Heroes of the Catholic Reformation
by Joseph Pearce, Our Sunday Visitor, £12.99
For Joseph Pearce, the term Counter-Reformation is “an ugly label for such a beautiful thing”. The Catholic Church’s strides towards reform and renewal during the 16th century were about much more than rebutting the Protestant threat. This is a fair point, which is why many historians prefer terms like Catholic Reformation or Early Modern Catholicism when describing the period.
For all that, Pearce does sometimes adopt a decidedly combative, triumphalist tone. We are introduced to figures who “fought the dragons of sin and doctrinal error” at a “time in which the Bride of Christ was being assaulted by the dragons of secularism, Islam and heresy”. Enough dragons, already.
The 10 potted biographies that make up this volume are, however, fluently written and, while there is nothing new here, the accounts are mostly reliable. Thomas More and John Fisher, Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier, Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell all make appearances and a chapter on Charles Borromeo is particularly worthwhile.
Oddities abound, though. Pearce frequently, and anachronistically, uses words like “secularism” and “secularist” to describe Catholicism’s English enemies, notably Henry VIII. This is presumably part of the attempt to make comparisons between the architects of the “Tudor Terror” and more recent miscreants. When discussing Thomas More’s fall, for example, we are told that parallels with “show trials in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin are palpable”.
When praising Pius V for standing up to the Virgin Queen, another striking comparison is made: “Is fear of persecution by a tyrant, be it Elizabeth or Hitler, grounds for remaining silent?”
Pearce is correct in asserting that, when the Church had to decide how to confront Nazism in the 1930s, the memory of Pius V excommunicating the English monarch, and the increased persecution that ensued, came into the reckoning, but do Hitler and Elizabeth, let alone Stalin and Henry VIII, really sit that closely together on the spectrum of political villains?
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