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Two main motives can be discerned in the timing of Gladstone’s actions. In the first place, his Government had been brought down, at least in part, because of the refusal of the Catholic bishops to support his education and Irish policies; Gladstone’s hopes that Cardinal Manning would back him had come to naught, and he had become convinced that the reason was because the Catholic bishops were being guided by the Vatican; that would have been reason enough to be concerned that a foreign power was wielding undue influence on British politics. But that does not explain why he was exercised by the Tractarian influence. For that, we have to look closer to home, so to say.

In August 1874 Gladstone’s wife, Catherine, received a letter from Lady Ripon, the wife of a former ministerial colleague of Gladstone’s; it contained the news that her husband was about to convert to Catholicism. Gladstone was ‘stunned’ by the news. How was it, he asked Lady Ripon, that Ripon ‘can have gone through those processes of long and long-tested enquiry, which are the absolute duty of such a man as he is, before performing that tremendous operation of changing his religion, and becoming a sworn soldier in the army banded to destroy the Church that had been his home?’ He found it unintelligible that, after the Syllabus and the declaration of Infallibility, any man of intelligence and spirit could take such a step. ‘There is not a man who is more sensible than I, of the hollowness of the popular arguments against Romanism; nor is there one who is more profoundly convinced that the Romanism of today is the best ally of unbelief because it continually drives off from faith, wherever it has sway, the awakened and the searching, even if reverent, mind of man.’[i] Ripon’s conversion was, to Gladstone, ‘a deplorable calamity’. It also triggered concerns even closer to home.

That September Gladstone visited Cologne where his sister, Helen, another convert to Rome, was living.  His purpose was the usual one, a brotherly attempt to win her back for Anglicanism.  Whilst there he talked with his old friend, Dollinger, the leader of the old Catholics who had broken with Rome over Infallibility.  He also followed closely the attempts of the Bismarck Government to bring the Catholic Church under state control – the Kulturkampf.  It was out of this maelstrom that Gladstone’s pamphlet emerged.

It ought to be noted, however, that, it did not emerge without consultation with his old friend, Lord Acton, the great white hope of liberal Catholics. It was natural, given the mutuality of their admiration for each other, and their dislike of the Vatican Decrees, that Gladstone should have turned to Acton for assistance. On 19 October he wrote that: ‘Circumstances have made it necessary for me to say a few words … with respect to the actual Church of Rome in its relations to mental freedom and civil loyalty’; the next day he began writing a pamphlet on the theme.[ii] Acton, who thought that Ultramontanism was ‘incompatible with Christian morality as well as with civil society’, replied that ‘no reproach can to be too severe’, because ‘Real Ultramontanism is so serious a matter, so incompatible with Christian morality as well as with civil society, that it ought not to be imputed to me who, if they knew what they are about, would heartily repudiate it.’ There were, he feared, too many Catholics ‘who know not what they adhere to, and are unconscious of the evil they are really doing, besides many who take a more or less honest refuge in inconsistency.’ [iii] Thus encouraged,Gladstone pressed ahead with his pamphlet.

But when he actually saw the text, Acton was taken back: ‘The result is to demand of the Catholics security against Ultramontanism under pale of losing their claim to Liberal, to national respect and support – in reality, under pain of a tremendous No Popery cry.’ Gladstone was ‘deaf’ to Acton’s ‘political, spiritual and other obvious arguments against publication.’ [i] Since one of his intentions was to divide the Ultramontanes from the liberal Catholics, the fact that Acton of all men was driven to say ‘I should meet his challenge on my own account’, ought to have given him pause for thought; that it did not is a sign of the headwind behind the former Prime Minister.

As he explained to Granville: ‘My proper and main motive has been this: the conviction that I have that they (Roman Catholics) are waiting in one vast conspiracy, for an opportunity to direct European war to the re-establishment by force of the temporal power … I desire in homely language to do the little in my power to put a spoke in their wheel’. He acknowledged that ‘the priest party will be furious’, but he hoped to embarrass the ‘moderate men’ into doing ‘their duty.’[ii] Had Newman ‘possessed will and “character” enough, he ought to have been in the same noble conflict for the truth’ as Döllinger;[iii] Gladstone’s pamphlet might smoke him – and others – out. It was an indication of the effect of ant-Catholicism on his thinking that Gladstone failed to see that ‘the simple fact of the matter was that if a Catholic accepted Infallibility, he was one of those attacked … Protest as he might, Gladstone had thrown the gauntlet down before all Catholics, including his liberal friends.’[iv]

[i] McElrath, The Syllabus of Pius IX, p. 228, Acton letter, 4 November, 1874.

[ii] Ramm, Gladstone-Granville Corr. II,  p. 458.

[iii] McClelland, Gladstone and Manning, p. 161.

[iv] McElrath, p. 229.


[i] Josef L. Altholz and John Powell, ‘Lord Ripon, and the Vatican Decrees, 1874’, in Albion, vo. 22, no. 3, 1990, pp.450-451.

[ii] Gladstone diaries VIII, p. 537.

[iii] J.Altholx and D. McElrath (eds.), The Correspondence of Lord Acton, volume I, (Cambridge, 1871), p. 46.