Your RDA of Irony

How the Irish Created Catholicism

August 5, 641: A sainthood is always a nice consolation gift

On this day in 641, King Oswald of Northumbria became a martyr. He died attacking another English kinglet–Penda of Mercia—who evidently could defend himself. Since Penda was a pagan, that qualified Oswald for a sainthood. If Penda had also been Christian, then the slaughter would only have been intramural–and Oswald’s death would not have scored a halo.

But Penda’s victory was really the last Valhalliday for British pagans. The Angle-Saxon kingdoms were succumbing to the power and organization of an indominable Church: the Church of Ireland. Yes, at the time when the Pope was a threadbare Byzantine flunky–with the social standing of an assistant postmaster in Macedonia–the autonomous Church of Ireland was thriving, sending out its missionaries throughout the British Isles and onto the European continental. Britain, the Low Countries and Germany were being converted to the brogue.

By contrast, Rome’s organization in western Europe was a tenuous and nepotic network of patricians who served as bishops to protect themselves and their estates from barbarian encroachments. (The barbarians showed a superstitious deference to the Church; that was one way you could tell that they were barbarians.) This Church was hostage to the moods of barbarian princes as well as Byzantine magistrates. (Popes had been hauled off in chains to Constantinople.) So any claim to Rome’s primacy would have been a joke.

Yet, Rome persistently made that claim. Of course, it would have been effortless to ignore the pretensions of a figurehead of a theoretical church. But the Church of Ireland did not. By the mid-seventh century, it had grown and now was adminstering the ecclesiastical policies of all Britain. Yet a number of its prelates felt their British Church should abandon its autonomy and become subordinate to Rome. They were willing to cede their power and independence for the sake of a spiritual idea. Perhaps that was Christianity in action. The Celtic/British Church convened at a council in Whitby in 661 and, in effect, voted itself out of existence. The most organized and dynamic ecclesiastical system in Western Europe had submitted itself to a powerless, precariously balanced bishop in Rome.

And with that recognition, the Roman Church had become Catholic.

  1. Rafferty Barnes says:

    The Irish church also introduced private confession to the Church. Although I always thought our priest must have known who we were when my Dad took all five of us to confession. Most Catholic families don’t have such large families as mine anymore.

    We also enjoyed confessing each other’s sins in the car on the way there. “Liam, don’t forget that time you pulled my hair.”

    “Well, don’t YOU forget that time you broke a plate and lied to Mom about it. Double sin!”

  2. Tony Hufton says:

    Most interesting, Eugene. There’s an excellent article by Terry Eagleton about Cardinal Newman in this week’s London Review of Books. In it Eagleton observes that the Irish have always sent their clergy abroad, and – how acute – that “Bono and Bob Geldorf are self-advertising versions of Irish missionaries”.


  3. Wimple says:

    As a very pure, young girl I really didn’t have a lot to confess, so I used to make stuff up. I guess that was a sin!

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