Ecumenism and Irenics in 17th-Century English Catholic Apologetics

By Clancy, Thomas H. | Theological Studies, March 1997 | Go to article overview
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Ecumenism and Irenics in 17th-Century English Catholic Apologetics

Clancy, Thomas H., Theological Studies

By the 1660s the theological wars between the Catholics and the Protestants of England were a hundred years old. Those polemics had started with "The Great Controversy" following on Bishop John Jewel's "Challenge Sermon" at Paul's Cross in November 1559. Jewel was answered by Thomas Harding, Nicholas Sander, William Allen, Thomas Stapleton, and others.(1) Later on, other Catholic controversialists took up the cudgels: Persons, Broughton, Bristow, Smith, Percy, Floyd, and many more.

But around the middle of the 17th century, a new irenic note appeared in Catholic theological literature. Christopher Davenport, an English Franciscan whose name in religion was Franciscus a Santa Clara (1598-1680), started it off with his Deus, natura, gratia, published at Lyons in 1634.(2) In the Appendix to his volume, Davenport put the best construction on the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglicans and showed how the Articles could, for the most part, be reconciled with Catholic doctrine.(3)

Davenport tried in the 1650s to point out that many Protestants had exaggerated notions about what Catholics believed or were bound to believe. In his An Enchiridion of Faith (1654) he distinguished between the essentials of the Christian faith and other doctrines held by some Catholics which were not essential to Christianity.(4) His Cleare Vindication of Roman Catholics (1659) is a short leaflet of four pages in which he tried to clear Catholics of complicity in the execution of Charles L.(5) Davenport also wrote An Explanation of Roman Catholic Belief, a short treatise of about a thousand words which treated Church, worship, justification, and civil government. In the fourth section he limited himself to denouncing any power (by the pope or anyone else) to depose a ruler and stressing believers' obligation to obey civil authorities and to keep faith with everyone including even heretics.

This work first appeared as an appendix to John Austin's Christian Moderator (1652)(6)--which achieved nine editions--a plea for religious toleration of Catholics. Many such pleas from Catholic and/or nonConformist sources were published in the 1640s, 50s, and early 60s. Besides Austin's Christian Moderator, one can point to some nine other publications written by Catholics in the 1640s in addition to four more published between 1659 and 1661.

During the 1660s an irenic note sounded in some Catholic publications such as those of the Irish Franciscan, Peter Walsh, and the translations of the works of Francois Veron.(7) These last, plus the translations into English of the works of Lewis Maimbourg in the 1670s and 1680s were attempts to apply to the English scene methods that had been used in France to soften the animosity of the Huguenots towards the Catholic Church.(8) In the works of Maimbourg and Veron the emphasis had been on what beliefs Catholics absolutely had to hold. They eliminated many things that they considered not part of the Catholic belief system.(9)

Three separate editions of Davenport's Explanation appeared in 1656, 1670, and 1673.(10) In 1670 William Penn wrote a sharp reply entitled A Seasonable Caveat against Popery, a short piece of 36 pages.(11) Penn, a Quaker who did not believe in government regulation of religion, disclaimed any intent to foster government persecution of Catholics, since he was a friend "to an Universal Toleration of Faith & Worship." But he vehemently objected to Catholic doctrine and behavior and remarked that the papists had changed "their ancient fierceness for modesty and kindness." Nevertheless Penn was not able to take the Explanation at face value. For him the Catholic Church remained corrupt and unbiblical.(12)

The next attempt at a pithy statement of Catholic beliefs was Roman Catholick Principles in Reference to God and the King, written by James Maurus Corker, O.S.B., and published in 1680, the year of Davenport's death. This work was about three times the length of Davenport's Explanation.

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