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THE ROMAN RETURN?
When it comes to ideas it is important to try to keep the record straight. Ideas have consequences, indeed very big consequences. Marx’s ideas from the mid 19th century led to unimaginable suffering for the Russian peoples after the 1917 revolution. Communist ideas, in other words, aren’t good ideas. The same is true of western consumer-capitalist ideas with their attendant greed and permissiveness. These too, though superficially attractive, end up hurting people. But even if we deny that ideas are the only influence in society, history suggests that our lives are ultimately determined by what we believe or don’t believe. We sow ideas, we reap their consequences in experience. This is why the Old Testament inveighs against idolatry and why the New Testament warns us not to ‘swerve from the truth’. If we do, we bring ‘shipwreck’ on ourselves, says the Apostle Paul.
Did it make any difference, then, that England exchanged one set of ideas for another at the time of the Reformation? Well ‘no’ is the common attitude because religious ideas are of only marginal interest and importance. Ann Widdecombe in her recent Channel 4 documentary on the history of Christianity disagrees. The fact that England and Scotland rejected what was then called ‘Romanism’, her new-found faith, is to her a tragedy. So with the sincerity and forthrightness we admire and appreciate in her, she sets out to argue an important idea – that Europe and the UK in particular should eschew its materialistic worldview, bypass Protestantism and return to its Roman roots.
What do we make of this idea? Would it, for example, make any difference if Parliament were to change the UK’s constitution? Gordon Brown now proposes to do just that so that a catholic prince or princess can ascend the throne – something disallowed for 300 years? For many today, the present climate of opinion says personal beliefs are just that – personal beliefs. So they would welcome a constitution which is more tolerant.
Space prevents anything more than a short comment prefaced by two important qualifications. First, this is not a matter of prime significance for us today as there are more pressing needs. In fact, for many Christians, it seems obvious that Protestants should work with Catholics for the conversion of the secular rather than working against them on this political issue. Secondly, it isn’t difficult to see why many are attracted to Rome. Those looking for a robust stand against secularism are quite rightly impressed by the Catholic Church’s views on issues like abortion and gay marriage. Protestants seem weak and confused by comparison and none more so than the established church itself. Added to which the antiquity, size and pageantry of the Roman communion are further factors.
However, while admitting that this isn’t a major issue for Protestants today it is also not unimportant. If Catholic ideas were repudiated theologically and politically five hundred years ago why should we feel differently now? Not that one is unaware of significant changes in Catholic teaching since Vatican II (1962-65). Openness to the ‘separated brethren’ was unknown earlier. A ‘secretariat’ to promote inter-church relationship was then introduced which would have been anathema before. But the question is, do these changes represent a completely new direction or are they simply variations typical of the liberal/conservative shifts of the Roman imperium throughout her history – ultra conservative in the pontificate of Pius IX mid 19th century, for example, then more liberal under his successor, then ultra conservative again after Pascendi Gregis (1910) and so on? The question remains, has the Roman system as a system really changed? Some think it has. I don’t. In which case, I am suggesting, the record of history advises caution at least.
The truth of the matter is that wherever Rome has been in the ascendancy she has hindered the development of political freedom. As Michael Novak, a well known Catholic, puts it, ‘The record of wholly Catholic countries in the history of economic and social development is not entirely laudable (the same is true, alas, of their record in establishing democracies…)’ and again, ‘internal structures common to Latin America and the Iberian countries are the fundamental obstacles to development…’ To be fair, Novak is confident that Catholicism isn’t incompatible with the experience of democracies even though it hasn’t ever established them.
With respect to Ann Widdecombe’s documentary the limitations of television have of course to be taken into account. Cameramen and directors are notorious for requiring ‘action’ and Ann did her best to please. So we were taken to the annual Guy Fawkes celebrations in Lewes, Sussex, where the ‘pope’ is burned in effigy before a yelling crowd. To her resounding credit she bent over backwards to acknowledge Catholicism’s
failures shrinking neither from the executions of Protestants under Mary Tudor nor from the massacre on St. Bartholomew’s day in Paris (1572) when a Catholic mob ran amok killing thousands of Huguenots across France. Nevertheless her message was clear: whatever horrors were perpetrated in the name of Rome it would have been better had she not been expelled from the British Isles in 1547 (Edward VI) and again in 1558(Elizabeth) - and better still if she returned now!
For an evangelical who identifies ipso facto with the Reformation the issues, as always, remain theological. Can Roman teaching be squared with the Bible? At the same time new factors begin to emerge. Political changes are now under consideration – even if a full-orbed 16th century style return to Rome seems unlikely anytime soon! Nevertheless, the political overtones are there and require some sort of response. Ideas have consequences as we saw. And if Novak is right about his Church’s poor track-record we need to satisfy ourselves about its cause. Was it purely accidental or did it flow out of the Church’s inherent ambivalence about religious freedom? The latter seems to be the case as is illustrated by the fact that when the Constitution on Religious Freedom at Vatican II was debated it was the last and most hotly contested piece of legislation to be enacted - and not surprisingly because it contradicted Roman Catholic opinion for centuries past.
By contrast, Protestant theology lent itself to the development and nurture of political ideas which in due course helped to foster parliamentary democracy and political tolerance. All human authority was made subject to the authority of God’s Word, including that of the church. The New Testament emphasis on individual salvation and the ‘priesthood of all believers’ removed at a stroke the mystique of the Catholic hierarchy and opened the way for greater freedom and initiative. Likewise the participatory forms of church government in Presbyterianism and Congregationalism sprang up overnight in Protestantism simply because they were clearly normative in Scripture. By contrast they were unknown within the Roman church. Not, of course, that the establishment of Protestantism in Britain was without complication. It was marred by many blemishes and that story, too, needs to be told “warts and all”. Yet this aspect of our Christian heritage undoubtedly played a significant part in the emergence of constitutional monarchy. Rule by consent of Parliament became a reality. This in turn gave rise to political and religious freedoms most commonly associated today with the term ‘liberal’. Roman Catholic nations like Spain and Portugal, by contrast,
remained noticeably illiberal until late in the 20th century.
Proposals to abandon the privilege accorded to Protestantism in our law of succession to the throne may seem of little practical relevance immediately. But the wise keep their eyes on the merits and demerits of ideas – for ideas have consequences.
Ranald Macaulay, 27/05/2009
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