papal aggression after all?
The English Establishment reacted strongly to the
restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850. Gerard Noel asks if any of their suspicions were correct It was an action performed by the "emissaries of dark ness"; it was an attempt to impose "foreign bondage" on our country; it reeked of the "sorcerer's cup" and the "crafts of Satan"; it was "profane, blasphemous and anti-Christian"; England was being "defiled by the pollutions" of its perpetrators; it was nothing less than a "revolting and frightful assumption" that amounted to an "unparalleled aggression-.
These are examples of comments made by Anglican bishops regarding an event that occurred a 150 years ago this year. And it was not just the bishops who were moved to such verbal vehemence.
"We can only receive it," thundered The Times, "as an audacious and conspicuous display of pretensions to
resume the spiritual dominion of this island which Rome has never abandoned."
It was the Prime Minster of the day, Lord John Russell who coined a phrase that is familiar to us even today: papal aggression. The action in question, he added, in a famous — perhaps infamous — letter to the Bishop of Durham was "insolent and insidious."
To what could they have been referring?
The event that attracted stich a chorus of fury was something ostensibly wholly innocent and benevolent in intention. It had come about as a result of patient preparations undertaken in the complacent belief that no offence would be given.
Despite the bitterness of past Roman-Anglican relations, a new improved atmosphere was observably growing up in the first half of the 19th century. It was now felt on the Catholic side — the year was 1850 — that the Roman Church in England could and should take on a reasonable measure of recognised status.
The French Revolution had proved to be a boon to English Roman Catholics occasioning as it did, the reestablishment on English soil of certain seats of learning long exiled abroad. 1778 and 1791 had seen limited measures of Catholic Relief. And finally, in 1829, came Catholic "emancipation".
By this piece of legislation, Catholics, among other things, received the right to vote and sit in Parliament. The Earl of Arundel duly took his seat in the House of Commons. It was he who, as Duke of Norfolk from 1842, was to play so sensational a part in the events surrounding the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy, or „papal aggression".
Various developments during the 20 years after Catholic Emancipation contributed to a different atmosphere; whether it amounted to an improvement or a further complication was a matter of opinion. Irish immigration greatly increased the Catholic population and the Oxford Movement went beyond a mere bolstering of AngloCatholicism. There were some conversions to Rome, the most notable cases being those of John Newman (1845) and Henry Manning (1851).
These two developments — Irish immigration and the Oxford Movement — planted ambitions for the "conversion" of England to Roman Catholicism in certain minds. That of one man particularly so affected was Nicholas Wiseman (1802-1865). An AngloIrishman, he was rector of the English College in Rome between 1828 and 1840, and, as such, began promoting the cause of restoration. He returned to England as President of Oscott College, Birmingham, continuing his campaign for a restored hierarchy. He journeyed back
to Rome in 1847 to urge Pope Pius IX to authorise such a restoration.
The new Pope had started his pontificate with friends on all sides, including the moderate liberals in Italy. He appeared to be their ally against an Austria who was posing a threat to Italian security and possible unification. The Pope even appeared as a potential figurehead for a loosely united country.
He sent Wiseman back to London to seek British support as against Austria. Lord Minto was sent to Rome from London as an official spokesman and negotiations were begun for the resumption of diplomatic relations between Britain and the Holy See.
In such seemingly auspicious circumstances the 'Pope, responded favourably to Wiseman's overtures regarding a hierarchy, the plan being to put diocesan bishops in the place of the vicars apostolic. These were men who had been the ecclesiastical administrators in various districts of England. This was the surviving system first established in the reign of James II, Britain's last Catholic sovereign (1685-88).
What seems surprising to us is that it was not thought necessary to take soundings of what the official British attitude might be to any such initiative. It appears to have been assumed — quite wrongly as things turned out — that no British objections would be raised to the creation of various Roman Catholic dioceses in England, provided their names did not correspond with those of any existing Anglican dioceses.
Possibly. Wiseman was lulled into a sense of false security by the apparently improved atmosphere on all sides. Not long before, moreover, he had been greatly encouraged by the official British views expressed to him regarding a proposed enhanced Catholic (hierarchical) presence in Australia and North America.
As regards the first, the Colonial Office had said to Wiseman: "Do what you like but don't ask us." As regards the second, Wiseman reported that "the answer given was somewhat to this effect: "What does it matter what you call yourselves, whether vicars apostolic or bishops, or muftis, or mandarins? We have no right to prevent your taking any title among yourselves."
Indeed. according to Wiseman's principal biographer, Wilfrid Ward: "The possibility of offence to the British Government in the proposed measure was carefully considered." Wiseman's understanding of words used three years earlier by Lord John Russell seemed to confirm this. According to this, the Prime Minister had said that "he believed that they might repeal those disabling clauses which prevented a Roman Catholic bishop assuming a title held by a bishop of the Established Church." A few months later, furthermore, he had characterised these clauses as "absurd and puerile".
Despite Wisenian's optimism there were some serious misgivings on the Catholic side that the whole restoration scheme was inopportune. One of the most important objectors was Cardinal Acton, the one and only English cardinal at this time, and he resided in Rome.
After protracted negotiations, however, the Pope preferred the Wiseman to the Acton view. Things would have gone ahead quickly had it not been for the worsening political situation in Italy. Pius IX became the victim of revolutionary forces that he was unable to contain. He was even forced to leave Rome temporarily. When he returned he was a bitter man having shed all his liberal inclinations, and was never again to enjoy the popularity of his early years as Pope.
The English scheme, though delayed, finally went ahead, despite opposition in certain Catholic circles along the same lines as expressed by Cardinal Acton, Many English Catholics wanted to be just the English Catholics. This was an established tradition among the old Catholic families.
The London Catholic clergy. moreover, were still tinged with • a strong "Gallican" spirit. This came from an originally French
17th-century movement favouring home-based, rather than Rome-based, Catholic direction. There was still, in addition, some overspill from sentiments inspired in England as of some years before by a leading Catholic layman, Sir John Throckmorton.
He had appealed to the English Catholic clergy to separate themselves in matters of discipline from Rome. From this had arisen the more widely dispersed "Cisalpine" partly, strongly opposed to that "papistic" one that favoured control from Rome. This group was in line with that, even more widely based, ultramontane movement within the Catholic Church that ever since the French Revolution, had sought a renewed and invigorated independence for the Roman Church under the papacy.
Ultramonanism realised its highest expression under Pope Pius IX after his return to Rome. Its climate fulfillment came with promulgation of Papal Infallibility in 1870.
Wiseman was a convinced ultramontanism and herein lay the source of what turned out to be his catastrophic tactical misjudgment.
The Pope's brief reestablishing the Hierarchy was dated September 29th, 1850. Wiseman formally announced the event to English Catholics on October 7th in a celebrated pastoral letter issued "from the Flaminian Gate of Rome". This expression was necessary because only the Pope himself could issue an official declaration as of "from Rome" without any qualification. This pastoral of Wiseman's, because of its triumphalist wording, was to be the main cause of the deep offence caused in Great Britain by the whole affair.
Wiseman, however, by now a Cardinal, left for England a few days after signing his pastoral, stopping off at certain points during his journey. For some time he remained blissfully unaware of what a storm had been provoked by his words. What were these, and why were they deemed so offensive?
They were received by Anglican England as nothing less than the blueprint for the conversion of England to Rome: a return to what Roman Catholics arrogantly referred to as "the one True Faith." It was naturally not realised that the most offending words used by Wiseman were innocently intended by him merely to inform English Catholics of the practical and administrative consequences of what he was announcing.
Under the arrangements agreed with Rome, the Catholics of South East England were to look to London as their centre of ecclesiastical administration. But there would be a subdivision resulting in an Archiepiscopal See at West minster and Episcopal See of Southwark. This resulted in a situation that Wiseman went on to describe as follows: "At present and till such time as the Holy See think otherwise to provide, we govern and shall continue to govern the counties of Middlesex, Hertford and Essex as Ordinary thereof, and of Surrey, Sussex, Kent, Berkshire and Hampshire, with the Islands annexed, as Administrator with Ordinary jurisdiction."
As if these words (despite being intended to have a largely technical and ecclesiastical connotation) were not inflammatory enough, Wiseman added a sort of peroration to his pastoral letter. "Catholic England," he declared, "has been restored to its orbit in the Ecclesiastical firmament from which its light has long vanished, and begins anew its course of regularly adjusted action round the centre of unity, (meaning, of course, Rome) the source of jurisdiction, of light and of vigour," Newman did not help matters by speaking of "the resurrection of the Church" in England. But England as a whole was horrified.
The Queen is said to have exclaimed "Am I Queen of England or not?" The Prime Minister's expression "papal aggression" is still with us. The 13th Duke of Norfolk sided with the opponents of the measure as did the present duke's ancestor on his mother's side, the Lord
Beaumont of the day. Both left the Catholic Church and became Anglicans.
What then was the truth about -fl-.t initiative in. 1850 on the part of Pope Pius IX and Cardinal Wiseman? Was it purely an innocent plan to create Catholic diocesan bishops to work in friendly and uncompetitive fashion alongside their Anglican opposite numbers? Or was it, indeed, the first step in a longterm plot to seduce Englishmen away from their Anglican allegiance in favour of subservience to Rome?
The best clue lies in Pope Pius's words to Wiseman and his friends when they visited him in a farewell deputation before returning to England after the Flaminian Pastoral.
Having expressed confidence that the "English Government would not oppose the execution of my design" he expressed a wish that the Lord "will lead into the Church a million — three millions — of your countrymen still separated from us to the end that he may cause them all to enter, even to the last man." Was this, indeed, what Wiseman also meant by "the conversion of England?" I leave the answer to you.
Wiseman eventually won over English hearts. But, it was a long, hard battle. Perhaps the initial shock was
salutary. Above all English Catholics learned a lesson which it must be hoped will be heeded today as much as ever. Anglican susceptibilities must never again be similarly outraged. True ecumenism owes nothing to triumphalism, exclusivism or sectarianism. There are still a few who think it mare important to be a Catholic
than Christian, but fortunately not many.
Above all, the year 2000 has brought special happiness and hope. As in 1850 we have a new Archbishop of Westminster, and herein lies the greatest reason of all for optimism for the future, with God's grace.