Wednesday, 2 November 2011

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. [2]

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.

In 1770, there were about 80,000 Catholics in England.  By 1850, this had multiplied ten times to about three quarters of a million, a radical 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.   These changes brought about social transformation and congregations of labourers, artisans, tradesmen and the poor topped up with some business and professional families replaced congregations of gentry, farmers, agricultural labourers and rural craftsmen. [3]

This represented 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 growing population and the efforts of Catholic clergy and its social structure was already in the process of change.   Irish immigration reinforced trends already evident. [4]   By 1851, in urban Lancashire there was a ratio of three Irish-descended to one English-descended Catholic. Irish immigrants and English Catholics were initially divided  to a certain extent by language,  by economic status  though 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 mutual dislike.  They were unified by intermarriage, by common schooling and by the process of assimilation. In some areas such as 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. [5] This numerical change upset the balance of power within the Catholic community.   In 1770, it was still dominated by its secular aristocracy but by 1850 it was dominated by its clergy. It was a paradox of the movement for Catholic Emancipation that, although lay Catholics who conducted the campaign went to great 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 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 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 secular clergy 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. [6] 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. [7]   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 Norman, E. R., Roman Catholicism in England, (Oxford University Press), 1985, and Bossy, J., The English Catholic Community, (Darton, Longman and Todd), 1975. Norman, E. R., The English Catholic Church in the Nineteenth Century, (Oxford University Press), 1984, and his Anti-Catholicism in Victorian England, (Allen and Unwin), 1968, are more detailed. Paz, D. G., Popular Anti-Catholicism in Mid-Victorian England, (Stanford University Press), 1992, and Arnstein, W. L., Protestant versus Catholic in mid-Victorian England, (University of Missouri Press), 1982, are excellent on anti-popery.

[2] Ibid, Bossy, J., The English Catholic Community, p. 297.

[3] Jordan, Sally, ‘Paternalism and Roman Catholicism: the English Catholic Elite in the Long Eighteenth Century’, Studies in Church History, Vol. 42, (2006), pp. 272-281.

[4] Gilley, Sheridan, ‘Roman Catholicism and the Irish in England’, in ibid, MacRaild, Donald M., (ed.), The Great Famine and beyond: Irish migrants in Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, pp. 147-167.

[5] Mullett, Michael A., Catholics in Britain and Ireland, 1558-1829, (Macmillan), 1998, provides a valuable overview.

[6] On Vicars Apostolic between 1550 and 1850, see, Hemphill, Basil, ‘The vicars apostolic of England’, Clergy Review, ns, Vol. 31, (1949), pp. 35-41, 99-106, 165-173, 247-254, 394-400; Vol. 32, (1949), pp. 38-45, 180-187, 249-256, 323-330.

[7] Ralls, W., ‘The Papal Aggression of 1850: A Study in Victorian Anti-Catholicism’, Church History, Vol. 32, (1974), pp. 242-256, and Paz, D. G., ‘Popular Anti-Catholicism in England, 1850-1851’, Albion, Vol. 11, (1979), pp. 331-359

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