July 1, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The Church rebounds: The turnaround in Great Britain

John F. Fink(First in a series of columns)

During the past 11 weeks, I wrote about what I called “the imperiled Church,” a period that stretched from the 16th through the 18th centuries, when attempts were made, mainly in Europe, to destroy the Catholic Church. Finally, toward the end of the 18th century, the Church began to rebound.

Let’s begin with Great Britain. As I noted in my column in the April 29 issue, when King William’s reign ended in 1702, Catholics had dwindled to less than 1 percent of the population. It appeared that the Church was dead there. But a remnant remained.

Finally, in 1778, Parliament passed a law that permitted Catholics to acquire, own and inherit property. Then, when the French Revolution’s expulsion of priests from France resulted in many of them going to England, there was a softening of opinion toward Catholics. That resulted in the passage of the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1791.

Then, in 1829, with the passage of the Catholic Emancipation Act, Catholics in both England and Ireland were relieved of most of the civil disabilities to which they had been subject. But it wasn’t until 1926 that another Catholic Relief Act finally repealed virtually all legal disabilities of Catholics in England.

Pope Pius IX re-established the hierarchy in England in 1850.

In Ireland, too, the penal laws against Catholics were gradually reduced. Catholic emancipation was finally won in 1829 under the leadership of Daniel O’Connell. He was even elected to the British Parliament. (Today, visitors to Dublin would find it difficult to get around without traveling on O’Connell Street.)

A particularly important event occurred in 1845: John Henry Newman converted to Catholicism from Anglicanism. Newman was the greatest theologian of the 19th century. He had been one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement, which tried to reform the Church of England. He preached and wrote about Anglicanism as the via media between Catholicism and Protestantism. However, as he studied the teachings of the Church Fathers, he concluded that the Catholic Church was the same Church founded by Christ.

After he converted to Catholicism, he published his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, expounding on seven ways one can tell what is true development of doctrine and what is corruption of doctrine. He also wrote On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, one of his works that influenced the bishops at the Second Vatican Council more than a century later.

Newman went on to be ordained a priest. He was the first rector of the Catholic University of Dublin. Back at Oxford University, he was elected an honorary fellow of Trinity College, where he had studied decades before as a young undergraduate. In 1879, Pope Leo XIII made him a cardinal in recognition of his service to the Church.

The number of Catholics in Britain has continued to grow, and relations between the Catholic Church and the government have greatly improved. Pope Benedict XVI traveled to England in 2010 to beatify Newman. He also gave a speech in Westminster Hall, where St. Thomas More was condemned to death. Queen Elizabeth II met with Pope Francis at the Vatican in 2014. It’s estimated that there are now about 5 million Catholics in Britain. †

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