One of the more interesting commemorations coming up in 2019 is the 190th anniversary of Catholic Emancipation in Great Britain. This was not exactly the same thing as Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the African slaves in the United States. But for many Catholics living in England, the relief it granted might have felt somewhat similar.
Full emancipation was granted by an act of Parliament on April 13, 1829. But the movement had begun in Britain and Ireland in the late 180th century — to secure full civil and political rights for Catholics, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
“Relief acts in England and Ireland (1778 and 1791) and in Scotland (1793) removed some disabilities imposed on Roman Catholics by the Penal Laws,” the encyclopedia says.
Veteran British journalist and television host Joanna Bogle gives a comprehensive background of the laws in an article in the Catholic World Report. The Catholic Relief Act of 1829 “removed the last traces of anti-Catholic laws which had been variously enforced since the reign of Elizabeth I,” Bogle writes.
To the adverb “variously” Bogle might also add the word “unpredictably.” She outlines how times went from good to bad to worse: initial relief under the Stuart King James II, a Catholic, followed by strong enforcement of restrictions under succeeding Protestant monarchs:
Throughout the 18th century, Britain was officially a “Protestant country,” with Catholicism seen by many as something alien and wholly foreign. Following the failure of the Stuarts to regain the throne in 1746—with the slaughter at Culloden and the exile of “Bonnie Prince Charlie”—the situation seemed unlikely to change.
But the advent of the 19th century brought new ways of thinking, such as a challenge to the idea that religious belief and practice was essentially a matter for the State to impose or control, Bogle writes. John Wesley’s outdoor preaching “made the Anglican establishment look bleak and bereft of conviction” and the Industrial Revolution “brought changes to the old way of life. ”
Still Catholic Emancipation was extremely controversial, Bogle writes. “The King—George IV, son of George III and regent during his father’s final illness—announced that to sign the act would be to betray his coronation oath,” she pointed out. “There were fears of the pope—a foreigner!—having influence on the British way of life.”
But the Duke of Wellington, a national hero after prevailing in the battle of Waterloo, had become prime minister, and in January 1829 persuaded the king to allow Catholics freedom to practice their faith.
“So the act became law. Catholics were freed from all restrictions on founding schools and churches and establishing organizations, and could become Members of Parliament, hold commissions in the Army, and be active in public life. All that effectively remained were limitations on marrying into the Royal Family,” Bogle wrote.
But there was also something more. Catholics knew of the attempt under Queen Mary Tudor to re-impose Catholicism following the break with Rome under Henry VIII. Mary had in fact initially been a popular queen—people loved their Faith and rejoiced to have back their feast-days and traditions. They longed for the return of monks and nuns who had cared for the poor and sick. But the burning alive of Protestants did not produce the results Mary wanted; it killed heretics but not the heresy. Was the imposition of Catholicism by law the best way of reviving the Faith? Catholics also knew—which many of their fellow-countrymen did not—of the reverse side of the story: persecution of Catholics in the subsequent reign of Mary’s half-sister, Elizabeth. Men trained abroad as priests and returned to minister in secret to those who sought to remain faithful to the Catholic faith. When arrested and tried they invariably spoke only about the truths of the Faith: the glory of the Mass and the sacraments, the unity of the Church with the successor of St. Peter. They did not see themselves as agents of a foreign power, nor did they seek to impose Catholicism by government decree or State action.
This spirit of martyrdom nourished the faith, she wrote, and in the Victorian era, which began with the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1834, Catholicism enjoyed a revival that was manifested by not only freedom, but Irish immigration, the Oxford Movement, the Gothic Revival in architecture, and more.
“It both fostered and was fostered by social reform, widespread literacy, and a renewed interest in history,” Bogle wrote. “And it was the fruit of freedom, of people allowed to hear the voice of the Church and to respond to it.”