Catholics, Liberals and Tories

Late nineteenth-century English Catholic politics may be characterized by the fluctuating party sympathies of John Henry Newman. Despite his identification with nineteenth-century liberalism, Newman supported the Tories in 1865:

I have no great love of the Conservatives, as being Erastians of a type which I do not think you can admire—but I speak of them as a party—as to individuals, I know what excellent, estimable men there are among them—and I shall rejoice at their coming into power, if, without upsetting the state-coach, they can keep it from running off the highroad, the king’s highway.

Writing to a colleague in 1872, he admitted that his uncertainty about William Gladstone’s politics had brought him to question his support for the Liberal Party. Newman, admittedly “much perplexed between Mr. Disraeli and Gladstone,” regretted that the latter was “the leader of a mixed multitude, who profess a Babel of religions or none at all.”

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A year later, Newman called Gladstone’s Education Act “a great tyranny” because it failed to provide what Catholics wanted—a state-sponsored Catholic University in Ireland. (When the liberal Lord Ripon dined at the Oratory after his Catholic conversion, he wrote in his diary that he “found the Fathers very Tory.”)

Yet later on, Newman’s nineteenth-century liberal sensibilities came to the fore as his disgust with the Conservative Party brought him to rejoice in their electoral defeat in 1880: “For myself … I must confess to an extreme joy that Disraeli is gone I hope never to return.” As Newman’s party loyalties vacillated, so did Catholic voting patterns in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

With the freedoms extended to them following emancipation in 1829, both Irish and English Catholics sought to become full players in Victorian political life. With this desire to become part of the English social mainstream, Catholics sought to foster in the eyes of the political establishment respect for their parochial interests and to offer their services to further the objectives of the party to which they belonged. As Professor Dermot Quinn records in Patronage and Piety, Catholic political immaturity became evident as clergy and laity alike haphazardly sought to further their religion and, in the process, their own political and social stature. Quinn, who teaches history at Seton Hall University, tells a story in which patronage plays just as much a role as did piety in Catholic politics.

Both liberal and conservative Catholics sought position in the parties of Gladstone and Disraeli, respectively. For instance, Quinn writes of Edward Ryley, an English Catholic Tory who believed he should be rewarded for his unflinching loyalty to the Conservative Party and for the multitude of Catholic votes he claimed to secure for it. Yet his belief in the natural alliance of Catholics and Conservative Party politics—which he constantly conveyed to Disraeli—often “enabled the Tories to be anti-Catholic with greater impunity.”

When in 1865 the liberal William Monsell proposed to free Catholic politicians from the requirement of pledging loyalty to the established Church, Ryley opposed the measure, obeying Disraeli’s lead. When the Tory Lord Derby opposed the same Oath Bill, warning colleagues of the danger of “unmuzzling the Catholics,” Ryley was not insulted; rather he communicated to Derby how welcome his remarks were. Ryley convinced himself that the traditional oath merely allowed Catholics to confirm that they were not rogues and murderers who plot to dethrone the queen.

Catholic Tories like the Irishman John Pope Hennessy were convinced of a natural alliance between Conservatives and their fellow churchmen. Whether in or out of Parliament, Hennessy, a friend of Ryley, blindly defended the Tory leadership and remained convinced of the existence of a solid alliance even when the evidence proved illusory.

When Hennessy introduced his Prison Ministry Bill in 1863, which would have permitted Catholic chaplains to minister in English prisons, Disraeli supported the bill over Protestant fears that it was unnecessary and would undermine the Protestant Establishment. Yet Disraeli supported the bill for Protestant reasons: it is the duty of Protestants to allow Catholic chaplains to minister to their own in prison because if they did not, the criminals will be just as bad coming out as they were going in.

Conservative Catholics, who believed Tory political success owed a great deal to their efforts, felt they deserved compensation for their labors. Some, like Pope Hennessy, used their participation in Tory politics as a means of social advancement. When Hennessy lost his seat in 1859, the Tory government had fallen, too, and he had to wait until 1866 before his hero could provide for him a just reward for his faithful service to the Party. For a man confident of his own importance, the patronage that was expected was nowhere near what was offered: “the governorship of Labuan, a malaria-drenched island off the coast of Borneo with a white population of forty.”

Quinn argues that there was no such thing as a natural alliance between the Catholics and the Tories (or, for that matter, the Whigs). Disraeli was a cynic more than anything else and viewed Catholic Tories as important only because of their blind loyalty. For him, they “behaved admirably,” which meant they displayed a willingness, in Quinn’s words, “to take almost anything lying down.” Edward Stanly records in his journal Disraeli’s “open ridicule, in private, of all religion.” Stanley himself acknowledged the danger of “that infernal Protestantism.” If there was a hostility among the Tory leadership toward Catholicism, it was only to the extent that they were suspicious of all religion. In Disraeli’s last letter to his successor, Lord Salisbury, he wrote of the Orangemen—the extreme Protestants and their treachery. Salisbury himself came to recognize them as “troublesome and unreliable allies.”

Though one could say that there was no party to which Catholic voters consistently pledged their loyalty, it was clear that as the nineteenth century drew to a close, more were supporting the Tory program. It was not so much because Catholics embraced the Conservatives as it was that they opposed Gladstone’s Liberal Party. Catholics increasingly associated Liberalism with Garibaldi’s Italian revolution and had the impression that the Conservatives were well-disposed toward the Pope. Some lost confidence in the Liberals, who they thought had betrayed the Catholic trust. Others desired to avoid a party that supported secular nonconformists. For instance, Bishop Vaughn preferred Disraeli over Gladstone as the lesser of two evils.

Gladstone’s view of his Catholic supporters came to resemble the view Tory leaders held of their own. Among Gladstone’s was Lord Ripon. Born in 1827 to Prime Minister Viscount Goderich, Ripon later entered Parliament and served in Palmerston’s government from 1859-63. His experience in government and the abilities he displayed earned him a post in Gladstone’s 1868 cabinet. Quinn writes that Ripon’s conversion in 1874 “scandalized Victorian smugness.” With the exception of Catholics everyone else was appalled, especially Gladstone.

Gladstone’s dismay at Ripon’s decision was not merely disappointment that the man had made his political career obsolete, as his colleagues implied by their reaction. To Gladstone, his cabinet minister had embraced the moral and intellectual slavery of Rome, and so deserved the end of his career. Catholics were dangerous subversives, Gladstone told him, and could not be trusted in government:

I hold by my words … by “Rome” … I mean to mark out what Dante, 550 years ago, blasted in his immortal and priceless poem, the Roman or Popish element in the Western Church: much more virulent now than in his time, since the convulsions of the sixteenth century unhappily brought into being the order of the Jesuits. You are bound to obey whatever the Pope enjoins, under the name of moral duty, even if it be, according to your judgement and mine, in the domain of civil loyalty.

After Ripon’s conversion, Gladstone’s long-held distrust of Rome and his belief in a Jesuit conspiracy became public when he published Vaticanism and The Vatican Decrees and their Bearing on Civil Allegiance, which were widely read. (Newman responded to the second of these documents is his now-famous Letter to the Duke of Norfolk on occasion of Mr. Gladstone’s Recent Expostulation.) Gladstone’s Catholic advisors were shocked at his attack, and no one was more surprised than Lord Acton. Perhaps the most prominent liberal Catholic—with the possible exception of Newman—Lord Acton had been a fierce opponent of papal temporal power and had warned Gladstone of the potential dangers of a decree of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council.

Acton’s knowledge of Catholic politics and his support of Gladstone’s reform programs advanced his career in the Liberal Party. For years, writes Quinn, Acton had been confirming Gladstone’s prejudices against Rome and now, to his surprise, his mentor was using his arguments against him. These were the same arguments used against Acton during his re-election campaign in 1868, which resulted in his defeat. He was astute enough to recognize Catholic frustration toward the parties because neither Liberals nor Conservatives championed their demands, yet he was too passionately hostile toward Rome’s temporal interests to anticipate the negative political repercussions his jousts with Church officials might cause.

Gladstone’s outbursts were not merely the rantings of an anti-Catholic bigot. Gladstone knew that an anti-popery campaign would garner him votes, since by this time he had written off the possibility of Catholic support. Lord Granville, too, identified such benefits in his correspondence with Gladstone: “Acton’s friends are a mere handful…. On the other hand I have no doubt your pamphlet will give great pleasure to a large majority of the country.” Gladstone had made overtures to Catholic voters early in his ministry and often failed to receive the support he expected. His 1874 Irish Education Bill, for example, was defeated in Parliament and resulted in his resignation. Gladstone blamed the Catholic bishops who failed to support the bill.

Despite Liberal Catholic loyalty, the votes of their fellow churchmen were increasingly cast for the Tories. Ironically, this was taking place right at the time when Disraeli was abandoning his Catholic support, as shown by, among other things, the publication of his anti-Catholic novel Lothair in 1870, intended to strengthen his Protestant support. For Quinn, the self-defeating behavior of Liberal and Tory Catholics is a further indication of political ineptness.

Quinn argues that by 1875, Liberal Catholicism was dead. Its political fortunes floundered with Gladstone’s, and it had sparred with the ecclesiastical authorities too often. The demise in 1861 of Acton’s journal The Rambler as a result of ecclesiastical pressures revealed the precarious footing of Liberal Catholicism. Three years later, Pius IX declared in the Syllabus of Errors his unwillingness to submit himself or the Church to the dictates of “progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” The failure of Lord Acton’s efforts to defeat the papal infallibility declaration of Vatican I through diplomatic maneuvers, writes Quinn, helped discredit not only his political career but those of his liberal Catholic colleagues.

Quinn makes clear the absence of a monolithic Catholic vote in late nineteenth-century England. He attributes the ineptitude of Catholic voting to inexperience, characterized by a sense that one’s minority status would necessarily attract greater party support than should have reasonably been expected. The careerism of many political Catholics seemed to be a component of this political naïveté.

Yet the death of Liberal Catholicism is the most significant point Quinn considers because it indicates the staying power of ecclesiastical authority to influence the future of Church life, including its political life. The trends were ultimately determined in Rome. As Church authorities began to question their wisdom, Liberal Catholics—not prepared for a fight—began to withdraw from the fray. For instance, Newman began to distance himself from what he believed to be Liberal Catholic excesses. This inflamed Lord Acton who, for some time, questioned Newman’s fidelity to liberalism.

Yet Newman had a reforming impact on the Church, perhaps unintelligible during Acton’s lifetime. And most importantly, it was an influence guided by the Magisterium—a fact in which faithful Catholics can find comfort.

Editor’s note: This review essay first appeared in the June 1994 issue of Crisis Magazine and is posted online for the first time. In the lead image above are, from left to right, John Henry Cardinal Newman, Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, and Lord Acton.


  • John M. Vella

    John M. Vella served as editor of Crisis Magazine from 2012 to 2019. For over a decade, he was the managing editor of Modern Age: A Quarterly Review published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). Before arriving at ISI, John served as publications manager at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. His essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of secular and Catholic publications including Chronicles, Chesterton Review, Modern Age, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, New Oxford Review, and University Bookman. He earned his Master’s in history at Villanova University in 2010.

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