Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Henry Nutcombe Oxenham: Enfant Terrible of the Liberal Catholic Movement in Mid-Victorian England

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Henry Nutcombe Oxenham: Enfant Terrible of the Liberal Catholic Movement in Mid-Victorian England

Article excerpt



John Bossy argued that the restoration of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England in 1850 represented the accomplishment of the clerical program of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the close of a long and patient effort to undermine the constitution of lay supremacy which had emerged from the conflicts of the earlier period."[1] From this point of view there is a certain irony in the fact that the stream of conversions to Roman Catholicism stimulated by the Oxford Movement put in place a group of assertive laymen prepared to vie with the hierarchy for influence in the revived Catholic community. Many of these men constituted the liberal Catholic movement. They articulated their views in be Rambler, the most famous English Catholic magazine to be published in the nineteenth century."[2] Founded in 1848 by John M. Capes, an Oxford convert, this journal was from its inception the voice of the converts and as such it ruffled the feelings of old Catholics and members of the hierarchy. It became the distinctive voice of liberal Catholicism at the end of 1857 when it came under the management of Richard Simpson, another convert, and Sir John Acton, scion of an old Catholic family, fresh from immersion in the historical methods and liberal Catholicism of southern Germany. Not all of the converts found The Rambler congenial, and some allied with elements of the hierarchy in what quickly became a struggle between liberals and ultramontanes for the soul of the Roman Catholic Church in England.[3]

Liberal Catholics in England were devoted to the values of intellectual and scientific freedom. They argued that the Church had nothing to fear from modem science and scholarship and that apparent contradictions between science and faith would best be reconciled by the process of free inquiry. They perceived their mission as bridging the gap between modern scholarship and English Catholic culture which they found provincial and intellectually backward. John Henry Newman articulated their ideals when he wrote, "I want a laity ... who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it. I want an intelligent, well instructed laity. ..."[4]

But Newman was not a liberal Catholic, or at least, not a part of the liberal Catholic movement, despite the fact that he shared many of its convictions, sympathized with many of its goals, and even edited The Rambler for a short time. Newman parted with the liberal Catholics over the issue of church authority, in particular over the right of laymen to engage in public discussion of theological issues. While Acton emphasized the imperative of open and free discussion, Newman was concerned about the prerogatives of the bishops as custodians of Catholic dogma. He pleaded with Acton to keep theological speculation off the pages of The Rambler.[5] Even when Acton and the other liberal Catholics were inclined to accept his counsel, they found it difficult to apply: the line between theology and issues which they considered legitimate concerns of the Catholic layman (for example, education) proved difficult to determine in theory and impossible to maintain in practice. Conflicts between Newman and the liberal Catholics inevitably occurred and in the case of Acton led to a fundamental estrangement.[6]

Although Acton still awaits his biographer, his thought and activities, and certainly those of Newman, have been objects of much historical scholarship; but little has been written about the lesser figures who gathered around Acton and wrote for The Rambler. This article is about one of those figures, Henry N. Oxenham, and is based in part on letters he wrote to Acton.[7] Unfortunately, Oxenham saved few letters, and Acton's portion of the correspondence does not seem to have survived.[8] Oxenham's correspondence with Acton tended to focus on two principal issues: education for Catholics, laymen as well as the clergy, and the temporal power of the papacy, issues which were large, if not dominant, concerns for mid-Victorian English Catholics. …

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