“Constructing a narrative with Christianity — Calvinist or Roman Catholic — on the right and liberating side of history is just that, a construction. Sometimes it was, sometimes not so much. But shouldn’t a church gain high marks not for being on the side of John Locke but for proclaiming the good news of the gospel?”
Some people are worried that the church is being airbrushed from history. Case in point, Magna Carta, the 800th anniversary of which occurred on my mother’s birthday:
Clause 39 – “No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any other way ruined, nor will we go against him or send against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land” – is well-known to educated people, it is less commonly recalled that Clause 1 states “that the English Church is to be free, and to have its full rights and its liberties intact”.
More importantly, the Christian origins and influence of the Great Charter are mostly ignored, a point raised in a new Theos report by Thomas Andrew, The Church and the Charter: Christianity and the Forgotten Roots of Magna Carta.
In particular Andrew addresses the unsung hero of Magna Carta, Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, who played a huge part in drawing up the treaty and implementing it.
Some bishops were heroes, some weren’t since also missing from various accounts of the celebration is the recognition that Pope Innocent III condemned Magna Carta in the papal encyclical, Etsi Karissimus in Christo:
On behalf of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and by the authority of SS Peter and Paul his apostles, and by our own authority, acting on the general advice of our brethren, we utterly reject and condemn this settlement [the Magna Carta] and under threat of excommunication we order that the king should not dare to observe it and that the barons and their associates should not require it to be observed: the charter, with all undertakings and guarantees whether confirming it or resulting from it, we declare to be null, and void of all validity for ever. Wherefore, let no man deem it lawful to infringe this document of our annulment and prohibition, or presume to oppose it. If anyone should presume to do so, let him know that he will incur the anger of Almighty God and of SS Peter and Paul his apostles.
This should certainly complicate preparations for the 2015 Fortnight for Freedom, June 21 to July 4, 2015, “a time when our liturgical calendar celebrates a series of great martyrs who remained faithful in the face of persecution by political power—St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, St. John the Baptist, SS. Peter and Paul, and the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome. The theme of this year’s Fortnight will focus on the “freedom to bear witness” to the truth of the Gospel.”
Henry VIII, as many will recall, had six wives, whose fates are remembered by the jingle: Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.
But the description of the first fate is not accurate. What Henry actually wanted from Pope Clement VII was an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, a request about as common then as asking for late checkout at a hotel is today.
The problem was that Pope Clement VII was at the time virtually a prisoner of Charles V, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, whose troops were occupying Rome. And Charles V was a nephew of: Catherine of Aragon, and . . . well, you can see how it got complicated. In addition, there was a major political struggle going on. Rome’s demands for money were bleeding England dry. Henry’s leading the English church to independence from Rome was actually driven more by politics than by theology.
The motes my friend beholds in Henry’s character may have blinded him to the beams in the papacy. For example, Pope Innocent X. Innocent may have been the brand name of his bath soap, but it didn’t accurately describe the man, who spent most of his papacy satiating his grasping family’s desires and piling up works of art.
And then there was Pope Benedict IX, described by Pope Victor III as vile, foul, and execrable, who sold the papacy in order to marry his sweetheart. And who, except perhaps my friend, could forget Pope Stephen VI? He exhumed the corpse of his predecessor, Pope Formosus, and put it on trial, and, following the surely inevitable conviction, amputated three of “his” fingers. And, not finally but we must move on, let us not overlook, let us not, Pope Alexander VI, born Rodrigo Borgia, who, and two of whose children, Lucrezia and Cesare, made their surname synonymous with ruthless corruption and sexual debauchery.
Compared to that crowd, Henry VIII was a saint.
All of which is to indicate that constructing a narrative with Christianity — Calvinist or Roman Catholic — on the right and liberating side of history is just that, a construction. Sometimes it was, sometimes not so much. But shouldn’t a church gain high marks not for being on the side of John Locke but for proclaiming the good news of the gospel? Doesn’t spiritual liberty count for anything?
For good measure, constructing the narrative of Christianity and liberty is almost as selective as identifying Roman Catholic social teaching. With the upcoming — oh my it will be great and consequential — encyclical on the environment, plenty of reminders have made the way straight for Pope Francis who will, certainly, only be building on ideas and arguments already stated and affirmed by previous popes.
But here’s a question: why isn’t Innocent III’s condemnation of Magna Carta also part of Roman Catholic social teaching? The pope was, after all, teaching about society. Heck, plenty of popes well before Leo XIII taught about the political order and the duties of Christians. The calls for the Crusades, anyone? Was that a sermon about seeking a better country in the new heavens and new earth? So isn’t the notion of Roman Catholic social teaching a forerunner of what the bishops did at Vatican II — adjusting papal authority and teaching to modern society because those medieval claims about papal supremacy and national illegitimacy were hardly going to fly three centuries after the Peace of Westphalia?
D.G. Hart is Visiting Professor of History at Hillsdale College in Michigan, and also serves as an elder for a new Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale. This article first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.