In 1850, Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman wrote his fellow-Englishmen from Rome, announcing that Pius IX had restored the diocesan hierarchy in England and that he, Wiseman, would be cardinal archbishop of Westminster.
“From Out the Flaminian Gate,” a pastoral letter longer on baroque rhetoric than ecumenical diplomacy, caused a perfect storm in Protestant England. Queen Victoria wondered whether she remained the sovereign. Lord John Russell, the prime minister, said he would rely on the good sense of the English people, who “looked with contempt on the mummeries of superstition.” The Anglican archbishop of York warned that Rome was plotting Anglicanism’s “captivity and ruin.”
As things turned out, Anglicanism proved quite capable of arranging its own sad ruin. Today, Catholics (their ranks bolstered by a substantial number of Polish immigrants) are the largest number of Christian churchgoers in England. The Church of England is the Christian community to which most Englishmen know that they, and their parents and grandparents, once belonged. England’s cause, and Anglicanism’s, are no longer thought to be the same.
Which was once the case, and for centuries. At the level of national mythology, modern state-building in 16th century England had a premier Catholic villain: the Spanish bogeyman, Philip II, with his Armada. Perhaps more importantly in ordinary people’s lives, the formation of the modern state in Tudor England went hand-in-(mailed)-glove with the state-sponsored and state-enforced demolition of traditional Catholic piety in favor of Protestant doctrine and practice, in what historian Eamon Duffy dubbed “the stripping of the altars.” By 1688, with the staunchly Protestant William and Mary enthroned and James II in exile, to be an English patriot was to be Protestant. Catholicism was dangerously “other.”
That the storm of controversy Nicholas Wiseman caused in 1850 is inconceivable now — that contemporary calls for England’s conversion would likely meet yawns rather than outrage — says a lot about the land that once produced such great Christian allegorists as John Bunyan, John Milton and C.S. Lewis.
“English = Protestant” has been replaced by a new equation: “English = Multiculturally P.C.” Evensong is still sung superbly in King’s College chapel, Cambridge; but the psalms and canticles echo amidst the real absence. Bunyan’s Pilgrim has come to an even deeper slough: not of despond, but of spiritual apathy and boredom.
Into that slough now rides Father Aidan Nichols, the distinguished English Dominican theologian. His small book, The Realm: An Unfashionable Essay on the Conversion of England, makes a bold claim about the past and a bold wager about the future: “England is in fact inseparable from Catholicism, unimaginable without it.”
Moreover, Father Nichols argues, to preach, teach, propose and invite the conversion of England is not bad manners, but true courtesy. Replying to a BBC interviewer who fretted that England’s return to the Catholic orbit would violate contemporary ecumenical and multiculturalist sensibilities, Nichols responded in a tone that might have commended itself to Cardinal Wiseman, before he put pen to parchment outside the Flaminian Gate:
“…if Catholic Christianity conveys in human form the divine revelation which is the greatest truth, goodness and beauty man can know, then all the elements of truth, goodness and beauty in the theory and practice of other forms of Christianity and indeed in other faith traditions would attain their crown in this [Catholic] context, would come to their intended fulfillment.”
Father Nichols’ description of the cultural challenges of the New Evangelization after Vatican II rings true far beyond Land’s End: our problem today is less the new atheism than the new apathy, an apathy that has grown exponentially amidst uninteresting and soggy Christianity, material wealth, and the decline of any public consensus that some things are, simply, true.
Like those who will read him with appreciation here in the former colonies, Father Nichols also recognizes that the challenge of spiritual boredom in post-Christian culture cannot be met by Catholic Lite. It can only be met, and the 21st century world converted, by Catholicism in full.
On that, Aidan Nichols and Nicholas Wiseman would be fully agreed.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.