I’m That Guy: The Gunpowder of Being Catholic in Public

On the eve of a contentious election, pondering the explosive nexus of faith and politics.

Please to remember
The Fifth of November
Gunpowder, Treason, and Strife . . .

Back when I was in my Anglican interim, I loved commemorating Guy Fawkes Day. A haunting little historical nursery rhyme, bonfires, the burning of effigies, and children in raggedy clothes with ash-blackened faces accosting householders, begging A penny for the Guy!—what’s not to love? I had a vague notion of the historical events behind the festivities, and knew that Shakespeare had referenced them in his haunted (and contemporaneous) masterpiece, Macbeth. Mostly, though, what I knew about Guy Fawkes day was that some bad guy named Guy had tried to blow up the English Parliament, but the plot was foiled and the guy was executed, so all loyal Brits must yuck it up in quaint fashion once a year.

But here it is the Fifth of November, and for this Catholic revert Oh, damn, the penny just dropped: I AM the Guy.

Because the real Guy Fawkes, like his co-conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot we don’t hear so much about, was a Catholic. And a Catholic in a time and a place where that was a lot tougher than the Accepted Wisdom lets on. In the wake of Henry VIII’s celebrated split from Rome, English Catholics had been scapegoated as badly as English Jews had been 300 years earlier. When the faith of the sovereign was the faith of the nation, it was risky to be on the wrong side. And that side changed with whiplash suddenness, the Tudors being notoriously poor at securing the succession.

Frankly, Catholics didn’t endear themselves to their countrymen during the reign of Bloody Mary Tudor, who imprisoned, tortured, and burned enough Protestants to fill Fox’s Book of Martyrs. Mary came by her Catholicism from her Spanish mother, Catherine of Aragon, and from Mary’s reign onward Catholics were viewed as ‘foreigners.’ The Spanish Armada’s assault on Elizabeth I made matters worse, as did the pope’s excommunication of Elizabeth—in essence, revoking the divine protection accorded monarchs and practically sending invitations to an assassination.

That’s the side we all heard, we Anglicans and Brits. That made it easy to buy the specter of the bogeyman Guy Fawkes, a Catholic fanatic bound on blowing the Houses of Parliament sky high on opening day, and taking out the Protestant King James I and his heir, Prince Henry, while he was at it. Fawkes and his co-conspirators, like some Popish al Qaeda—backed and funded, so the story goes, by a devilish cabal of Jesuits—would then kidnap the young Princess Elizabeth, crown her a Catholic queen, marry her to a Spaniard, and reclaim England for the Vatican. Way over the line, Guido! Burn that Guy in effigy, indeed!

Only (as with another official account of an act of terror we’ve heard recently) there was more to the story. I came by this knowledge by accident earlier this year, reading Clare Asquith’s Shadowplay, a fascinating study of Shakespeare’s plays as coded statements about the religious agonies of his time.

What no one is pleased to remember about the Fifth of November is the depth of desperation to which England’s Catholics had been driven by decades of government persecution. It wasn’t just a case of one side’s being in power and the other having to suck it up as the loyal opposition. Imagine if, on Wednesday, whichever party loses tomorrow’s election were instantly banned. Everyone required to re-register as a member of the party in power and campaign actively for the winning party’s platform. All elected officials representing the losing party driven from office, and no members of the losing party allowed to run again. All losing-party consultants and lobbyists deprived of citizenship and exiled. Members of losing party (and their minor children) no longer permitted to enroll in public universities or receive advanced degrees. Possession of losing-party pamphlets, buttons, signs, bumper stickers—even clothing in the losing party’s colors—made punishable by imprisonment, torture, forfeiture of all personal property. Dissemination of ‘seditious’ losing-party materials punishable by death. Neighbors deputized as a network of spies, sharing in the spoils of confiscated goods when they rat out ‘traitors.’

Those are precisely the conditions under which England’s Catholics lived in the last years of Elizabeth I’s reign—only the persecution was spiritual as well as temporal. Catholics were barred from the sacraments, because priests were barred from the country. No priests, no Eucharist, for real. Centuries of Catholic culture, embedded in the calendar of saints’ days and festivals, were erased. Catholic religious articles—prayerbooks, rosaries, missals, images of the Blessed Virgin—were as dangerous to possess as gunpowder.

Jesuit Fr Henry Garnet, executed with the Gunpowder Plotters; his blood fell on a stalk of grain beneath the gallows that was honored as a holy relic by Catholics

There was hope that with the accession of James (the son of a Catholic, and married to the Catholic Anne of Denmark) things might change. And at first, the hope seemed justified. James swore to end religious execution, and promised to extend some measure of religious liberty to Catholic subjects. Catholics, known as recusants, who wished to opt out of forced Protestant church attendance, for example, could do so by paying exorbitant fines to the crown. The occasional member of a Catholic family, if he views were not too extreme, could take his place in the House of Lords. The presence of Anglo-Catholic diocesan priests was tolerated as long as they refrained from saying Mass in public and preached the party line. Like the clergy of so-called state churches under the Nazis and the Communists, like many Catholic clerics of our own time, they believed the government’s promises to respect the freedom of conscience—so long as that conscience never spoke against the head of state, and so long as the practice of religion remained a private matter, carefully kept out of the public square, carefully prohibited from the rocking of boats.

But accommodation was not enough for the fervent, whose faith was maintained under persecution by the courage of Jesuits and foreign clergy. Living under aliases, constantly fleeing spies and persecution, hidden in secret ‘priest holes,’ these men preserved access to the Eucharist. They carried messages between Catholic families and their sons, sent to the continent for Catholic education at universities like Douai. And they kept alive hope that Catholic Europe would intervene on the side of their persecuted English brothers.

Accommodation was also not enough for the increasingly powerful Puritan faction among English Protestants, represented by the spymaster Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury. Cecil despised Catholics in general and Jesuits in particular, and he dropped enough hints of their threat to the order of the state that King James withdrew most of his initial gestures of toleration. Spain, too, weary of war, signed a treaty with England that precluded any invasion on behalf of the Catholics, now stranded. The Parliament that was to convene on November 5, 1605, was set to institute even harsher anti-Catholic laws.

Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators—all of them laymen—were convinced (or so Fawkes confessed after being broken on the rack) that “desperate times require desperate measures.” He did not seem to have known what history later made evident: that the Plot was infiltrated from the start by Cecil’s spies, and the search of the vaults beneath the Houses of Parliament that netted Fawkes and his barrels of powder was orchestrated. The King was never in any danger, and the Jesuits (some of whom knew of the plotters’ intentions, but believed themselves to be bound by the seal of confession from revealing the information) had done everything within their power to deter violence. That did not prevent James, who had begun his reign by vowing to end torture (again, like someone else we know), from applying it with gusto to those of the plotters who survived capture, and to several Jesuits netted in the same sweep. Convicted of treason, the plotters and the Jesuits who survived imprisonment and torture were executed in the most agonizing manner, by being hanged, drawn, and quartered.

Never forgotten: Yeomen of the Guard still conduct a ceremonial search for explosives in the cellars of Parliament at dawn on the opening day of the session

The very night of the plot’s discovery, November 5, loyal citizens were urged to light bonfires of thanksgiving and to keep the feast alive in memory. The burning of the ‘guy,’ a straw-stuffed effigy of Guy Fawkes (who was not actually the most prominent member of the conspiracy, but certainly the one whose name is remembered) followed quickly after. That Guy Fawkes Day was always meant to be anti-Catholic, rather than simply patriotic, was pointed out by Antonia Fraser in Faith and Treason, her study of the Gunpowder Plot. It was the pope, and not always Guy Fawkes, who was burned in effigy under Cromwell’s Puritan Parliament, which abolished all civil holidays but the November 5 commemoration—and it was the pope whose effigy was burned when the holiday came to the American colonies.

It’s a more sobering history than most of us, even Catholics, are aware of. And this year, as a voting Catholic, the echoes of 1605 are troubling. True, we live under the protection of the First Amendment’s guarantees that the faith of our governors need not be our faith, and that we are entitled to free exercise of religion. But we also know what it is like to have those freedoms questioned and curtailed, under the guise of the good of the state (framed as the right to equal marriage, the health of women, the exercise of the free market). We know what it is like for our bishops to be assured that conscience will be respected, only to have that promise—like the promise to end torture and execution without due process—evaporate in the face of other agendas. We know what it is like to be told be our leaders and a loud majority of our fellow citizens that the practice of our faith in the public square is intolerable, evil, unAmerican; that everything would be fine if we just kept our beliefs to ourselves and practiced them in suitable quiet behind closed doors for an hour on Sunday morning, if we just stopped FORCING WOMEN TO BEAR THEIR RAPISTS’ BABIES, as Rachel Maddow says 6 times an hour every night of the week. We know what it is like to have fellow Catholics tell us it’s just fine to permit late-term abortions or to dismiss half of the electorate as whining parasites that Ayn Randian pragmatism would cull. We know—I know, anyway—what it is like to be effectively disenfranchised because I can vote for neither party’s presidential candidate and remain true to the core principles of my Catholic faith. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

I would not, or so I like to think anyway, ever condone the kind of violence that handful of English Catholics plotted. And we are, despite the more extreme doomsday scenarios that haunt our nightmares and stud some bishops’ sermons, a good long way from the kind of persecution those English Catholics endured, or that our sisters and brothers endure right now in many parts of the world. Yet I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t what the leading edge of persecution feels like—this hint of gunpowder sulfur in the air, this disquiet, this uneasy sense that whomever is elected tomorrow, the cost of being Catholic in public in America will not go down any time soon. We are reminded Put not your trust in princes and Blessed are you when men persecute you, so we are not unwarned.

Please to remember the Fifth of November . . .

This year, I won’t be cheering the burning effigy—but praying, instead, for the grace to endure faithfully through whatever fire may come. This year, I have met the Guy, and he is me.

  • Another Catholic Guy

    Regarding the history of Guy Fawkes Day, very interesting, and eerily similar to our current situation. But regarding your statement that you ” can vote for neither party’s presidential candidate and remain true to the core principles of my Catholic faith,” I sincerely wish you would reconsider that though, especially if it means that you will either A) not be voting, or B) will be voting for someone other than Mitt Romney.

    In 1982, Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI, of course) responded to American bishops evaluating the proposed Hatch Amendment by saying: “According to the principles of Catholic morality, an action can be considered licit whose object and proximate effect consist in limiting an evil insofar as is possible. Thus, when one intervenes in a situation judged evil in order to correct it for the better, and when the action is not evil in itself, such an action should be considered not as a voluntary acceptance of the lesser evil but rather as the effective improvement of the existing situation, even though one remains aware that not all evil present is able to be eliminated for the moment.” Removing the current sitting president from power, even if Mitt Romney is far from a perfect replacement, is certainly “limiting evil.” And in an election this close, every vote can make a huge difference.

    Certainly how you vote is up to you and how you reconcile it with your conscience, but I humbly request that, if in fact you are considering not voting, or not voting for Romney, that you pray and reinvestigate your options before the polls close tomorrow.

    Some resources to get you going (read them again, if you’ve already read them before… I’m always amazed at what I can miss, maybe you will be, too):
    http://www.priestsforlife.org/vote/votingwithclearconscience.htm
    http://www.ewtn.com/vote/voting_faq.htm

    Vivat Jesus!

    • joannemcportland

      I’ve already voted—3 weeks ago here in Ohio. And I understand that my choice not to choose at the presidential level is considered everything from cowardice to sin, but it was honestly the only ground on which I and my conscience could stand. And a lot more considered than previous party line votes. Holding to the principle of subsidiarity, I did vote on local and national offices and issues. And I’m sure praying.

      • Mark

        This Catholic did exactly the same thing. I can no more vote for the killing of brown children overseas with robotic drone airplanes than I can vote for the killing of brown children in America with a scalpel and forceps. We are not presented with a moral choice at the national level. And little wonder: the entire federal government as it exists in its current form, is illegal and unconstitutional, no matter which party is in charge.

    • Ted Seeber

      I already voted 3 weeks ago here in Oregon. I cannot, in any good conscience justify voting for Romney. And I sure as hell could not see any Catholic worthy of the baptism voting for Obama.

      Romney because I just can’t see him as a moral or legal leader. Obama because he might as well be Cromwell himself.

      If I had been in a swing state, that decision might have been different, but would have required months in the confessional. And I still wouldn’t have voted for Obama.

  • http://jscafenette.com Manny

    This is an excellently written blog Joanna. However, while I find the analogy coherent and rhetorically to the point, I have to say that the premise that we Catholics are currently persecuted like those in Elizabethan England is a bridge a little too far. I know you acknowledge it, but that doesn’t blunt the criticism. Even if Obama does get re-elected, he’s not exactly going to start hang, draw, and quarter Catholics. However, we are in a cultural war. It may be a surprise to some Catholics, but we have been in such a cultural war for some time, at least since the sexual revolution days. It has been my point in a number of places (and this is not original to me) that we are in a conflict of values, those of sexual “liberation” and those of traditional Judeo-Christianity. They are in categorical conflict, and unless Christians coalesce against those who are pushing for the elimination of religious values from the public square, then we will be persecuted, persecuted not by the sense of torture and martyrdom, but by the sheer power of democratic numbers. The irony is that the majority of Americans still support Christian values. We are splitting our vote, and allowing them to roll over our values.

    By the way, I had to look up how bloody Mary Tudor had been. As a Catholic, I’ve always been atuned to the Catholic persecutions. I had not realized Mary when in power had done that as well to the Protestants. But Henry VIII did start the whole disasterous history, including the persecutions.

    • joannemcportland

      Manny, as you noted I don’t think we’re anywhere near experiencing real persecution. I’m not even sure we’ll be any worse off no matter who wins tomorrow. I just got to seeing some parallels I hadn’t been sensitive to in the past, and wondering if anyone really sees persecution coming. In Rwanda, for example, what must it have been like to say good night to your neighbors over the fence one evening, and wake up the next morning to have them coming after you with machetes? How many European Jews believed their neighbors would send them to be gassed? Not saying we are or ever will be there–but it happens.

      • http://jscafenette.com Manny

        Very good points. And don’t forget the post French Revolution atrocities. I hope it doesn’t ever come to that but when you frame it like that it is within the realm of possibility.

    • Ted Seeber

      “Even if Obama does get re-elected, he’s not exactly going to start hang, draw, and quarter Catholics.”

      Of course not. He has Predator Drones with Hellfire Missiles, backed up by a press who will willingly report any such attack as a lightning strike.

    • R.C.

      Well, and it’s important to recall that Obama hasn’t curtailed the drone war; that he has, if anything, expanded it. He and Romney are identical on that score, so the choice between Republicans and Democrats must be made on a different basis.

      As for the persecution of Catholics: It’ll never reach hung-drawn-quartered level in the next fifty years. That’s not the style of Democrats.

      No, the style of Democrats is more Islamist in nature: To impoverish their enemies through fines and taxes and disincentives targeted at those enemies, to gradually undermine them and wear them down until their numbers dwindle and “they feel the boot on their necks.” Democrats don’t want Catholic corpses; they want Catholic dhimmi.

      So of course the HHS mandate doesn’t say, “He who fails to compensate his employees with free contraceptives, abortions, and sterilizations will be executed.” Instead, it says, “He who fails to compensate his employees with free contraceptives, abortions, and sterilizations will be fined so punitively that he will be unable to compete with other businesses, and will eventually go bankrupt or sell his business to a less-religious competitor.”

      It does not say, “He who sells health insurance without covering contraceptives, abortions, and sterilizations will be disemboweled and his head stuck on a pike.” It rather says, “He who sells health insurance without covering contraceptives, abortions, and sterilizations will be fined and his insurance license revoked, and insurance companies will feel the shift in the wind and put a sign on their hiring offices: Catholics Need Not Apply.”

      How do you feel about the last few lingering members of the Ku Klux Klan, living out their retirements bitterly in rural trailer parks, devoid of social influence, pitiable were it not for their execrable racist ideology? You don’t often think about them, do you? You certainly don’t worry about them being an ascendant political force. If anything, you think, “Oh them? Oh, yeah, right…y’know once upon a time they were actually formidable! Yikes, think of that.”

      That’s faithful, serious Christians of the non-accomodationist sort in the United States. They get poorer and poorer as they find they can’t function economically in the U.S. without violating their conscience, and more and more doors are closed to them. It’s the same fate as the fate of the Copts in Egypt, the Chaldean Christians in Iraq…but with no grand martyrdom at the hands of a suicide bomber, just the gradual ratcheting up of the economic disadvantages until no church can afford repair to its facilities, let alone to care for the poor and needy in its own community.

      But that’s okay: The government will care for the poor and needy; and in that way, the poor and needy will not associate the charity of their neighbors with the love of God, and will come to understand Big Brother’s Big Lesson: That man lives by bread alone.

      Oh, and condoms.

      • Ted Seeber

        “How do you feel about the last few lingering members of the Ku Klux Klan, living out their retirements bitterly in rural trailer parks, devoid of social influence, pitiable were it not for their execrable racist ideology? You don’t often think about them, do you? You certainly don’t worry about them being an ascendant political force. If anything, you think, “Oh them? Oh, yeah, right…y’know once upon a time they were actually formidable! Yikes, think of that.””

        I’m not real sure that the KKK hasn’t won this morning, November 7. They’ve just been renamed the Democrats.

  • Lydia F.

    Thanks for a really profound post every Catholic should read. Catholics should consider the Non-Negotiable issues that we must vote for, shown beautifully in the short video Test of Fire: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iiG9NMkPhus&feature=plcp If we don’t stop the current threats to our religious liberty right NOW it will get worse. We may not be drawn or quartered but the effects on our society and individuals will be profound. It will be a slippery slope we may not be able to reverse. It must be done now. VOTE.

  • http://littleportionhermitage.blogspot.com/ Brother Rex

    Had I thought of it before voting absentee several weeks ago, I would have written Ms. Joanne McPortland in as my choice for president. Come on 2016!!!

    …..Brought to you by the Hermits for McPortland ’16 campaign committee.

    • JenniB

      Yes, excellent. I will head the midwest chapter.

    • Manny

      LOL, too funny! She’ll have my vote.

  • DB

    Not voting against Obama is not something this Catholic can do in good conscience. That is why I’ll be voting for Romney tomorrow since he is the only other person in a position to oust Obama at this time.

    • http://www.withouthavingseen.com Ryan Haber

      Just so. I think at the very least, under Romney, we will have four years of the federal government *not* growing aggressively more hostile to Holy Church. The counts for something, doesn’t it?

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  • anna lisa

    This was excellent and informative, thank you. I maintained my composure all the way to the part when you said “Rachel Maddow”, and then needed to stop and breathe to recover.
    P.S. When my husband was a kid, his father did Engineering work in Ecuador. My would tell me about festivities there, at the end of the year, in which they would create effigies of the most hated politicians. Small mobs of mostly teens would prevail upon people to pay them for their efforts, and at the end, would have a huge party and burn the effigies. Hmmm, smells like a rip-off to me.

  • Ann Erwin

    Thank you so much for this article. My father, deceased for the past 25 years, always reminded us of Guy Fawkes Day (Remember, remember the 5th of November) but we really didn’t understand its significance. Now I am “thirsty” to read more about the English martyrs of that era.

  • Chris McKenna

    I am afraid that Catholics who found it unconscionable to vote for Romney have helped enable a far worse enemy. While many might think of Romney as the lesser of two evils, Ratzinger made clear the doctrine of voting for someone who can correct evil tendencies, even if they are not perfect.

    • Ted Seeber

      I was not convinced that Romney was someone who can correct evil tendencies at all. In fact, if you take a Romney vs Romney vote on pro-life issues, you’ll find he made more pro-abortion stump speeches in his career than pro-life speeches.

      Having said that- I consider Obama to be slightly worse, and I expect the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception to disappear the week of Thanksgiving in a lightening strike.

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