Friday, 29 August 2008

Roman Catholicism 1800-1850

The period between 1780 and 1850 has been characterised by John Bossy as representing the ‘birth of a denomination’ for Catholicism.[1]   As with Protestant Dissent, Catholicism went through a period of growth in membership, conflict between lay and clerical influences and organisational change.   Bossy has called into question two ideas about nineteenth century English Catholicism. First,  he maintains that the notion propagated by Newman, Wiseman and others in mid-century of a ‘Second Spring’, a miraculous  rebirth of Catholicism dating from about 1840  is  a piece  of tendentious ecclesiastical propaganda. Secondly,  he argues  that,  though commonly accepted by historians, the  view that modern English Catholicism was ‘a  cutting  from  the  Catholicism of  Ireland  transplanted  by emigration  into  an  alien land that had long  ceased  to  have anything  worth mentioning to offer in the way of  an  indigenous Catholic tradition.’ This view is in  need  of  substantial modification  if  only  because it neglects the  evidence for  a vibrant,   if  not  always  successful,   tradition  of   English Catholicism that went back to the sixteenth century.

Numerical and geographical transformation

In 1770 there were about 80,000 Catholics in England.  By 1850 this had multiplied ten times to about three quarters of a million.  This represented a radical numerical transformation. Geographical distribution was also transformed, though less radically.   Catholicism developed in areas where it had been barren since the Reformation: in the industrial areas of the West Riding and south-east Lancashire, in the east Midlands, in south Wales and, to a certain extent, in London.   Its focus in  its areas  of  traditional strength -- the  rest  of  Lancashire, the north-east  and  west Midlands -- moved from  the  countryside to towns  and  manufacturing districts.   This numerical and local transformation brought about social transformation and congregations of labourers, artisans, tradesmen and the poor topped up with a stratum of business and professional families replaced congregations of gentry, farmers, agricultural labourers and rural craftsmen.

Bossy   argues   that  this  was  in  the  first   place   a transformation  of the English Catholic community and would  have occurred  had  no  Irish immigrants  arrived.   By 1770 English Catholicism was already expanding because of demographic growth and the efforts of Catholic clergy and its social structure was already in the process of change.   Irish immigration reinforced trends already evident.   By 1851 in urban Lancashire a ratio of three Irish-descended to one English-descended Catholic and though English Catholics were a minority in the movement they were a considerable minority. Irish immigrants and English Catholics were initially divided  to a certain extent by language,  by differing  economic status  -- this should not be over-exaggerated since  both groups contained  people of a wide range of incomes and  occupations  -- by  different  social  and  political  attitudes,   by  different attitudes to the clergy and by simple mutual dislike.  They were unified by intermarriage, by common schooling and by the process of assimilation. In some areas -- Cardiff and south Wales, in Cumberland and the West Riding -- purely Irish communities, with Irish priests and nationalistic self-consciousness did not have any real contact with English Catholicism until after 1851. They were, however, the exception and the norm especially in larger cities was a mixed and stratified community.

Towards clericalism

The numerical transformation upset the balance of power within the Catholic community.   In 1770 it was still dominated by its secular aristocracy and by 1850 it was dominated by its clergy. It was a paradox of the movement for   Catholic Emancipation  that  although the lay Catholics who conducted  the campaign went  to considerable  lengths  to  emphasise their detachment  from papal jurisdiction it was the clergy who  really gained in authority.   The appeals to Rome to decide on the acceptability of new oaths, the need for organisation and the emergence of a Catholic middle-class divorced from the old landed families. All tended to give the clergy an enhanced role and prepared the way for the centralisation of the Church in the mid-nineteenth century.

In 1820 the English Catholic clergy was a small body, only 400 strong.   There had been little increase in the number of priests since 1770, a consequence of the disintegration of the continental   training establishments. Three   secular-clergy seminaries, at Ware, Ushaw and Oscott were functioning by 1810 but they were unable to provide more that a trickle of new priests. The years after 1830 saw a new mood of self-confidence among Catholic seculars as they sought a return to ordinary government of the Church by canon law and territorial episcopate and some degree of independence from the rule of Rome. The first half of the century was marked by continued antipathy between the seculars and the regular orders, priests who were members of one of the Catholic religious orders.   In 1838  Rome  issued  two decrees that gave new privileges to the regular clergy operating in   England  and  allowed  them  to open  chapels  without  the permission of bishops.   Two years later the seculars petitioned Rome requesting that in future no regulars should be appointed as Vicars Apostolic.   There was a widespread belief among seculars that regular clergy were anti-episcopal.   The dispute between them was not resolved until 1881 when the regulars had to conduct their missions on the same basis of others and their chapels and schools were placed under episcopal control.

The movement towards the ‘restoration of a hierarchy’ in England can be seen, in part, as a secular attempt to gain full control over the English Church.  In 1837 the Vicars  Apostolic approached  Pope Gregory  XVI  but,  though he  was willing  to increase the number of Vicariates to increase efficiency, he was unwilling to re-establish a hierarchy for fear of Crown interference in appointments.  In 1840 the Eastern, Central, Welsh and Lancastrian Districts were established: the number of Vicariates was doubled.   Full restoration was still sought  by English bishops because of the need to bring Roman discipline and influence to bear on the centralising of missions and because  of the  need for additional armour against the regulars.   In 1847 Pius IX was persuaded of the case but it was not until 1850 that the hierarchy was restored.   The following year the government passed the Ecclesiastical Titles Act that reinforced the existing prohibition of Catholics assuming territorial titles held by the clergy of the Church of England. For ‘Old’ Catholics and the remnants of the Catholic gentry the restored hierarchy marked the final eclipse of their power over the Church.   It was the symbol of Roman hegemony.


[1] On Catholicism in the nineteenth century see E.R. Norman Roman Catholicism in England, OUP, 1985 and J. Bossy The English Catholic Community, London, 1975. E.R. Norman The English Catholic Church in the Nineteenth Century, OUP, 1984 and his Anti-Catholicism in Victorian England, Allen and Unwin, 1968 are more detailed. D.G. Paz Popular Anti-Catholicism in Mid-Victorian England, Stanford, 1992 and W.L. Arnstein Protestant versus Catholic in mid-Victorian England, University of Missouri Press, 1982 are excellent on anti-popery.

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