The Re-establishment of the Catholic Hierarchy in England, 1850
Anthony S. Wohl, Professor of History, Vassar College
lthough Catholics had long enjoyed toleration in England, their church was governed by vicars apostolic rather than bishops and there was no diocesan or parish organization. But in 1850, partly to better administer to the large number of Catholic Irish flocking into England after the Irish Famine, the Catholic Church re-established its full hierarchy. For the first time since the reign of Mary Tudor (1555-1558), Catholics now had a a full hierarchy consistent with that of Catholic countries. Thirteen sees and the archdiocese of Westminster were established.
To liberals the re-establishment of the Catholic hierarchy in England was but a logical extension of toleration and full religious liberties, but to many other Englishmen it marked yet another disastrous concession to the “Bishop of Rome” and yet another sign that the Church of England, convulsed by the high ritualism and Anglo-Catholicism of the Oxford Movement and still reeling from the recent conversion to Catholicism of the eminent Anglican theologian, John Henry Newman, was in retreat before its old adversary, the Catholic Church.
The appointment of Dr. Nicholas Wiseman as a cardinal and Catholic Archbishop of Westminster (in London) also provoked a reaction, as Wiseman was considered to be a militant and extremely outspoken Catholic. To The Times to choose the capital city as the archbishopric and Wiseman as Archbishop was either a “clumsy joke” or else “one of the grossest acts of folly and impertinence which the Court of Rome has ventured to commit since the Crown and the people of England threw off its yoke.” (The Times, 14 October, 1850, 4, quoted in Arnstein 45.) The wording of his “Pastoral Letter” served as a red flag to those who feared that the re-establishment of the hierarchy would be the first stage in a Catholic take-over of England: he naturally rejoiced in the new Catholic organization in England, but did so in immoderate and provocative language: “Your beloved country”, he told his fellow Englishmen, “has received a place among the fair churches, which, normally constituted, form the splendid aggregate of Catholic communion; Catholic England has been restored to its orbit in the ecclesiastical firmament, from which its light had long vanished.” (Quoted in Chadwick I, 291). He went on to state that “We govern and shall continue to govern”, he wrote, “the counties of Middlesex, Hertford, Essex, as ordinary thereof, and those of Surrey, Sussex, Kent, Berkshire, and Hampshire, with th islands annexed, as administrator, with ordinary jurisdiction.” Queen Victoria was purported to have reacted to these imperious words with “Am I Queen of England, or am I not?”
It should be stressed that the re-establishment of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850, did not, of course, occur in a vacuum! There was considerable interest in England in the struggle of Italian patriots to free their country from both foreign (Austrian) and Papal influence and that increased anti-Roman sentiment, but, even more important, the Irish Famine resulted in the emigration to England of thousands of Irish men and women. English attempts to “settle” Ireland with Protestant plantations belonged in the distant past and had proved a failure: now,it seemed,that the reverse process had begun. The Church of England had, in 1833, “unified” (a convenient euphemism for abolished!) several of its sees in Ireland, marking a retreat from the old mission to bring the benefits of the Established Church to the Irish: again, it seemed, the reverse process had begun
In what ways, quite specifically, did the Irish immigration pattern provoke fears and anger? How large was the immigration? In which major urban and industrial centers did the immigrants settle? Did they stay permanently in England or simply use England as a springboard for further emigration to the USA and Canada? How accurate were immigration figures?
The re-establishment of the Catholic hierarchy thus occurred at a most critical time and raised many questions. Did the new Catholic Archbishop, with his archdiocese in London, take diplomatic precedence over the Bishop of London? What was his diplomatic status as a Cardinal? Should the English permit the Catholic Church full powers to proselytize and convert? Did the new recognition of the Catholic Church mean that all the qualifying clauses which accompanied the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829) were now in abeyance?
Typical of the most extreme reactions and bigotry of the day were the vehement thunderings of The Bulwark or Reformation Journal , a journal published in Scotland. It equated Catholicism with moral and political “blight,” superstition, depravity, and corruption and feared that “Papal Aggression” was bent on the re-conquest of England. Wiseman was burned in effigy, several Catholic churches had their windows broken, and “No Popery” processions were held throughout England. As part of the great anti-Catholic outburst, an Ecclesiastical Titles act was passed which imposed a fine on any non-Anglican bishop who took a territorial title. It passed, however, in considerably emasculated form, its provisions were never enforced and it was repealed in 1871.