Monsignor Charles Pope warned recently:

It is time to prepare for persecutions that will get bolder by the month and year. The dark movements that marched in under the banners of tolerance never meant it. And having increasingly gained power, they are seeking to criminalize anyone who resists their vision. No tolerance for us. Religious liberty is eroding, and compulsory compliance is already here. The federal courts increasingly shift to militantly secular and activist judges who legislate from the bench.

When will we as a Church finally say to the bureaucrats who demand we comply with evil laws: “We will not comply. If you fine us we will not pay. If you seek to confiscate our buildings, we will turn maximum publicity against you, but we still will not comply. If you arrest us, off to jail we go! But we will simply not comply with evil laws or cooperate with evil.”

At the same time Monsignor Pope wondered if, after decades of what he called “comfort Catholicism” that has compromised with modern culture in many ways, Catholic bishops, priests, and laity will be able to respond so bravely.

Catholics have faced persecution before: in ancient Rome, in early twentieth century Mexico, in our own country during the colonial period, but one period may offer us a model and some hope, indeed, that “we will find our spine” as Monsignor Pope urged his readers, “before it is too late” — or even after it is.

In the Beginning

In sixteenth century England, when Henry VIII proclaimed himself the Supreme Head and Governor of the Church in England, Catholics did not at first find their spine and stand up to their monarch. Most Catholics, including the archbishops, the bishops, and the abbots of the great monasteries, accepted Henry’s Oaths of Succession and Supremacy.

John Fisher of Rochester was the only bishop to refuse the oath; Sir Thomas More the only prominent statesman to endure, like Fisher, imprisonment, trial, and execution. Of the religious orders, only the Carthusian and Observant Franciscans were faithful to the unity of the Church, and they suffered greatly.

Once the suppression of the monasteries and friaries began, a few of those abbots who had sworn the oaths recognized their error and stood up against Henry. While 30,000 to 40,000 Catholics rose up in Yorkshire to protest the suppression of the monasteries in 1536, other Catholics stood by as Henry executed their leaders and declared martial law in the north.

Most clergy and laity went along, adapting to changes in long held beliefs in prayers for the dead, the Seven Sacraments, and the order of worship. As Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, said, “Fear compelled us to bear with the times.”

Among the noble laity, it certainly helped that they could buy former monastery lands from their monarch, thus increasing their wealth and influence and their identification with religious change. Perhaps greed, along with fear, was compelling them to “bear with the times.”

Edward and Mary

When Henry VIII’s young son Edward VI came to the throne, his protectors, council, and Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer introduced a more thoroughgoing religious Reformation, distinctly more Calvinist in doctrine and worship. Acts of Parliament replaced the Catholic Mass with the services of The Book of Common Prayer. Some rebels in Cornwall protested and the government put down the rebellion as brutally as usual. Two bishops, of London and Winchester, spent some time in the Tower of London, but everyone else still went along with the government’s religious direction.

One exception was the Princess Mary, Katherine of Aragon’s daughter, who refused to give up attending Mass in her own household. Knowing her opposition, the Duke of Northumberland tried to keep her from the throne when Edward died, supporting his daughter-in-law, Queen Jane Dudley (Lady Jane Grey). The country rallied around the Princess Mary, however, and she succeeded her half-brother. During her brief reign Reginald Pole, her Archbishop of Canterbury, succeeded in bringing Catholicism and unity with the pope back to England.

Unfortunately, she did not demand the return of the monastic lands from the nobility. Even those who welcomed the return of the Holy Mass, prayer for the dead, the intercession of the saints, and other traditional Catholic practices, would not sacrifice the riches they’d gained from the suppression of the monasteries.

Also unfortunately, Mary’s reign was brief and the positive work of restoring, rebuilding, recatechizing, and reforming is forgotten. The horrible record of nearly 300 Protestants and heretics burned alive at the stake dominants the history of the reign of the last Catholic queen.

Elizabethan Recusants and Martyrs

Catholics waited with bated breath for the next religious settlement at the beginning of Elizabeth I’s reign. The hierarchy at last found its spine, protesting against the establishment of the Church of England in the late 1550’s, refusing the oaths of Supremacy and Uniformity and instead of joining the new church, enduring exile and imprisonment. Many priests followed suit; students at Oxford and Cambridge also left England to continue their education on the Continent.

Being Catholic started to cost: those who refused to attend Church of England services were fined and the fines began to increase as church and state noticed resistance to the new order. Recusant Catholics, as they were called because they refused to swear the government oaths, risked and sacrificed their wealth, their comfort, their futures, their very lives. The work of the missionary priests, Jesuit and secular, inspired even greater devotion among the laity.

The great priest martyrs from St. Cuthbert Mayne in 1577 to Blessed William Richardson in 1603 demonstrated courage and loyalty. Elizabethan authorities sometimes recognized the truth of Tertullian’s axiom that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church”. In late 1581, St. Edmund Campion inspired St. Philip Howard to return to the faith and suffer imprisonment and death in the Tower of London in October of 1595; some of Campion’s blood splashed on St. Henry Walpole when he was martyred and Walpole left England to study for the priesthood, returning as a missionary like Campion. He suffered torture and execution just like his model, also in 1595.

The recusant laity continued to suffer heavy fines, imprisonment, and martyrdom as they protected and aided the missionary priests. Men like Richard Gwyn, Swithun Wells, and John Rigby and women like Anne Line, Margaret Ward, and Margaret Clitherow offered their lives for Jesus and His Church. Popes Leo XIII, Pius XI, Paul VI, and John Paul II have beatified and canonized hundreds of these martyrs.

The Underground Remnant

Catholics in England had indeed found their spine, perhaps too late. We might say “better late than never” because at least they maintained a faithful remnant. But it was underground; Catholics did not influence their culture and their culture had been stripped of Catholic art, architecture, music, and literature. They were a small minority but feared all out of proportion. When some civil rights were granted to Catholics in the late eighteenth century, there were riots in the streets of London and other major cities.

(This English fear of Catholics immigrated to British North America and most of the founding 13 colonies had laws forbidding Catholics freedom to worship. Even Maryland, founded on the principle of religious freedom by Lord Baltimore, fined Catholics for not attending officially sanctioned church services.)

In 1829, Parliament granted Catholics full citizenship and the hierarchy was not reinstated until 1850. Only then could Catholics rebuild all they’d lost centuries before: the parishes, monasteries, convents, schools, seminaries, etc.


Catholics in England had few warnings of their danger. Henry VIII had, after all, been declared the Defender of the Faith by Pope Leo X. Whether it was fear or greed that motivated them, many went along with the power of the state. As Monsignor Pope has warned us, we can see the danger and can be prepared, inspired by the story of the Church’s survival in England.