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Archive Civic Polity Ecclesiastical Polity Reformed Irenicism Steven Wedgeworth

Political Not Religious? Peter Hitchens and the Two Kingdoms

Peter Hitchens has written a rather remarkable essay on the difference between the religious persecution carried out by Queen Elizabeth I and that done by Bloody Mary. What’s more remarkable is that it was published by First Things. Mr. Hitchens’ essay attempts a number of things, but its most important point is that the character of Elizabethan capital punishment was political rather than religious.

Hitchens writes:

The Catholic Church was prominent among England’s enemies. So it is hardly surprising that from 1585 it was high treason for any seminary priest or Jesuit to be in England at all, and a felony for anyone to shelter or help them. Under this particular statute, more than 150 Catholics are thought to have died on the scaffold between 1585 and 1603. (By contrast, Mary had executed nearly three hundred Protestants in four years, with no political excuse.) For what precisely did they die? This brings us back to Messrs. Nichols, Yaxley, Belson, and Pritchard, whose memorial appeared on an Oxford wall only in the new age of apologetic political correctness. For their story, I am indebted to an interesting and generally pro-Catholic study, Tony Hadland’s Thames Valley Papists.

I think we can guess that many English Roman Catholics quietly did as Elizabeth hoped they would do. They attended Anglican services (such people were known as “Church Papists”) and continued as loyal subjects of the crown, while hoping for better and easier days in future. By our standards, this is severe repression. By the standards of the age, it was gentle tolerance. But others chose openly to defy the laws meant to suppress Catholicism’s seditious threats to the sovereign government of England, despite the fact that doing so would identify them with a foreign enemy. We can salute their bravery (whether we agree with them or not), and I do so. But we cannot pretend they did not know that their defiance, however pious, would be treated as treason and disloyalty, and with good reason.

This explanation correctly points out how Elizabeth limited her concern to external standards. She refused to make windows into men’s souls. This also provides us the explanation for why she favored a broader Protestant church than what the Puritans desired. She wanted to leave space for dissenters to be able to submit without violating their conscience. This is an incredibly challenging task, and it would not be surprising to discover all the ways in which Elizabeth’s proposal fell short of its goal. Still, the goal is plain.

To Mr. Hitchens, and the supposed majority of readers, this goal is admirable. It shows how the Elizabethan settlement put “first things first.” Thus Hitchens can write the following:

This leads to the unavoidable conclusion that Henry’s judicial murders of Thomas More and John Fisher were political in origin, not religious. Both More and Fisher were brave and principled, beyond doubt. They were also given to fierce and cruel persecution of Protestant heretics—both, along with their Catholic King Henry VIII, were implicated in the savage death by fire of the Protestant martyr Thomas Hitton in 1530. Nor is there any doubt that Fisher, saintly Englishman or not, made treasonous approaches to Eustace Chapuys, Charles V’s ambassador in London, urging Charles to invade England and overthrow Henry. By going to their deaths over the question of papal authority over the king, Fisher and More chose an issue peripheral to Christ’s teaching, which renders unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and is preoccupied with a kingdom that is not of this world.

But notice those key qualifications, one at the beginning and the other at the end– “political… not religious” and “an issue peripheral to Christ’s teaching.” Though many contemporary readers may take Hitchens’ point of view as obvious, they are naive to do so. These qualifications actually elide the principal disagreement between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism when it comes to political theory.

Roman Catholics do not believe that “papal authority over the king” is “peripheral to Christ’s teaching.” To them it is a matter de fide. The most important commitment of Roman Catholicism is the primacy of the papacy. It must ever and always be Roman Catholicism, and while the relationship of the papacy to the civil magistrate is not itself the first ramification of this commitment, it is nonetheless a necessary and unchangeable second or third-level ramification. It has been a part of Roman Catholic dogma for at least 700 years.

As we have pointed out in the past, the papal bull Unam Sanctam grounds papal supremacy in Scriptural exegesis and the cosmic hierarchy of all things. In it Pope Boniface VIII writes:

We are informed by the texts of the gospels that in this Church and in its power are two swords; namely, the spiritual and the temporal. For when the Apostles say: ‘Behold, here are two swords’ [Lk 22:38] that is to say, in the Church, since the Apostles were speaking, the Lord did not reply that there were too many, but sufficient. Certainly the one who denies that the temporal sword is in the power of Peter has not listened well to the word of the Lord commanding: ‘Put up thy sword into thy scabbard’ [Mt 26:52].

Both, therefore, are in the power of the Church, that is to say, the spiritual and the material sword, but the former is to be administered for the Church but the latter by the Church; the former in the hands of the priest; the latter by the hands of kings and soldiers, but at the will and sufferance of the priest.

However, one sword ought to be subordinated to the other and temporal authority, subjected to spiritual power. For since the Apostle said: ‘There is no power except from God and the things that are, are ordained of God’ [Rom 13:1-2], but they would not be ordained if one sword were not subordinated to the other and if the inferior one, as it were, were not led upwards by the other.

This is a direct claim that Jesus has given both swords to the church (defined as the clerical corporation) and commanded the temporal power to be subordinate and subject to the church. The bull adds an ontological argument, saying:

according to the order of the universe, all things are not led back to order equally and immediately, but the lowest by the intermediary, and the inferior by the superior. Hence we must recognize the more clearly that spiritual power surpasses in dignity and in nobility any temporal power whatever, as spiritual things surpass the temporal.

So you have, according to Unam Sanctam, two reasons for papal supremacy even over political organs. One is taken from special revelation. The other derives from the natural law.

Unam Sanctam itself stood in a tradition. It was not a rash action taken by a frustrated prelate. 1090’s Dictatus Papae had proclaimed several unique prerogatives to the pope. He stood above all others. He could be judged by none. And he could, should the times call for it, “absolve subjects from their fealty to wicked men.” This was a power that subsequent popes were not shy about exercising, including of course Pius V, who Mr. Hitchens highlights in his article for First Things.

This doctrine of papal supremacy in political matters remained a core plank of Roman Catholicism until the last century. The Fifth Lateran Council says the following:

Moreover, since subjection to the Roman pontiff is necessary for salvation for all Christ’s faithful, as we are taught by the testimony of both sacred scripture and the holy fathers, and as is declared by the constitution of pope Boniface VIII of happy memory, also our predecessor, which begins Unam sanctam, we therefore, with the approval of the present sacred council, for the salvation of the souls of the same faithful, for the supreme authority of the Roman pontiff and of this holy see, and for the unity and power of the church, his spouse, renew and give our approval to that constitution, but without prejudice to the declaration of pope Clement V of holy memory, which begins Meruit.

Thus we see renewal and approval of Unam Sanctam in 1517. When we come to the 1570 bull, Regnans in Excelsis, already alluded to above, we are entirely prepared for the practical application:

4. And moreover (we declare) her [Elizabeth] to be deprived of her pretended title to the aforesaid crown and of all lordship, dignity and privilege whatsoever.

5. And also (declare) the nobles, subjects and people of the said realm and all others who have in any way sworn oaths to her, to be forever absolved from such an oath and from any duty arising from lordship. fealty and obedience; and we do, by authority of these presents , so absolve them and so deprive the same Elizabeth of her pretended title to the crown and all other the above said matters. We charge and command all and singular the nobles, subjects, peoples and others afore said that they do not dare obey her orders, mandates and laws. Those who shall act to the contrary we include in the like sentence of excommunication.

This is what Mr. Hitchens had called “political.” It is certainly that. It is just as certainly more than that. The authority issuing the call to insurrection is no mere civil magistrate. He is one claiming to hold ultimate spiritual power. And he affixes the threat of excommunication to any who would disobey. Thus, Roman Catholics of Elizabeth’s day could not accept her invitation to quietly submit to her broad establishment. They were bound by conscience to rebel against the crown.

Protestants can say that rebellion or submission to a certain magistrate is not of the essence of the gospel. But they can say this because they believe that Roman Catholicism is wrong. They believe that justification is by faith alone and that Christ’s kingdom is spiritual. Roman Catholicism, however, cannot say these things because it does not believe them. It believes that justification comes, ultimately, through submission to the clerical establishment and that Christ’s spiritual kingdom nevertheless always has a polity which possesses coercive power on this earth.

Modern Roman Catholicism attempts to sound a different tune, and perhaps it has indeed changed. But dogmatic change is not so easy for an institution which also claims to have never changed its doctrinal positions nor to have the ability to do so in the future. Roman Catholic authorities have a way of “clarifying” documents a number of ways as needed. The one commitment which always remains, however, is the one which serves as the source for the above discussion, the primacy and supremacy of the bishop of Rome.

And this brings us back to Mr. Hitchens. His argument that the Protestant Church of England began to cease religious persecution, replacing it with political suppression, holds true but only on certain grounds– Protestant ones. Indeed, distinguishing between the spiritual kingdom and the temporal kingdom in this way was one of the major contributions of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther used it to argue against sacral warfare, and John Calvin, so notorious for his persecuting streak, said that religious persecution could only be maintained on civil or political grounds, not spiritual ones.

Thus First Things‘ traditionalist Catholic readers will ridicule Hitchens’ notion of “political martyrs” and not without some justification. For them all politics is ultimately sacral. Theirs is a political faith, one based on authority and coercion. This is also, as it happens, why things like the Mortara Affair are deemed entirely understandable, even by writers and editors for First Things. And so it is, we suppose, also the reason they will be forced to offer the occasional acts of penance, acts like publishing Mr. Hitchens’ piece. This is a milder sort of martyrdom in the liberal political order, and for that, I hope we can all be grateful.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.