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Intellectual orthodoxy and political stability : English Catholics and the politics of papal sovereignty, 1848 - 1878
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posted on 08.02.2017by Price, Peter Edwin
In the context of the turbulent post-Napoleonic reconstruction of European political power in the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church faced several options for its own future. Faced with multiple assaults on its traditional political and doctrinal authority in relation to the world around it, the Church decided to consolidate its jurisdictional and intellectual power by forming itself into a closed, confessional organisation, with centralised, authoritarian leadership vested in the Papacy, both to ensure internal cohesion, unity and orthodoxy, as well as to insulate its members from the contamination of hostile environments, and ensure their loyalty.
At the heart of this choice was the charismatic figure of Pope Pius IX. During his long Papacy, traumatized by the excesses of revolutionary liberalist movements, Pius decided he must regain control of as much of his world as he could possibly command, using the instrumentality of the growing ultramontane movement, a movement dedicated to putting absolute power into the hands of the Papacy.
In making this choice, Pius made a firm decision to oppose all streams of thought favouring national autonomies and constitutional models of church order. Such streams had been in evidence since the papal sovereignty debates of the Middle and later ages. They were gradually being suppressed over the ensuing centuries, a suppression finally accomplished in the second half of the nineteenth century. It was, so this thesis contends, an improper, unauthentic suppression that subverted the proper dialectics of the Church’s doctrinal and structural development, imposing its will on the global Church by manipulation, vilification of alternatives, and the force of punitive sanctions to ensure compliance. The decrees of Vatican Council I ratified in 1870, dogmatised and institutionalised these ecclesial power structures, and provided the source for historical narratives to fit and sustain them.
The development of the English Catholic Church from 1848 onwards presented an ideal environment in which to enforce this authoritarian form of church order. Between 1848 and 1878, the English Church, emerging from 300 years of proscription and virtual isolation, was intentionally reformed from its nationalist, cisalpine traditions into a stern adherent of the new centralist, ultramontane model. It is this development upon which the thesis bases its core contention, using England as an exemplar of the Church’s considered direction and tactics. It was in England during this period that suppression of the natural ecclesiastical dialectics between freedom and authority, change and continuity, the mystical and the organisational, constitutional order and absolute power became highly visible. Two successive Primates of the English Church, Cardinals Wiseman and Manning of Westminster, with the direction and support of Pius IX and the Vatican Curia, led this movement, transforming the Church’s natural revival into a new, ultramontane narrative of Catholicism in England, with effects lasting into the present day.