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On Tuesday I began what is going to turn into a series of posts about Catholicism and intellectual freedom. The locus classicus of this discussion for me is the debate between Gladstone and Newman caused by the former’s attack on what he called ‘Vaticanism’. For Gladstone, as for many Englishmen, Rome was the home of the a black legend of persecution and intellectual slavery. High Churchman though he was, Gladstone was never tempted to follow Newman or Manning across the Tiber; he was inoculated from their ‘Roman fever’ by his view of history. English history was the tale of moving from the darkness of feudal Catholicism to the light of Anglican constitutional government. He was no democrat, regarded it as a debased form of government where the mob might rule at the whim of a populist dictator. He was, he said, an ‘out and out inegalitarian’. If American democracy was at one end of the spectrum, the Vatican was at the other end. In his eyes what happened in Rome in 1871 was the revival of the old enemy of Papal absolutism. The dispute between Gladstone and Newman has to be seen against the background of the First Vatican Council (as it began to be called after its successor).

The Vatican Decrees of 1871 were controversial before and after the Council.  Many Catholics, Newman included, had considered it inopportune to make any declaration about Papal Infallibility.  Newman had aroused some controversy at the time when the contents of what was meant to be a private letter to Bishop Ullathorne were leaked the press. ‘Why’, he asked, ‘should an aggressive and insolent faction be allowed to make the heart of the just sad, whom the Lord had not made sorrowful?’[i] Newman had not meant the letter for publication, but when it got into the press, he refused to retract his remarks, preferring instead to resort to his characteristic device of explaining with precision whom he had not meant by the offending comments. Many had supposed him to be referring to Manning and his Ultramontane colleagues; this Newman refused to confirm – or quite deny.  By 1874 the controversy caused by the Decrees had quietened down, at least in the UK.  But in November of that year Gladstone, who had lost power in the General Election six months earlier, published a pamphlet which poured petrol on the smouldering embers.

Gladstone’s The Vatican Decrees in their bearing on Civil Allegiance: A Political Expostulation was a sizeable publication of seventy two pages.  In it, he denounced ‘Vaticanism’ and all the works of Pius IX. In highly inflammatory language, he argued that henceforth no Roman Catholic could be considered a loyal subject of the Queen.

The pamphlet was a best-seller, twenty five thousand copies were bought in the month after its publication in January 1874; by the end of the year 145,000 copies had been printed. Gladstone acknowledged that his language had been a little ‘rough’, but justified it by the seriousness of the matters under review, chief amongst which was ‘the question whether a handful of the clergy are or not engaged  in an utterly hopeless and visionary attempt to Romanise the Church and people of England.’[ii] This, clearly, was aimed as much at the Tractarians in the Anglican Church as it was at Rome.

Not since ‘the bloody reign of Mary’ had such an enterprise been possible, he declared, but this was especially true now, because Rome had substituted ‘for the proud boast of simper eadem, a policy of violence and change in faith,’ and had ‘refurbished and paraded anew, every rusty tool she was fondly thought to have disused,’ and when ‘no one can become her convert without renouncing his moral and mental freedom, and placing his civil loyalty and duty at the mercy of another; and when she had equally repudiated modern thought and ancient history’[iii]

He listed eighteen propositions from the Syllabus to prove his last point, denying that his words were aimed at ‘Roman Catholics generally’; his target was ‘the Papal Chair’ and ‘its advisers and abettors’. The only fault of individual Catholics lay in their submission to such a tyranny, which rejected ‘the old historic, scientific and moderate school’ of Catholics epitomised in the contents of Newman’s letter to Ullathorne. In citing Newman, Gladstone was trying to ‘strengthen and hearten’ the moderate Catholic party generally.[iv] His way of going about this was, to say the least, most unfortunate; nothing was less liable to achieve such an aim than quoting Newman’s letter.

Gladstone’s pamphlet was welcomed by the Protestant world, not least by those Anglicans who had been pressing the Disraeli Government to pass legislation against Ritualism in the Church of England.  Given the fact that Gladstone was himself a High Anglican, and that he had said little about Papal Infallibility at the time, despite the fact he had been Prime Minister then, the timing of his publication needs explaining before moving on to the question of why he mentioned Newman’s letter to Ullathorne.


[i] C.S. Dessain and T. Gornall, The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, volume XXV, (Oxford, 1975), pp. 18-20, letter to Ullathorne, 28 January 1870.

[ii] W.E. Gladstone, The Vatican Decrees ion their bearing on Civil Allegiance: A Politicanal Exposulation (1874), pp. 4-5.

[iii] Op. Cit. p. 6.

[iv] Ramm,  Gladstone, Granville Corr. volume II WEG to Granville, 7 December 1874, p. 461.

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