THE Dictionary of National Biography states: "When Mr. Gladstone was writing his treatise on 'Vaticanism', Simpson was constantly at his side, and the curious learning of that famous pamphlet is thus largely accounted for." This article is largely culled from obituary notices.). This assertion is taken almost verbatim from a gossipy and not especially trustworthy obituary notice of Simpson in the Atheneum (22 April 1876, p. 567). This account has been followed by other biographical notices of Simpson: Almost verbatim by Gillow, V, 509; also by Burton, XIV, 4; in British Authors, p. 561; and by Windle, pp. 217-8. In many cases it is associated with some questioning of Simpson's Catholicity. It is the gravest charge that has been made against him as a Catholic.
Cardinal Gasquet sought to disprove this charge by citing a letter from Acton to Simpson, dated 4 November 1874, as evidence that "Acton at least, and almost certainly Simpson, had no notion that Gladstone had any such pamphlet in preparation" (Gasquet, p. lxxxvii). However, the letter of 4 November refers to Gladstone's first pamphlet in the Vatican Decrees controversy, whereas the Vaticanism pamphlet, to which Simpson's biographers refer, was not written until February of 1875. Gasquet failed to disprove the charge made against Simpson, and it would be profitable to examine the evidence anew.
After Gladstone's first pamphlet was published, Simpson wrote to Acton, criticizing Gladstone's remarks on the question of civil marriage. Acton forwarded this letter to [245/246] Gladstone and later advised him to consult Simpson on the subject. Gladstone wrote to Simpson, 26 December 1874, on the marriage question, and a short correspondence followed,5 in which Simpson sought to explain the Pope's condemnation of civil marriage in a favourable sense (BM Add. MSS. 44445, ff. 281, 289-292, and 44446, ff. 10-12, 170-173). Simpson had earlier declined to assist in translating Gladstone's pamphlet. Simpson did not criticize Gladstone for writing his pamphlet, but he thought that it had been adequately answered and that the papal utterances could be interpreted in two senses, one of which was inoffensive. The Vatican Council, he argued, "simply forbids us to contradict the proposition that the Pope speaking ex cathedra is infallible. It leaves I perfectly free to form our own ideas as to what is ex cathedra. ... All the difference that I feel since 1870 is that I may no longer publicly contradict a proposition which I may still explain away" (Simpson to Gladstone, 28 Dec. 1874, BM Add. MS. 44445, f. 291). In another letter, Simpson described himself and Acton as "such liberal Catholics as submit to, and shelve, the decrees." They adopted a "conciliatory construction" taking the decrees "not as an isolated phenomenon, but as something to be incorporated and reconciled with the decrees of Trent and Constance. They do not stand alone, but have due order and subordination in the corpus of Ecclesiastical decisions. They do not supersede or
A month later, Simpson wrote again, pointing out that certain of Manning's criticisms of Gladstone's pamphlet, on the binding force of civil laws, were in contradiction with Catholic canon law (S to Gladstone, 8 Feb. 1875, BM Add. MS. 44446, ff. 170-173.). This was the only letter which Simpson wrote unsolicited to Gladstone; it was prompted by the desire to catch Manning in an error. In this, the last letter in their correspondence, Simpson mentioned that his poor health did not permit him to go to the British Museum to document his arguments; it is therefore improbable that he would have travelled to Hawarden, where Gladstone was then writing his pamphlet on Vaticanism.
It is clear from this brief correspondence that Simpson was not "constantly at Gladstone's side" during the writing of Vaticanism. He commented and advised on certain limited questions, seeking to remove the offence given by Catholic doctrines. Though he minimized its significance, he did not [246/247] reject the dogma of Papal Infallibility, which Gladstone was denouncing.
There was, indeed, a Catholic at Gladstone's side during part of the time he was writing his pamphlet; but it was not Simpson. It was H. N. Oxenham. In February 1875, Acton wrote to Gladstone: "Oxenham, though not a discreet man, is a most pungent and persistent fault-finder, and therefore an excellent critic of unpublished proofs. I am glad he is to look through yours" (Selections, p. 149) Oxenham's proof-reading activity is probably the basis for the story that was later told of Simpson.
Acton, Jord John. Selections from the Correspondence of the First Lord Acton. Ed. J. N. Figgis and R. V. Laurence. London, 1917.
British Authors of the Nineteenth Century. Ed. S. J. Kunitz and H. Haycraft. New York, 1936
Burton, Edwin. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York, 1913.
C(ooper), T(hompson). "Richard Simpson." DNB. XVIII, 276. This article is largely culled from obituary notices.
Gasquet, Abbé. Lord Acton and his Circle London, 1906.
Gillow, Joseph. A Literary and Biographical History, or Bibliographical Dictionary of the English Catholics. 5 vols. London, n.d.
Windle, Bertram C. A. Who's Who of the Oxford Movement. New York, 1926.
Last modified 8 September 2001