Some of my best friends are Catholics. Actually, that’s not quite right. Most of my best friends are Catholics. I use the term “Catholic” in the layman’s sense meaning Roman Catholic, though I am a Catholic too, of the Anglican, not the Roman, stripe. I am an Episcopalian, but I consider my Roman brothers and sisters equal heirs to the Western Code.
Being an Episcopalian is challenging these days, many, perhaps most, of the clergy not having enough sense to come in out of the rain, and employing that diminished sense to gum up the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church.
But I was recently chastised by an old friend of 40 years or so for belonging to a church that was started by an English king who wanted a divorce, to wit, one Henry VIII. (My friend employed the same phrases that the founder of the conservative movement used to employ with me making the same point, suggesting that their claim was part of a standardized Sunday-school training.)
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.
But more to the point: St. Henry’s break with Rome wasn’t theological at all. Great care was taken by the English church to ensure that apostolic succession was maintained; and no beliefs were changed: the Anglican and Roman creeds to this day are identical.
It is true that Anglicans and Romans do not currently recognize each others’ orders. St. Henry’s daughter Queen Elizabeth I declared in 1570 that Roman orders were deficient from an Anglican perspective. Not to be outdone, Pope Leo XIII responded almost immediately (326 years later) that Anglican orders were invalid. And that’s where the two denominations stand today.
Of course, the antics of the (so-called) Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, are enough to make anyone doubt the sanity of people who remain Episcopalians. Her denial that Jesus is the only way to salvation prompted the retired Bishop of South Carolina, The Rt. Rev. Dr. C. FitzSimons Allison, to say of her remarks: “It doesn’t measure up to heresy. She is trying to reduce Christianity to the blank space in the creed between the Virgin Mary and Pontius Pilate.”
But then the Roman Catholic Church has had its problems too: notably the recent, and well-publicized and rather expensive, pedophile scandal. Although it’s true that the Romans’ scandal involves only bad behavior, not basic belief, it is also true that bad behavior is the crux of my friends’ brief against Henry VIII.
In the 1950s, Episcopalians and Roman Catholics kept each other at arm’s length. It was not unusual for Episcopalians to avoid entering a Roman Catholic church. In boarding schools there were religious wars (fought with socks) between Roman Catholics and Protestants—though it was not always clear that the Protestants knew what they were fighting about. Jews were never involved—because there weren’t any.
It was all quite wonderful, in a way, that way being that people took religion seriously. Now we’re all—Catholics, Protestants, Jews—stuck nervously together in the same leaky boat, pulling hard for a shore that seems, always, to be receding. Some of us long for the day when we can start fighting each other again (if only with socks, and words), secure in the knowledge that the Western Code has prevailed.
Daniel Oliver is Chairman of the Board of Education and Research Institute and Senior Director of White House Writers Group in Washington, D.C. In addition to serving as Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Ronald Reagan, he was Executive Editor and subsequently Chairman of the Board of National Review.