"Anti-Catholicism" or "Anti-popery"?

In analysing animus against Catholicism in British history two terms are used interchangeably: anti-Catholicism and anti-popery. Digressions into terminology might seem infuriatingly pedantic, but labels really are very important: they pre-condition our approach to a given topic, involve a host of assumptions which colour our interpretation of that topic, and often predispose us to look for some things in the historical record at the expense of others. They must consequently be used with precision.

‘Anti-Catholicism’ and ‘anti-popery’ obviously overlap to a large extent, but they also speak to two different aspects of the same animus (I am wary of referring to this animus as a ‘prejudice’, ‘intolerance’ or ‘ideology’ because I think that each of those labels also predispose us to approach it in a specific way which might be equally unhelpful in understanding the subject at hand). ‘Anti-Catholicism’, it seems to me, prioritises hostility to the Catholic faith and its claims to be a route to salvation: that is, it is explicitly religious in its focus. This took the form of hostility to Catholic doctrine, liturgy, the cult of saints, and the practice of miracles on the grounds that these things were (at best) erroneous and dependent upon a gullible or superstitious laity or (at worst) a vast, anti-Christian conspiracy to con Christians, ensuring their damnation through an investment of trust in idolatry rather than faith in Christ (as protestants would have it). Both ends of this spectrum are reflected in protestant polemic against the Catholic Church from the beginnings of the Reformation and beyond: anti-Catholicism was inconsistent in its vehemence – ranging from mild distaste to outright damnation – and was reliant to a large degree on a) the context in which it was expressed; and b) the purpose of the author or group who was expressing it. At times it is supercilious and disrespectful – ‘look at these silly things which catholics believe, ha, ha, ha’ – and at others it speaks to a conspiratorial worldview in which truth and falsehood are continually at war – ‘these catholics are peddling lies to damn souls to hell in the service of the Whore of Babylon: they and their faith are dangerous’ –, but at all times it was concerned with a condemnation and fear of what was perceived to be a false religion.

In contrast, ‘anti-popery’ was a much more explicitly political phenomenon. This centred above all else on the supposed political aspirations of the papacy dating from the early church and passing through all eras of history. Both before and after Henry VIII’s break from Rome in 1533/4, the papacy was depicted as a usurper: it fraudulently claimed headship over the western church in order to subjugated princes by interfering in their sovereignty. By rejecting the papal usurper, Henry VIII could thus claim to preside over a church which was properly Christian – ‘no heresy to see here, guv’ – but which was also anti-papal. Big H, after all, was resolute in his Catholic faith: he was convinced of his own piety. The Reformation in this definition was not a religious revolution but a political one which was broadly concerned with exposing to the world the historical corruptions of the papacy against the just power of princes and refuting its fraudulent claims to authority over the church. The Mass, works righteousness, purgatory, and other core aspects of late medieval Catholicism were retained (albeit in an often muted form) in Big H’s English Church.

In its first inception then the English Reformation did not style itself as ‘anti-Catholic’ but ‘anti-Papal’. Officially, those catholics who were prosecuted under Henry or Elizabeth I were tried for treason, not heresy. Their ‘crime’ was failure to recognise the Tudor crown’s political authority over the English church and – following the excommunication of Elizabeth I in 1570 – of being a political threat to the English state.  That state was always quick to distance itself from charges of persecution. Officially, catholics were not prosecuted as ‘catholics’ but as ‘papists’: their loyalty was to a power other than their sovereign. This led to concerns about catholics as willing agents of regicide. In the wake of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, assassinations of Henry IV of France in 1610 and Willian of Orange in 1584, apparent threats of the life of Elizabeth I, and the mass slaughter of protestants by catholic nobles in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, these fear appeared to have some credence and ‘popery’ was understood to be a real and present danger in England. That this was so reveals the remarkable ability of fear to make people accept the exceptional as normative. Whatever the case, by the turn of the seventeenth century ‘popery’ was a distinctly political issue as far as the English state was concerned.

‘Popery’ mutated and evolved across the course of the seventeenth century. It quickly became associated with absolutist forms of government, and was first used against Charles I (and his ‘popish’ personal rule), and then Charles II and James VII and II (who were both attacked for riding roughshod over parliamentary liberty). Most explicitly it was tied to Louis XIV. What strikes us most about the evocation of ‘popery’ in much late-seventeenth century commentary is that the speaker may only be referring to Catholicism or catholic doctrine in a loose way or not at all – they were more likely to be castigating the ‘tyranny’ of French government (because it was non-representative) or religious policy (because it increasingly clamped-down on protestants). Anti-popery here then was an explicitly political language: opposition in parliament and religious non-conformists both accused the British state of being ‘popish’ as a way of trying to secure greater liberties for themselves. It was certainly the case that catholic religion lent itself to ‘popery’ (because it was equally oppressive and un-democratic), but the real fear here was France as the catholic superpower of the late-seventeenth century.

The problem of terminology with which I opened seems to be nothing of the sort, then. We should use ‘anti-Catholicism’ when we are referring to protestant condemnation of catholic religious practices and ‘anti-popery’ when we are discussing fears about papal aspirations for global domination, absolutism, or the ‘disloyalty’ of English catholics. If only it were that simple. The problem with presenting the division so neatly is that the two parts of the division – religion and politics – did not remain separate in English animus towards Catholicism/popery however much the English penal laws tried to make it appear as though they were. The English state certainly distanced itself from charges of religious persecution by highlighting the political threat, but many English protestants elided the two by depicting catholic religion as the corrupting influence which caused ’popery’ to be a political danger to England. The associations ran as follows: catholics were superstitious and therefore credulous; because they were credulous they were not to be trusted as they were easily duped and easily led and could therefore be readily manipulated by Jesuits on the command of the papacy; and belief in the papacy’s ability to absolve sin meant that even heinous acts like regicide or massacres could be committed with relative ease because the perpetrators believed that their sins could be washed away. Illicit faith caused illicit action; religious corruption lay at the root of political corruption. The intersection of religion and politics in these conspiracy theories and stereotypes rested in fear of the hierarchical nature of the Catholic Church: that the laity believed the priest to be a mediator of grace made them (in protestant eyes) very biddable to ‘popish’ corruption by those clergy. In protestant satires and condemnations of monasteries, convents, and the confessional from the Reformation well into the nineteenth century fear was rooted in the capacity for mendacity which the priest’s power over the penitent accorded him. That mendacity led to corruptions of various sorts, but at their heart the sexual corruption of honest English wives and daughters, or the political corruptions of English Catholics were one and the same: each was rooted in the catholic faith itself, as the excessive authority of the clergy over the laity led to the latter being readily corrupted by the former.

This elision of religion and politics in the animus directed towards Catholicism/popery means that neither ‘anti-Catholicsm’ nor ‘anti-Popery’ adequately captures the nature of the fear as experienced and articulated by English protestants. Both terms mislead us, cause us to run the risk of distorting the historical record, and result in us failing to recover the experience of the past for those who lived it. If we are serious about writing a history of anti-Catholicism/anti-popery in British history – and the whole point of this network is that we should be because doing so would cast an important new light on the early modern and modern periods of British history – we desperately need another term to capture that experience.  The further we move away from the Reformation, the more difficult the problem becomes. ‘Popery’ was soon applied to a host of targets. From the late-sixteenth century in was used to condemned the English bishops and church courts who blocked calls for further reformation by those we now call ‘puritans’; soon the whole English church was a ‘popish’ limb of Antichrist by those who rejected it; and by the early seventeenth century these non-conformists were styled as ‘popish’ because their failure to adhere to Royal Supremacy meant that they (like Jesuits) usurped true royal power. None of these groups was formally catholic, and yet they were subject to visceral hostility which has been termed ‘anti-Catholicism’ or ‘anti-Popery’. ‘Popery’, therefore, was much more than a concern with papal power or catholic machinations – indeed, at points in the seventeenth or eighteenth century it became a by-word for almost all types of corruption or, more accurately, almost anything that a given author objected to. Because of this, ‘anti-popery’ is often unhelpful as a label. Although fear of popery was ever-present in British history from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, what ‘popery’ meant was remarkable unstable: talking about ‘anti-popery’ across the centuries implies the existence of a phenomenon which was solid and fixed when in reality this was far from the case.

Moving the perspective to the eighteenth century and to Ireland we run in to another term which has points of contact with ‘anti-Catholicism’ and ‘anti-popery’ but which is also distinct from them: sectarianism. That term clearly has points of contact with both ‘anti-Catholicism’ and ‘anti-popery’ and yet in describing a series of social manifestations of lived differences between catholics and protestants which would ultimately evolved into conflicting ethnicities it speaks to much, much more than either of those terms cover. What do we do beyond acknowledging this difference? Do we deem sectarianism (in Ireland and Scotland) as a ‘hotter’ sort of anti-Catholicism/popery? A different species of the same phenomenon? Or something else entirely? The problem works the other way, too. We can surely learn much about animus against catholics in England by comparing it to the equivalent animus in Ireland/Scotland, but can we say that it was ever ‘sectarian’ and, if so, was it so in the same way? We can find instances of animus against catholics real and imagined in England, Scotland, and Ireland from the sixteenth to the twentieth century – the problem, however, is whether we see all of these instances of that animus as part of one meta-phenomenon which labels lead us to think it is.

My intention here was not to engage in an exercise in academic naval gazing, but to attempt to open up a quandary. What we have in the animus against Catholicism/popery is a subject which is both inconsistent and incoherent. Yet, oddly, it was precisely the inconsistency and incoherence of ‘popery’ which proved to be central to the survival of animus against Catholicism/popery across centuries of British history and to the utility of that prejudice/intolerance as a language of politics and identity. ‘Anti-Catholicism’ and ‘anti-popery’ do not capture the fecundity and fluidity of the subject to which they are applied: they are too solid to do it justice. The question is: what label do we replace them with? Our troubles with labels do not end here. Animus against Catholicism/popery is often characterised as an ‘ideology’, but this too is problematic. A substantial proportion of the literature on this topic considers whether or not an ideology has to be coherent to merit the term. ‘Not really, no’ is the general consensus. But this throws up another question: how incoherent does a phenomenon have to be to cease being accurately (and usefully) labelled an ‘ideology’? How loose can an ideology be before it ceases to be ideological? What we call ‘anti-Catholicism’ or ‘anti-popery’ seems to reflect this impasse. Perhaps it is more fruitfully characterised as a discourse: a series of images, motifs, tropes, and ideas which can be applied loosely over time and space, and whose meaning is conditioned far more by the context in which they are uttered than by any fixed meanings or lasting associations which their utterance brings to that context.