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A Book Review… Henry VIII’s Catholic Polemic Revisited

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Henry VIII: Defence of the Seven Sacraments. Edited and supplemented by Raymond de Souza; St. Gabriel Communications International. $33.00, including postage and handling; order from Sacred Heart Institute, Inc., P.O. Box 41, Winona, MN 55987.

Raymond de Souza, founder of St. Gabriel Communications, has set himself a high-minded goal in publishing this book: to help to restore the Catholic faith in England, tragically lost at the Reformation 450 years ago. For this purpose he has issued a handsome new millennium edition of this historic work to make it more available to a new readership, lay as well as academic.
De Souza rightly sees the Reformation as the first major blow in the weakening of Christianity in Europe. Describing himself in his precise formula as “Brazilian by birth, Catholic by grace, Australian by choice,” he has dedicated this labor of love to Queen Elizabeth II as a respectful reminder to a Protestant Queen of the part played by the Catholic faith in the long history of her country.
It is certainly a very worthwhile goal. Those who have studied the Tudor period might know of Henry VIII’s learning, his command of Latin, and his keen interest in theological matters, but it is unlikely that they will have read the work he produced with the assistance of his friend, Sir Thomas More, when at the height of his powers and popularity.
For his pains he was given the title “Fidei Defensor” by Pope Leo X, a title that has passed down to every English monarch since that time. Since Henry’s break with the authority of Rome the phrase has acquired a melancholy and ironic ring.
The “Faith” Henry was defending in 1521 was the Catholic faith; any other school of faith in the Western Church would then have been unthinkable; yet by 1536, when the court painter Hans Holbein painted his celebrated portrait of the King, a portrait reproduced by de Souza on the front cover of this edition, the ancient communion between Rome and England, begun at the time of Pope Gregory the Great, had been violently broken, a tragic circumstance that has had enormous repercussions for the later history of England.
Thus it is impossible to read Henry’s powerful polemic against Martin Luther, instigator of the Reformation, without a retrospective understanding of its context: why it was written, what its significance was in its time, and why the “Defence” fell into obscurity in subsequent centuries.
The work has rightly been described by the eminent Catholic Tudor historian, Professor J.J. Scarisbrick, as: “One of the most successful pieces of Catholic polemics produced by the first generation of anti-Protestant writers.” To make it more accessible, de Souza has simplified the syntax of the original and has added over 100 quotations from the Catechism to illustrate the orthodoxy of Henry’s theological arguments.
He has also included the King’s Letter of May 21, 1521 to Leo X in which Henry had stated: “No duty is more incumbent on a Catholic sovereign than to preserve and increase the Christian faith and religion…and to transmit them preserved thus inviolate to posterity, by his example in preventing them from being destroyed by an assailant of the Faith.”
The “assailant” was Luther who had just issued his own attack on the sacraments, and in his address to the reader Henry issues his own challenge in response: “In this little book I hope I have clearly demonstrated how absurdly and impiously Luther has handled the Holy Sacraments.”
It is clear to anyone who reads the polemic that it is this “impiety” that has scandalized the Catholic King: how shocking that anyone would try to change the truths of faith handed down by God Himself to His Church.
In an age of religious relativism that we inhabit today it is hard to understand the very real horror of heresy that Henry in 1521 would have experienced as a matter of course. Highly educated as a Renaissance prince, with a depth of classical and theological understanding that today is almost unknown in a layman let alone a monarch, he was determined to demonstrate to Pope Leo X his loyalty, knowledge of, and love for his faith. Henry demolished his opponent by his appeals to Scripture, Tradition, the Church fathers, and the “sensus fidelium” of his countrymen.
He constantly shows his loyalty to the Magisterium, as for instance when he observes over the question of indulgences, “I do not doubt that we may agree with the Pope’s judgement and the custom observed by the Saints….”
On papal supremacy — the reason for Henry’s later break with Rome — the King writes, “It is certain that by the unanimous consent of all nations, it is forbidden to change or move the things which have been immovable for a long time.” On Transubstantiation he writes, “It is certain that the faithful, for over a thousand years past, believed the substance of bread and wine to be truly changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus.”
The King continues, examining each sacrament in turn, showing how Luther has broken with the constant tradition and unchanging teaching of the Church from earliest times. He is clear that Luther and his followers “erect to themselves a new Church, compacted of vicious and impious persons.” He asks the question, “Why does he raise himself against the Bishop of Rome?” and confesses that he is “much amazed at the way Luther dares to cry out that…the Mass is no sacrifice or offering.”

Scornful Epithets

In support of his argument Henry shows his erudition, citing Saints Cyril, Jerome, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, and Augustine among other sources. This raises the question, not easily answered, of how much research in support of his arguments did he receive from Sir Thomas More? More, whom the King loved and admired, was the foremost scholar of his day, as well as a public servant, devout Catholic, devoted family man, and secret ascetic.
Also, according to the strenuous language employed in polemics at the time, More was not afraid to use scornful epithets in his own published writings combating heresy. Possibly his influence is behind Henry’s invective and his various descriptions of Luther as “this hideous monster,” this “infernal wolf,” “this worse than sacrilegious caitiff,” and “this most impertinent babbler.”
Such phrases show the King’s recognition that attacks on the magisterial teaching of the Church could not be tolerated, in case they caused unrest among the populace and thus faction and rebellion — the permanent nightmare of all historical monarchs.
Henry’s words on marriage make particularly ironic reading in the light of his own later adultery: “Marriage makes wedlock honourable, and by grace does not only keep the bed undefiled from adultery but also washes away the stains of lust.”
As he states in his Postface against Luther, neither reason, Scripture, custom or laws, as well as divine authority give credence to the heretical opinions of “this sooty wicket of hell.”
More was to be executed in 1535 for opposing the King’s challenge to papal authority; he was canonized in 1935. The famous Holbein portraits of the two men, reproduced here, show their differences: Henry, who in 1521 embodied “all the gifts of grace and nature,” faces the viewer in 1536 with a small, cruel mouth and cold eyes; More, shown in half-profile, has sensitive, intelligent features and a deeply reflective gaze.
De Souza includes several appendices which throw light on the Church’s place in human history, such as the words of Pope Leo XIII, St. John Bosco, and the influential Brazilian layman Plinio Correa de Oliveira. His book is a worthwhile and thought-provoking project.

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(Francis Phillips is a book reviewer for the Catholic Herald in the United Kingdom.)

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