- "De Adeundis Eclesiis Protestantium": Thomas Wright, Robert Parsons, S.J., e il dibattito sul conformismo occasionale nel'Inghilterra dell'età moderna
Were recusancy — with its risk of persecution and economic ruin in this world — and apostasy — with its risk of damnation in the next — the only options available to English Catholics in the age of Elizabeth I and James I? Crosignani examines in a detailed yet concise manner how casuists proposed the liceity of a third option. This option was an occasional presence at the liturgical services of the Church of England, in obedience to the decrees of monarch and Parliament. Such conformity remained a hotly disputed question among English Catholics, for it was viewed by some of them as an acceptable, prudent, and temporary course of action, while awaiting better days with the restoration of a Catholic monarchy, or at least with relaxation of the state's religious intolerance. There were those who argued that Catholic aristocrats should at least be permitted occasional conformity, as they had the most to lose from nonconformity. But other Catholic spokespersons asserted that any conformity, practiced by any Catholics, was a wrong choice that entailed public scandal and the endangerment of souls.
In the event, Catholics in England would have to wait a long time for the relief they sought. With the exception of the brief reign of the Catholic James II (1685-88), they waited until Catholic Emancipation, in 1829, for legal rights. But Crosignani skillfully shows how, under Elizabeth I, there were repeatedly waves of hope for a much more imminent toleration, perhaps if the queen married a Catholic, perhaps if Mary, Queen of Scots, succeeded her cousin to the throne. Other beneficial scenarios were also imaginable. With the 1603 accession of James I, hopes again rose, though they were soon to be dashed by the fallout from the failed Gunpowder Plot. Even before that incident, King James had declared that those who did not pray with him could not love him. While English Catholics sought to separate civil obedience from religious conformity, James bound them firmly together, just as Elizabeth and Henry had.
This book focuses largely on the differing views, in the early seventeenth century, of Thomas Wright and Robert Parsons. Wright was an ex-Jesuit who sought to articulate and justify the choice of at least a limited conformity. His views echoed in important ways the casuistry of Spanish Jesuit Juan Azor (1535-1603). According to Azor, there could be cases where attendance at Protestant services was licit. For Wright, occasional attendance (enough to satisfy the state's laws) at Anglican services was not necessarily sinful. Mere presence at such services did not have to mean genuine profession of a false faith. One could meet a legal obligation and avoid economic ruin, while perhaps even learning enough about heretical doctrine and practices so as to be able to better confound them. A biblical precedent relentlessly cited by Wright and other advocates of conformity was Naaman the Syrian, in 2 Kings 5. The prophet Elisha permitted Naaman to accompany his king, a pagan, in worship; why should English Catholics not be [End Page 266] 266 permitted to do something similar with their monarch? Crosignani shows clearly how Robert Parsons, S. J., would have none of this. Parsons argued that attendance at heretical sermons and services set a bad example and could encourage other Catholics to abandon their faith. Conformity was an occasion of mortal sin, an opportunity for spiritual ruin far more destructive than the civil penalties attached to nonconformity. For Parsons, Wright and others had misunderstood what Elisha allowed.
Crosignani's study is well worth attention from scholars interested in how early modern Christians struggled to reconcile the conflicting demands of conscience and the duty of obedience to the state. The author might have given more attention to the stark and sometimes subtle distinctions made by English Catholics between belief and practice...