History of the Church: Later Modern Times - Notre Dame

The Dawn of Catholic Emancipation

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I. The Relaxation of the Penal Laws

The events related in the foregoing chapters cover a space of time which worked hopeful changes in the condition of the Church in the British Isles. As long as Catholicity was, in the minds of Englishmen, identified with the Stuart cause, there was little chance of any amelioration in the penal code. But English Catholics, as a body, remained aloof from the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745, thus testifying their loyalty to the reigning dynasty. Enthusiasm for the Stuart succession came to an end when Chatham wisely diverted the warlike ardour of the Scottish Highlanders to the service of the House of Hanover during the Seven Years' War.

One miserable class of men kept the magistrates well in mind of legal penalties which might otherwise have sunk into oblivion. These were the "informers," who played the part of spies for the sake of the hundred pounds offered by the statutes of William III. to anyone who should convict a priest of saying Mass or a teacher of being a Catholic. The terrible punishment of perpetual imprisonment brought upon his unhappy victim, did not deter the informer from seeking to earn the infamous reward which a successful prosecution would ensure. Priests and people were in a constant state of anxiety and alarm, resulting in extreme timidity of behaviour. Like the early Christians, they shunned the light, living, as Cardinal Newman tells us, "in corners, and alleys, and cellars, and the housetops, or in the recesses of the country; cut off from the populous world around them, and dimly seen, as if through a mist, or in twilight, as ghosts flitting to and fro, by the high Protestants, the lords of the earth."

This little flock, towards the close of the eighteenth century scarcely numbering sixty thousand souls, had for its shepherds four Vicars-Apostolic, Bishops indeed, but with little of the pomp and circumstance that we attach to the dignity. The name of Dr. Challoner, for instance, is familiar to us, not only from his "Memoirs of Missionary Priests," but also from his numerous controversial and devotional works; and particularly from the "Garden of the Soul," a collection of traditional English devotions not yet supplanted by those since introduced from abroad. The life of a Vicar-Apostolic was spent in constant heroic self-sacrifice, which might at any moment be exchanged for the dreary inactivity of perpetual imprisonment.

Bishop Challoner.


With the accession of George III. in 1760, a transformation took place in the attitude of political parties. Hitherto the Whigs, as upholders of the "glorious Revolution," had been able to keep the reins of government in their own hands; but the young King was determined to reign alone. Gathering Tories round him, he drove the Whigs into opposition, and thus gave them an opportunity of urging reforms suited to the "liberal" views they were beginning to profess. The Catholics had true friends in the generous and broad-minded leaders of the Whig party, Burke and Fox.

Though an Irishman, Burke was a Protestant, born of a Catholic mother, who had stipulated with her husband that her daughters at least should be brought up in her own religion. The great statesman had therefore very strong Catholic sympathies, in addition to his patriotic love for his native land. On every occasion where his advice or his eloquence might avail, he was ready and willing to place them at the disposal of Catholics.

Charles James Fox was united to Burke by the ties of close friendship, only torn asunder later by their radical difference of temperament, revealed in disputes on the subject of the French Revolution. In Fox, and perhaps partly through Burke's influence, the Catholics gained another staunch supporter.

Worthless as he was, the eldest son of George III. deserves the gratitude of Catholics. If obstinate bigotry was one of the worst characteristics of the father, it had at this time no counterpart in the son, who was greatly influenced by Fox, and still more by his own Catholic wife, Mrs. Fitzherbert. To the Prince of Wales, later the Regent, we may attribute in large measure the generous hospitality accorded to the French refugees in the early days of the Revolution. There was also much friendly feeling between the Prince of Wales and Ireland, which groaned under a worse code of religious persecution than the small Catholic body in England.

It was, in fact, through Ireland that relief was to be expected, for with her weal or woe the fate of British Catholics was largely identified. When the American colonists responded by violent measures to England's attempt to tax them without allowing them representation, it became necessary for the Government to conciliate Ireland, lest she should also seek redress of grievances by active resistance. In 1771, accordingly, an Act for the reclaiming of profitless bogs, permitted any "Papist "to improve such lands for his own benefit. Again, in 1774, an Act was passed to enable "His Majesty's subjects of whatever persuasion to testify their allegiance to him," by taking an oath which, unlike all previous ones, contained nothing offensive to the Catholic conscience. By these concessions Ireland. was kept quiet, in the absence of the troops withdrawn to serve in America.

Once more, in 1778, when the situation was rendered still more alarming for Great Britain by the alliance of France with the revolted colonists, a real benefit was conferred on English and Irish Catholics. The obnoxious laws relating to the clerical and teaching professions were removed, to the great disadvantage and huge discontent of the informers, whose lucrative traffic thus suddenly collapsed. Relieved from the fear of spies, the faithful issued forth, as it were from the catacombs, and dared once more to breathe the free air of heaven. Public chapels were erected in which the Holy Sacrifice might be offered with safety, and new hopes were entertained of a bright future for Catholics. Even Protestants congratulated their friends of the ancient faith on the cheerful prospects opening out before them. A dark cloud was, nevertheless, lowering on the horizon, and threatening to cover with gloom the short-lived rays of light and comfort.

II. The Gordon Riots (1780)

The late concessions to Catholics had roused' the anger of the class of persons who had hitherto gained their subsistence by informing. A proposal made in 1779 to extend similar privileges to the Catholics of Scotland was the signal for widespread agitation. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was at the time a powerful leader of the lower classes, whom he had won over to his religious views. He was himself a most bitter opponent of Catholicity, and willingly fanned the flame of discontent. From his pen came a "Defence of the Protestant Association," a league which had been formed under the presidency of Lord George Gordon. The object of the association was to obtain a reversal of the Act of 1778, and thus to rivet the yoke of the penal laws once more upon the Catholic Church in England.

The attempt to relieve the Scottish Catholics of their burdens led to riots in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and the "No Popery" agitation spread rapidly southwards. Gordon, as a member of Parliament, was able to rouse the London populace, and did not hesitate to place himself at their head. On June 2, 1780, an immense mob of wildly excited people marched under his leadership to the House of Commons to present a petition against "Popery." London soon became the scene of appalling riots. Catholic chapels were wrecked and burnt to the ground, not excepting even those of foreign ambassadors. The houses, not only of influential Catholics, but those of Protestants, like Lord Mansfield, who had shown sympathy with the Catholic cause, shared the same fate. In the general panic the grief and anxiety of the clergy may easily be imagined. The aged Bishop Challoner remained steadfastly at his post, sorrowful indeed, but full of confidence in Divine Providence, consoling and strengthening his afflicted flock. Though he escaped, almost miraculously, from the fury of the mob, the strain of that week of horror was too much for his already worn-out frame. He died peacefully in 1781, deeply regretted by all who had come within the circle of his benign and saintly influence.

In the midst of conflagration and tumult, when the city magistrates seemed paralysed and the soldiery waited for the word of command, King George alone had courage to meet the crisis, The riots had lasted from Friday to Tuesday, when, at length using his prerogative as Chief Magistrate, he issued a proclamation ordering all peaceable citizens to keep within doors. The troops were then commanded to fire on those who persisted in continuing the disturbance. The rioters were soon dispersed, and London returned to its wonted condition, heedless of the ruin of so many bright hopes and prospects. The work so joyfully undertaken after the Relief Bill of 1778 had been ruthlessly obliterated, and it was long before Catholics had courage to begin anew.

Indemnification was promised by the Government for all losses sustained. The Catholics had borne the trial with exemplary patience, schooled as they were in long-suffering endurance by the penal laws. Burke, in glowing words, testified to their forbearance. In a speech made at Bristol in the same year, he drew an alarming picture of what might have happened had the four or five thousand Irish labourers in the metropolis, his own countrymen, retaliated upon their assailants. They were known to be "men of strong arms, and quick feelings, and more remarkable. for a determined resolution than clear ideas or much foresight. But though provoked by everything that can stir the blood of men, their houses and chapels in flames, and with the most atrocious profanations of everything they hold sacred before their eyes, not a hand was moved to retaliate, or even to defend. Had a conflict once begun, the rage of their persecutors would have redoubled. Thus fury increasing by the reverberation of outrages, house being fired for house, and church for chapel, I am convinced that no power under heaven could have prevented a general conflagration; and at this day London would have been a tale." Burke goes on to say that the merit of this forbearance was due to the efforts of the clergy, and that on this occasion they deserved the thanks of both Houses of Parliament, instead of being "hunted into holes and corners," as they were.

III. Relief Bill of 1791

One lasting and disastrous consequence of the Gordon Riots was the means taken by a certain section of the Catholics to secure their position by making friends with the Government. A committee of laymen was formed who, without ecclesiastical sanction, proposed to erect a Hierarchy in England which should be practically independent of Rome. The late disturbance, they argued, had been caused not so much by dislike of Catholicity as by prejudice against "Popery." The new Catholic bishops, elected by the committee and its adherents, would be free from Papal interference in secular and political matters, and would rule a flock of loyal subjects of the British Crown, bearing the high-sounding but clearly illogical title of "Protesting Catholic Dissenters." The worst feature of these proceedings was that the Committee entered into negotiations with the Government under pretence of being the representatives of the entire body of English Catholics.

In the embarrassment of the Vicars-Apostolic at this high-handed and unorthodox meddling with their business, a champion was found, fearless and clear-headed, to defend the right. This was the celebrated Dr. Milner, whose services to the Church in England, during this and subsequent troubles, were invaluable. Without entering into the details of his arduous conflict with the Committee, it will suffice to say that he came out victorious, and that the concessions of 1791 were mainly the result of his courage and determination. By the Relief Bill thus obtained, Catholics were finally brought within the pale of the ordinary Civil law, and might prove their loyalty by taking the Irish oath of 1778, instead of a questionable formula proposed by the Committee.

A great advantage to the Catholic cause about this time was the arrival in England of large numbers of exiled French clergy and religious. Burke's "Reflections on the French Revolution "had prepared the educated classes of society to receive them with courteous hospitality, but the welcome given to them by people of all ranks was far beyond anything that could be expected. They were followed almost immediately by the inmates of the English colleges and convents driven from France and Belgium on the declaration of war between England and the French Republic. The designs of Providence seemed manifest. If the Revolution had occurred while the Penal Laws were still in force, the position would have been very different. God had so ordained that disabilities were removed, and in the resulting expansion of the Church the need of priests was supplied by the exiled clergy of France.

IV. The Irish Union, 1800

In 1782 the Irish obtained what we should now' call "Home Rule," but with the anomaly that a Catholic population was represented by a totally Protestant parliament. Of the great majority of the members it could truthfully be said, "Every man has his price," a historic phrase well illustrated later on; but there were among them noble-minded men who supported Grattan in his magnanimous efforts to obtain justice for his Catholic fellow-countrymen. In spite of the recent relief acts there were still many things to be desired.

The outbreak of the French Revolution and the offers of the Republicans to assist Ireland in shaking off the English yoke, alarmed Pitt. He had already perceived the necessity for a union of the parliaments when Ireland had supported the claim of the Prince of Wales to the Regency, in 1788, during the illness of George III. To quote from Lord Rosebery: "The next stage in Irish politics is the emancipation of the Roman Catholics in 1792 and 1793, when measures were passed, which, by admitting the peasantry to the parliamentary suffrage and to juries, and by relieving them from all property disabilities, exhausted, for the time at least, their interest in that question." About this time, also, a Bill was passed in the Irish Parliament, allowing Catholics to hold commissions in the army, up to the rank of colonel.

The Irish Rebellion of 1798 determined the Government to press on the contemplated union of the Parliaments. We may rejoice at the fact that no Catholic had a seat in the Dublin Houses, when we consider the shameless bribery by which the Union was effected. Still, the voice of the people counted for something, and they were won over by promises of complete emancipation. Pitt virtually pledged himself to obtain it for them, but he reckoned without the King. The very proposal of such a measure brought on an attack of the mental malady to which George was subject. He conscientiously feared that Pitt was urging him to break his coronation oath by extending favour to Catholics. On his recovery, he clinched the matter by sending the following message to the Minister: "Tell him that I count any man my personal enemy who should propose such a measure." Pitt, caught between two fires, obeyed the King by silence, though he showed the sincerity of his intentions by resigning office. Catholic Emancipation was delayed for twenty-eight years, and the Irish people, disappointed in their hopes, prepared to enter upon the struggle for the repeal of the Union, which was to continue until they obtained "Home Rule."

One clause of the Act of Union must not be forgotten. Mr. Lecky, whose opinion is above criticism, in contrasting the Scottish and Irish Unions, speaks thus strongly on the religious aspect of the Act of 1800: "The Irish never dreamed of demanding the establishment of the Church of the majority, which, in the case of Scotland, was solemnly guaranteed by the Union. They never dreamed of demanding even that religious equality which, sixty-eight years after the Union, was at last conceded. The Union Treaty, indeed, had a special clause guaranteeing the perpetuity of the established Church of the minority, and it was one of the favourite arguments of Castlereagh that it would stereotype the inequality. But there were other and less ambitious ends which the majority of the Irish people desired. Had the Catholic population been able to look back to the Union as the era of their complete political emancipation, of the settlement of the tithe question, and of the payment of the priests, the whole current of Irish feeling might have been changed. The propriety of uniting these measures with the Union was self-evident, and Pitt naturally perceived it; but the actual proceedings of his Government on the subject were such that it would have been better had the question of emancipation never been raised. The shameful story will be hereafter told. It is sufficient here to say that the Government intimated to the leading Catholics that they would be in favour of emancipation and of the other two measures I have mentioned if the Union were carried, and that they succeeded in this manner in obtaining some valuable ecclesiastical support, and in inducing the great body of the Catholics to remain passive during the struggle. But no sooner had the Union been accomplished than it appeared that the Ministers were not even agreed in desiring emancipation, that they had not taken a single step to overcome the known opposition of the King, and that they were prepared to make no considerable sacrifice in favour of the Catholics. Pitt resigned office, indeed, when the King refused to consent to the measure, but a month had not passed before he himself agreed to abandon it, and when he resumed power it was on the express understanding that he would oppose any attempt to carry emancipation."

For many years after the Union, Irish Catholics had to pay tithes and support an established Church for the sake of a mere handful of Protestants, while from their poverty they lovingly gave voluntary contributions to their own devoted clergy, and covered the face of the land with fitting dwelling-places for Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

Such were the mists and clouds, interspersed with fitful gleams and presages of light to come, which ushered in the dawn of the nineteenth century and of complete Catholic Emancipation. To our forefathers, just emerging from the night of the penal laws, it might well have seemed doubtful whether the day would break, or whether darkness would once more close in around them. It is for us to look back with thankful hearts and bless God for the wondrous ways by which He guides His Church through storm and darkness to the perfect day.

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