Roman Catholicism in the United Kingdom

Roman Catholicism in the United Kingdom

The Roman Catholic Church in the United Kingdom is organised separately in England and Wales, in Scotland and in Northern Ireland, i.e. the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales and the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, and the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, of which Northern Ireland is part.

These two organisations are part of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church, under the spiritual government and teaching of the Pope and Roman Catholic bishops throughout the world. The apostolic nuncio to the United Kingdom is Archbishop Faustino Sainz Muñoz.

History of Catholicism in England and Wales

Early Years - Roman Province / Papal Mission

Christianity arrived in the Roman province of Britannia (which covered approximately the same area as modern England and Wales) in the first or second centuries. By the final years of Roman rule it was the dominant religion, but after the Romans left Britain and the pagan Angles, Saxons and Jutes invaded, it survived only in small scattered communities, especially in the Celtic outskirts in the west of the former province. Pope Gregory the Great sent St. Augustine in the late 6th Century from Rome to evangelise the Anglo-Saxons, a process completed by the 7th century. This is of particular interest in the Catholic Church as it was the first Papal Mission to found a church.

Scotland was being evangelised by the Celtic Church of St Columba, and these missions in turn evangelised most of northern England independently of Augustine, leading to the establishment of the priory on Lindisfarne.

The smallFact|date=July 2008 differences in custom between Roman Christianity and the Celtic Christian communities, e.g. different dates for the observation of Easter, which had developed during the latter's isolation from Rome after the Anglo-Saxon invasion, were ended by the Council of Whitby, which decided in favour of the Roman practices.

The Tudor Era

England remained a Catholic country for a thousand years, but was officially separated from Rome in 1534 during the reign of King Henry VIII. In response to the Pope's refusal to annul Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the Parliament of England denied the Pope's authority over the English Church, made the king Head of the Church in England, and dissolved the monasteries and religious orders in England. There was persecution of those who refused to accept this, including the execution of St Thomas More, former Lord Chancellor, and St John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, among others.

The "Pilgrimage of Grace", a rising in the North against the religious changes, was bloodily repressed. The reign of the boy King Edward VI saw a more radical form of Protestantism implemented, with the Mass replaced by the Book of Common Prayer, representational art and statues in church buildings destroyed, and Catholic practices which had survived during Henry's reign, such as the public saying of prayers to the Virgin Mary such as the Salve Regina, ended. England briefly resubmitted to Catholicism during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary I from 1555 to 1559.

Like all Henry VIII's children, Mary had had a traumatic childhood. She was genuinely pious and felt she had a mission to bring back England to the Catholic faith. This was not an impossible prospect since the greater part of the populace were still attached to Catholic beliefs.

In this enterprise she also had the assistance of a considerable number of spiritually impressive men. However, her allotted time was to be short and her strategic choices were at times ill-conceived. One fact for which she has for ever been reproached is the persecution that was unleashed in her reign on Protestants, with burnings at the stake. With the assistance of the propaganda of later governments, this episode ensured her a place in popular memory as Bloody Mary.

When Mary died and Elizabeth I became Queen in 1558, the religious situation in England was confused. Throughout the see-sawing religious landscape of the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary, a significant proportion of the population (especially in the rural and outlying areas of the country), perhaps even a large majority, continued to hold Catholic views (at least in private). By the end of Elizabeth's reign, however, England was clearly a Protestant country, and Catholics were definitely a minority.

Elizabeth's first act was to reverse her sister's reestablishment of Catholicism, but during the first years of her reign there was relative leniency towards Catholics who were willing to keep their religion private, going through the public pantomime of attending religious services they believed to be heretical.

However, England's wars with Catholic powers such as France and Spain, culminating in the attempted invasion by the Spanish Armada in 1588, and Pope St. Pius V's 1570 bull, "Regnans in Excelsis," declaring that Elizabeth was not a rightful queen and should be deposed, unleashed a nationalistic feeling which bolstered Protestantism and made every Catholic a suspected traitor. The Rising of the North inspired much worse persecution of Catholics; every Catholic was liable to be put to death for treason.

This applied especially to priests, who now began to be trained abroad at the English College at Douai. Given that Douai was located in the Spanish Netherlands, part of the dominions of Elizabethan England's greatest enemy, it was not difficult for the government to brand them as traitors.

Significant numbers of English Catholic martyrs died at this time under Elizabeth's reign, including St Edmund Campion.

It was this combination of nationalistic rousing of public opinion, ruthless persecution, and the rise of a new generation which could not remember pre-Reformation times and had no pre-established loyalty to Catholicism, that decimated the number of Catholics in England during this period.

The Stuart Era

The tarring of Catholics as traitors, and harsh persecution, continued during the reign of James I, especially after the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot conspiracy of a small group of Catholic conspirators, who aimed to blow up both King and Parliament. However the King did tolerate some Catholics at court, such as George Calvert, to whom he gave the title Baron Baltimore.

The reign of Charles I saw a small revival of Catholicism in England, especially among the upper classes. The rise of Puritanism and Calvinism within Protestantism, especially among the bourgeoisie and with anti-monarchical, anti-aristocratic leanings, pushed the King and many others to a consciously 'High Church' Anglicanism which was less anti-Catholic.

Charles refused in most cases to enforce anti-Catholic laws, allowing a significant increase in the number of Catholic clergy. The Counter-Reformation on the Continent of Europe had created a more vigorous and magnificent form of Catholicism that attracted some converts, like the poet Richard Crashaw.

Finally, the King's marriage to a French Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria, helped create a court with continental influences, where Catholicism was tolerated, even somewhat fashionable. The religious tensions between a Puritan Parliament and a court with 'Papist' elements was one of the major factors behind the English Civil War, in which almost all Catholics supported the King. The victory of the Parliamentarians meant a strongly Protestant, anti-Catholic regime under Oliver Cromwell.

The restoration of the monarchy under Charles II also saw the restoration of a Catholic-influenced court like his father's. However, although Charles himself had Catholic leanings, he was first and foremost a pragmatist and realised the vast majority of public opinion in England was strongly anti-Catholic, so he agreed to laws such as the Test Act requiring any appointee to any public office or member of Parliament to deny Catholic beliefs such as transubstantiation. As far as possible, however, he maintained tacit tolerance. Like his father, he married a Catholic, Catherine of Braganza. (He would convert to Catholicism himself on his deathbed).

Charles' brother and heir James, Duke of York (later James II) converted to Catholicism in 1668–1669. When Titus Oates in 1678 alleged a (totally imaginary) 'Popish Plot' to assassinate Charles and put James in his place, he unleashed a wave of Parliamentary and public hysteria which led to anti-Catholic purges, and another wave of martyrdoms, which Charles was either unable or unwilling to prevent. Throughout the early 1680s the Whig element in Parliament attempted to remove James as successor to the throne. Their failure saw James become, as James II in 1685, Britain's first openly Catholic monarch since Mary I (and last to date). He promised religious toleration for Catholic and Protestants on an equal footing, but it is in doubt whether he did this to gain support from Dissenters or whether he was truly committed to tolerance.

For a brief moment a happy future seemed to beckon for Catholics in England, encouraging converts like the great poet of the age, John Dryden. But Protestant fears mounted as James established a standing army with Catholics in the major commands, dismissed the Protestant Bishop of London and dismissed the Protestant Fellows of Magdalen College and replaced them with a wholly Catholic board. The last straw was the birth of a Catholic heir in 1688, seeming to portend an eternal Catholic dynasty.

The Glorious Revolution deposed James and established his Protestant daughter and son-in-law, Mary II and William III, on the throne. The King fled into exile, and with him a large proportion of the Catholic nobility and gentry. The Act of Settlement 1701, which remains in operation today, excludes any Catholic or anyone who marries a Catholic from the throne.

The Eighteenth Century

The years from 1688 to the early nineteenth century were in some respects the nadir for Catholicism in England. Although the persecution was not violent as in the past, Catholic numbers, influence and visibility in English society reached their lowest ebb. Their civil rights were severely curtailed: their right to own property or inherit land was greatly limited, they were burdened with special taxes, they could not send their children abroad for Catholic education, they could not vote, and priests were liable to imprisonment.

There was no longer, as once in Stuart times, any Catholic presence at court, in public life, in the military or professions. Many of the Catholic nobles and gentry who had preserved on their lands among their tenants small pockets of Catholicism had followed James into exile, and others at last conformed to Anglicanism, meaning that only very few such Catholic communities survived.

Most Catholics retreated to complete isolation from a completely Protestant mainstream, and Catholicism in England in this period is almost invisible to history, Alexander Pope being the one memorable English Catholic of the 18th century. Later in the century there was some liberalisation of the anti-Catholic laws on the basis of Enlightenment ideals.

In 1778 a 'Catholic Relief Act' allowed Catholics to own property, inherit land and join the army. Hardline Protestant mobs reacted in the Gordon Riots in 1780, attacking any building in London which was associated with Catholicism or owned by Catholics. Other reforms allowed the clergy to operate more openly and thus allowed permanent missions to be set up in the larger towns, but Catholics recusants remained a small, very marginalised group, except where Catholicism remained the majority religion in various pockets, notably rural Lancashire and Cumbria. Some adopted Cisalpinism, which helped them better accommodate to their situation.

The Catholic Revival in the Nineteenth Century

After this moribund period, the first signs of a revival occurred as thousands of French Catholics fled France during the French Revolution. The leaders of the Revolution were virulently anti-Catholic, even singling out priests and nuns for summary execution or massacre, and England was seen as a safe haven from Jacobin violence. In addition, Britain was allied with several Catholic states such as Portugal and Spain against France during the Napoleonic Wars, including the Holy See itself after France seized the Papal States in 1808, and this also led to a thawing in relations with the Catholic world. In 1829 came the culmination of the liberalisation of the anti-Catholic laws. Parliament passed the Catholic Emancipation Act, giving Catholics almost equal civil rights, including the right to vote and to hold most public offices.

In the 1840s and 1850s, especially during the Great Irish Famine, while the bulk of the large outflow of emigration from Ireland was headed to the United States, thousands of poor Irish people also moved to Britain and established communities in Britain's cities, including London, Liverpool, and Glasgow, but also in towns and villages up and down the country, thus giving Catholicism a huge numerical boost. Also significant was the rise in the 1830s and 1840s of the Oxford Movement, which sought to revive some elements of Catholic theology and ritual within the Church of England (creating so-called Anglo-Catholicism).

Many of the Anglicans who were involved in the Oxford Movement or "Tractarianism" were ultimately led beyond these positions and converted to the Catholic Church, including, in 1845, the movement's principal intellectual leader, John Henry Newman. A steady stream of converts would continue to enter the Catholic Church from the different varieties of Protestantism, often via high Anglicanism, for at least the next hundred years, and something of this continues. Among a large number of converts from Anglicanism were some who brought British Catholicism a certain amount of public prestige.

Prominent British intellectual and artistic figures who converted to Catholicism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries included the leading architect of the Gothic Revival, Augustus Pugin, and literary figures such as Newman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, G. K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and Muriel Spark. J.R.R. Tolkien joined the Catholic Church with his mother at the age of eight. One cradle Catholic writer was Hilaire Belloc, whose father was French.

There is no doubt that at various points after the 16th century real hopes have been entertained by many English Catholics that the 'reconversion of England' was near at hand. To some the sign of this being imminent was the steady trickle of establishment converts from the second quarter of the 19th century on.

More important was the arrival of masses of poor Irish Catholics in Britain. Together these trends were seen by some as constituting a "second spring" of Catholicism in Britain. Rome responded by re-establishing the Catholic hierarchy in 1850 in England and Wales and in 1878 in Scotland, creating Catholic dioceses in England and appointing English Catholic bishops with fixed sees on the traditional pattern for the first time since the English people and monarchy had turned to Protestantism.

The re-established hierarchy was forbidden by the British Parliament from using places that were seats of Church of England dioceses as seats, in effect abandoning the titles of Catholic dioceses before Elizabeth I. In the few cases where a Catholic diocese bears the same title as an Anglican one in the same town or city (e.g. Birmingham, Liverpool, Portsmouth, and Southwark), this is because the Roman Catholic see was established before the Church of England see.

The Twentieth Century and the present

English Catholicism retained its renewed strength throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Numbers attending Mass remained very high, in stark contrast with the Anglican and other Protestant churches, and conversions and vocations to the priesthood and religious life were (as mentioned above) also plentiful. This has changed since the 1960s, due to similar influences as have affected the Church elsewhere: the increased pressures of secularisation and sexual libertinism.

As in other English-speaking countries such as the United States and Australia, the movement of Irish Catholics out of the working-class into the middle-class suburban mainstream often meant their assimilation with broader, secular English society and loss of a separate Catholic identity. The Second Vatican Council has been followed, as in other Western countries, by divisions between traditional Catholicism and a more liberal form of Catholicism claiming inspiration from the Council. This caused difficulties for not a few pre-conciliar converts, though others have still joined the Church in recent decades (for instance, Malcolm Muggeridge and Joseph Pearce), and public figures such as former Prime Minister Tony Blair and especially his wife, Cherie Blair, have no difficulty making their Catholicism known to the public, although Tony had waited with his "official" conversion and subsequent announcement until December, 2007, well after having left his Downing Street office. [cite news |url= |title=Tony Blair joins Catholic faith |author= |work=BBC News online |date=22 December 2007 |accessdate=2007-11-22] [Francis Beckett and David Hencke, "The Blairs and Their Court", 2004, Aurum Press Ltd, ISBN 978-1845130244] [Francis Beckett and David Hencke, "The Survivor: Tony Blair in War and Peace", 2005, Aurum Press Ltd, ISBN 978-1845131104] [Francis Beckett and David Hencke, [,9061,1314216,00.html "Regular at mass, communion from Pope. So why is Blair evasive about his faith?"] ,"The Guardian", September 28 2004] [Ruth Gledhill, Jeremy Austin and Philip Webster, [ "Blair will be welcomed into Catholic fold via his 'baptism of desire'"] , "The Times", May 17 2007]

Since the Council the Church in England has tended to focus on ecumenical dialogue with the Anglican Church rather than simply winning converts from it as in the past. However, this somewhat cosy world has been disrupted from the Anglican side as the 1990s have seen significant numbers of conversions from Anglicanism to the Catholic Church, largely prompted by the Church of England's decision to ordain women as priests (among other moves away from traditional doctrines and structures). The resultant converts included members of the Royal Family (Katharine, Duchess of Kent, her son Lord Nicholas Windsor and her grandson Baron Downpatrick), the Anglican Bishop of London (Graham Leonard), a large number of Anglican priests and even whole congregations. Such Anglican converts to Catholicism, such as Bishop Richard Williamson, are often very hard-line within their new faith as well.

Catholicism in Scotland

Catholicism in Scotland has had an often-turbulent history. Following the Scottish Reformation in 1560, Catholicism was outlawed. St John Ogilvie (1569-1615) who was raised a Calvinist but converted to Catholicism in 1596, was ordained a priest in 1610 and was hanged for proselytism in Glasgow.

From the mid 19th century onwards, the Catholic population in Scotland (especially in the west) started to increase largely due to immigration from Ireland. Much of Catholic population of the Glasgow area can trace its roots back to County Donegal. The Catholic hierarchy in Scotland was restored in the mid 19th century. The other smaller, but significant, Catholic community in Scotland can be found in some isolated parts of the West Highlands and the islands of South Uist and Barra – where the Protestant Reformation effectively did not reach.

This era also saw the emergence of sectarian tensions. In 1923 the Church of Scotland produced a highly-controversial (and since repudiated) report entitled "The Menace of the Irish Race to our Scottish Nationality". It accused the Catholic population of subverting Presbyterian values and of causing drunkenness, crime and financial imprudence. Such official attitudes started to wane considerably from the 1930s/40s onwards. In 1986 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland expressly repudiated the sections of the Westminster Confession directly attacking Catholicism. In 1990, both the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church were founder members of the ecumenical bodies Churches Together in Britain and Ireland and Action of Churches Together in Scotland; relations between church leaders are now very cordial.

Unlike the relationship between the churches, some communal tensions still remain. The association between football and displays of sectarian behaviour by some fans has been a source of embarrassment and concern to the management of certain clubs. The bitter rivalry between Celtic and Rangers in Glasgow, known as the Old Firm, is known worldwide for its sectarian divide between Irish-Catholic Celtic and the Protestant Unionist Rangers. Sectarian tensions can still be very real, though perhaps diminished compared with past decades. Perhaps the greatest psychological breakthrough was when Rangers signed Mo Johnston (a Catholic) in 1989. Celtic, on the other hand have never had a policy of not signing players due to their religion with many of the club's greatest figures being Protestants.

Sectarianism on both sides is often manifested in activities such as boorish chanting at football matches or post-match thuggery, quite contrary to the values of peace common to Catholicism and Protestantism alike. The Scottish Parliament has recently legislated against sectarianism, making sectarian-related offences a form of aggravated offence.

The Catholic community in Scotland were once largely working class. In recent years things have changed markedly; many Catholics can be found in the what used to be called the professions and it is now unremarkable for Catholics to be occupying posts in the judiciary or in national politics. In 1999 the Rt Hon Dr John Reid MP became the first Catholic to hold the office of Secretary of State for Scotland. His succession by the Rt Hon Helen Liddell MP in 2001 attracted considerably more media comment that she was the first woman to hold the post rather than the second Catholic.

It is notable that the Catholic Church recognises the separate identities of Scotland and of England and Wales. The Church in Scotland is thus governed by its own hierarchy and Bishops' Conference, not under the control of the English Bishops. In recent years there have been times when it was especially the Scots Catholic Bishops who took the floor in the United Kingdom to argue for Catholic social and moral teaching.

History of Catholicism in Northern Ireland


The Catholic Bishops in England and Wales come together in a collaborative structure known as the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales. Their elected President is currently the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor. In Northern Ireland, they are part of the larger pan-Irish Irish Bishops Conference.

The Scottish bishops have an entirely separate conference, the Bishops' Conference of Scotland; their president is currently the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, Cardinal Keith Michael Patrick O'Brien.

Within United Kingdom the Catholic hierarchy consists of:

England and Wales


ee also

*Religion in the United Kingdom
*Roman Catholic Church in Ireland

External links

* [ Catholic Church in England and Wales]
* [ Catholic Scotland]
* [ Map]
* [ The Holy See — The Vatican's Official Website]

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