English Catholicism & Victorian Liberalism

Author: Christopher Dawson


By Christopher Dawson

The hundred years that have elapsed since the restoration of the English Hierarchy [in 1850] have been a time of slow but uninterrupted progress for English Catholicism. There have been no spectacular triumphs and no catastrophic defeats, but step by step the Church has been gradually recovering her lost position in the life of the nation. And this is no small achievement when one considers how completely the face of the world has changed during the last century: how the old European order and the new liberal order that aspired to take its place have both alike been swept away by new forces that were hardly perceptible in 1850, so that Europe itself and the millennial tradition of Western civilization are now in process of dissolution.

In 1850 English Liberalism, having surmounted the crisis of Chartism, was settling down to enjoy the fruits of the new order that it had created. The collapse of the old regime on the Continent in 1848 and the failure of the revolutionary movements to establish a stable democratic order had combined to strengthen the prestige of English institutions and ideals, not only in our own eyes but in those of Europe. Consequently, it is not surprising that the restoration of the Hierarchy and the reappearance of Catholicism as a living power in nineteenth-century England should have been regarded as a challenge to the spirit of the age, an act of "papal aggression." For the liberal rationalist and the conservative Protestant alike, the Papacy seemed the embodiment of those forces of reaction against which the modern world was in revolt.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 marked the final achievement of the Victorian compromise in which all the leading elements of English society found their place. High Tories like the Duke of Wellington, cosmopolitan pacifists like John Bright, Christian idealists and scientific rationalists, artisans and capitalists, all came together under the leadership of the Queen and the Prince Consort to celebrate the triumphs of science and industry and the dawn of a new era of universal peace and enlightenment. But there was no place for the English Catholics in this festival of national and international unity. The unpopularity of the Oxford conversions combined with that of Irish Nationalism and that of the Papal Government caused Catholics to be regarded with hostility and suspicion by Liberals and Conservatives alike. In their attitude to Catholicism there was nothing to choose between Liberals like Lord John Russell and Tory extremists of the type of Newdegate and Sir Robert Inglis.

Yet in spite of all this, the deeper intellectual tendencies of the age were far less hostile to Catholicism than one would suppose from the expression of popular opinion in Press and parliament. The great writers of the Victorian age, such as Carlyle and Ruskin and Matthew Arnold, were as a rule highly critical of the optimism and selfcomplacency of Victorian liberalism.

The romantic interest in the Middle Ages which was so characteristic of the nineteenth century affected moralists and historians no less than poets and artists, and produced a new appreciation of medieval Catholicism which did much to destroy the deeply-rooted inherited prejudices of Protestant England. Here, at last, there was common ground on which Protestant men of letters like Ruskin, Anglican scholars like S.R. Maitland, Catholic converts like Kenelm Digby and continental Catholics like Montalembert and Rio could meet and fraternize. The extent to which these influences penetrated English culture is to be seen not so much in its more obvious manifestations--in the Oxford Movement, in Young England, or in the Pre-Raphaelites--as in a change in the climate of opinion which made the rabid anti-Catholic prejudices of 1850 a thing of the past. Never since the Reformation have Catholics played such a large part in English public life or possessed such close relations with the leaders of public opinion as in the second half of the nineteenth century under the social leadership of Manning and the intellectual leadership of Newman. The conversion of an elder statesman like the first Marquess of Ripon and the political activity of Catholics like the Duke of Norfolk, Lord Emly (William Monsell) and Lord Russell of Killowen, show what a remarkable change had passed over English society during the generation that followed the restoration of the Hierarchy.


These changes did not involve any weakening of the Victorian compromise; on the contrary, they strengthened it by broadening its basis and liberating it from religious intolerance. In its essentials the Victorian compromise outlasted the Victorian age and endured until the first world war destroyed its social and economic foundations. It was this unbroken period of peaceful continuity which distinguishes the English development from that of the continent, where the second half of the nineteenth century had proved no less revolutionary than the earlier period--where kingdoms and empires were being created and destroyed by war and revolution and where political liberalism was an anticlerical force which threatened the very existence of the Church.

But in England, although the leaders of the Catholic revival--Newman no less than Manning--were fully aware of the dangers of religious or ideological liberalism, there was never any tendency to identify religious with political Liberalism. On the contrary, the political affinities of the Victorian Catholics were Liberal rather than Conservative, and many of the leading Catholic figures, like Ripon, Acton, Monsell, and Russell of Killowen, were themselves strong Gladstonian Liberals. Thus English Catholicism developed in an atmosphere which was singularly free from political disturbances, and the traditional continental pattern of ideological conflict between Left and Right, between anti-Christian revolutionaries and Catholic reactionaries, remained almost entirely foreign to English life and thought.

Even the catastrophic changes of the last thirty-five years have not changed this situation so much as one might have expected. During the present century English Catholicism has continued to develop along the lines that were laid down in the later nineteenth century. The place of Catholicism in English society, which had been won for a favored few in the age of Manning, has gradually been extended to the rank and file of the Catholic body, so that there is no longer any sphere of national life from which Catholics are excluded. And this has been achieved without political conflicts through the gradual leavening of English society by the independent activity of Catholics in every class and profession.

Yet throughout this period the secularization of English culture has proceeded almost without a check, so that our position today is no longer that of a Catholic minority in a Protestant society, but that of a religious minority in a secular or neo-pagan civilization. We have become so accustomed to this change that we are apt to forget its tremendous implications. During the last hundred years English Catholicism has developed under the protection ofthe Victorian compromise. We have accepted the Victorian principles of individual freedom, religious toleration and the limited character of the State as elementary conditions of existence which hardly needed to be defended. But, in proportion as civilization becomes secularized, all these principles and rights lose their political expression in totalitarian States.


Today all the basic liberties which were formerly regarded as essential conditions of modern civilization are everywhere questioned and often completely abolished, and the new secularist ideologies are establishing themselves as exclusive dogmatic anti-religions which demand the total surrender of the mind and will. It is true that this country is still relatively immune. A feeble gas-jet of freedom still flickers in the dilapidated Victorian basement. But it is obvious that English Catholicism cannot rely on the continuance of the conditions which prevailed during the first century of its restored existence. Sooner or later it must come up against the same forces that prevail in the rest of the world. No doubt this will involve great changes in our apologetic, which, like so much else, is an inheritance from the Victorian age, and which has been dominated for a century by the long- drawn-out controversy with Anglicanism. Today these familiar controversies are overshadowed by the world debate between Christianity and atheism, and we have to deal not with the validity of Anglican orders but with the existence of the human soul and the ultimate foundations of the moral order. This is a tremendous task, since the gulf which separates the world of Newman's "Loss and Gain" or that of Mrs. Wilfred Ward's novels from the world of George Orwell's "1984" or Koestler's "Darkness at Noon" is not one that can be measured in terms of years or generations.

But this change is not necessarily unfavorable to Catholicism. When the secularists themselves are forced to acknowledge "the mystery of injustice" and to see modern civilization sliding into the abyss, it is surely the time for Catholics to make the present age realize the claims of the Church as the City of God and the one hope of humanity.

A hundred years ago, at the time of the restoration of the Hierarchy, it was hard to make Englishmen realize the relevance of these tremendous claims amidst the confused babel of the sects and in face of the complacent optimism of Victorian Liberalism. For even men who were not influenced by Protestant prejudices, like Thackeray or Matthew Arnold, viewed the Church with patronizing tolerance as a picturesque survival from the dead past.


Today the babel of tongues is becoming silent, and Western man has lost faith in himself and in his future. But the Church still stands as she stood fifteen hundred year ago, as the one earthly representative of an eternal order which survives the fall of empires and civilizations: and the darker become the prospects of secular culture, the more clearly does the Church stand out as a city of refuge for humanity. Now the history of the Church in England during the last century has been a preparation for this new situation. From the beginning of the modern epoch English Catholicism has been a minority movement which has had to depend on its own internal resources and not to look for support to the State and the traditional social order. The very period which has seen the secularization of modern culture has also been an age of Catholic rebirth and restoration in this country.

Consequently, though we have hitherto been protected by the peculiar conditions of an insular national culture, and the persistence of liberal traditions, from the impact of total secularization, we are perhaps in a better position to withstand that attack than are those societies which have possessed a continuous tradition of Catholic culture and the protection of a Catholic State. But we can only do so if we accept the full consequences of the new situation and prepare to face the new issues which this situation involves. These issues are not altogether new; they are, indeed, very similar to those that confronted the Church under the Roman Empire, but they are as remote from those of the Victorian age as those of the Apocalypse are from Newman's "Difficulties of Anglicans."

Taken from the Fall 1993 issue of "The Dawson Newsletter." For subscriptions send $8.00 to "The Dawson Newsletter", P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702. John J. Mulloy, Editor