Before Vatican I, Liberal Catholics in England Campaign Against the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility

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Before Vatican I, Liberal Catholics in England Campaign Against the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility
Before Vatican I, Liberal Catholics in England Campaign Against the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility

Many Catholics today are unaware of the immense contributions of the Ultramontanes of the nineteenth century to the resurgence of Catholicism worldwide. Prof. Fernando Furquim de Almeida (1913-1981) studied the movement and produced dozens of articles detailing its work. We have edited these articles and will be featuring them. They highlight the actions of Ultramontane leaders in England, Spain, Italy, France and Ireland.

On June 26, 1867, Pius IX spoke to the bishops in Rome for the celebrations of the 18th centenary of the death of Saint Peter. At that moment, he announced he would shortly convene an Ecumenical Council. Everyone throughout the Catholic world understood that the errors of liberalism would be judged during the upcoming Council, eventually dubbed Vatican I.

Seeking to prepare the ground for battle in the coming Council, the liberals entered into vigorous debates with the Ultramontanes. The primary topic was papal infallibility. The Ultramontanes defended it uncompromisingly. Liberals were divided.

Some liberal theologians, like the German priest, Johan von Doellinger, invoked historical arguments and called it a flawed thesis. Others, more prudent, recognized that the Pope could not err but thought it inopportune to proclaim infallibility as a dogma. With his usual verve, the Ultramontane French journalist, Louis Veuillot, called the latter opportunists, a name under which they are known to this day.

Thanks to Archbishop Manning, virtually all English Catholics were Ultramontanes. Most of the dissenters came from Lord Acton’s The Rambler group, which adopted extreme liberal positions.

In the Dublin Review, William Ward highlighted the ridiculousness of the liberals’ views. With his usual frankness, he warned English Catholics against the opportunists, who began to gather around Fr. John Henry Newman.

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Like Veuillot in France, Ward suffered from systematic media attacks from the liberals. Among their accusations was that Ward lacked charity and was naturally violent. He replied: “Many consider me a kind of theological gladiator who delights in fighting. They don’t know what a weakling I am and how I hate waging battle.”

However, the fiery journalist’s conscience imposed an obligation to fight Newman and prevent his influence over the English from growing. In a letter to Monsell,1 A friend of both, he wrote: “Believe me, I beg you, that I truly respect you and many others whom I consider unconsciously to be the Church’s most harmful enemies; in particular, believe that my gratitude and affection toward the illustrious leader of this formidable and disastrous band are immortal.”

Even Newman—who did not spare Archbishop Manning, Cardinal Wiseman, Father Faber, and many others from unjust censures and complaints—writes about Ward: “I have nothing to say against him. He always had better feelings for me than I did for him. He is absolutely honest. He says aloud all that he thinks and would call me an avowed heretic most affectionately and sweetly.” However, this opinion was not known to the public. Having no effective arguments to use against the Dublin Review, the opportunists insisted on the ‘violence’ of its director.

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Newman indeed favored the thesis that infallibility was untimely. Nonetheless, with his usual prudence, he did not say it openly. Many of his letters to friends contain his pronouncements in this sense. In one of them, he confessed: “I always thought that this thesis [infallibility] was probably true, but not certain.” In February 1866, writing to Ward, he said: “I also think that defining it would be inopportune, and there is little likelihood it will happen. However, if it does, I shall have no difficulty accepting it.”

In 1867, Fr. Henry Ignatius Ryder, another Oratory priest, published a review of Ward’s articles. Newman sent his confrere a letter stating his entire agreement with Ward. Newman concluded: “Now that my time is drawing to a close, I am glad to see the new generation is not forgetting the old maxim by which I always wanted to be inspired in my writings and actions: In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus charitas (Unity in times of need, freedom when in doubt, charity in all things).”

Upon receiving those letters from his former leader, Ward exclaimed: “Well, if I want to sleep tonight, I’m going to have to take a double dose of sedative.” And he continued to fight as if nothing had happened.

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On the eve of the Council, Father Newman sent Bishop William Ullathorne of Birmingham a complete exposition of his point of view. “As for me personally, thanks be to God, I do not fear that any trial will come. However, I cannot but suffer with so many suffering souls and look forward with anxiety to the prospect of having to defend decisions that may not present difficulties in my own judgment but which are, perhaps, difficult to sustain logically in the presence of historical facts. If it is God’s will that papal infallibility is defined, then God’s will is to postpone the time and moment of this triumph He destined for His reign. I can only bow my head before His adorable and unfathomable Providence.”

Newman—who until then had never spoken publicly on the subject—regarded this letter as “one of the most confidential he ever wrote.” When it was revealed to English Catholics, its author became known as an avowed opportunist, fully justifying William Ward’s campaign. In a letter to the Duke of Norfolk, Newman stated that he “withdrew these statements as far as he could, protesting he never intended them for the public eye.”

Liberals spread the word that the Pope would invite the Oxford Movement’s former leader to be a consultant with the Council. When the invitation did not arrive, the English bishops, in solidarity with Archbishop Manning, expressed no desire to have him in their entourage. Bishop Dupanloup then proposed to take him as his theologian. Newman refused, feeling that his presence would displease the Holy Father.

Obliged to be silent, he could not form an opportunistic opposition in England. Given its excesses, The Rambler group had lost all influence. Archbishop Manning was thus able to bring to the Vatican Council a completely Ultramontane English delegation that vigorously defended infallibility against liberal assaults.

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  1. Probably John S. B. Monsell, the Anglican Clergyman and Hymnist, who had been a colleague of Manning, Newman, and Ward when all four men had been part of the Oxford Movement. After their conversions to Catholicism, Manning, Newman, and Ward all maintained correspondences with their former colleagues in hopes of persuading them to embrace Catholicism.

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