How Cardinal Wiseman Inspired and Led the Reestablishment of the English Hierarchy

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How Cardinal Wiseman Inspired and Led the Reestablishment of the English Hierarchy
How Cardinal Wiseman Inspired and Led the Reestablishment of the English Hierarchy

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 Ultramontane 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.

Bishop Nicholas Wiseman’s appointment as a Curia cardinal in 1850 caused deep consternation within English Catholicism. His elevation revealed his immense prestige, as well as the weakness of his opponents. Any doubts over his potential success that still lingered in Rome vanished as the vast majority of British Catholics expressed their chagrin at the news of his departure. Numerous high-caliber testimonies reached the Holy See deploring his transfer at the precise moment that his growing apostolate most demanded vigorous action.

The bishop’s position was greatly strengthened by these expressions of appreciation and proof of his popularity, hitherto denied to his opponents. On behalf of all the Vicars Apostolic in England, Bishop Wiseman quickly convinced Pius IX of the need to reestablish the Catholic Hierarchy in England, a request he had made several times. On September 29, 1850, shortly after his arrival, the new cardinal was pleased as Pius IX replaced the eight apostolic vicariates with an archbishopric and twelve suffragan bishoprics. On the same occasion, the Pope named Bishop Wiseman Archbishop of Westminster. Filled with enthusiasm, the new Archbishop sent the English faithful a vibrant manifesto rejoicing that “Catholic England was regaining its orbit in the religious firmament, whence its light had long disappeared.”

The reestablishment of the hierarchy considerably boosted English Catholicism. At the same time, a veritable outburst of Protestant anger followed the Holy See’s action.

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The British newspapers began a violent campaign against what they labeled a foreign power’s meddling in English affairs. The Morning Post accused the Pope of usurping the rights and prerogatives of the Crown. The Daily News, recalling that Archbishop Wiseman had been born in Spain,1 was outraged to see Queen Victoria’s states dismembered and shared by a “Spanish cardinal.” The Times, the Globe and the Standard all asked the government to resist such an audacious “attack.”

The Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, declared that he would consider legislation to defend against “papal aggression.” He sent Parliament a bill forbidding the new bishops to use their titles. A succession of fiery speeches in defense of national sovereignty took place in the House of Lords and the Commons. In London and several other cities, “meetings” and marches took place where the Pope, cardinal and bishops were burned in effigy in the public square and thrown into the sea.

That agitation seemed to support the aristocratic Catholic minority that opposed the restoration of the hierarchy. The cardinal’s own friends admitted he might have been reckless and feared for his life should he return to England. Countless letters reached Archbishop Wiseman in Rome, urging him not to return to his homeland as long as the vocal hatred of the Church’s enemies lasted. Sure that Cardinal Wiseman was responsible for restoring the hierarchy, the Protestants were preparing a great demonstration of their displeasure.

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If the purpose of the agitation was to frighten the cardinal, its promoters underestimated him. He would not back down from duty and clearly understood his duties as a pastor. Therefore, he resisted the idea of ​​staying away from London, knowing that his place was to lead the faithful when the Church was under attack. No one could convince him to protect his person when the rights of the Spouse of Christ were at stake. Despite numerous calls to be prudent, he announced his return. The agitators received the news as a challenge.

Cardinal Wiseman’s arrival in England was tumultuous. His carriage was stoned. Mobs booed him in every street. However, his fearless attitude successfully resisted the demonstrations. It was the energetic cardinal’s first victory over the opponents of Religion.

The new Archbishop of Westminster gave the government the necessary explanations about the meaning of the papal brief. He made it clear that the Cabinet’s claim of papal aggression was ridiculous. He then issued a very well-founded “appeal to the English people,” which took away the hooligans’ pretext to continue their campaign. A series of public lectures soon calmed the situation. As people relaxed, the Archbishop of Westminster was able to embark on a new phase of his admirable apostolate.

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John Henry Newman was one of the English Catholics who argued against reestablishing the hierarchy. As late as 1851, he wrote to a friend: “We are not ripe for the hierarchy; now that they have obtained it, they are not able to man the Sees.” His clashes with Wiseman were well known. Yet he was forced to recognize that, against all expectations, the cardinal had won that battle. Newman wrote to a recent convert: “He (Wiseman) was made for the world, and he rises to the occasion when required. But however high I set his gifts, I did not expect such vigor, courage, judgment, and energy as steadfast as he has shown these past two months.”

Many ridiculed the government over this ‘Brief controversy.’ Lord John Russell could not withdraw the abovementioned bill he sent to Parliament. It was approved on the express condition—publicly declared by several MPs—that the law would remain unenforced.

A new period was opening for Catholicism in England. The impulse the hierarchy gave to the movement caused conversions, the introduction of new religious Orders and especially the spiritual formation of the faithful. It fully justified Cardinal Wiseman’s commitment to restoring it. That restoration was only possible thanks to the spirit of faith that animated all his works.


  1. Archbishop Wiseman was born in 1802 in Seville, Spain, where his Irish father had settled for business reasons.

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