Philip Hughes: A Popular History of the Reformation

November 7, 2017

51e6r1aeoCL._AC_US218_An account of the Reformation from a Catholic perspective is a rare thing, and this one is over sixty years old; for Catholics, the Reformation is usually something to regret and condemn, rather than attempt to understand. After more than forty years of not being a Catholic, however, I still find the beliefs of that Church rather more humane than those of Protestants, particularly when they write about salvation and damnation, the elect, and the doctrine of predestination: Catholics seem to place far more emphasis on the individual conscience, on humans doing their best, and on a God that would understand human weakness…

Philip Hughes wrote from a Catholic, universalist perspective; his book is not an all-encompassing tome like MacCulloch‘s. He goes for the broad-brush approach, and offers a useful sketch of the pre-Reformation world with which few non-Catholics would disagree, I think. He is strongly, though guardedly critical of the failings of the mediaeval (Catholic) Church and the abuses that went on, showing an understanding of the complexities of things, though he does seem to slip into an apologia occasionally… perhaps one has to take into account the times and circumstances in which he was writing. So, serious flaws are admitted, whilst at the same time he does put the best possible gloss on the Church’s achievements, and contrives to ignore completely the horrific deeds of the Inquisition, the massacres of the Cathars and quite a lot more.

As one might expect, he offers a sturdy, orthodox and convincing Catholic demolition of Luther‘s teachings on justification, righteousness and salvation by faith alone; he does a great job of pointing out the flaws, illogicalities and inconsistencies in the reformers, at times slipping into ridicule, which I find inappropriate and uncharitable in such a book. Sarcasm is not necessary; a more measured approach would have left reformers to condemn themselves out of their own mouths. So I was disappointed by a certain Catholic blinkeredness, overall, and could not recommend this as the only book one read on the subject.

His particular specialism is the Reformation in England, which is also the title of his major work – I must go back and re-read it – and here he is much clearer and stronger; His broad sweep shows the royal process and complete control of the Reformation in England, using the absolute power the Tudors enjoyed, and some very capable henchmen, as well as the overarching financial motivation behind the seizure of church property and the destruction of the monasteries. The hypocrisy of the jobsworths who made careers and fortunes out of doing first Henry VIII’s and then Edward’s bidding, turned tail under Mary and then again under Elizabeth – the Cromwells and Cranmers – is laid shockingly bare. Hughes voices understandable Catholic sadness over Mary’s short and horribly ill-advised reign, and then it’s all over: a highly managed and political Elizabethan settlement that has forty years to embed itself… the English Reformation wasn’t really about religion at all.

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