is as old as the property and named in honor of the Blessed Trinity, was redecorated in early Gothic Revival style in the 18th century; its most striking features today are an amethyst cross on the white marble tabernacle (a gift of the late, legendary Msgr. Alfred Gilbey, heir to the gin fortune and longtime Catholic chaplain at Cambridge) and a set of modern, wood-carved stations of the cross, crafted by a Polish expatriate and given to the Stonor family by their friend Graham Greene. After Mass, we were shown through the magnificent country home (now happily open to the public) by the seventh Baron Camoys, Thomas Stonor, and his charming wife, Elisabeth.

In leading us through the house, Lady Camoys took us to what is, from a Catholic point of view, the most moving space in the complex: the secret room, within a gable over the house’s front porch, where Edmund Campion, the brilliant, witty Jesuit who would die a martyr’s death at Tyburn on December 1, 1581, hid from Queen Elizabeth’s agents and printed 400 copies of his Rationes Decem (Ten Reasons), a refutation of Protestant claims that was distributed in pamphlet form at nearby Oxford University, causing such a ruckus that a manhunt was organized to bring Campion in. (The Long Gallery in Stonor House today displays one of the three extant originals of Campion’s tract.)

The Stonor family remained faithful to the Catholic Church throughout the worst of the Elizabethan persecutions and in the face of anti-Catholic penal laws that were in force for centuries. As leading recusants — Catholics who refused to concede the justice of Henry VIII’s separation from obedience to Rome and his claim to be supreme head of the Church in England — the Stonors helped keep alive the counter-claim that it was possible to be a loyal citizen of the realm and a committed Catholic at the same time. Vindicated in 1829 when the Duke of Wellington forced the Catholic Relief Act through a reluctant Parliament, the Stonors resumed their role in English public life; from 1998 to 2000, the present Baron Camoys served as Lord Chamberlain of the United Kingdom, the first Catholic to do so since the Reformation.

It was an altogether pleasant morning, for which I’m deeply grateful to Lord and Lady Camoys and Lord Camoy’s sister, Georgina, but the import of the day only came into clearer focus four days later. As recently as 20 years ago, recusant Catholicism seemed a thing of the past, save in Communist or Muslim countries. In the developed, democratic world, it seemed impossible to imagine that Catholics would once again live under penal laws or their cultural equivalent, scorned (and worse) for being threats to the state and civil comity by reason of their faith.

It’s no longer impossible to imagine that. And those who deny the possibility are living in Fantasyland.

The racking of the Constitution aside (if I may use an Elizabethan image), one of the most disturbing things about the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges was the reaction in pro–“gay marriage” quarters, where the claim that this act of judicial legislation marked the end of bias and discrimination was widespread. What bias and discrimination? Of course there are ill-mannered souls who disdain those who experience same-sex attraction. But the weight of contemporary American culture leans massively in the other direction. As a friend with direct experience of all this wrote on the evening of the decision:

It was infinitely more difficult being an unapologetic Catholic at [a major American university] than it was for students who are flamboyant homosexuals. [The latter] never once had to defend themselves against accusations of bigotry or backwardness; they never had to justify why they believe what they believe and why they do what they do. They never once had their fears about what the future holds for their people summarily dismissed or downplayed. No CEO will be fired for being gay in America, but we saw what happened with Mozilla.

The new forms of bias and discrimination won’t stop at the door of pusillanimous and politically correct corporate boardrooms, however. Post-Obergefell v. Hodges, no top-drawer law firm is going to hire a Catholic lawyer who publicly professes what Catholicism believes, on the basis of both reason and revelation, is the nature of marriage. Catholic medical students are already under pressure to conform their clinical and prescriptive judgment to the New Normal and its insistence that there is no such thing as aberrant behavior — pressures created in part by the scientific corruption of the psychiatric profession. Some may have thought that Obergefell v. Hodges was a break for Catholic candidates for public office in 2016, having taken the marriage issue off the board, but Catholic candidates who openly profess what the Church and reason teach them about men, women, their relationship, and marriage are going to find fundraising impossible within the Democratic party and increasingly difficult among well-heeled Republicans. As for those evangelical bakers and photographers who have already felt the lash because they declined to provide services to “gay weddings,” they will inevitably be joined by Catholic counterparts, left vulnerable by state legislatures cowed by a media blitz (as in Indiana a few months back).

And that’s before we get to the Church itself, institutionally speaking. It is only a matter of time — days, weeks, months — before a same-sex couple presents itself at a Catholic church, requests to be “married” there, is (politely) refused, and then takes the pastor, the parish, or both to court. And what about efforts to protect the Catholic integrity of Catholic schools by making it a matter of (self-evidently commonsensical) diocesan policy that teachers and other adult employees in those schools must teach what the Church teaches in the matter of marriage and must not contradict that teaching by their way of life? Those efforts will undoubtedly be subjected to the attacks of the New Normal, as they already have been in San Francisco, by the forces of aggressive bigotry masquerading as defenders of that noble virtue, tolerance.

In sum, we are already in new penal times, with the penalties in question being cultural reprobation (through public shaming and bullying) as well as legal sanction. The latter is going to intensify after Obergefell v. Hodges, and so, almost certainly, will the former. The cultural forces that believe themselves vindicated by Obergefell may take a few days to celebrate; but magnanimity in argument has not been their strong suit to date, and there is little reason to think that magnanimity in victory is on their future agenda.

So what are today’s recusant Catholics (and other recusants) to do? There, too, we might find a lesson in Stonor House and the secret room that Edmund Campion dubbed “Mt. Pleasant.”

Campion was a son of poor parents, but his remarkable intellectual gifts took him, with the help of a local guild, to Oxford, where he finished his first degree at the tender age of 17. A charming prodigy with powerful court patrons, he won the favor of Elizabeth I by his learning and wit. But the truth of Catholicism took hold of his razor-sharp mind, and he was eventually received into the Catholic Church, entered the newly formed Society of Jesus, and after a spell of teaching in Prague was sent back to England for a clandestine ministry to those many Catholics who were still clinging to the old ways, despite the ferocity of anti-Catholic persecution under the Protestant Tudors. Campion put out the word that he would happily debate matters theological and political in public, putting the lie to the claim that Catholics in general, and Jesuits in particular, were by definition seditious. But Elizabeth and her agents were not interested in being refuted by one they knew to be a persuasive and disarming master of rhetoric, so Campion was hunted down and, after a mockery of a trial, suffered the death of a traitor at Tyburn, his gutted, dismembered body scattered in an effort to prevent anyone from honoring his remains as relics.

During his days of clandestine liberty, Campion wrote a letter (publicly distributed) to Elizabeth’s Privy Council, known to history as “Campion’s Brag,” It included this courageous statement of commitment, a fragment of which is framed and displayed in the Stonor House chapel sacristy:

Many innocent hands are lifted up to heaven for you daily by those English students, whose posterity shall never die, which beyond seas, gathering virtue and sufficient knowledge for the purpose, are determined never to go you over, but either to win you heaven or to die upon your pikes. And touching our Society, be it known to you that we have made a league — all the Jesuits in the world, whose succession and multitude must overreach all the practice of England — cheerfully to carry the cross you shall lay upon us, and never to despair your recovery while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, to be racked with your torments or consumed with your prisons. The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God, it cannot be withstood. So the faith was planted; so it must be restored.

Then, on hearing that he was to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, Campion, who could barely stand after the tortures of the rack, had this to say against the charge of sedition:

The only thing that we now have to say is, that if our religion do make us traitors, we are worthy to be condemned; but otherwise are and have been as true subjects as ever the queen had. In condemning us you condemn all your own ancestors — the ancient priests, bishops, and kings — all that was once the glory of England, the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter.

A healthy dose of Campion’s wit and intelligence will serve recusant Catholics and other recusant Americans well in a post-Obergefell United States. For the argument over marriage was lost in the culture before it was lost in the law. And therefore the only answer to this new moment of irrationality, and the various forms of persecution that will be part of it, is to convert the culture, calling it back to its Biblical and philosophical roots — and doing so by displaying, as Campion did, the nobility of lives lived in solidarity with others, speaking the truth persuasively and with wit out of concern for their happiness and salvation. It won’t be the rack and the Tyburn Tree, this time around. But legal pressure, ridicule, bullying, social ostracism, and professional disadvantage are going to be as likely after Obergefell as they were ubiquitous before.

Some 300 years after Campion, and 44 years after Catholic emancipation, another saintly English scholar, John Henry Newman, spoke at the opening of a seminary in Olcott, offering this caution to the faculty and students gathered for the dedication ceremonies:

The trials which lie before us are such as would appall and make dizzy such courageous hearts as St. Athanasius, St. Gregory I, or St. Gregory VII. And they would confess that, dark as the prospect of their own day was to them severally, ours has a darkness different in kind from any that has been before it.

Why? Because the new “darkness,” grounded in a religious indifference that would inevitably turn into anti-religious hostility, would be one in which Catholics would once again be “regarded as . . . the enemies . . . of civil liberty and of national progress.”

That is what is facing recusant Catholics after Obergefell v. Hodges. In last year’s Windsor decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy told those of us, his fellow Catholics who believe what reason and revelation teach about marriage, that we were irrational bigots who could, nonetheless, make public arguments in favor of marriage as we understood it, if we liked. That seeming concession was an invitation to the bullying that has followed, and which will intensify, now that the shoe of Windsor has dropped in Obergefell. Standing in Campion’s “Mt. Pleasant” at Stonor House, looking out over the rolling hills of Oxfordshire from the window where a future martyr once kept an eye peeled for the queen’s agents, was good preparation for the challenges ahead, which will require a Campion-like wisdom and wit, and which will call us to meet intolerance and bigotry with an appeal to the better angels of the old American character.

— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He writes from Cracow, where in July he will lead the 24th annual assembly of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society. 

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