Defenders of the Faith!

A Personal Reflection on Recent History

“Defender of the Faith” was the title bestowed in 1521 by Pope Leo X on Henry VIII as a reward for the English king’s “Defense of the Seven Sacraments” against Martin Luther. When Henry broke with Rome, Pope Paul III rescinded the title. It was restored to the king by Parliament in 1544 and is still used by his successors, though Henry’s turnabout made the title an irony rather than an honor.

Irony remains a characteristic of the title even in the Catholic Church. Following the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), Catholicism abandoned its self-understanding as Defender of the Faith and made peace with its enemies. Yet nearly five decades later the title is brandished again by some Catholics and calls are sounded for the church militant to take up the banners of war, or at least of the culture wars.

The church has had enemies. U.S. Catholicism certainly had them, especially after immigrants from Europe inundated American cities during the nineteenth century, overwhelmed the locals, and raised fear among their historic enemies, the Protestants, that the papists would soon rule the country. (But whoever imagined six Catholics on the Supreme Court?) In the midst of this struggle, Catholics took full advantage of the separation of church and state and the reigning ethos of individualism and entrepreneurialism, making themselves Americans while maintaining their religious defenses against the enemy. The powerful Catholic subculture that developed had two effects....

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About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.