The Pope as Divider

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A page from the English Bill of Rights, passed by Parliament in 1689 in exchange for offering the crown to William of Orange and his wife Mary

English Bill of Rights

In order to prevent the Catholic heir of King James II from the inheriting the throne and reuniting the Anglican Church with Rome, Parliament decided to offer the throne to Dutch noble William of Orange and his wife Mary. In exchange, they drew up a list of rights that had to be afforded to subjects of the Crown. Among these rights was the right to bear arms, extended only to Protestants. The anti-Catholic nature of this document is made explicit in the final paragraph, when “papists” and all who marry a Catholic in communion with the pope are forbidden from the English throne, out of supposed concern for the safety and the security of the realm (Wiesner-Hanks, 342-343).

This document illuminates several aspects of the papacy in the early modern period. First, it illustrates that the institution of the papacy came to be a central identifying feature of Catholicism. Thus the Bill of Rights uses “papist” and “Catholic” interchangeable. Yet its use as an epithet also demonstrates that the papacy continued to be a cause of criticism from Protestants and Protestant countries. While the papacy generally unified Catholicism, it exacerbated conflict between itself and other Christian groups. Protestant nations like England imagined an international specter, the Bishop of Rome, which loomed over them and sought to overthrow the Protestant authorities and establish Catholic tyranny within their borders. The papacy is therefore inextricably linked with many of the political conflicts and controversies of the late seventeenth century.