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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 34

VI. Were the Propositions proper to be set forth by the present Writer?

page 26

VI. Were the Propositions proper to be set forth by the present Writer?

There remains yet before us only the shortest and least significant portion of the inquiry, namely, whether these things, being true, and being material to be said, were also proper to be said by me. I must ask pardon if a tone of egotism be detected in this necessarily subordinate portion of my remarks.

For thirty years, and in a great variety of circumstances, in office and as an independent Member of Parliament, in majorities and in small minorities, and during the larger portion of the time* as the representative of a great constituency, mainly clerical, I have, with others, laboured to maintain and extend the civil rights of my Roman Catholic fellow-countrymen. The Liberal party of this country, with which I have been commonly associated, has suffered, and sometimes suffered heavily, in public favour and in influence, from the belief that it was too ardent in the pursuit of that policy; while at the same time it has always been in the worst odour with the Court of Rome, in consequence of its (I hope) unalterable attachment to Italian liberty and independence. I have sometimes been the spokesman of that party in recommendations which have tended to foster in fact the imputation I have mentioned, though not to warrant it as matter of reason. But it has existed in fact. So that while (as I think) general justice to society required that these things which I have now set forth should be written, special justice, as towards the party to which I am loyally attached, and which I may have had a share in thus placing at a disadvantage before our countrymen, made it, to say the least, becoming that I should not shrink from writing them.

In discharging that office, I have sought to perform the part not of a theological partisan, but simply of a good citizen; of one hopeful that many of his Roman Catholic friends and fellow-countrymen, who are, to say the least of it, as good citizens as himself, may perceive that the case is not a frivolous case, but one that merits their attention.

I will next proceed to give the reason why, up to a recent date, I have thought it right in the main to leave to any others, who might feel it, the duty of dealing in detail with this question.

The great change, which seems to me to have been brought about in the position of Roman Catholic Christians as citizens, reached its consummation, and came into full operation in July, 1870, by the proceedings or so-called decrees of the Vatican Council.

Up to that time, opinion in the Roman Church on all matters involving civil liberty, though partially and sometimes widely intimidated, was free wherever it was resolute. During the Middle Ages, heresy was often extinguished in blood, but in every Cisalpine country a principle of liberty, to a great extent, held its own, and national life refused to be put down. Nay more, these precious and inestimable gifts had not infrequently for their champions a local prelacy and clergy. The Constitutions of Clarendon, cursed from the Papal throne, were the work of the English Bishops. Stephen Langton, appointed directly, through an extra- page 27 ordinary stretch of power, by Innocent III., to the See of Canterbury, headed the Barons of England in extorting from the Papal minion John, the worst and basest of all our Sovereigns, that Magna Charta, which the Pope at once visited with his anathemas. In the reign of Henry VIII., it was Tunstal, Bishop of Durham, who first wrote against the Papal domination. Tunstal was followed by Gardiner; and even the recognition of the Royal Headship was voted by the clergy, not under Cranmer, but under his unsuspected predecessor Warham. Strong and domineering as was the high Papal party in those centuries, the resistance was manful. Thrice in history, it seemed as if what we may call the Constitutional party in the Church was about to triumph: first at the epoch of the Council of Constance; secondly, when the French Episcopate was in conflict with Pope Innocent XI.; thirdly, when Clement XIV. levelled with the dust the deadliest foes that mental and moral liberty have ever known. But from July 1870, this state of things has passed away, and the death-warrant of that Constitutional party has been signed, and sealed, and promulgated in form.

Before that time arrived, although I had used expressions sufficiently indicative as to the tendency of things in the great Latin Communion, yet I had for very many years felt it to be the first and paramount duty of the British Legislature, whatever Rome might say or do, to give to Ireland all that justice could demand, in regard to matters of conscience and of civil equality, and thus to set herself right in the opinion of the civilized world. So far from seeing, what some believed they saw, a spirit of unworthy compliance in such a course, it appeared to me the only one which suited either the dignity or the duty of my country. While this debt remained unpaid, both before and after 1870, I did not think it my province to open formally a line of argument on a question of prospective rather than immediate moment, which might have prejudiced the matter of duty lying nearest our hand, and morally injured Great Britain not less than Ireland, Churchmen and Nonconformists not less than adherents of the Papal Communion, by slackening the disposition to pay the debt of justice. When Parliament had passed the Church Act of 1869 and the Land Act of 1870, there remained only, under the great head of Imperial equity, one serious question to be dealt with—that of the higher Education. I consider that the Liberal majority in the House of Commons, and the Government to which I had the honour and satisfaction to belong, formally tendered payment in full of this portion of the debt by the Irish University Bill of February, 1873. Some indeed think, that it was overpaid: a question into which this is manifestly not the place to enter. But the Roman Catholic prelacy of Ireland thought fit to procure the rejection of that measure, by the direct influence which they exercised over a certain number of Irish Members of Parliament, and by the temptation which they thus offered—the bid, in effect, which (to use a homely phrase) they made, to attract the support of the Tory Opposition. Their efforts were crowned with a complete success. From that time forward I have felt that the situation was changed, and that important matters would have to be cleared by suitable explanations. The debt to Ireland had been paid; a debt to the country at large page 28 had still to be disposed of, and this has come to be the duty of the hour. So long, indeed, as I continued to be Prime Minister, I should not have considered a broad political discussion on a general question suitable to proceed from me; while neither I nor (I am certain) my colleagues would have been disposed to run the risk of stirring popular passions by a vulgar and unexplained appeal. But every difficulty, arising from the necessary limitations of an official position, has now been removed.

* From 1847 to 1865 I sat for the University of Oxford.