Downton Abbey: What English Protestants Can Teach American Catholics

Downton Abbey’s fourth season starts this month… in Britain.

Sigh.

Yes, we have to wait until January to get our fill.

So in order to whet our appetites while we wait, I thought I would offer some thoughts on how the Protestants of Downton Abbey are ironically teaching a traditional Catholic understanding of the Common Good.

As fans of the sumptuous series may recall, in a pivotal conversation with Lord Grantham over breakfast, Tom Branson – chauffer-turned-widower of Lady Sybil – laid out his vision of how the estate can become self-sufficient and secured for future generations. Up until this point, Lord Grantham had been feeling keenly displaced by the changing post-war world, particularly in his patriarchal duties to his family and all those he over whom he holds responsibility.

“Every man or woman who marries into this house,” Branson explained, “every child born into it, has to put their gifts to the family’s disposal. I’m a hard worker and have some knowledge of the land. Matthew knows the law and the nature of business. You understand the responsibilities we owe to the people around here, those who work for the estate and those who don’t. It seems to be me if we could manage to pool all of that, if we each do what we can do, then Downton has a real chance.”

dowton abbey

Branson summarized, writ small, in many ways the vocational call of all Catholics – of all people, really. It is when every man, woman and child does his or her part that the Common Good can ultimately be realized. Just as St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. (1 Cor. 12:12).”

Wittingly or not, Branson, the show’s token Catholic, is simply articulating 13th century Catholic theology. But Lord Grantham has never made a secret of his disdain for Catholicism: “I don’t want thumbscrews or the rack, but there always seems to be something Johnny Foreigner about the Catholics.” Nevertheless, he finds Branson’s argument compelling and embraces it.

Now, the Common Good, in general parlance today usually gets equated with utilitarian or communist notions, where an individual is subsumed or sacrifices something that is rightfully his for the good of a larger group. The force of communism, which completely absorbs the individual into the whole, has made it difficult to talk about the Common Good even in Catholic settings. The communist perspective, however, is a radical distortion of the older tradition heralded by the likes of St. Thomas Aquinas.

The older tradition paints a picture much closer to Branson’s depiction where everyone does his or her part to create something beyond what mere individuals are capable of doing by themselves.

Moreover, as Aquinas emphasized, the Common Good is not served if individuals are not flourishing within the group. Lord Grantham, feeling adrift in the new world order, was set aright by Branson’s suggestion that everyone has a role to play. And if Lord Grantham isn’t flourishing, the Common Good of the estate cannot be realized.

The servants are every bit a part of the house and also need to flourish just as much as those who live upstairs if the common good of the household is to be realized; the problems faced by the individual servants in one way or another affect the Crawleys (think of Bates in prison), just as the problems of the Crawleys affect the servants (Carson is never happy if Lady Mary is unhappy).

Classical liberalism, hailing from Locke but passing through several interpretations, takes a different view. There is no settled agreement ultimately upon what is “the good,” except that it’s good for each individual to pursue his own good.

This leaves Catholics under liberalism in something of a pickle: on the one hand, we are all called to a vocation to build up the kingdom of God, but on the other, our political structure seems to make that vocation merely an individual call. Critics of liberalism point out that, if no one agrees upon what “the good” is, and if everyone is pursuing what is “good for him”, the Common Good cannot be realized.

Perhaps the most illustrative example of liberalism’s disconnect is in the Supreme Court’s famous “mystery clause” in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which affirmed Roe v. Wade: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Even something as simple and fundamental to any society as pregnancy can take on various meanings because of the sliding notion of “the good.”

In the finale of the Third Season, the Crawleys visit their friends, the MacClares, in the Highlands of Scotland. Forced to sell off Duneagle Castle because they didn’t “modernize,” the family is scattering. The contrast is stark compared to Downton – and Lord Grantham makes a note of gratitude for his own good fortune – where every soul did his/her part to help Downton escape the fate of Duneage Castle.

And like great estates, great societies too fall and become mere ruins as the individuals therein forget that they all, every man, woman and child born unto it, have an important God given part and role to play.

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2 thoughts on “Downton Abbey: What English Protestants Can Teach American Catholics

  1. Will Dunkirk says:

    Beautiful piece.

  2. Patricia K. Marshall says:

    My thoughts exactly and what frustrates me all the time why we all don’t work together and use our God given gifts and talents to build up the Kingdom of God. We should all work for the common good and not be happy when our brothers and sisters suffer and we can make a difference.

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