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Writing in 1874, three years after the Vatical Council which had declared the Pope infallible, the British former Prime Minister, Gladstone, wrote (1):

That no one can now become her convert without renouncing his moral and mental freedom, and placing his civil loyalty and duty at the mercy of another.

In expressing this view, he was saying out loud, so to say, what many British people thought. Embedded deep into the national psyche, not least by two hundred years worth of anti-Catholic black propaganda, was the idea that to be a Roman Catholic was profoundly un-English. Edward Norman has eloquently described the potent, and toxic, mix of patriotism, prurience and protestantism which made up the mental image of the Catholic for the average Englishman. All of this Gladstone now evoked. At the very least, he demanded, Catholics should give some kind of oath of fealty that they would not vote as their priests told them to. Lest anyone be tempted to mock Victorian prejudices, a swift look at the some of the comments made about JFK when he was a candidate for the Presidency in 1960 should be enough to subdue any smirk.

Gladstone was appealing to feelings which, as recently as 1851, had resulted in a wave of pubic hostility against the restoration by Rome of a diocesan structure in England and Wales, described by the then Prime Minister, Lord John Russell as ‘Papal Aggression’. When Newman converted in 1845, he knew that he would be considered as though he were dead by many of his old friends; indeed, for some of them, death would have been preferable to crossing the Tiber and surrendering his mental faculties to a celibate old Italian bigot.

Newman’s response to Gladstone, which took the form of a letter to the leading English Catholic layman, the Duke of Norfolk still deserves reading as the best, and most reasoned example to a line of argumentation (it would be doing it too much honour to call it an argument) which is not unfamiliar to readers of this site.

Newman first reminded Gladstone that States had ever sought to bring Christianity under their control and, from Britain through to the lands of the East had largely succeeded in either subduing or massacring Christians:

Such is the actual fact that, whereas it is the very mission of Christianity to bear witness to the Creed and Ten Commandments in a world which is averse to them, Rome is now the one faithful representative, and thereby is heir and successor, of that free-spoken dauntless Church of old, whose political and social traditions Mr. Gladstone says the said Rome has repudiated.

Rome, and it alone, stood out against the ‘spirit of the age’, as it always had and must, as Christ’s Church, always do. Where Anglicans:

do not believe that Christ set up a visible society, or rather kingdom, for the propagation and maintenance of His religion, for a necessary home and a refuge for His people

Catholics did; it was their Church, which alone resembled that of Rome of old. But did that, as Gladstone alleged, mean that Catholics could not vote according to their own consciences? Were they, as British politicians had urged since the days of Elizabeth, spies and agents of a foreign power which was hostile to the freedom which was the heir of every Englishman?

The main point of Gladstone’s Pamphlet was that, since the Pope claims infallibility in faith and morals, and since there were no “departments and functions of human life which do not and cannot fall within the domain of morals,”(2) and since “the domain of all that concerns the government and discipline of the Church,” were his, and he “claims the power of determining the limits of those domains,” and “does not sever them, by any acknowledged or intelligible line from the domains of civil duty and allegiance,” therefore Catholics are moral and mental slaves, and “every convert and member of the Pope’s Church places his loyalty and civil duty at the mercy of another.

This was the main charge; let us turn to Newman’s answer.






1. W.E. Gladstone, The Vatican Decrees in their Bearing on Civil Allegiance 1874, page 6.

2. Ibid. p. 36

Ibid. p. 45