History of the Church: Later Modern Times - Notre Dame

Catholic Emancipation

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I. Immediate Preparation

In the year 1793, when the French Revolution was at its height, the English College at Douai was broken up and its inmates were dispersed, that they might escape the fury of the Republicans. One of the students, a youth of some eighteen years of age, a tall, handsome lad with bright, intelligent eyes and dark, abundant hair, might be seen wearing the tri-coloured cockade until he reached in safety the ship which was to convey him back to Ireland. No sooner was he out of danger than he Last the revolutionary emblem into the sea, and registered a vow that he would be for ever the champion of law and order. So deep was the impression made upon young Daniel O'Connell by the scenes of anarchy and bloodshed which he had witnessed in France, that however great his power, he never infringed, either in his own person or by the instrumentality of anyone else, the sacred limits of constitutional and legal action.

Deplorable as it was from the Irish point of view, the Union of 1800 was, nevertheless, the best safeguard of the position of English Catholics. Instead of isolating the representatives of several millions of Catholics and leaving them to fight their own battles at home, the Union brought Irish members into the English House of Commons, and paved the way towards making Catholic claims important and powerful. But there was still the grave drawback that no believer in the doctrine of transubstantiation, and consequently no Catholic, could take the oath admitting him to a seat in the House of Commons. The problem was, how to remove this disability. The form of the test must be changed, but who was the champion destined to effect the removal of the obnoxious expressions? Divine Providence was gradually leading the way to this desirable end, and O'Connell was being quietly prepared for the task.

Meantime, by the good offices of friendly Protestant members, it was possible to keep the question of emancipation before Parliament. No opportunity of doing so was neglected, and Dr. Milner in particular obtained much by this means. He was the chosen organ of the Catholic body, first in England, and then as the representative of the Irish Bishops. But more than once he experienced the difficulty of making representations by the mouths of men who could not grasp the principles lying at the root of the Catholic position.

The affair of the "veto" was an extremely difficult problem, and took many years to solve. It consisted in a proposal that the King should have a negative power in the appointment of Bishops in Ireland. Irish opinion was absolutely opposed to such a concession, but in England it was very generally thought that if emancipation could only be obtained at this price, the grant of the "veto "might not be too much to pay for it. Some vague idea of the latter phase of opinion had impressed Mr. Ponsonby, a leading member of the House of Commons, well-intentioned towards Catholics. He made, in consequence, an astounding speech in Parliament, in which he professed to be authorized by Dr. Milner to declare "that the Catholic clergy were willing, in the event of the measure before the House being acceded to, that the appointment of every Catholic Bishop in Ireland should in future finally rest in the King; that the Catholic Bishops' had no objection to make the King the head of their Church, and that a Bishop appointed by the Pope, if disapproved by His Majesty, should not be allowed to take upon himself his spiritual functions." So much for the good offices of Protestant friends. It was indeed time that Catholics should be allowed to speak for themselves.

The question of Catholic emancipation "divided, weakened, or destroyed every Government which held office from the time of the Union until it was finally settled in 1829", Yet each Ministry, before entering office, tacitly agreed not to bring forward the question. When the Napoleonic wars were over there was some hope that the bigoted policy of George III. would be abandoned, but the opportunity slipped by, and all went on as before. The accession of George IV. in 1820 led to renewed hope, followed by more bitter disappointment. The Prince Regent, while under Whig influence, had shown friendly feeling towards Catholics, but Fox and Burke were now gone, and as King he reverted to the policy of his father, and refused all concessions. His brother Frederic, Duke of York, was still more prejudiced, and, as heir-presumptive to the throne, was an alarming factor in the outlook.

There were, nevertheless, powerful Protestant supporters of the Catholic claims. Castlereagh, in spite of his ignoble share in the Union, never deserted the cause for which the Irish were now striving with all their might. The great oratorical gifts of Canning were never used to better effect than in pleading for the repeal of the iniquitous penal laws. The trend of public opinion was towards reform of all kinds. After the Tory reaction against the French Revolution, the tide of Whig influence set steadily in, sweeping abuses away on every side. The same feeling which led to the suppression of the slave trade and the improvement of the criminal code was working out the designs of God for the liberty of His Church. The appointed instrument directly chosen for the accomplishment of the great work was being fashioned and prepared with consummate skill.

A year after his return from France, O'Connell entered at Lincoln's Inn, and, after a successful course of legal study, was called to the Irish Bar. The young "Counsellor" soon became immensely popular, and, recognising his capacity as a leader of men, began to devote his attention to the cause of emancipation. He was no upholder of mere passive resistance. His watchword in politics was "Agitate," and, the agitation once begun, he never allowed it to subside until the point was gained. The idea of the "veto "was to him detestable; nothing would be accepted by Catholics but absolute and unqualified emancipation, and this he was determined to obtain. For many years it seemed as if the fight would be in vain, but O'Connell's talent for organization came to the rescue. In 1823, when prospects were dark indeed, the famous Catholic Association was begun, and, in order to devote his time entirely to it, the "Agitator "gave up his practice at the Bar. He gained over the clergy, and with them came the whole population of Ireland. The entire island was banded together in this magnificent organization, and O'Connell led his followers whither he would. Fortunate it was that, faithful to his early resolve, he insisted on constitutional agitation only, for, had he but given the word, a formidable rebellion might have broken out. So great was the alarm of the British Government that a Bill was brought in for the suppression of the Association. O'Connell did not wait for the passing of the Bill; he gave the sign, and the mighty fabric dissolved into thin air. This occurred in 1825, but though the Catholic Association, as such, was no more, its spirit lived on, and its organization remained.

II. Struggle and Victory

One of the great difficulties in the way of Catholic agitation was, as we know, the exclusion from Parliament of all who would not consent to take the religious test oath. O'Connell resolved to force an entrance. In 1828 he stood as candidate for the county of Clare, and was returned, not only without opposition, but with the enthusiasm of a triumph.

The Government stood aghast. The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland wrote to Sir Robert Peel: "Such is the extraordinary power of the Association, or, rather, of the agitators (of whom there are many of high ability, of ardent mind, of great daring), that I am quite certain they could lead on the people to open rebellion at a moment's notice;" and the Chief Secretary expressed his fear that the exclusion of O'Connell from the House of Commons would be the signal for an armed rising. Yet O'Connell refrained from using his mighty weapon. He waited until such terms should be offered as would enable him to obtain, if possible, a bloodless victory. The negotiations between the King and his Ministers were long and tedious, but the dread of civil war brought them at length to a close.

Daniel O'Connell.


The Catholic Emancipation Act received the royal signature on April 13, 1829. Catholics could at last enter Parliament, the oath of abjuration being abolished and that of supremacy modified, while the penal code was completely swept away. Yet O'Connell was refused admittance to the House, and was forced to return to Clare to be re elected, because, forsooth, he had been returned before the Act was passed. The rebuff offended the Irish, but only served to cover the "Liberator" with greater glory. His election was confirmed by a grateful people, who carried their hero in triumph from place to place. In 1830, at the age of fifty-five, he took his well-earned seat in the House of Commons.

Justin McCarthy tells us that "as the orator of a popular assembly, as the orator of a monster meeting, he (O'Connell) probably never had an equal in these countries. He had many of the physical endowments that are especially favourable to success in such a sphere. He had a herculean frame, a stately presence, a face capable of expressing easily and effectively the most rapid alternations of mood, and a voice which all hearers admit to have been almost unrivalled for strength and sweetness. Its power, its pathos, its passion, its music, have been described in words of positive rapture by men who detested O'Connell. . . . Most persons supposed that the style of speaking he had formed . . . must cause his failure when he came to appeal to the unsympathetic and fastidious House of Commons. But it is certain that O'Connell became one of the most successful Parliamentary orators of his time."

The great Dr. Milner did not live to see the emancipation which he had worked so strenuously to obtain. His death occurred on April 19, 1826. But we owe him gratitude for the benefits we now enjoy, and future generations must not forget through what difficulties he cleared a way for the resurrection of the Catholic Church in England. He was truly one of those who suffer persecution for justice' sake, not from the wicked only, but even from the foolish or mistaken good. Misrepresented at Rome, and reproved by the Holy Father on grounds of misunderstanding; attacked by O'Connell as a supporter of the "veto "which of all things the Bishop most hated and dreaded; left to fight out his battle almost alone, Milner had passed through a veritable martyrdom. He deserves the gratitude of every English Catholic, and his memory should be kept green in the Church in this country which owes to him so deep a debt.

In a chapter dealing so largely with O'Connell, a short account of the great temperance movement to which he gave generous support may not be out of place. Father Theobald Mathew was a holy Capuchin Friar, who advocated total abstinence from intoxicating liquors as the only means of remedying the moral degradation which had become appalling in large towns. Multitudes flocked to hear his preaching, and to "take the pledge" at his hands, and when the great "Liberator" had given the example in Dublin, there were no limits to the enthusiasm of the people. The movement spread all over Ireland, and even to most of the great cities of England. The Irish famine of 1846 proved a drawback to the efforts of Father Mathew and his disciples, but an impetus had been given to the cause of temperance. Henceforth at any mission a request to "take the pledge" was regarded as a matter of course

Cardinal Wiseman tells us that it was his pleasing duty to communicate to Pope Pius VIII., who had just succeeded to the Papal throne, the glad tidings of Catholic emancipation. "It need hardly be remarked," he adds, "that such a message was one of unbounded joy, and might well have been communicated to the Head of the Church in the words by which the arrival of Paschal Time is announced to him every year: Pater Sancte, annuntio vobis gaudium magnum. To him, who was not only most intelligent, but alive to all that passed throughout Christendom, the full meaning of the measure was of course apparent. But generally it was not so." The Cardinal goes on to relate how little the Roman people understood or appreciated the demonstrations of Englishmen on the occasion. Even the students of the English College in Rome failed to grasp its complete significance. "We had left our country when young, and hardly conscious of the wrongs which galled our elders; we should return to it in possession of our rights, and thus have hardly experienced more sense of injury than they who have been born since that happy era."

So it is with the present generation. Benefits have been bestowed upon them which they can scarcely appreciate, because they know not what it was to have lived under the pressure of the penal laws. But to our forefathers, who had weathered the storm, the calm return to port was sweet and welcome. Catholics were free to issue from their obscurity, and to take honourable places among their fellow-countrymen in the full realization of the fact that persecution was now indeed a thing of the past.

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