I write this column while looking out onto Westminster Bridge, Britain’s Houses of Parliament, and a London still pulsating with news of the death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Pulsating indeed, because she changed the beat, the rhythm, and the pace of this country, and fundamentally and irreversibly transformed the nature and style of the United Kingdom. As such, she is revered as well as reviled, and that polarization extends to the Catholic reaction to her passing. There are Catholics here in Britain who believe she was one of the last political leaders to properly appreciate the link between Europe, democracy, and Christianity. Others, especially in Ulster and northern England, can barely contain their anger at a woman they believe destroyed their way of life.
The truth about Margaret Thatcher reflects a greater truth about how the world approaches history, facts, and downright hysteria and propaganda, and reflects directly to the Church and how it is treated in the popular imagination
Much, if not most, of what Mrs. Thatcher has been accused of is pure fantasy, and the reaction to that campaign of disinformation has been downright obscene: street parties celebrating her death; the singing of “Ding dong the witch is dead” (with “b” replacing “w”); the public announcement that people will urinate on her grave. Many of these malicious idiots weren’t even born when she was in office, and those who were have little to complain about, if truth be told. But it is the extent and excess that is so repugnant. There are numerous politicians whom I loathe, but not one whose death would lead me to rejoice.
This is not the place to analyze 1980s British politics, but safe to say that Thatcher’s socialist predecessors actually closed many more coal mines that she did, that unemployment was higher under numerous Labour governments than with her Conservatives in power, and that working-class people enjoyed a new liberation and wealth when she governed. And it is no coincidence that the types who most detested her were of the hard, Marxist left and the patrician, moneyed establishment with their patronizing old style pink conservatism. Because she was, in the truest sense, a genuine radical.
Here is where certain parallels with Catholicism become so apparent. The standard narrative is that the Church has been on the wrong side of history, with Crusades, Inquisitions, and persecutions dirtying the otherwise clear, sweet waters of history. The Church as the killer of fun and freedom, the Catholic clergy as abusers and pedophiles, and so on and so on. It’s Braveheart history, based on jaundiced wishful thinking and sheer suburban bigotry. That Galileo, for example, was never tortured, was funded by the Vatican, and at one point was obliged by the papacy to merely remain for a while in a palatial mansion hardly resembles the bloodied caricature offered by mainstream media and Hollywood entertainment.
Similarly with Thatcher. She inherited a country where the leadership of the Labour Party was increasingly communistic, and was determined to impose utter state control and fatal socialist policies. Britain was in tangible decline, and nobody seemed to have the courage to say it and try to stop it. British people were leaving their country, foreigners laughed at the once great but now grimy nation, and the nostalgic nonsense about British workers being untouchable victims and noble patriots still prevented the government from standing firm against bully unions and their incessant demands. The daughter of a small trader in unfashionable Lincolnshire changed all of that, but the establishment still has teeth and it bit hard when Mrs. Thatcher died.
It also shows it teeth time and again when the Church stands firm against the latest fad and fashion, which is why we mustn’t be overly concerned when CBS or NBC in the United States, the CBC in Canada, and the BBC in Britain, fall into their usual spasm and blast away at the pope, the Church, and Catholic teaching.
Being in Britain at such a time cannot but provoke feelings of living with history, of sharing a common path with those who have gone before us. It is a particularly, if not exclusively, Catholic phenomenon, in that we believe in the eternal Church and that those in Heaven are as alive and vital as those who live on earth. I have always had a special devotion to St. Thomas More, took his name at my confirmation, and have read and researched him for forty years now. Two years ago we were given a private tour of his cell at the Tower of London, I long ago traced the outlines of his house in Chelsea, prayed at what remains of his personal altar at a now Anglican church, and made a pilgrimage to his boyhood home and the places where he walked and worked.
This time we were given a special treat, when the great Austen Ivereigh from Britain’s exemplary Catholic Voices (an American equivalent is being set up, and thank God for that) arranged through a friend for us to see inside Lambeth Palace, the London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is awash with architectural and artistic treasures, but was also the place where More came to work as a teenager, visited when he was the most powerful politician in the land, and was finally taken for interrogation before he was executed just down river on Tower Green. We stood in the room where Thomas Cromwell bombarded him with questions about marriage, divorce, Catholicism, and the separation of church and state. More was brilliant, refused to move an inch on matters of morals and truth, and was judicially murdered as a result. It’s hard not to think of names such as Kennedy, Biden, and Pelosi at such a time and in such a place. Forgive me, St. Thomas, for such a jarring comparison.
I also spent a morning at Allen Hall, the seminary of the Diocese of Westminster, where young Catholic men are trained to take the Gospel to the English people. It’s a glorious place, and built on the very spot where More built his grand home and lived at his happiest. After his death, fat and lascivious and malicious King Henry stole the house and gave it to a time-serving and unscrupulous public servant. In the garden of what is now known as Allen Hall is a mulberry tree, likely planted by More himself. It is next to the room where Hans Holbein sketched the portrait, which would become the famous picture of Thomas More, Chancellor, scholar, genius, and martyr.
The eponymous Cardinal William Allen (1532-94) was from the second generation of Catholics after the English reformation. He knew that it was not enough to look to the past, and essential to grasp the future and find a new way to evangelize the culture and transform society. As such he is a quintessentially modern man, with quintessentially modern ideas. More and Allan walk with us still. In London, of course, but also in North America and throughout the world. People die, you see, but their legacies continue, and are sometimes stronger and more poignant in ages and eras to come. Attacks on marriage, disdain for the Church, distortions of morality, lying for power and prestige, abusing the dead. Good Lord, it feels like the sixteenth-century all over again!