How Catholic Communities Overcame Fierce Protestant Opposition in Nineteenth-Century England

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How Catholic Communities Overcame Fierce Protestant Opposition in Nineteenth-Century England
It is hardly possible to express how effective the Catholic apostolate had become after the re-establishment of the hierarchy. As a result, the Protestants tried all means to impede its progress.

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.

The re-establishment of the hierarchy and Henry Manning’s conversion marked a new stage in the development of Catholicism in England.

Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman encouraged countless charitable works of assistance for the poor. At the same time, he was aware that his homeland’s conversion would only be possible by starting with the country’s social and intellectual elite. So in the mid-nineteenth century, the English Catholic movement advanced in this direction.

Because of their useful intellectual backgrounds, the Oxford Movement converts could do effective apostolate with the ruling classes. The Dublin Review and the Catholic Institute of Great Britain, founded by the Cardinal with Irish help, admirably served as vehicles for Catholic ideas.

In 1850, Cardinal Wiseman delivered a series of lectures at the Catholic Institute. He spoke about art, science and philanthropic works. At the same time, in Birmingham and London, Father John Henry Newman resolved the theological difficulties of truth-seeking Anglicans. He studied the plight of English Catholics in a series of lectures. These events attracted a large audience. Father Frederick Faber started publishing the spiritual works that made him famous and launched books on the lives of Saint Wilfred and other saints. The entire Catholic Movement vigorously engaged in the works of the apostolate.

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Henry Edward Manning played little part in this effort in the early years following his abjuration in 1851. He went to Rome to complete his religious studies. On the rare occasions when he returned to England, he collaborated with his former adversaries by delivering lectures and sermons. However, these minor tasks indicated that he possessed the qualities to be Cardinal Wiseman’s successor. He possessed a spirit of faith, enthusiasm and, above all, the purest orthodoxy.

It is hardly possible to express how effective the Catholic apostolate had become after the re-establishment of the hierarchy. Anglicans typically regarded Catholics as ignorant. Despite these attitudes, they were deeply impressed by the unexpected manifestation of culture by these “papists.” After a visit to England, the poet Ambrose Phillips and renowned French philosopher Joseph de Maistre commended Cardinal Wiseman, “Your Eminence’s lectures do a thousand times more to win the heart of old England than all the world’s controversies.”

For their part, the Protestants tried all means to impede the progress of Catholicism. The local Anglican bishop protested when Lord Rudolph Fielding built a Franciscan Friary at Pantasaph, claiming it was initially intended for Anglican worship. Lord Fielding, who had converted to Catholicism in 1850, replied he had the right to change the destination of his donations. Further, he added that it was unwise for the bishop to use such arguments. Lord Fielding argued that Catholics could use similar ideas to demand the restitution of all the churches and abbeys that Henry VIII had confiscated.

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The saddest episode of this Protestant campaign was the Achilli trial. Giovanni Giacinto Achilli was a defrocked Dominican. He had been arrested and condemned in Rome for complete debauchery, countless sacrileges and other scandals. The English consul facilitated his escape. Arriving in London, Achilli began a systematic campaign against the Catholic Church and promised to make revelations about the cruelties of the Roman Inquisition.

Now a Protestant, Achilli began to travel through England, repeating everywhere the slanders he uttered in the capital. Cardinal Wiseman unmasked him entirely in an article in the Dublin Review and later in a tract. In 1850, while the former Dominican visited Birmingham, Father Newman denounced Achilli in a public lecture.

By this time, Achilli had utterly lost his prestige in public opinion. In a gesture of despair, Achilli sued Father Newman for slander in 1852. While Father Newman’s case was weak, it immediately forced the Birmingham Oratory to incur legal expenses to prove the veracity of its superior’s assertions.

Even the London Times recognized that Achilli’s life was an ongoing scandal. However, the judge, Lord Campbell, sentenced Newman to a hefty fine, alleging that Newman had not sufficiently substantiated his statements.

This ruling caused great revulsion even in Protestant circles. Reflecting this impression, the Times wrote: “We believe that a serious blow has just been dealt to our country’s justice system. Henceforth, Roman Catholics have the right to say there is no justice for them when Protestant sentiments of judges and jurors are at stake.”

Father Newman did not have the means to pay the £100 fine or his £12,000 in legal fees and costs.1 Catholics worldwide took up a collection that gathered far more than necessary. Newman applied the surplus to his works, including the construction of the Oratory in Birmingham.

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  1. The total amount is roughly $1.5 million converted to current U.S. dollars.

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