Friday, 2 December 2011

A Catholic revival?

Neither the Anglican Church nor its Protestant rivals changed as profoundly as Roman Catholicism. Its devotional life was transformed by the ultramontanism of the continent. From Ireland came the immigrants who increased the Catholic population from 750,000 in 1851 to over 2 million by 1914; the great majority of Catholics were now urban, Irish and working-class. From Anglicanism, finally, came a small but significant stream of converts, of whom Newman and Manning were the best known, bringing new blood into the clergy and the promise of further gains amongst the educated classes. As English Catholicism entered its ‘second spring’ some hoped for nothing less than the ‘reconversion’ of England to Rome.

The arrival of the Irish posed enormous problems for English Catholics. The ‘folk’ Catholicism that had served them well enough in rural Ireland did not hold up for long in London or Liverpool and a high proportion of immigrants lost all contact with the church. Priests carried out what amounted to a ‘devotional revolution’ to prevent further seepage abandoning the cool, restrained piety of the eighteenth century and adopting an unashamedly emotion, almost missionary, approach. Their preaching matched the fervour of Protestant revivalists; their new churches, with the candles, incense, plaster statutes and other props of ultramontane piety, emulated those of Rome or Naples.

Victorian Catholicism was dominated by the clergy. The role of the old Catholic gentry was minimal, nor was there any challenge to the priests from the small, Catholic middle-class. In the poor, inner city parishes, the priests were dedicated, dominant, often paternalist figures, laying down the law to their parishioners as well as bringing them faith and the sacraments. ‘Improvement’ was not ignored, but this was a church of the unskilled, where unlike most Protestant churches, it was no disgrace to be poor and stay poor. [1] Whatever the church’s dreams of reconverting England, its immediate strategies were realistic and defensive. Mixed marriages were condemned; great sacrifices were made to build a Catholic school system. The aim was to shield Catholics from all Protestant and secular influence, to keep them in self-enclosed communities where the church was the focus of social as well as religious identity. Catholicism was an important medium of both Celtic and proletarian culture. [2]

What most Protestants knew of Catholicism was the bold triumphalist ultramontanism of its public stance and its effects on them was to deepen alarm into panic. [3] This was triggered by the appearance of Catholic fellow travellers in the Church of England. When bishops were restored to the Catholic Church in 1850, Cardinal Wiseman provoked near-hysterical charges of ‘papal aggression’; in Stockport in 1852 anti-Catholic and anti-Irish feelings erupted into violence. Many Protestants regarded the pope as antichrist, the mass as ‘idolatry’, the Irish famine as just punishment for the rejection of Protestant truth. They surrounded Catholicism with a kind of religious pornography, dwelling especially on the horrors of the confessional, where priests insinuated ‘impure’ thoughts into the minds of innocent girls and turned wives against their husbands. Good Protestant families felt shame and disgrace when one of their members ‘perverted’ to Rome. Anti-Catholic prejudice flowered in this period and was widespread in every social class. The presence of a large Catholic population was an important factor in the Catholic revival at the end of the nineteenth century. [4] Cardinals Wiseman and Manning, archbishops of Westminster, restructured the expanding Catholic Church in Britain. Impoverished Irish immigrants contributed to the building of local Catholic churches.


[1] The Salvation Army, founded by General Booth in the late 1870s, specifically targeted both its evangelical mission and its social work on the very poor. In part, this was a response to the success of Catholic evangelism.

[2] Quinn, Dermot A., Patronage and piety: the politics of English Roman Catholicism, 1850-1900, (Macmillan), 1993.

[3] On this subject ibid, Paz, D. G., Popular Anti-Catholicism in Mid-Victorian England.

[4] On the Irish and Roman Catholicism in London see the following papers by Gilley, Sheridan, ‘Papists, protestants and the Irish in London, 1835-70’, in Cuming, G. J., and Baker, Derek, (eds.), in Studies in Church History, Vol. 8: Popular belief and practice, (Cambridge University Press), 1972, pp. 259-266; ‘Heretic London, holy poverty and the Irish poor, 1830-1870’, Downside Review, Vol. 89, (1971), pp. 64-89; ‘Protestant London, no Popery and the Irish poor, 1830-60’, Recusant History, Vol. 10, (1970), pp. 210-230; Vol. 11, (1971), pp. 21-46; and ‘The Roman Catholic mission to the Irish in London’, Recusant History, Vol. 10, (1969), pp. 123-145.

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