The Enduring Persistence of Anti-Catholicism

Anti-Catholicism English
Anti-Catholicism in England 1850, cartoon from Punch

I have just been to England, to a country village where I had a surprising encounter. This is what happened.

My mother had rented a barn cottage on a farm for the weekend and my family gathered there for a get-together.

There was a problem with transport and I didn’t know how to get to Holy Mass on Sunday.

I therefore knocked at the door of the farm to ask if they knew of anyone driving from the village to the nearest Catholic Church, St. Peter’s, which was seven miles away.

I was met by the son, a man of about 35 years of age. I spoke of my request and was taken aback by his response to me.

“Oh no,” he said scornfully, “We’re Church of England round here. We have our own church. No-one will be going to St. Peter’s.”

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He spoke these words harshly, with superiority and condescension. I have never been spoken to like that. It was as though I was plummeted back hundreds of years.

When I was at university, an Anglican university in Wales, a fellow student said to me, “You Catholics always have it hard.”

Whilst I understood him historically, personally I didn’t know what he meant, for I was a recent convert then and had never met with prejudice.

This farmer in rural England was the first to speak to me directly in this way. I did not feel hurt, simply shocked and saddened.

And, of course, I know that similar prejudices have been expressed in the past when Catholics vented their dislike and anger towards Protestants, although I have never witnessed anything like this.

Funnily enough, after having been reprimanded for being Catholic, the man’s mother came out and said, “Oh yes, I know a Catholic lady, I’ll ring her for you”. The lady in question kindly came to pick me up. She drove me to Holy Mass and all was well.

But, I am haunted by the attitude of that man – an attitude that has so greatly affected England and Ireland, where the settling English believed that Catholicism should simply be erased.

The attitude of the son was exactly this. He intimated that I should be going to the Church of England too. There was no need for Catholicism. It is unnecessary, for we have the Church of England.

St. Claude La Colombiere

For me, the whole experience was highlighted by the fact that it was nearly November 5th.

(For those outside Britain, the Fifth of November is Guy Fawkes day or the British fireworks night. Guy Fawkes was a Catholic who tried to blow up parliament in 1605, during an era of savage Anti-Catholic repression. Still celebrated today, Guy Fawkes day commemorates continued Protestant hegemony in Britain.)

All this brought to mind something I read in a wonderful book called These Three Hearts, by Margaret Yeo.

The book chronicles the French history of the lives of St. Claude La Colombiere and St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. It describes their meeting and relationship at Paray-le-Monial, France, and their subsequent shared mission, to spread devotion to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

After residing a time at Paray and being privileged to be St. Margaret Mary’s Confessor and Spiritual Director, St. Claude La Columbiere is sent to England in 1677.

He is to serve at St. James’ Palace, as preacher to her Royal Highness, Mary of Modena, the Duchess of York.

On arriving on English shores, he is presented with a very foreign people – which the author suggests he finds:

Coarse, brutal, kindhearted, sentimental, illogical, independent … difficult for a Frenchman to understand.

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Having lived in France, a Catholic land, all of his life, he is shocked as he comes face to face with national Anti-Catholicism in England. For, as Margaret Yeo notes:

England, and especially London, seethed with bitter hatred against Papists and French. The unfortunate Catholics were said by Shaftesbury [and] Buckingham … to be behind every catastrophe, be it the plague in 1666 or the Great Fire in the following year.

Here were a people who had ruled that everyone in official positions must swear to the Test Act, which forced them to conform to the Church of England, taking an oath which denied transubstantiation.

Mary of Modena’s husband, the Duke of York, a Catholic convert, was one such man. He was Lord High Admiral of the British Navy and very skilled at his job, having built up a navy that equalled both the French and Dutch navies together.

Unable to swear The Test Act, denying transubstantiation, he was forced to resign his position, to the glee of the French navy officials. Being thus installed at St. James’ Palace, with the Duke and Duchess of York, all this was very much in St. Claude’s awareness.

He also found that on the Fifth of November, the English burnt effigies of Guy Fawkes or the Pope, filling them with live cats to make the murderous experience all the more real!

He would have heard folk speak of ‘Popish plots’, mutter about ‘Popish superstition’ and cry out refrains such as, “To hell with the Pope”.

The life of this French Jesuit Priest in Anti-Catholic London was foreign indeed.

No longer did he experience a culture where Holy Mass was celebrated daily, in churches and chapels all over the country.

No longer was the Angelus sounded three times a day, calling people to prayer, at six in the morning, noon and six in the evening.

No longer was the Rosary publicly recited, nor were there Processions in honour of Our Lady or the Saints.

Here in England the Catholic faith was suppressed and heavy penalties enforced for those who publicly proclaimed it –as St. Claude would himself discover, when later he would be arrested and flung into jail for attempts to spread the Faith.

This was not only the environment that St. Claude La Colombiere himself endured. It was the way in which culture developed for centuries in Britain. And these attitudes, which built and developed this British culture have prevailed.

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My late father-in-law, educated in a Church of England public school, was very Anti-Catholic, even though he was not a practising Anglican. He had simply absorbed the prejudice of centuries.

Culture develops according to the religious persuasions of a country. Just as in France, Spain and Ireland, the Sacramental life is that which has built culture, in Britain, culture has grown out of that which has protested it.

Sadly today, Anglicanism is so in decline that culture is veering strongly away from Christianity towards a secular creed.

When Roger and I returned to Britain in 2010, having lived for six years in the Catholic countries of Ireland, Spain and France, we were struck by the cultural contrast.

What we had experienced over six years, in those Catholic countries, was so very different to that which we had known in Great Britain. And on returning, we clearly noticed the discrepancy. Great Britain appeared far more materialistic and secular than when we had left it. Everywhere people and things were going at a faster pace than before and buildings and cars and fashions seemed far bigger and much more slick.

And now we live in Ireland, which has been battered for centuries by religious and political differences. Yet whilst admittedly in the North,  there even now continues to be sporadic violence, peace is generally the order of the day.

So as I write these words, around the Fifth of November, I am haunted by my experience with that English man.

I am reminded of the history, recalled above, with the life of St. Claude La Colombiere in London – all that Anti-Catholic talk of ‘Popish plots’, superstition and nonsense.

These sentiments have sounded out throughout the British Isles for centuries, even before Guy Fawkes was discovered on the Fifth of November, in 1605, guarding the explosives beneath the Houses of Parliament.

Sadly, it appears that within certain circles, Anti-Catholicism has an enduring persistence.

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2 responses to “The Enduring Persistence of Anti-Catholicism”

  1. Billy Bushop Avatar
    Billy Bushop

    This man who you asked for directions, should I take it that he hadn’t been to CoE services? Maybe there is no way for you to know, but it would be passing strange if he tried to be an obstacle to a Catholic trying to go to Mass while at the same time not attending services himself. We’re CoE and no one, including us, goes to church on Sunday here!?!

    I’m so sorry for the way you were treated.


  2. kim Avatar


    Thank you for your sympathy and care in responding to me.

    I am not so much hurt by the experience, but rather shocked that these sentiments are still alive and expressed.

    I know that the man in question does go to church, for he was intimating that I should go to his village church too.

    The experience was ripe, because of the time of year it occurred, the fifth of November, where there is a centuries old British custom of celebrating something of the division between these two worlds of Catholicism and the Church of England/Anglicanism.

    Again, I am touched by you sympathy. Thank you.