For the first two and a half decades of my life, I was taught history from the perspective of Roman Catholicism. That perspective was probably most influential in relation to the Tudor era of Henry VIII and his offspring Queens Mary and Elizabeth. I have three brothers named after Catholic martyrs of this period – Thomas More, John Fischer, and Richard Reynolds. According to the stories I was told, they were heroic martyrs who defended the True Church against the monarchs trying to displace the divine authority of Rome. I had no idea that the “other side” also had an array of martyrs who had stood up against the Catholic regime.
The BBC right now is running a series of documentaries on this Tudor era. Last night we watched the story of William Tyndale, the English priest who was burned at the stake for translating the New Testament into English.
As a Maryknoll nun, I also fought for the right to read the bible privately instead of hearing it only read, usually by a priest who then explained to us what it meant. Since I had Vatican II as the justification for my argument, I was not burned at the stake for my views. Instead we actually managed to convince our superiors to change their minds. At the time, however, I had no appreciation of the depth that had caused the determination to keep the bible out of the hands of anyone but the Roman Catholic hierarchy.
Tyndale was an ordained Roman Catholic priest educated at Oxford. But he believed that the Word of God should be put into the hands “even of the plowman,” that God spoke directly to each of us, without the intervention of others. Tyndale was vehemently opposed by both church and government authorities who argued that ordinary people would descend into lawlessness and chaos if they were permitted to interpret the Word of God on their own. Tyndale was pursued and finally cornered by the arch-heretic hunter Thomas More (he who was himself to be beheaded by Henry VIII for refusing to recognize his marriage to Anne Boleyn) who was one of the leading defenders of this religious “rule of law” view.
Besides that, over the years, the Roman Catholic Church had added a good deal of superfluous doctrine to scriptures – original sin, purgatory, ordination of priests, confession, and indulgences were doctrines added centuries after the scriptures were written. But since people were not permitted to read the bible for themselves, few of them were aware that these were additions, and believed them to share the authority of sacred scriptures. Rome rightly feared that if the bible were to get into the hands of ordinary people – even into the hands of mere plowmen – the authority of Rome would be undermined.
But ultimately, after many struggles and persecutions, the King James Bible, which incorporated most of Tyndale’s elegant translations, was placed in every church in Britain. Every one who could read was free to read it and draw inspiration from it.
It was, said Melvin Bragg, the triumph of “the liberty to think rather than the duty to believe.” It was the triumph of individual conscience against even religious authority. It was the triumph of the common, ordinary man.
It was also, I think, one of the foundation stones of democracy. People not only could hear the word of God without depending on the interpretation of the authority of the church. That same ordinary man, that same plowman, had a right to determine who was to govern the society of which he was a part.
I understand now why so many people were afraid that electing John F. Kennedy as a Catholic president in the US could spell the end of democracy as we knew it. Their fear was unfounded. But I understand now where it came from.