27 DECEMBER 1969, Page 4


Ali Baba and the forty martyrs


It is seldom that a political correspondent has the opportunity to discuss theology but Christmas is surely a suitable time, and it happens that this particular festive season has been accompanied by such a frenzy of political activity on the religious front as puts the journey of the Three Kings to shame. Events were sparked off by a pastoral letter from Cardinal Heenan at the end of last month, read in parishes throughout his province, in which he announced that the canonisation of the forty Catholic martyrs of England and Wales was, if not imminent, at any rate in sight.

The cause of these forty martyrs has been postulated, on and off, for three hundred years. It received encouragement under Leo rut when a few of them were beatified in 1881 and 1895, and further encouragement under Pius xi when many more were beati- fied in 1929. At this stage there was plainly no hint of anti-ecumenicism behind the en- terprise, since at that time the ecumenical movement existed only in the minds of a few zealots. However, the greatest en- couragement of all came in 1935, when Sir Thomas More and John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester, were canonised. More and Fisher were both beheaded for refusing to recognise King Henry vitt as Supreme Head of the English Church, so under these circumstances it might have been true to say that such political emotions as the incident aroused were scarcely ecumenical. But again, even in 1935, the ecumenical movement was hardly under way.

The cause of the forty martyrs received its next impetus in 1959, when ecumenicism was only beginning to become an issue, as they say. The suggestion came from the Sacred Congregation of Rights, where the petition had lain since the seventeenth century. The two sponsors were Cardinal Cicognani (brother of the Secretary of State) and Paul Molinari, a Jesuit, both historians who had spent some time in England. The suggestion found enormous favour among the Catholic community in the north of England, where many of the martyrs had been born and where a cult had long been established. Cardinal Heenan was at this time Archbishop of Liverpool, and well aware of the feeling in his province. An office of Vice- Postulation was set up in Farm Street under Philip Caraman, the Jesuit historian and scholar.

It was only when the ecumenical move- ment began to gather strength that a handful of enthusiasts reached the conclusion that the cause of the forty martyrs might be pre- judicial to their hopes of reconciliation. Curiously enough, the first suggestion of this seems to have come from 'progressive' Catholics, rather than from their Anglican brethren, who could scarcely have been ex- pected to notice what was going on in a dim corner of Farm Street. At any rate, the Archbishop of Canterbury appears to have begun receiving lectures from concerned Catholics at quite an early stage in the vice- postulation. Nobody knows quite when he brought the matter up with Cardinal Bea, but there can be no doubt that he has been consistent in his opposition ever since. Cardinal Bea was not only head of the Sacred Congregation, and as such in a posi-

tion to discourage the postulation; he was also responsible for encouraging Christian unity. He died, however, last year.

Dr Ramsey's position remains a little mysterious. Nobody who knows him doubts that he is a sincere ecumenicist; nor does anybody doubt that the bulk of his energy in this direction is taken up at the present time with trying to coax back his own wandered flock, the Methodists; nor has anyone yet disputed that by natural inclination he belongs to the 'Anglo-Catholic' or Higher branch of the Church of England. It is this last consideration which surely provides the clue to his behaviour.

The Anglo-Catholic may or may not incline towards Rome. By no means all do; indeed some of the bitterest anti-Romanism is to be found among those Anglican priests whose liturgical practice and doctrinal posi- tion are closest to Rome. But a doctrine which is particularly dear to many High Anglicans is that of sacramental continuity, according to which the reformed church is no more and no less than the previous religion with a few abuses removed. This, I suspect, is so much the case with Dr Ramsey that, although I do not doubt for a minute that, unlike Thomas More, he would be hap- py to take the oath of supremacy, in some senses he is in fact a crypto-disestablish- mentarian.

Which may go some of the way towards explaining the apparent discrepancy this year between his veneration of the layman, Sir Thomas More, the unveiling of a statue to whom he attended earlier this year, and his horror of attention being drawn to the forty martyrs, many of whom were priests. Nothing could be a greater nuisance to those who derive solace from reflecting on sacramental continuity than to be reminded of those priests who were hanged, drawn and quartered by Queen Elizabeth t for being just that little bit too continuous. Certainly, it is not clear that the Archbishop's view reflects that of the Church of England as a whole, let alone the combined non-Catholic churches in Britain. This could not have been more sharply illustrated than in the

vote of the working committee of the British Council of Churches last Tuesday, which unanimously decided to greet the proposed canonisation with warm approval. This %ote was taken under the chairmanship of Bishop Sansbury, the Council's General Secretary and with the concurrence of all Anglicans, Methodists and Catholics present. The mo- tion suggested, somewhat obscurely it is true, that the canonisations would 'contribute to a greater ecumenical commitment by all'.

There is, of course, plenty of precedent for the deferment of canonisations on pol'Ocal grounds—the most recent being the case of the Martyrs of Korea, murdered by Bud- dhists, whose elevation to sanctity might well have had political repercussions. But it is surely worth pointing out that the deferment of these English canonisations for polit;cal reasons—that is, to foster warmer feelings for the Church of Rome' in Anglican hearts—would have the very opposite of ecumenical repercussions among Catholics. The cause of the forty martyrs has been pro- moted with particular zeal, not only in Lan- cashire, where rallies of between seven and eight thousand schoolchildren have been commonplace, but also in such unlikely places as Weston-super-Mare and in villages near Henley on Thames. A pamphlet by Margaret Waugh giving the martyrs' brief lives sold a hundred thousand copies in the first two weeks and is now in its third hun- dred thousand—a greater sale than anything previously enjoyed by a member of her distinguished literary family. While it would probably be over-sensational to predict the invasion of Lambeth Palace by enraged Lan- castrian Catholics, there would certainly be a profound feeling of disgust that politics had been allowed to intrude in religious devo- tions to this extent. Far from providing an `open sesame' to religious fellow-feeling. such a decision would shut the door for a very long time.

None of which goes to explain the motives of 'progressive' Catholics who wish to see the cause of canonisation stopped. A few of these, it is true, are simple people whose enthusiasm for the new ideas has caused them to lose sight of what the ideas are all about—those who see unity as an end in itself rather than as a means to the end of greater, more effective Christianity. Among these there may even be a few who, seeing how little ecumenism has yet achieved in this country beyond the non-denominational chapel at London Airport, now turn in frustration against the Church which has not proved significantly amenable to their new ideas. But the chief Catholic advocates for dropping the cause are neither stupid nor wicked people. Among clerics, Bishop Butler

feels that Anglican susceptibilities may well

be upset, remembering, no doubt, his oval Anglican days, when questions of sacramen- tal continuity may well have seemed crucial.

The 'progressive' Catholic laity are another matter. Chief among them is Mr Tom Burns, editor on the Tablet. Under Douglas Woodruff the Tablet used to be the most intelligent and articulate weekly ex- ponent of Catholic thought in the country- Nowadays, one can only say that it is leS predictable. Alone among the world's religious newspapers, so far as I know, supports. Nigeria in her war against Biafra: it supports the supply of arms and questi' the wisdom of relief. As a Catholic myself, prefer to read the SPECTATOR nowada while acknowledging that even the most treme eccentrics are also God's children.