IT WAS A PROTESTANT England that achieved that greatness among the nations which began with the triumphs of Elizabethan seamanship and ended, perhaps, with the Treaty of Versailles. And in reading the history of that development you only come across the Catholic Church now and again, crossing the page of our history for a moment, just as the Icknield Way will cross, just at one point, the great arteries of our modern road transport. The Gunpowder Plot, the Titus Oates Plot, the reign of James II, the rebellion of '15, the rebellion of '45, the Gordon Riots - you realize with a shock, at such points, that there were still Catholics in England even in the days when they were unrelentingly persecuted by the Government. But for the most part, you hardly come across the mention of them; they have disappeared from view, like an old road that has lost itself in the open fields.
And yet it was the old road. It is bitten deep into the soil of English history; you cannot obliterate the landmarks. During a thousand years and more of our history England was but a part of the Catholic Commonwealth of Europe; all the institutions which we revere as old, our Parliament, our civic procedure, our universities, still reek of a Catholic origin. The old road, but it had served its turn, men thought, three hundred and fifty years ago; and they struck out on newer paths, and let the old sign-posts rot away and the old milestones become grass-grown. The Catholic faith became, in England, a thing of by-ways and of retired corners; it flourished most where new movements were felt least; it was remote, provincial, unfashionable ... Like the palace of the Sleeping Beauty in the fairy-story, the religion that had been England's pride was moss-grown now, and grass-covered; it would never, you thought, be used again ...
(But t)hese are days of stumbling and hesitation; men look for guidance to the faiths in which they were born and nurtured, and too often they find none; or, if guidance is offered, there is a confusing variety of utterance; one preacher extols what another preacher condemns, and one generation burns the idols which the last generation worshipped. Is is possible that the faith in which Europe was cradled is after all the faith which man was made to live for; that all the improvements which men have devised upon it have shown themselves worthless, like short-cuts that tempt the wayfarer, only to mislead him, and leave him to hark back, as best he may, to his starting-point?
- Ronald A. Knox