April 15, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Imperiled Church: England becomes Protestant

John F. Fink(First in a series of columns)

There was a period of time, roughly from the time of England’s King Henry VIII through the French Revolution and then the loss of the Papal States, when it appeared that the Catholic Church would cease to exist. I’m calling this period the “imperiled Church.”

A good case could be made that this period actually began with the start of the Protestant Reformation because the Church lost whole hunks of areas in Europe, especially in Germany and Switzerland. I admit I’m a bit arbitrary in starting this series with England.

Henry VIII made his break with Rome in 1535 by having Parliament pass the Act of Supremacy, making the king the supreme head of the Church in England. That led to the martyrdom of some faithful Catholics, notably Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More.

Nevertheless, Henry considered himself an orthodox Catholic. He enacted laws requiring English subjects to profess certain Catholic doctrines, among them the doctrine of transubstantiation, the sufficiency of Communion under one species, priestly celibacy, the validity of the vow of chastity, Masses for the souls in purgatory, and auricular confession—all matters that were denied by Protestants.

When Henry died in 1547, he was survived by three children: Mary, the daughter of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon; Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn; and Edward, son of Jane Seymour, who died giving birth to Edward. Since he was the only male, Edward became king at the age of 10. He reigned as Edward VI, and the government was taken over by his uncle, the duke of Somerset, who acted as regent.

Edward was reared a Protestant. The Book of Common Prayer was issued in 1549, and this is considered the first official act of England’s conversion to Protestantism. The book substituted a Communion service in English for the Mass in Latin, and sanctioned Protestant views of the Eucharist.

Edward was king for only six years. When he died, Mary, the daughter of Henry and Catherine, became queen. She was soon known as “Bloody Mary” because, in her zeal to return the country to Catholicism, she invoked the laws that provided capital punishment for heretics. Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer and about 275 other people were burned at the stake.

Mary died in 1558 after only five years as queen, and was succeeded by her sister Elizabeth. She returned the country to Protestantism, and had Parliament enact 39 articles that repudiated many Catholic doctrines.

Not that it made much difference at this point, but Pope Pius V formally excommunicated Elizabeth. In return, Parliament made it an act of treason to recognize papal authority. Catholic priests were required to leave England under penalty of capital punishment, and persecution was severe for the next 20 years.

Altogether, 221 Catholics were put to death during Elizabeth’s reign. Of them, 128 were priests. Among the priests who were martyred was the Jesuit Edmund Campion. The persecution, though, was not successful in getting rid of all the priests because, at the end of the century, there were still 360 priests in England. †

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