he Liberal Catholic movement of the nineteenth century was an attempt to bridge the gap between the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church and the dominant secular principles of the age. It is difficult precisely to define Liberal Catholicism: it was neither liberal enough to satisfy the Liberals nor quite Catholic enough to please the Pope. Liberal Catholicism was not necessarily Liberal in politics: on the continent of Europe it tended towards moderate clericalism or conservative federalism. Nor was it invariably liberal in theology, and it must be clearly distinguished from such movements as Jansenism, Gallicanism or modernism. The liberalism of Liberal Catholicism consisted rather in its view of the relations between theology and politics: it was an intellectual liberalism, characterized by an emphasis upon the legitimacy and value of intellectual sources independent of the authority of the Church.
Such a tendency of mind is a perennial phenomenon among Catholics and has not been confined to any one period or country. But the formation of a Liberal Catholic movement -- the association of various Catholics for the purpose of advancing a programme proceeding from this outlook -- was the product of a particular time and set of circumstances. It was a response to the intellectual, social and political revolutions with which the nineteenth century was inaugurated; it arose in France, spread to Italy and Germany, and found an echo in England. Its English manifestation ran a course of its own, largely determined by the peculiar circumstances of English Catholicism.
The 1840s were years of intense creative excitement for the Catholics of England, marked by an intellectual revival, a wave of conversions, the re-creation of a diocesan hierarchy [1/2] the enjoyment of emancipation and the promise of a "second spring." During the years from 1845 to 1865, the basic elements of this Catholic revival-the re-awakening of the old Catholics, the conversions from the Oxford Movement, and the influx of Irish immigrants-were brought together to shape the future growth of Catholicism in England.
It is necessary, in order to understand the peculiar qualities of English Catholicism, to view it against the background of the invincible Protestantism of the English people. During two centuries of intolerance the Catholics had suffered persecution and exclusion from the life of the nation; it was only in the more tolerant eighteenth century that they could begin to find their place in English life. Their problem then became one of reviving that contact with English society and thought which had been virtually broken during the period of conflict and persecution, of moving from suspicion to toleration, from toleration to participation. The Catholic revival was therefore to be a two-sided process: the development of a greater sympathy towards Catholicism among the English Protestants, and a response by the Catholics to the challenges and opportunities of the new age.
When the period of emancipation began, towards the end of the eighteenth century, the Roman Catholics of England were a small unobtrusive group, less than one hundred thousand souls. The native Catholics consisted of the remnants of Catholic groups which had survived the Reformation in certain localities, and families of nobility and gentry scattered throughout the country; these, with a few poor Irish immigrants, formed a Church which "strove, as it were, to make herself invisible" (Thureau-Dangin, I, xxiii). When the penal laws were repealed, it was due less to their efforts than to the good sense of the English Protestants and to the influence of the Catholics of Ireland, whose strength and unity offer a marked contrast to the feebleness and dissensions of their English brethren. Similarly, it was the action of the Irish Catholics which brought about Catholic Emancipation in 1829. The efforts of the English Catholics had broken down [2/3] amid factional strife, which revealed the predominance among them of the "Cismontane" party, which was willing to accept a government veto on the appointment of bishops and to limit the prerogatives of the Pope in England. Such men belonged rather to the age of the Enlightenment than to the religious revival of the nineteenth century, and the future was not with them.
During the 1830s, however, signs of renewed activity began to appear. This development was in large part the work of Nicholas Wiseman, then rector of the English College in Rome. The news of the Oxford Movement led him to suspect that new opportunities might await the Catholic Church in England. He returned to deliver a course of lectures in 1835 and 1836, which resulted in a number of conversions and contributed to the development of a more friendly attitude towards Catholicism among many Englishmen. Before he returned to Rome, Wiseman founded the Dublin Review, which was to be the semi-official organ of English Catholicism in future decades. Other Catholic journals were soon founded; there was an increase in Church building and in the number of the clergy. The growth of the Church was indicated by the increase in the number of vicars-apostolic (who served in lieu of bishops) from four to eight in 1840. There was thus, even before the arrival of converts from the Oxford Movement, a modest but promising trend of Catholic revival in England. For the history of this earlier Catholic revival, see Thureau-Dangin, and Ward in bibliography below.
The Oxford converts offered to English Catholicism an opportunity to establish fruitful contact with that great body of Englishmen who had been brought up to regard the Roman Catholic Church as a completely alien institution. The men of the Oxford Movement had done their work in effective independence of Roman Catholicism, and when, in 1845, the first wave of conversions took place, few of the Converts had ever met a Roman priest or attended a Roman service in England. "Catholics did not make us Catholics; [3/4] Oxford made us Catholics," said Newman (Bouyer, p. 371). They had, in fact, converted themselves, and thrust themselves into an English Catholic body which was unprepared for their coming. A major problem for English Catholicism in the next two decades was to assimilate the increasing numbers of converts and to put them to work at the task of spreading Catholic doctrines in England.
The English Catholics however, were unable to devote their full attention to this problem. While they generally welcomed the converts, there were some who viewed the new developments with distaste: "old Catholics," as they were called, who "were still under the influence of that timidity and inertia which centuries of persecution had engendered" (Thureau-Dangin, I, 306), who feared that they might be displaced by the more active and able converts, or who honestly thought that the converts would lead the Church into unfortunate courses. There had indeed been some opposition before 1845 to Wiseman's policy of encouraging the Oxford Movement. After the restoration of the hierarchy in 1850, these old-fashioned Catholics were to seem almost as much of a problem as the converts themselves. Another factor which tended to divert the energies of the English Catholics was the next major development in their history, the sudden influx of Irish immigrants after the potato famine of 1845. The resources of English Catholicism at this time were inadequate to provide the necessary services of religion to these crowds; churches, priests and schools were in short supply.
Thus in 1850, when the restoration of a diocesan hierarchy proclaimed to the world the fact of the Catholic revival in England, there was being posed the question whether this revival was adequate to meet the challenges faced by English Catholicism in the 1850s. Could the new hierarchy bring together such diverse elements as the old Catholics, the Irish immigrants and the converts, and make the Catholic body, increasing in numbers and activity, a significant part of English life? [4/5] in the late 'forties there were few forebodings of failure among the English Catholics. It was a time of exaltation, when men spoke hopefully of "the conversion of England" and basked in the sunshine of the "second spring." The resurgent energy of English Catholicism was exerted over a wide range of circumstances and ideas, and manifested itself in many forms. In contrast with the almost apologetic obscurity of the older Catholics, the tendency was now rather to flaunt the Catholic religion in the face of Englishmen, to emphasize its distinctive aspects -- its reliance upon Rome, its authoritarianism, its occasional obscurantism, its peculiar devotions. Father Faber led a party which introduced Italian devotions in what was considered an extreme form; later W. G. Ward and Manning were to emphasize, in an equally extreme manner, the ecclesiastical and authoritarian spirit of Rome. But this Ultramontanism, though it came eventually to be the dominant form of resurgent Catholicism, was not its only expression.
There was another, smaller, group, which was conscious, first, that Catholicism must be made to appear intellectually respectable in the eyes of Protestant England and must keep up with the new developments in science and thought which were engrossing the attention of society, and secondly, that all was not well among the Catholics themselves, that through poor education and wilful ignorance they were shockingly unprepared for. the new age of science, industrialism and democracy. Newman was sympathetic with this group, but it was led by younger converts of less fame. Their distinguishing characteristic was a consciousness that they were living in a society whose tone and spirit had been formed by Protestantism, and which had to be Catholicized, if it were possible at all, from within. Their acceptance of intellectual sources independent of the Catholic Church was founded upon a trust that even the most independent inquiry must lead to a truth that was essentially Catholic. It was an adventure in faith, similar, in many ways, to the outlook of the Liberal Catholic movement on the Continent, of men such as Montalembert in France and Döllinger in Germany; but it had its own native roots. When this movement, in the [5/6] course of its development, had assumed the character of a party within the English Catholic body, its members were given the name of Liberal Catholics.
Could this Liberal Catholic movement, intensel Catholic yet deeply penetrated by non-Catholic thought, survive and make its way in the new circumstances of English Catholicism? It was the fate of English Liberal Catholicism to reach its development during a period of grave crisis for the Catholic Church, when, in England, a new and nervous hierarchy was faced with problems it was unprepared to handle, and on the Continent, the tide of revolution and nationalism menaced the Catholic structure of society and even the Papal throne. It was in this atmosphere of tension that the Liberal Catholics, at first simply a group of individuals with a common tendency of thought, later a party with a definite programme, came forward and sought to find their place in the Catholic world. They found themselves, instead, the rejected children of the Catholic Revival.
Last modified 8 September 2001