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The Roman Catholic Church, which forms the largest body of Christians in the world, had a comparatively minor role in nineteenth-century England, Wales, and Scotland. Ever since Henry VIII founded the Church of England (or Anglican Church), the Catholic minority who had remained faithful to the Church of Rome often found themselves looked upon with suspicion and denied many civil rights, including that of serving in Parliament, owning certain kinds of property, and attending Oxford, Cambridge, and other major universities, which existed in large part to train Church of England clergy.

Several nineteenth-century events markedly changed the position of British Catholics and their church. First, in 1829 Parliament granted them full civil rights, including the right to serve in the legislature. In 1840 Parliament followed this dramatic change in the condition and power of Roman Catholics by disestablishing — or removing the official tax-supported status of — the Anglican Church in predominantly Catholic Ireland. The Oxford Movement, or Tractarianism, began as a reaction to what Keble, Newman, Pusey, and others believed was an illegal and unchristian interference by government in the affairs of God's Church. Ironically, it ended by defending many Catholic practices and rituals, such as elaborate ritual, confession, celibacy, and monastic orders, long rejected by British Protestants. As Newman and some of the other Tractarians attempted to distinguish Protestant from Catholic positions on the basis of church history and traditions, they found themselves drawn to the the faith they had initially attacked and ended by converting to a religion many in Britain considered subversive and fundamentally anti-British. When in 1850 Pope Pius IX reinstated the Roman Catholic church organization, including parishes and dioceses, many in Protestants feared the worst, and their fears only increased when the Vatican Council of 1869-70 declared the Pope's pronouncements on morals and doctrine infallible, or incapable of error.

Last modified 1998