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Wednesday, March 29, 2017
Date Posted:
11/29/2004


Rome Seizing Power in the Nineteenth Century: The Vatican and the Emancipation Era


The Ensalvement of a Nation: the Romanising of Ireland
Dr Clive Gillis

FOR MOST of the 19th century, Vatican policy in Ireland was to appease the British monarchy and work for the Conversion of England, hoping it would bring Great Britain and Ireland and the Empire into Rome at a single stroke.

The Vatican was still reeling from the consequences of the French revolution and was terrified of any revolutionary activity. Daniel O’Connell’s boisterous Irish activities caused the cardinals to shudder.

This explains why, strange as it may seem to us today, the priests were the prime movers in stirring up popular enthusiasm for the Union of Ireland with Great Britain in 1800. Irish chief secretary, Viscount Castlereagh, “gave it as his opinion that the Union would not have gone through without (Roman) Catholic advocacy”.

Rome’s conciliatory approach to the British Government first emerged when a meeting of the trustees of the Irish seminary at Maynooth passed a resolution which favoured the idea that candidates for bishoprics should be selected by the Irish clergy and then submitted to the government for its approval before the list was sent to Rome. (The trustees consisted of four archbishops and ten bishops.)

This was not weakness. Rome works over centuries and millennia to achieve her ends. She feigns friendship with Governments, while simply ignoring any objections they may make to her policies.

Veto on RC bishops

Since the vast majority of the Irish population were Roman Catholic, the power of the archbishops and bishops was immense. When any bishopric fell vacant, Rome was sent a Terna, that is a list of three candidates for the vacancy. These were the dignissimus ‑ the most suitable , the dignior ‑ the next most suitable, and a third, the dignus.  Should the British Government object to a certain name, Rome would choose between the remaining two or even reject them all and demand three more names.

If the government objected to an appointment, Rome might divide her dioceses, or alter their boundaries, or create new posts in order to get her man installed. If one government obstructed her, she would wait for a new government who might wish to please her in return for some favour that the government urgently required. Or Rome might appoint the rejected favourite as coadjutor to an elderly and incompetent bishop, thus getting him in by the back door. Or she might simply delay and delay a decision until the objections no longer applied. The fact that the priests back in Ireland might be outraged, was of no account to Rome.

O’Connell finds out

O’Connell discovered Rome’s conciliatory policy towards the British Governemnt quite by accident during a Commons debate in 1808.  He made such a public fuss that the Irish hierarchy promised they would abolish the government’s veto over the appointment of bishops.  Rome simply ignored the Irish hierarchy and continued secretly to allow the British government to veto appointments.  In 1814 the Quarantotti Rescript was leaked from Rome’s College of the Propaganda.  Rome was exposed as still operating the veto, having taken no notice of her own men in Ireland.

O’Connell was furious.  He organised a protest meeting in Dublin declaring, “Let our determination never to assent reach Rome”.  He went on to say, “I am sincerely a Catholic, but I am not a Papist.  I deny the doctrine that the Pope has any temporal authority, directly or indirectly in Ireland”.  Indeed, he continued, “in spiritual matters too the authority of the Pope is limited”’.  He added that, “if the present clergy shall … become … vile slaves … I warn them … the people all despise them too much to contribute”.

O’Connell threatens the Pope

The meeting decided to lobby the peope directly.  A protest was drawn up against “the interference of your Holiness in the control of our temporal conduct … we cannot admit of any right on the part of the Holy See … to direct our political conduct”.  O’Connell even threatened the Pope.  The Bishops simultaneously “adopted a series of resolutions to be presented to the Holy See expressive of their opposition to the Veto”.

Both documents were duly despatched to Rome.  The Vatican serenely ignored O’Connell as beneath contempt.  The reply to the Bishops was couched in typical non-committal Rome-speak and took a year to arrive.  It was a “vague defence” of the veto and “conciliatory”.  The existence of the veto was soon forgotten amongst more pressing matters.

So Rome achieved her first objective which was the Union of Ireland with Great Britain and the governemnt veto on bishops.

But times were changing.  As young Maynooth educated preists with nationalist zeal replaced old continentally educated men, the priesthood became more militant.  The historian of O’Connell’s 1823 penny-a-month-after-mass Catholic Association says that the priests “no longer refused co-operation in every expedient of constitutional annoyance … they joined every meeting, they seconded every proposition, they lent their aid to every project …. Likely to defeat or gall the common foe”.

Catholic emancipation

The next objective was Catholic emancipation ‑ the removing of the legal disabilities which stood in the way of the advancement of Roman Catholics holding office. The priests ensured victory in the Emancipation struggle by vigorous promotion of their candidates in a number of key elections from 1826 onwards, culminating in the decisive 1828 County Clare victory in which O’Connell’s election forced the Government’s hand to grant Emancipation to the extent of allowing a Roman Catholic to sit in the House of Commons.

For two months previous to the election, meetings were convened in Catholic chapels (churches) all over the country.  From platforms erected before altars, priests told the people how to vote. “Every altar was made a tribune.”

In County Clare the priests ordered “The whole male population between 15 and 80 to proceed to the scene of voting”. During the five days of the County Clare election, “150 priests remained in town appealing to electors to stand firm for their faith. Priests stationed themselves at every approach to the town” to harangue voters. Other priests “entered the polling booths to discourage last minute weaknesses”.

In Vatican eyes Emancipation was the first step towards the Conversion of England. Priestly excesses were conveniently ignored. But when O’Connell then began his vociferous campaign for repeal of the Union, Rome took immediate steps to oppose him by gagging the priests.  Neither they nor their chapels (churches) were to be used to promote repeal of the Union.  With Rome’s support O’Connell achieved Emancipation in four years.  With Rome against him, he never achieved repeal of the Union despite larger and more sophisticated agitations.

Reverence and love

By the 9th February 1830, the Irish hierarchy, under pressure from Rome, signed “the first official statement” to the priests and people since Emancipation. God was thanked, as was the Duke of Wellington and his government. Their King was “to merit their honour, obedience and gratitude”. The British Parliament was “worthy of reverence and love” for the step it had taken. The people were to “demonstrate a steady attachment to the constitution ... the laws of the country and the person and government of the King”. The priests were warned off direct political action. “We united ... discharged a duty ... which we have relinquished ... These are the sentiments our clergy, always obedient to our voice will cherish with us:” And O’Connell got no mention at all.

The press soon noticed Rome’s non‑attendance at repeal (of the Union) meetings. On October 30th the RC Archbishop Murray had to provide an explanation. The Dublin Evening Post reported the Archbishop to be “utterly adverse to any agitation to endanger the public peace,” and, “most anxious the Catholic clergy take no ... part in questions of a merely political character”. In 1831, a synod passed a regulation that “absolutely prohibited any priest from granting the use of any church or chapel for public meetings of the laity ... and reading any proclamation from the altar except announcements concerning divine service”.

The British government was now seriously indebted to Rome. Formal diplomatic contacts between Britain and Rome had ceased at the Reformation, but “unofficial contact was ... maintained through the British representative to the State of Tuscany”. In 1825 Lord Burghersh, using this channel, reported to the Foreign office that “The Court of Rome see with dissatisfaction the unruly spirit at various times shown even against itself by the Catholic clergy of Ireland ... it would be anxious to reduce it to more orderly conduct both as regards the British Government and its own authority”.

Burghersh outlined Rome’s proposed deal. The Court of Rome, financially embarrassed by Napoleon, “would receive with gratitude any proposition for the payment of that Church, conceding in return a total renunciation of all pretension to the ancient establishment that belonged to it and granting to the Government a power in the election of Bishops”.

Furthermore, Rome added, “in the desire of healing wounds that have so long existed ... if the statute restricting direct communication with the Holy See were taken away ... (The Holy See) would be happy to enter into such arrangements”.

In 1829 Pius Vill, sensing British weakness, wrote to the Earl of Aberdeen. He assured Aberdeen that the King had “no subjects more loyal and devoted to Him … It was true there were some points of religious difference between His Majesty and Himself, which he regretted, but these were of no avail.” (!)  His Irish people “would be a source of strength and happiness to his Empire,” – as long as Britain continued to appease Rome.

Britain asks Rome a favour

The same year Lord Burghersh went to Rome to collect a political favour. He asked Rome to fix the appointment of a particular favoured dignior over an objected to dignissimus for security reasons. Rome de­liberated and chose neither, appointing the dignus. A letter of the 31st December 1829 from Cardinal Albani to Lord Burghersh tried to gloss over the snub and is still preserved in the Public Records Office. This is a perfect example of the techniques by which Rome eventually won, and the British government lost, in Ireland.

To appease the British government, Cardinal Albani wrote: “However if these weighty reasons have made the Holy Father feel the hard necessity of not appointing ... a Bishop recommended to him by the British Government, he has not in the meantime chosen the person to whom the government has object. Notwithstanding therefore that Msgr Foran (dignissimus) is the person most desired as Bishop by the Clergy of that Church, His Holiness has selected another from the names of those recommended ... The Holy Father flatters himself that His British Majesty will see from this that if he had been able to do more to meet his Royal Wishes, He certainly would have done it." The Irish bishops did not get their way, nor did the British government, but the Vatican did. Rome never changes.

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