It can be depressing for Catholics in western Europe to observe dwindling congregations and to belong to parishes which previously had three or four priests but are now threatened with the loss of their present one. In these circumstances it can be heartening to read an account of past black episodes in the Church's history and of their being overcome. Such an account was supplied many years ago by an eminent historian. It is not now as wellknown in Catholic circles as it once was.
In 1840 Thomas Macaulay (not yet Lord Macaulay) wrote an article for the Edinburgh Review on the subject of Professor Ranke's History, of the Popes of Rome during the 16th and 17th centuries, which had just been translated into English. He was very lavish in his praise of the work. It inspired him to consider the whole history of the Catholic Church which, he pointed out, was the longest surviving institution in the world. "The papacy remains, not in decay, not a mere antique, but full of life and youthful vigour," he wrote. This led him to surmise, in the bestknown quotation from his essay: "and she may well exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall in the midst of a vast solitude take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St Paul's". As a staunch Anglican, Macaulay in no way rejoiced at this, but he looked for factors which might explain the Church's recovery from so many apparently fatal attacks.
It is helpful at the present time, when all religions are under attack from some scientists from narrow specialities and with a pathetic ignorance of history, that Macaulay began by forcefully arguing that science can contribute nothing as to the question of the truth or falsity of faiths. This was a disappointment to him, since he believed that Catholicism was full of superstitions which Protestantism had discarded.
The first occasion when the Catholic Church seemed doomed was in the early 13th century when the region of Languedoc in the south of France, recognised as the most civilised area of Europe, had fallen to the Albigensian heresy, which had spread like wildfire and threatened the faith of the rest of Europe. Neither the efforts of the pope, nor of thF newly founded orders of Franciscans and Dominicans, stemmed its flow; eventually it was a papally organised armed crusade from the north which overwhelmed the heretics and their lands with brutality and merciless atrocities which even Catholic historians concede to have been a disgrace. Only after this did the Franciscans, Dominicans and the Tribunal of the Inquisition play their part in restoring the faith and remedying some of the clerical decadence and corruption which had supplied a basis for the dissatisfaction of the laity.
Macaulay saw the central authority of the pope and his ability to summon forces, both temporal and spiritual, from other parts of his domain to overcome a local problem as an important feature of this success, but he also acknowledged that here, as elsewhere, when an attack had been quelled there followed necessary reforms and elimination of abuses to forestall any revival.
The next threat he considered was the Papal Schism starting in 1378 and lasting for 40 years, when there were two apparently validly elected popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon. The Council of Pisa, set up in 1409 to clarify the position, complicated it even further by electing a third pope. Only the Council of Constance in 1418 settled it by appointing Martin V as
The Church of Rome understands how to deal with enthusiasts she uses them'
pope and encouraging the other claimants to resign. This had been a purely internal dispute, which was serious in that it confused the laity as to which pope they owed their allegiance. It could have split the Church in two, but it didn't. The authority of a council of cardinals and bishops had been accepted even when there was an ambiguity of papal authority.
The Reformation was the third attack, which spread rapidly through northern Europe. gaining substantial ground even in countries such as Austria, Bavaria, Belgium and Poland, which today we regard as staunchly Catholic. Macaulay admitted that the Protestant movement was driven by those with a host of different motives: "sovereigns impatient to appropriate to themselves the prerogatives of the Pope, nobles desirous to share the plunder of abbeys patriarchs impatient of foreign rule, good men scandalised by the corruptions of the Church, bad men desirous of the licence inseparable from great moral revolutions, wise men eager in the pursuit of truth."
The rapidity of the initial advance and of the later retreat of Protestantism were equally remarkable. "Within 50 years from the day on which Luther publicly renounced communion with the papacy,Macaulay wrote, "Protestantism attained its highest ascendancy, an ascendancy which it soon lost and which it has never regained."
Italy and Spain were the buffers which halted the spread, followed by a reactive outburst of Catholic zeal. "Two reformations were pushed on at once with equal energy and effect, a reformation of doctrine in the north, a reformation of manners and discipline in the south. In the course of a single generation, the whole spirit of the Church of Rome underwent a change."
Popes like Leo X, for whom living the good life had little to do with virtue, were replaced by popes like Pius V, who day and night wore a hairshirt under his outward dress and walked barefoot through the streets of Rome.
But not only by example did the popes show their zeal, but also by the use of the Inquisition to hunt out heretical teaching wherever it was found. The story of the part that Ignatius Loyola and his new Society of Jesus played in the counter attack is told by Macaulay with much admiration for the Jesuits' intellect, fervour, charisma and courage. Through them and other orders the pope could send bodies of loyal disciples, specially chosen for their appropriate linguistic, preaching and doctrinal skills, to deal with potential troubles anywhere in Europe — and to spread the faith elsewhere. The Protestant churches meanwhile were predominantly national, with little missionary zeal and often so narrowly doctrinal that they were persecuting each other "some for denying the tenet of reprobation, some for not wearing surplices".
The advantages of the Catholic Church could therefore be attributed to better organisation and freedom from enmity between its adherent nations. Macaulay noted: "The stronger our conviction that reason and scripture were decisively on the side of Protestantism the greater is the reluctant admiration with which we regard that system of tactics against which reason and scripture were employed in vain."
In addition, "one important part of the policy of the Church of Rome is that she thoroughly understands what no other church has ever understood, how to deal with enthusiasts... [she] uses them." In the Anglican Church, he pointed out, any layman or woman, no matter how devout or inspired they were, who wished to take a leading part in some grand work of corporal or spiritual mercy, would find their bishop demanding that he or she remain as a bystander and leave the ordained clergy, who were properly educated and trained, but perhaps not very enthusiastic, to do their job without hindrance. In the Catholic Church, on the other hand, such a zealot was encotu- aged to become a professional, as a founder or member of a new order within the Church. The consequences of this were that in the first case the enthusiast was liable to go off with some similarly minded friends and start a new sect with consequent loss to the Anglican Church, with which they had otherwise no doctrinal dispute.
Macaulay hazarded the thought that if Protestants like Mrs Fry, the prison reformer, or John Wesley. the preacher, had been Catholics they would have founded orders and might now be honoured as saints with statues in Rome, while if Ignatius Loyola had been an Anglican he might have led a formidable secession from that church. Thus, through the moral reform and the firm but flexible authority of its leaders and the selfless obedience of its followers, the Catholic Church had survived once more.
finally, Macaulay dealt with the French Revolution, starting with the attacks on Catholicism by atheistic writers and philosophers such as Voltaire, who ridiculed and vilified the Church for superstition, corruption and inconsistency. This kindled the Revolution, where anticlerical feeling reached its public culmination in the Cathedral of Notre Dame when a prostitute was crowned as the Goddess of Reason and the pope, Pius VI, died as a prisoner in the hands of the scoffing invaders of Rome. Nevertheless. in the 19th century. when the Napoleonic Wars were over, the Church regained and surpassed its previous status and domain.
In 1840 Macaulay wrote that in the previous century and a half the Protestant faith had made no great gains. Comparing the 18th and 19th centuries, he wrote: "During the former period, whatever was lost to Catholicism was lost also to Christianity; during the latter, whatever was regained by Christianity in Catholic countries was regained also by Catholicism. We think it a most remarkable fact that no Christian nation which did not adopt the principles of the Reformation before the end of the 16th century should ever have adopted them. Catholic communities have since that time became infidel and became Catholic again: but none have become Protestant."
Macaulay, a loyal Protestant, had no truck with the main doctrines of the Catholic Church, but he was a professional historian and his judgment was therefore much fairer than one might have expected in the era during which he was writ ing, a mere 11 years after Parliament had reluctantly agreed to Catholic Emancipation.
So while sneering at the doctrine of transubstantiation, he expressed his profound admiration for the intellect. honesty and courage of Sir Thomas More, who gave his life for belief in it. He distrusted the Jesuits but acknowledged the virtue of Ignatius Loyola and the intellect, devotion and bravery of the members of his order who spearheaded the Counter Reformation. As to why the Catholic Church always seemed to emerge unscathed and often stronger after what appeared at the time to be fatal blows, among the answers Macaulay put forward there was no mention that it just might be because of a promise made to St Peter, the first of that long line of popes.