April 29, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Imperiled Church: Less than 1 percent in England

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

Oliver Cromwell came to power in England in 1649 after a civil war that ended with the execution of King Charles I. He ruled as both military and religious dictator, crushing all opposition and continuing to try to destroy the Catholic Church.

This hostility toward Catholicism applied to Wales, Scotland and Ireland, as well as England. In both Wales and Scotland, all Catholic priests were banished, and what were once flourishing particular Churches in those countries essentially vanished.

In Ireland, which had remained strongly Catholic, Cromwell led an army of 10,000 men. After battles that lasted for nine months and included massacres in Drogheda and Wexford, he gained control of the country.

The public practice of Catholicism was banned, and priests were killed when captured. All Catholic-owned land was confiscated and given to Scottish and English settlers and to Englishmen who had supported the civil war. Catholic landownership dropped to only 8 percent. This created a system of absentee ownership that caused much suffering to the Irish people for more than 200 years.

When Cromwell died in 1658, the reaction in England led to the restoration of the monarchy. King Charles II reigned for 25 years, from 1660 to 1685. Although married to the Catholic princess of Portugal, Catherine of Braganza, Charles allowed Catholics to continue to be treated cruelly.

In 1673, the Protestant Test Act barred from public office Catholics who would not deny the doctrine of transubstantiation and receive Communion in the Church of England. This law forced Charles’ brother James to resign his office of Lord High Admiral because he converted to Catholicism.

In 1678, many English Catholics suffered death as a consequence of what was called the Popish Plot. It was a false allegation by Titus Oates that Catholics planned to assassinate King Charles II, land a French army in the country, burn London, and turn over the government to the Jesuits. Among those killed was Archbishop Oliver Plunkett.

James II, who had converted to Catholicism, succeeded his brother Charles II in 1685. He was the first Catholic to sit on the throne since Mary Tudor died in 1558. He tried to relieve the hardships of Catholics. In England, his Declaration of Indulgence in 1687 established freedom of conscience for all England subjects. In Ireland, he suspended the penal laws and began to replace Protestant appointees with Catholics.

A crisis arose when James’ wife gave birth to a son, who would presumably be Catholic and his successor. Within days, William, Prince of Orange in the Netherlands, landed with an army in England. He was a Protestant who was married to King James’ eldest daughter, Mary. James was deposed, and Mary was set up as the new queen. The reign became known as that of William and Mary.

By the time their reign ended in 1702, Catholics in England had dwindled to less than 1 percent of the population, pretty insignificant. In 1689, a bill was passed requiring that the sovereign of England must belong to the Anglican Church, a law that still applies. †

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