Anti-Catholicism lies at the heart of Englishness
Catholics should not be surprised by recent media hostility to the Pope. The press in Britain has plenty of form, writes Serenhedd James
4 June 2010
An Anglican friend recently lamented to me the disparity between the number of people in this country who describe themselves as being “CofE” and the number of those who actually ever set foot inside a church. I suspect that the reason is that when the survey forms come round there isn't a box to tick which says “I’m an ordinary person, with a general-if-not-specific belief in God, and I like to hear the church bells on Sunday morning, while I lie in bed with a cup of tea and the papers: but I’m definitely not a Roman Catholic.”
At the very centre of the national psyche there seems to be a basic suspicion of Catholicism which can be difficult to pinpoint: but it has certainly reared its head recently. The front cover of Private Eye with Pope Benedict on the balcony and the crowd in St Peter’s Square supplying the crude – but hardly unforeseeable – punchline may have shocked some and offended others, but it certainly should not have surprised anyone, as it belongs to a great tradition of English anti-Catholic satire: a tradition which has its roots in the dark days of the penal laws, and its high-water mark in the decades which followed emancipation.
During the penal era, anti-Catholicism was, of course, government policy. It has been argued that the excommunication of Elizabeth in 1570 provided the ideal opportunity for the Cecil administration to implement its abiding achievement: the propagation of the idea it was impossible to be a Catholic and a good Englishman. Against the historical backdrop of Armada, Gunpowder Plot, Civil War, the flight of James II, Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745, and almost constant war with France, it is easy to see how anti-Catholic feeling was easily sustained in the nation's consciousness.
Rome’s disassociation from the Jacobite cause in 1766 paved the way for the Catholic Relief legislation of the late 1770s, which in 1780 set off rioting in London: and while it is unlikely that more than a handful of the mob cared one way or the other for the Pope, they still rallied to the cry of “no Popery!”
In that context, vehement anti-Catholicism was found in both the mainstream press and satirical journals. Rome was Babylon, and the Pope its Whore: he was the Scarlet Lady, the Antichrist, whose followers were enslaved in his service, and who would cheerfully murder all good Protestants in their beds, given the chance.
Christopher Hibbert’s magnificent description of the Pope as the popular bogeyman was that of “an unseen, ghost-like enemy, lurking behind clouds of wicked incense in a Satanic southern city called Rome”.
The cartoons of James Gillray and his contemporaries make Private Eye look like Enid Blyton: a cartoon praising Scottish Presbyterian resistance to the Catholic Relief Act was entitled – and depicted in graphic detail – “Sawney’s Defence against the Beast, Whore, Pope and Devil”.
The Grand Tour did a lot for the Pope’s image in England, as those who could afford to travel widely in Europe discovered Rome and the Pope for themselves. By the end of the 18th century the penal laws had effectively fallen into abeyance – although they could be exploited in specific cases by unscrupulous individuals – and most Catholics, although barred from high office, were able to live lives of social integration. Emancipation seemed the natural progression, and followed in 1829, shortly before the Great Reform Act of 1832.
However, it would be naive to assume that the legal removal of Catholic disabilities did anything to suppress in the popular mind the suspicion of Catholicism as a foreign influence to be suspected: this sense that Catholics, however distinguished, were in some way not quite English, is one that the Catholic Church in England was unable to shake off as the 19th century progressed.
The early pontificate of Pius IX met with general approval in the British press, which hailed him as a friend of progress and freedom. In 1846 Punch portrayed him as a victor over despotism, felling it with a staff marked “rational liberty”. But the honeymoon was not to last. Pio Nono’s altered weltanschauung after he was forced to flee Rome in 1848, and his policies during the Risorgimento did not meet with favour: in 1861 Punch, again, depicted him in the act of snuffing out the sun of “modern civilisation” with the keys of St Peter. But it was not the Pope’s Italian policies which lost him the sympathy of the media in England.
By 1850, Pius IX had decided to restore the English hierarchy. This might not have made much of a splash, had it been done quietly and diplomatically, and had Nicholas Wiseman not been in charge.
Wiseman was in many ways a fine man and an outstanding bishop, but he did not recognise the eggshells on which he would have to tread. The resulting media frenzy is a defining moment in the history of English anti-Catholicism in the modern era, and the field was led by Punch, and most notably by John Tenniel, whose eye for detail produced cartoons as beautifully drawn as they are politically significant.
The Pope was depicted as a burglar, breaking into the Church of England with a jemmy marked “Roman Archbishopric of Westminster”, with Wiseman as lookout, with an archbishop’s cross for a cudgel. Elsewhere both men crept up on a sleeping John Bull, to smother him with a cardinal’s hat.
Papal bulls with tassels for tails ran headlong into walls, or appeared in cattle shows failing to win any prizes. Wolves in priests’ vestments heard the confessions of kneeling geese, or lured heiresses into convents. Meanwhile, tales of horrors endured at the hands of Catholics became bestsellers: with the usual caveat, the Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk still makes for splendid reading.
Anti-Catholic sentiment in the press may have abated since, and successive Fleet Street editors have been impressed with men like Cardinal Manning with his social policies, or Cardinal Hinsley with his leadership in time of crisis, or Cardinal Hume with his affability and charm.But history has shown us that for all that, a suspicion of Catholicism seems to lies at the heart of the British identity.
No one today seriously believes that the Pope is coming in September to receive Her Majesty’s submission, dissolve Parliament, and rule by Inquisition: but yet for the Catholic Church there remains a particular distaste, quite distinct from the contemporary unease with religious belief in general. As we have seen recently, one does not have to dig very deep to find people willing to attack Catholicism in the public forum.
Should we be surprised that major newspapers seem to have gone out of their way to portray Pope Benedict in a bad light? Probably not, and certainly not in Britain. He may no longer be Whore, Devil, or Antichrist, but when it comes to anti-Catholic sentiment, and hostility towards the person of the Pope, the British secular media has historic form.