Friday, April 24, 2009

Supremacy and Survival

Supremacy and Survival - How Catholics Endured the English Reformation
Faith of our Fathers, holy faith!
We will be true to thee till death!
~ Fr. Frederick William Faber, 1814-1863
Supremacy and Survival by Stephanie Mann provides an overview of the history of the persecution of Catholics in England, beginning in the sixteenth century, as well as the later Catholic revival. Narrated with clarity and insight, Mann draws from a variety of scholarly studies on the Reformation, making the book an excellent introduction to the story of the fall and subsequent rise of the Catholic Church in the British isles. While the book was a refresher course for me about an epoch I have always found fascinating, the way in which Mann synthesizes the information into a coherent and flowing analysis gave me a deeper understanding of the sequence and significance of events.

The extent of the literacy and vigorous participation of English Catholics in the life of the Church before the break from Rome is highlighted. (pp. 6-10) Certain aspects of Mary Tudor's tragic, difficult life and disappointing reign are likewise poignantly presented. For instance, Mary, upon her succession to the throne, had to deal with people such as Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, who had worked for her parents' divorce. Mary loved children and had extensive charities, possessing the common touch, an ability to go directly to her people and be at ease among them, an essential Tudor trait. However, her education had been interrupted by the upheavals of her youth; she was afflicted by ill health, including raging headaches. (p. 42) Her Spanish marriage was her undoing; it brought foreigners into England, which did not go over well. Neither did the burning of the heretics, but in that Mary acted no differently from other European monarchs. Nevertheless, one of the themes of the book is that Catholicism came to be seen by the English people as being connected to foreign powers and therefore distinctly anti-English and dangerous.

The reign of Elizabeth is approached in a balanced manner, emphasizing the greatness of the Virgin Queen as a ruler while showing her cynical approach towards religion. As Mann states:
We do not know what Elizabeth's personal religious convictions were. She acted like a Protestant under her half-brother Edward, then seemed to accept Catholicism under her half-sister Mary. Like her father, she opposed both Puritan and Catholic dissent; but she rejected Catholic teachings he would have accepted, especially the Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist. Henry VIII would never have walked out of Mass as she did when the Host was elevated at her coronation. In fact, he would have executed anyone who did such a thing. Nevertheless, Elizabeth wanted the pomp and ritual of the Church of England service.... Yet she also employed the services of her own pursuivant and torturer of Catholic priests, Richard Topcliffe. Religion was part of her public role as Queen of England. Elizabeth was politic in her expression of it. (p.54)
It was during the reign of Elizabeth that embracing the Church of England became the measure of one's patriotism, as Catholicism came to be identified more and more with the enemies of England. The courage and martyrdom of some the most famous saints are covered, enough to give the reader a sense of the ordeals to which many people were subjected when they refused to deny their Faith.

Mann is able to follow the complexities of the various sects who strove for power within and without the Church of England, as well as delineate the various stances on theological issues. The rise of Puritanism is skillfully traced, leading to its temporary ascendancy after the execution of Charles I. The brutality of Oliver Cromwell's forces in Ireland is described in the context of the general hatred towards Catholics. Throughout the entire book, it is told how the Irish people repeatedly suffered at the hands of the English invaders, due to the Irish refusal to renounce Catholicism. Cromwell summed up the general attitude by saying his slaughter of so many Irish men, women and children was "the righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches." (p. 99)

As one decade led to another, the Church of England increasingly became an establishment church for those who wished to be socially acceptable. I think that Mann expresses it quite accurately when she says:
Religion became a matter of behaving well, not praying well or believing well. Under the control of the state, the Church of England did not build new churches to accommodate the shifting populations nor did it repair the existing ones.... The Church of England's latitudinarian moderation could satisfy the mind but it could not reach the heart. (p. 117)
Supremacy and Survival would make a worthwhile addition to any high school or university course of study, in that it offers a solid background of the period, as well as providing an extensive bibliography for further reading. On a spiritual level, the book inspires courage when recounting the sufferings of those who are our brothers and sisters in the Faith, those who valued truth and fidelity over life itself.


Stephanie A. Mann said...

Thank you very much for such a positive review; I am glad you enjoyed the book!

elena maria vidal said...

I did, Stephanie, and would also recommend it highly for any parish study groups!

May said...

I find these stories about Catholics living during the Reformation very inspiring. It must have been an incredibly hard and tragic period for them.

I heard that recent work on the Reformation in England has sparked fresh interest in this period in, for instance, Sweden. There have been new books on Catholic history in Sweden during the Reformation, and, in particular, on the Catholic king of Sweden and Poland, Sigismund Vasa. He used to be portrayed very negatively (as sort of a cross between the stereotypical images of Mary Tudor and James II) but has lately enjoyed greater sympathy.

Anonymous said...

Religion became a matter of behaving well, not praying well or believing well.An apt description of the Anglican church, even today. A religion with beauty and ceremony without all of the tiresome moral rules and stuffy theology. ;)

Wendy Haught said...

I ordered this book through your site on the day you posted the review, April 24. Since I was ordering some additional items, I met the minimum $25 order requirement for free shipping, which usually takes a bit longer. Can you believe my complete order was in my mailbox yesterday?

I was hoping it wouldn't get here til I had finished "In This House of Brede"! "Supremacy" is a horrible temptation, but I am grateful that you brought it to my attention.

elena maria vidal said...

I am delighted that Amazon is so efficient! Enjoy the book! Thank you for buying it from my store!

Stephanie A. Mann said...

Wendy, I hope you enjoy my book!
"In this House of Brede" is one of my favorite novels. I think that Rumer Godden is not appreciated as much as she should be. She tells great stories in her novels and she experiments with narrative technique just enough, without getting in the way of the story and the development of her characters.