How Prime Minister Gladstone Led the Attempt to Extinguish the Emerging Ultramontane Spirit in England

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How Prime Minister Gladstone Led the Attempt to Extinguish the Emerging Ultramontane Spirit in England
How Prime Minister Gladstone Led the Attempt to Extinguish the Emerging Ultramontane Spirit in England

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 Vatican Council dissolved in 1870 because of the Franco-Prussian War. By that time, the minority bishops, who had withdrawn before the final vote on infallibility, acquiesced almost unanimously to the newly defined dogma. Germany’s Doellinger-inspired “Old Catholics” formed the only organized movement of faithful that disputed the Council’s decision. Although “Old Catholic” adherents included scientists of some renown, their resistance was futile. Any early prestige that the movement possessed was due to German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who cynically used these dissidents in his famous anti-Catholic Kulturkampf.

In England, Archbishop Henry Manning celebrated the providential victory of Ultramontanism. He promoted commemorative sessions and organized meetings to explain the new dogma. Thus, the Archbishop strove to clarify Catholic opinion to prevent “anti-infallibilist” and “inopportunist” liberals from confusing English Catholics.

So-called High Church Anglicans could not hide their disappointment. Papal infallibility convinced them that their wish for an agreement with the Catholic Church was not viable. Still feeling remorse over Henry VIII’s separation from Rome, they could no longer avoid recognizing their errors. This frustration heightened their hatred upon receiving the Council’s results. Unable to organize any serious movement against the newly proclaimed dogma, they lent hopeless support to the “Old Catholics,” hoping to create a greater schism. To this end, the University of Cambridge awarded Ignaz Doellinger an honorary doctorate. Two prestigious “High Church” Anglican bishops, Christopher Wordsworth and William Montgomery Brown and other Anglican clerics, attended the congress that the breakaway “Catholic” sect convened in Cologne in 1872.

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A more dangerous attack came a few years later. Readers will remember that William Ewert Gladstone sympathetically followed the Oxford Movement and was a friend of Archbishop Manning before his conversion. Gladstone was also a friend of Edward Pusey, an Oxford Movement member (who remained an Anglican).

Gladstone supported an alliance between the Catholic Church and Anglicanism. His tolerant Irish policy led him to abolish the privileges of the Anglican “Church of Ireland.” The fanatical and authoritarian Gladstone was indignant when the Council destroyed his hopes. However, as Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Party, he tempered his reaction.

The circumstances that led to the fall of his government in 1874 further exacerbated Gladstone’s irritation against the Church. He proposed a bill granting Catholics full access to the University of Dublin, hitherto largely reserved for Protestants. However, the bishops of Ireland agreed with Archbishop Manning, who wanted a Catholic university and disapproved of the proposal. Irish MPs joined the Conservative Party opposition, and the bill was rejected.

Annoyed, Gladstone resigned, but the Tories, led by Benjamin Disraeli, refused to assume power with a Liberal majority in the Commons, forcing Gladstone’s cabinet to continue governing. The shaken prime minister managed to maintain this situation for a short time. On January 23, 1874, he had Parliament dissolved and embarked on an agitated electoral campaign that led his party to defeat. Gladstone could only resign from his party’s chairmanship and withdraw from politics.1

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In November of the same year, Gladstone vented his resentment by publishing his first anti-Church pamphlet titled “The Vatican Decrees in Their Bearing on Civil Allegiance” (London, 1874). The seventy-eight-page pamphlet’s thesis was that the Vatican Council turned Catholicism into a dangerous political system that disregarded civil authority. By declaring the pope the absolute head of the Church, Gladstone asserted that the Council withdrew the bishops’ ability to mediate between the Vatican and other governments. That was the reason, he claimed, that the Church had become a foreign power intruding into England’s national life.

The unsuccessful politician drew inspiration from Catholics like Lord Acton. Some excerpts from letters Gladstone addressed to his friends show how upset he was. In one of them, he said: “For the first time in my life, I will be forced to talk about popery, for it would be a scandal to give the religion they are manufacturing in Rome the same name as the religion of Pascal, Bossuet, or Ganganelli.” In another letter: “This whole process was monstrous. The fanaticism of the Middle Ages is really moderate compared to the nineteenth century’s.” From Munich, he wrote his wife: “I have spent two-thirds of my time with Dr. Doellinger, a truly remarkable man. It makes my blood run cold to think he is excommunicated in his venerable but, thank God, healthy and strong old age. I know no one with whom I am more in agreement on how to judge and deal with religious matters.”

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In a few weeks, 120,000 copies of Gladstone’s pamphlet were sold. Some people wondered if its author was not seeking to revoke the Catholic Emancipation Act he had supported. Such was the violence of his language that all Catholics, including Lord Acton, felt obliged to protest. In a letter to the Times, Archbishop Manning recalled that “For Catholics, the Vatican decrees did not change one iota in their civil life obligations and conditions.” A few weeks later, he published a response to Gladstone, refuting his claims point by point. The Archbishop showed that, throughout history, conflicts between Church and State had always resulted from the latter’s intrusions into spiritual matters. Therefore, Manning assured readers that, under the prevailing conditions in England, Queen Victoria had nothing to fear.

In his rage, the former prime minister continued to attack Catholicism through increasingly incendiary brochures. As the level of controversy subsided, prominent Catholics stopped responding. Gradually, the politician-turned-pamphleteer completely lost the aura that surrounded him in the eyes of English public opinion, and his attacks on the Church no longer had any influence. Since then, infallibility has been a powerful lever for the progress of the Catholic Church in England.


  1. Later, Gladstone would recoup his political fortunes. He would again serve as Prime Minister from 1880-1885, a few months in 1886 and 1892-1894.

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