The parallels are irresistible, and the script seems almost to write itself. A large institution straddles western and central Europe, and promotes the idea of a pan-European cultural identity. Yet, even to many in its own orbit, the institution appears overly hierarchical and riddled with corruption. Within England – and I think we do have to say England specifically – a political crisis brings longstanding dissatisfactions to the boil. As the crisis escalates, the arcane rules and doctrines of the institution prove no match for the punchy slogans and eye-catching propaganda of its critics. Appeals to shared values and history, and warnings about disturbing the status quo, are trumped by a potent blend of nationalism and reformist rhetoric, fuelled by visions of an older history of proud independence and imperial greatness.
There is probably no need to go on: the 16th-century break with Rome looks a lot like the 21st-century bust-up with Brussels, even without having to invoke the theory that the blue flag with its circlet of 12 stars, adopted by the Council of Europe on December 8, 1955, feast of the Immaculate Conception, is a blatantly popish reference to Mary as the Woman of the Apocalypse.
The idea that Brexit summons up the defiant spirit of the Reformation has rapidly become a journalistic and pop-history cliché – a favoured theme, for example, of the (avowedly Eurosceptic) Tudor historian, David Starkey. Yet I have a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction about this superficially pleasing historical analogy. Reformation-as-Brexit is not an especially helpful idea, if the intention is to identify withdrawal, separation and isolation as the keynotes of Reformation in the North Atlantic world – a Europe henceforth forever cut off by the proverbial fog in the Channel.
On the contrary, the Reformation was a time of intensified engagement with the “European Question”, bringing a new and sharper focus on how national identities might co-exist with international ones. Here, the focus will be on one party to the quarrel. Catholics are often seen as the “left-behinds” of the British and Irish Reformations. Regarding themselves as members of the same Church, before and after Henry VIII’s breach with the papacy, they represented continuity in a changing world, albeit, in Britain at least, increasingly as isolated remnants of a broken past.
Yet it is a significant error to regard Catholics merely as bystanders with respect to patterns of identity formation engendered by the break with Rome. Indeed, Roman Catholicism – as a religious and political identity – was just as much a new creation of the Reformation process as the various forms of Protestantism.
Here, the Brexit analogy may be useful after all. Something significant happened to me on June 24, 2016, the day the referendum result was announced. Before that I had been a kind of small “e” European, broadly content with the status quo I had known all my adult life, but with little desire to defend it publicly, or much understanding of how the EU’s institutions actually worked. I would occasionally become disquieted or annoyed by the antics of Eurosceptic agitators, but was confident that the powers that be, and the pragmatic good sense of the British people, would ultimately keep them in check. Then, almost overnight, I found that from being a lackadaisical supporter of the Establishment I had turned into a radical dissident, combative and angry – a “Remoaner”, a “Remainiac”, a disciple of the lost cause; in the eyes of some, no doubt, a traitor.
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