Great Britain and the Holy See: The Diplomatic Relations Question, 1846-1852

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Great Britain and the Holy see: The Diplomatic Relations Question, 1846-1852. By James P Flint, O.S.B. (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press. 2003. Pp xvii, 301. $39.95.)

This is a delightful treatment, excellently researched, into a most interesting phase of the relations between the see of Rome and the Protestant government of Britain. It sheds new light on the leading statesmen, like Lord John Russell and Clarendon and Palmerston, none of whom was likely to be able to understand any inner qualities about Catholicism. It allows us the inner tensions and on occasion the tortuousness underlying those on the Vatican side who wished to persuade the successive Popes and sometimes wished to cajole a Pope to do what he was most unlikely to wish to do. The author used the necessary archives, from the Vatican and Propaganda as the two most important in Rome, to the Public Record Office and the private papers of various statesmen.

The opposite viewpoints are fairly easily defined. The Acts of Parliament after the exile of King James II banned the British government from holding any relations with the see of Rome. Since those days the English grew more anti-Catholic rather than less, as the problem of Ireland began to hurt them. To the contrary, social intolerance was diminished among the gentry by horror of the savagery inflicted on the French clergy by the terror of 1792-1794 and by the consequent sympathy and personal experience of refugees and respect for them, for England was a principal asylum for priests and aristocrats who fled the guillotine or a lingering death in Cayenne.

The Papacy liked to have states sending their ambassadors or charges to Rome, for they were a symbol that the Pope mattered in the politics of Europe. But even if the British government overcame the legal difficulty and sent a diplomat to Rome, this -was not acceptable to a formidable body of Catholicsnamely, most of the Irish, who were the people who mattered above all others in papal dealing with Britain. To leading Catholics in Dublin an Italian diplomat/ nuncio in London would be suspect. They were afraid, not without reason, that a British and Protestant government would use him to bring papal influence to bear on the troubled politics of Ireland, or the choice of persons for Irish sees, or the way in which education might be improved.

Since Roman Catholic Emancipation of 1829 there was an Irish Catholic group in the Westminster Parliament. They were more radical in instinct than the Whig party but must generally vote with them as the only left-leaning party with any chance of power. That did not silence radical speeches which Whig leaders disliked. The state of Ireland had forced the passing of Roman Catholic Emancipation. all through the succeeding years British politicians struggled to discover sane ways to govern Ireland, prevent murder or local anarchy, try to content a people suffering destitution. Perhaps a Pope could even persuade Irish bishops to accept state grants to relieve the poverty of their clergy-an offer which the Irish bishops without the Pope would regard as a blatant plan for Protestant interference.

In 1846, the year when this book opens, two things happened which made possible the events which are here described. The Tory government of Sir Robert Peel fell over the Corn Laws and was succeeded by the Whig government of Lord John Russell, rather more to the left in its instincts than the Whigs who preceded Peel. It inherited an Ireland in a bad way and must do something about it. secondly, Pope Gregory XVI died and Pius IX was elected. all Europe assumed this to be the first liberal Pope, who would help to make Italy less undemocratic or archaic in its modes of government; and in his first months Pius IX enjoyed a vast popularity and did nothing to discourage a belief in what was to prove a fantasy.

If a British diplomat was sent to Rome, what would be his terms of reference? …