I was almost going a little soft on Pope Benedict XVI during the early part of his visit to the United Kingdom. After all, the poor pontiff had to actually shake hands with a female Anglican priest–a torment he is not required to undergo every day. And he was visiting the country whose leaders had contributed so much(along with Martin Luther, of course) to Rome’s loss of its status as the sole authority in Christendom. True, that was half a millennium ago, but the Vatican has really never gotten over the loss…
But Benedict lost me when, at a prayer vigil in Hyde Park, he evoked memories of the 16th-century Catholic martyrs who were drawn and quartered for remaining loyal to the Vatican and added, “In our time, the price to be paid for fidelity to the gospel is no longer being hanged, drawn and quartered, but it often involves being dismissed out of hand, ridiculed or parodied.” That, Your Holiness,is what we secularists call progress.
Benedict did not, naturally, make any mention of the Protestants executed by Mary Tudor (aka Bloody Mary), whose aim was to restore the Roman Catholic rule–and loyalty to the Vatican–that her father, Henry VIII, had disavowed. Mary was the only child of Henry and Catherine of Aragon, who was cast aside when Henry’s roving eye fell on Anne Boleyn. When the pope refused to approve the annulment of Henry’s marriage, the Church of England was born. Anne, of course, eventually met a harsher fate–she was beheaded–for her failure to produce a male heir. The boy-king Edward VI, son of Henry and his next wife, Jane Seymour, ruled, in a manner of speaking, from his father’s death in 1547 to 1553. Then came Mary who did everything she could to undo the still-fragile hold of the Reformation. When Mary died in 1558, she was, in one of the great ironies of English history, succeeded by Elizabeth I, the girl child whose arrival had sealed her mother’s fate. Under Elizabeth’s long reign, the religious settlement that solidified the position of the Church of England took permanent shape (tested as it would be by the rise of Puritanism in the following century).
It was Elizabeth who reportedly said, “I have no wish to make windows into men’s souls.” For the most part, people actually had to do something to be executed for faith-based treason under Elizabeth–say, be a Jesuit priest sent to England to organize a plot to kill Elizabeth and place her cousin, the faithful Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, on the throne. The Pope naturally portrayed these Jesuits as martyrs, but it’s easy to see why Elizabeth would have viewed many of them as what many of them were–would-be assassins and threats to England.
Martyrdom and its veneration has always seemed to me one of the most dubious aspects not only of Catholicism but of many religions. This brief excursion into Tudor history highlights something that the pope also failed to note–the connection throughout history between politics and so-called religious martyrdom. Sir Thomas More was the chancellor of England at the time of his execution, in 1535, for refusing to acknowledge Henry VIII as the head of the church of England. His last words before his beheading were, “The King’s loyal servant, but God’s first.” That would be true, of course, if you believed in a god whose chief representative on earth necessarily lived in Rome. And More was an enemy of religious reform long before Henry’s sexual desires put him at odds with the Vatican. He was a fierce opponent of both Luther and of William Tyndale, who first translated the Bible into English.
Tyndale was another martyr the pope didn’t mention–possibly because, although he (like More) was executed by Henry VIII–he was a Protestant martyr. Tyndale was a crucial figure in the Reformation and was anathema to Rome. He knew Martin Luther and used the new printing press in Germany to publish the first English-language translation of the Bible (which later served as the basis for the King James Bible.) Even though the Reformation had begun in England, Henry VIII’s reach was long and although the king he had already executed More for refusing to recognize him as the head of the church of England, he took it upon himself to track down Tyndale in Antwerp and see that he was tried for heresy and executed. Henry, it should be noted, was somewhat ambivalent about his own theological loyalties.
Tyndale’s last words were “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes”–meaning that he hoped Henry would recognize the necessity of publishing an English-language Bible. That actually happened three years later, when King Henry’s “Great Bible” was published in English. Not only was poor Tyndale strangled and burned at the stake, but his work was later stolen by the committee that wrote the King James version. (Come to think of it, that is exactly what cut-and-pasters who claim that the Internet has nullified copyright are doing.)
Thomas More, then, was an enemy of all who would make the scriptures accessible to people in their own language. If you consider that a cause worthy of respect and honor, then I suppose you can weep tears over More’s martyrdom. In the hagiographical 1966 film about More, A Man for All Seasons, his opposition to an English-language Bible was never mentioned. Personally, I prefer a martyr who died for the right of people to read what the Bible actually says in a language they can understand. But I can see why Pope Benedict, who has an affinity for those who want to bring back the Mass in Latin (another big 16th-century issue), wouldn’t consider Tyndale his favorite marytr.
The whole concept of martyrdom is quite dicey, as the dueling martyrologies of the English Reformation indicate in a particularly graphic way. The truth is that in the 16th century, the vernacular Bible and vernacular Mass were the only issues that really divided the Church of England from the Church of Rome. And, oh yes, papal infallibility.To reflect that thousands of people actually died arguing over whether God wanted them to say “Credo in unum deum” instead of “I believe in God” is to reduce religious martyrdom to its proper proportions. By the 17th century, of course, the English Christians were dying over more substantive issues, such as the existence of saints and the nature of the Holy Trinity. And of course, all of the martyrs were also dying over the predominantly political question of whether a foreign head of a church that still made secular claims was going to determine how the English worshipped.
All religions have martyrs, and that is one reason I object to both religion and martyrology. I do believe that there are things worth dying for, although I doubt that I would ever have the strength to withstand torture myself. I honor people who died rather than give up the location of hidden Jews during World War II. I honor people who were beaten within an inch of their lives during the civil rights movement so that the next generation might have a greater share of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” I honor people who risk their own lives to save their children (though this may be more of a basic biological instinct than a considered decision.) What all of these actions do have in common is that they involve saving other human lives.
I do not believe that upholding the spiritual authority of one man over another (the pope over a king) is worth dying for. I do not believe it is worth dying to assert that Jesus was or was not the Messiah. I do not believe it is worth dying for the right to mumble the mass in a language that most of the faithful don’t understand. Benedict’s basic message throughout his visit to the United Kingdom was that England has become a largely secular society and that the mission of his church is to challenge “aggressive forms of secularism.” It was in this context that he cited the names of Catholic martyrs. He might reflect that since secularists have been more or less in charge, no one has been drawn and quartered for professing a particular religious belief. But oh, how painful it is to be mocked!
Note: I was extremely interested in all of your replies to the “Proust questionnaire,” and I’ve printed them out for future reference. Yes, it is fascinating to see in black-and-white how culture-bound we all are. To the blogger who resented having to answer the question about heaven and hell from the standpoint of an atheist or a religious believer (he believes not in a traditional god but some “transcendent being,”), I don’t agree with the person who said you are really an atheist. If your transcendent being plays any role in determining events in the universe or in the hearts of men, you aren’t an atheist.