An article by Fr. Francis Canavan, S.J., published by The Edmund Burke Society
First, Edmund Burke was a Christian, despite the doubts that critics have expressed about his faith. But he was the child of a mixed marriage between a Catholic mother and a Protestant father, a member of the Established Church of Ireland.
Because Edmund was somewhat sickly as a child he was sent to spend some years with his mother’s Catholic relatives in the healthier air of the Cork countryside. With them, he remained in friendly (and helpful) contact throughout his life. Always sympathetic with their lot and that of their fellow Catholics, he took an active part in relaxing the penal laws both in Ireland and England.
If Burke had a personal problem because of the religious division in his family, he resolved it by minimizing the theological differences among the various Christian churches. As he wrote to a Quaker friend while he was a student at Trinity College in Dublin, “we take different roads, it is true,” but “as there is but one God so there is but one faith and one Baptism.”
The one faith was, in his words, “Christianity at large.” It was “our common faith,” “our common hope,” the “one common bottom on which all the principal religions in Europe stand.” The European nations were thus members of “the great commonwealth of Christendom,” having “the very same Christian religion, agreeing in the fundamental parts, varying a little in the ceremonies and in the subordinate doctrines.”
Burke never troubled himself to list those fundamentals, but his conviction about them enabled him to favor a relatively high degree of religious tolerance while insisting on the value of national religious establishments, Protestant in Great Britain and Ireland, but Catholic in France. When the French Revolution arrived, he strove to rally the nations of Europe to defend the commonwealth of Christendom against it.
But he denied that he was pressing religion into the service of an aristocracy and its political order. On the contrary, he said: “Religion is so far from being out of the province or the duty of a Christian magistrate, that it is, and it ought to be, not only his care, but the principal thing in his care; because it is one of the great bonds of human society; and its object the supreme good, the ultimate end and object of man himself.”
The revolution in France, as he saw it, was the spawn of an anti-Christian Enlightenment and therefore an attack on a civilization whose basis was Christianity. If the Christian religion “is destroyed, nothing can be saved, or is worth saving,” because “on that religion, according to our mode, all our laws and institutions stand as upon their base. That scheme is supposed in every transaction of life; and if that were done away, every thing else, as in France, must be changed along with it.”
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