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The Church and Politics in a Dangerous Age

There is an ongoing debate about the involvement of the Church in politics. Often using these two words in the same sentence quickly evokes emotional reactions. In a new book, launched this week at the Jesuit Institute in Johannesburg, we glimpse how Jesuit priest Robert Persons had to carefully negotiate politics, religion and ecclesiastical structures in 16th century England. Chris Chatteris SJ reflects on the book and Person's life in Elizabethan England.

Should the Church keep out of politics? Church leaders often think so often because politics is a dirty business and they would prefer to keep their hands clean. The Church also has to preserve its unity and so the Church often tries to remain politically neutral to maintain that.

But what if the government of the day starts to persecute a particular denomination of the Church? Must the members simply turn the other cheek and let their persecutors do with them what they will? Can they not use their influence to mitigate or prevent the persecution? And if so, how far can they go? Can they get into party politics? Can they support the use of force?

In the Europe of the 16th Century all of these things were seen by many as legitimate. The leaders of Christian denominations felt that they had to pre-empt the persecution of their own denomination by persecution of the other. In England, Protestants persecuted Catholics under Henry VIII and when ‘Bloody’ Mary took over, Catholics persecuted Protestants who in turn persecuted Catholics under her successor Elizabeth I. The concept of toleration was, to say the least, not well developed. Minorities or dissenters were seen as political threats and could be fined, imprisoned or executed.

Prof Victor Houliston in conversation with Fr Russell Pollitt SJ about his new book on the unpublished correspondence of English Jesuit Robert Persons.

This was the world of Robert Persons SJ, a remarkable English Jesuit of the period. Thanks to a new book of his correspondence recently launched at the Jesuit Institute, we now have a clearer view of his life and the dangerous political world he negotiated. Dr Victor Houliston, who teaches English at the University of the Witwatersrand, is one of the three distinguished editors of the volume (the first of three) which is entitled, The Correspondence and Unpublished Papers of Robert Persons SJ Volume 1 1574-1588. At the South African book launch hosted by the Jesuit Institute, in conversation with Fr Russell Pollitt, SJ Dr Houliston opened a window on a world of savage torture, heroic martyrdom, high faith and tangled politics.

Catholics under Elizabeth were fined for not going to the Anglican church. The fines could cripple even well-off families. To work as a priest was regarded as treason and therefore a capital offence. Priests were regarded as agents of a foreign power stirring up sedition among the Catholic populace. Their executions were gruesome. The condemned were pulled on sleds through the streets to the place of execution where they were hanged, cut down when still alive and then castrated and disembowelled and their bodies cut in four – ‘hanged, drawn and quartered’.

In the previous (Catholic) regime the Catholic state had burned non-Catholic ministers as heretics, so the Anglican Elizabethan state saw itself as removing a very real Catholic threat. I suppose if one had the choice between being burned at the stake and being hanged, drawn and quartered one might make a difficult choice for the latter so one could argue that Elizabeth’s regime was marginally more humane, although the tortures endured before the executions were horrific!

Robert Persons escaped from England at the time that his Jesuit brother Edmund Campion (who made his own position more dangerous by taunting the Government with brilliant tracts) was caught and executed. He never returned but ran the Jesuit mission from the European continent, working in Flanders, France, Spain and Italy where he was well connected with the ruling elites of Church and state. One of his main works was to establish colleges in Europe where young Catholic Englishmen could get an education, especially those who wished to become Catholic priests and return to minister to their co-religionists in England.

Persons was described as a polypragmon (a term from Plato’s Republic) a Jack of all trades, (or a busybody in its negative sense). He had tremendous energy and the zeal of the convert that he was. On his tomb it is stated that he was ‘always plunging into the midst of the fire’. He was a diplomat, organiser, fund-raiser, spiritual director, college rector, political operator and military strategist. His one end and aim was the survival of Catholicism in England (and Scotland) and its ultimate re-establishment as the official religion.

Fr Thomas McCoog, one of the new book’s editors, argues that the death of Campion and his companions radicalised Persons. Whereas before their deaths he was conciliatory towards Queen Elizabeth, after the execution he became convinced that she had to be removed. Hence, he was an enthusiastic supporter of the 1588 Spanish Armada, the attempt by King Philip II of Spain to invade England and depose Elizabeth. However, he was pragmatic and prudent enough to judge that the later attempt by the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to decapitate the English Government under the Scottish king James I, was a desperate and doomed conspiracy run by a collection of unbalanced hotheads that no sensible Catholic could support.

Prof Victor Houliston talking about Robert Persons SJ

Despite his gung-ho image, McCoog cites evidence that Persons struggled with the problem of a priest and religious getting caught up in politics. The Jesuits had decreed that their members should keep out of ‘what is secular and belongs to political affairs and the governance of states.’ Persons asked for a dispensation for this from his Superior General who refused but who added that ‘the decree did not forbid Jesuits advising rulers on issues intended for the greater glory of God even when such matters were intertwined with state affairs’. Persons more than took the hint!

While trying to win the political struggle, Persons worked tirelessly at winning the hearts and minds of his opponents and at strengthening the conviction of Catholics. He wrote a best seller entitled a ‘Christian Directory’ which was a book of spirituality based on the Ignatian Exercises. It was so successful in England that his non-Catholic foes paid him the compliment of re-publishing it for Anglican consumption with all the Catholic references cut out!

Persons’ life was one of continual struggle. He took flak from every side. He was a militant Catholic and so he was considered a dangerous figure by Protestants but also by many Catholics in England. Unlike his confreres who were martyred and canonised he had to do the ‘dirty work’ in the background and had to settle for being a ‘martyr of a lifetime’.

Prof Victor Houliston

He may not be a canonised saint, but he is certainly a fascinating figure through whose correspondence, thanks to Houliston and his colleagues, we can now, as Fr Pollitt put it, be ‘absorbed into his world’. And that world reminds us to be grateful for how much things have changed.

The Correspondence and Unpublished Papers of Robert Persons SJ Volume 1 1574-1588. (Texts are in the original languages with English translations) Editors: Victor Houliston, Ginevra Crosignani, Thomas McCoog SJ Published by PIMS, 2018.

Images: Ursula van Nierop

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Chris Chatteris SJ
Chris Chatteris is a Jesuit priest who is the handyman at the Seminary in Cape Town, combining the tradition of the ‘worker priest’ with teaching and spiritual direction of seminarians. On the handyman side his current project is to ‘green’ the seminary and he has installed such things as heat pumps, rain tanks and recycling systems. He does some writing, last year authoring a book entitled Vocations and what to do with them, a handbook for vocations directors. He also writes a monthly column for the Southern Cross reflecting on the Pope’s intentions, plus occasional other articles elsewhere. Chris was born in Zambia and went to Jesuit schools in both Zimbabwe and Britain and, having been unable to beat them, joined them in 1968. He studied philosophy, theology, French and education, and spent a very formative time in France, part of which was at the L’Arche Community of Jean Vanier fame. Chris has taught in French and British schools and worked in British and South African parishes, including a mission in KZN at the time of the transition from apartheid to normality. He has also worked as the novice director of Jesuits, in the theological formation of young religious at St Joseph’s Theological Institute, Cedara and, briefly, at the Jesuit Institute.

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