Returning to Rome

“If you find a Christ figure in Shakespeare you fail this course.” “You’re like a butterfly; you touch on everything and alight on nothing.” “The Magi are the intellectuals in the story: they come late, compromised, bearing useless gifts.” Not what I, a first-year student at Fordham University, expected to hear from the Jesuit before me, the imposing Father Tim Healy, Rhodes Scholar, future President of the New York Public Library, and of Georgetown University. Through the years there would be many other surprises and gifts from Tim, not least of which was his magisterial edition of John Donne’s Ignatius his Conclave, that virulent anti-Catholic satire starring St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, threatening Lucifer in hell.

I did not read that challenging book at Fordham, and barely glanced at it in graduate school at the University of Rochester, where I was lucky enough to study Shakespeare with Cyrus Hoy and Milton with Joseph Summers. Like everybody else, I learned to congratulate England on its religious settlement, the artful “Via Media,” and to celebrate the glorious literary achievements of that age we used to call the Renaissance. It took some decades to feel the hatred and fear that inspired Donne’s book, to see the violence that created early modern England, to rediscover some of those glorious achievements and their makers.

Take John Donne, for example, descended from Thomas More and the Roman Catholic Heywoods; raised amid the ancient Catholic nobility; kept “ever . . . awake” in his youth by thoughts of martyrdom; and of his brother of Henry, who died in prison, convicted of Catholic sympathies. Catholic practices inspire Donne’s anti-Puritan poem, ”The Cross”; other poems, “La Corona,” “Good Friday, 1613,” and The Anatomy of the World, reveal a devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary that the preacher Dr. Donne railed against from the pulpit. What about Edmund Spenser, author of that epic celebration of Gloriana and decorated apologist for the Tudor regime? Spenser participated in the Massacre at Smerwick, helped himself to lands and wealth in colonized Ireland, and came close to advocating genocide by starvation in A View of the Present State of Ireland. Those cartoon Catholics in his Faerie Queene (Archimago, Duessa, and the rest) began to look very different to me, as did Artegall in Book V, Spenser’s Justice, modeled on the criminal Lord Grey, Spenser’s commanding superior. After a negotiated surrender, Grey slaughtered 500 unarmed Catholic soldiers and broke the arms and legs of those who refused to renounce their faith before hanging them.

As the years passed, I could no longer accept the usual canonization of John Milton’s Areopagitica as an immortal plea for freedom of speech and toleration; Christians should be tolerated not compelled, he says, but not “Popery, and open superstition, which as it extirpates all religions and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate.” I still love Paradise Lost but now relish the opportunity to challenge in class its depiction of St. Peter’s Basilica as a model for Pandemonium, the devils’ palace. Who has not felt humbled and inspired by Michelangelo’s Pieta there, the soaring Baroque architecture, the art and sculpture depicting the great mysteries of Fall and Redemption? And how many have felt the unutterable peace and holiness of celebrating the Eucharist there, as I did last year in the 7 am mass in the Clementine Chapel beneath the high altar, before the crowds and noise and heat of the Roman day?

For the record, I did discover some new things in Shakespeare but could never see him, despite some strenuous argument, as a closet Catholic, sending coded messages to the faithful. For one thing, no two advocates of this theory present the same evidence. For another, popular drama does not really function well for private revelation. I hold to the axiom, “Dante was a Catholic, Milton was a Protestant, Shakespeare was a playwright.”

As revisionist histories began to flourish in the profession, I also began to hear silenced and marginalized Catholic voices and to collect them for an anthology I published in 2007. Awaiting execution, Thomas More prayed for the grace to see his enemies as his friends, “for the brethren of Joseph could never have done him so much good with their love and favor as they did him with their malice and hatred.” Robert Bellarmine, Robert Persons, and Peter Canisius wrote disputations with incisive logic, rhetorical skill, and encyclopedic learning. Poets Robert Southwell, Henry Constable, Richard Crashaw, and Gertrude More, usually ignored or banished to the foothills of Parnassus, could actually sing wittily and wonderfully.

Hearing such voices, I began to unlearn much of what I thought I knew. The evidence confounded the caricature of Catholicism as medieval, moribund, foreign, and corrupt, and that of Protestantism as inventor of modernity— the companionate marriage, the new technology of printing, modern subjectivity and interiority, a reliance on Scripture over tradition, the emancipation and empowerment of women. On this last point, Catholic women also led active lives in parishes, contributed to the doctrine and devotions of the Church (Theresa of Avila, e.g.), and some, Margaret Clitherow, for example, died courageously for their faith. Hearing their voices was a great revelation, as witness, the inimitable Anne Vaux, accused of fornication with Henry Garnet and complicity in the Gunpowder Plot:

“You come to me with this child’s play and impertinence? A sign that you have nothing of importance with which to charge me.” And she laughed bravely at them, making a great joke of their behavior in that business. They asked her whether she had known about the Gunpowder Plot. She said of course she had known, for, since she was a woman, how could anything possibly happen in England without her being told of it?

Released, Anne Vaux refused later to pay a fine for recusancy, and opened a school for Catholic families in Derbyshire.

Ten years of research in archives here and abroad, especially London and Rome, forever changed my views, but time also tempered initial outrages and enthusiasms. Heroes and villains abounded on both sides and each had plenty of crimes and failures. I had finally to acknowledge and own the Marian executions, the Inquisition, a persistent strain of bigotry against Muslims and Jews, the papal role in the colonization and depredation of the New World, the wars of religion. But I had at least learned some things, offered some corrections, and experienced in both a personal and professional way the force of Donne’s insight in Satire 3 (lines 79-82) about received verities and easy answers:

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

A favorite passage, fittingly, of Timothy Healy, S. J.