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Lytton Strachey (1880–1932). Eminent Victorians. 1918

Cardinal Manning

Part VII

MEANWHILE a remarkable problem was absorbing the attention of the Catholic Church. Once more, for a moment, the eyes of all Christendom were fixed upon Rome. The temporal Power of the Pope had now almost vanished; but, as his worldly dominions steadily diminished, the spiritual pretensions of the Holy Father no less steadily increased. For seven centuries the immaculate conception of the Virgin had been highly problematical; Pio Nono spoke, and the doctrine became an article of faith. A few years later, the Court of Rome took another step: a Syllabus Errorum was issued, in which all the favourite beliefs of the modern world—the rights of democracies, the claims of science, the sanctity of free speech, the principles of toleration—were categorically denounced, and their supporters abandoned to the Divine wrath. Yet it was observed that the modern world proceeded as before. Something more drastic appeared to be necessary—some bold and striking measure which should concentrate the forces of the faithful, and confound their enemies. The tremendous doctrine of Papal Infallibility, beloved of all good Catholics, seemed to offer just the opening that was required. Let that doctrine be proclaimed, with the assent of the whole Church, an article of faith, and, in the face of such an affirmation, let the modern world do its worst! Accordingly a General Council —the first to be held since the Council of Trent more than 300 years before—was summoned to the Vatican, for the purpose, so it was announced, of providing “an adequate remedy to the disorders, intellectual and moral, of Christendom.” The programme might seem a large one, even for a General Council; but everyone knew what it meant.

Everyone, however, was not quite of one mind. There were those to whom even the mysteries of Infallibility caused some searchings of heart. It was true, no doubt, that Our Lord, by saying to Peter, “Thou art Cephas, which is by interpretation a stone,” thereby endowed that Apostle with the supreme and full primacy and principality over the Universal Catholic Church; it was equally certain that Peter afterwards became the Bishop of Rome; nor could it be doubted that the Roman Pontiff was his successor. Thus it followed directly that the Roman Pontiff was the head, heart, mind, and tongue of the Catholic Church; and moreover it was plain that when Our Lord prayed for Peter that his faith should not fail, that prayer implied the doctrine of Papal Infallibility. All these things were obvious, and yet—and yet—. Might not the formal declaration of such truths in the year of grace 1870 be, to say the least of it, inopportune? Might it not come as an offence, as a scandal even, to those unacquainted with the niceties of Catholic dogma? Such were the uneasy reflections of grave and learned ecclesiastics and theologians in England, France, and Germany. Newman was more than usually upset; Monseigneur Dupanloup was disgusted; and Dr. Döllinger prepared himself for resistance. It was clear that there would be a disaffected minority at the Council.

Catholic apologists have often argued that the Pope’s claim to infallibility implies no more than the necessary claim of every ruler, of every government, to the right of supreme command. In England, for instance, the Estates of the Realm exercise an absolute authority in secular matters; no one questions this authority, no one suggests that it is absurd or exorbitant; in other words, by general consent, the Estates of the Realm are, within their sphere, infallible. Why, therefore, should the Pope, within his sphere—the sphere of the Catholic Church—be denied a similar infallibility? If there is nothing monstrous in an Act of Parliament laying down what all men shall do, why should there be anything monstrous in a Papal Encyclical laying down what all men shall believe? The argument is simple; in fact, it is too simple; for it takes for granted the very question which is in dispute. Is there indeed no radical and essential distinction between supremacy and infallibility? between the right of a Borough Council to regulate the traffic and the right of the Vicar of Christ to decide upon the qualifications for Everlasting Bliss? There is one distinction, at any rate, which is palpable: the decisions of a supreme authority can be altered; those of an infallible authority cannot. A Borough Council may change its traffic regulations at the next meeting; but the Vicar of Christ, when, in certain circumstances and with certain precautions, he has once spoken, has expressed, for all the ages, a part of the immutable, absolute, and eternal Truth. It is this that makes the papal pretensions so extraordinary and so enormous. It is also this that gives them their charm. Catholic apologists, when they try to tone down those pretensions and to explain them away, forget that it is in their very exorbitance that their fascination lies. If the Pope were indeed nothing more than a magnified Borough Councillor, we should hardly have heard so much of him. It is not because he satisfies the reason, but because he astounds it, that men abase themselves before the Vicar of Christ.

And certainly the doctrine of Papal Infallibility presents to the reason a sufficiency of stumbling-blocks. In the fourteenth century, for instance, the following case arose. John XXII. asserted in his bull “Cum inter nonnullos” that the doctrine of the poverty of Christ was heretical. Now, according to the light of reason, one of two things must follow from this—either John XXII. was himself a heretic or he was no Pope. For his predecessor, Nicholas III., had asserted in his bull “Exiit qui seminat” that the doctrine of the poverty of Christ was the true doctrine, the denial of which was heresy. Thus if John XXII. was right Nicholas III. was a heretic, and in that case Nicholas’s nominations of Cardinals were void, and the conclave which elected John was illegal; so that John was no Pope, his nominations of Cardinals were void, and the whole Papal succession vitiated. On the other hand, if John was wrong—well, he was a heretic; and the same inconvenient results followed. And, in either case, what becomes of Papal Infallibility?

But such crude and fundamental questions as these were not likely to trouble the Council. The discordant minority took another line. Infallibility they admitted readily enough—the infallibility, that is to say, of the Church; what they shrank from was the pronouncement that this infallibility was concentrated in the Bishop of Rome. They would not actually deny that, as a matter of fact, it was so concentrated; but to declare that it was, to make the belief that it was an article of faith—what could be more—it was their favourite expression—more inopportune? In truth, the Gallican spirit still lingered among them. At heart, they hated the autocracy of Rome—the domination of the centralised Italian organisation over the whole vast body of the Church. They secretly hankered, even at this late hour, after some form of constitutional government, and they knew that the last faint vestige of such a dream would vanish utterly with the declaration of the infallibility of the Pope. It did not occur to them, apparently, that a constitutional Catholicism might be a contradiction in terms, and that the Catholic Church without the absolute dominion of the Pope might resemble the play of Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.

Pius IX. himself was troubled by no doubts. “Before I was Pope,” he observed, “I believed in Papal Infallibility, now I feel it.” As for Manning, his certainty was no less complete than his master’s. Apart from the Holy Ghost, his appointment to the See of Westminster had been due to Pio Nono’s shrewd appreciation of the fact that he was the one man in England upon whose fidelity the Roman Government could absolutely rely. The voice which kept repeating “Mettetelo lì, mettetelo lì” in his Holiness’s ear whether or not it was inspired by God, was certainly inspired by political sagacity. For now Manning was to show that he was not unworthy of the trust which had been reposed in him. He flew to Rome in a whirlwind of Papal enthusiasm. On the way, in Paris, he stopped for a moment to interview those two great props of French respectability, M. Guizot and M. Thiers. Both were careful not to commit themselves, but both were exceedingly polite. “I am awaiting your Council,” said M. Guizot, “with great anxiety. It is the last great moral power and may restore the peace of Europe.” M. Thiers delivered a brief harangue in favour of the principles of the Revolution, which, he declared, were the very marrow of all Frenchmen; yet, he added, he had always supported the Temporal Power of the Pope. “Mais, M. Thiers,” said Manning, “vous eˆtes effectivement croyant.” “En Dieu,” replied M. Thiers.

The Rome which Manning reached towards the close of 1869 was still the Rome which, for so many centuries, had been the proud and visible apex, the palpitating heart, the sacred sanctuary, of the most extraordinary mingling of spiritual and earthly powers that the world has ever known. The Pope now, it is true, ruled over little more than the City itself—the Patrimony of St. Peter—and he ruled there less by the grace of God than by the goodwill of Napoleon III.; yet he was still a sovereign Prince; and Rome was still the capital of the Papal State; she was not yet the capital of Italy. The last hour of this strange dominion had almost struck. As if she knew that her doom was upon her the Eternal City arrayed herself to meet it in all her glory. The whole world seemed to be gathered together within her walls. Her streets were filled with crowned heads and Princes of the Church, great ladies and great theologians, artists and friars, diplomats and newspaper reporters. Seven hundred bishops were there, from all the corners of Christendom, and in all the varieties of ecclesiastical magnificence—in falling lace and sweeping purple and flowing violet veils. Zouaves stood in the colonnade of St. Peter’s, and Papal troops were on the Quirinal. Cardinals passed, hatted and robed, in their enormous carriages of state, like mysterious painted idols. Then there was a sudden hush: the crowd grew thicker and expectation filled the air. Yes! it was he! He was coming! The Holy Father! But first there appeared, mounted on a white mule and clothed in a magenta mantle, a grave dignitary bearing aloft a silver cross. The golden coach followed, drawn by six horses gorgeously caparisoned, and within the smiling white-haired Pio Nono, scattering his benedictions, while the multitude fell upon its knees as one man. Such were the daily spectacles of coloured pomp and of antique solemnity, which—so long as the sun was shining, at any rate—dazzled the onlooker into a happy forgetfulness of the reverse side of the Papal dispensation—the nauseating filth of the highways, the cattle stabled in the palaces of the great, and the fever flitting through the ghastly tenements of the poor.

In St. Peter’s, the North Transept had been screened off; rows of wooden seats had been erected, covered with Brussels carpet; and upon these seats sat, each crowned with a white mitre, the seven hundred Bishops in Council. Here all day long rolled forth, in sonorous Latin, the interminable periods of episcopal oratory; but it was not here that the issue of the Council was determined. The assembled Fathers might talk till the marbles of St. Peter’s themselves grew weary of the reverberations; the fate of the Church was decided in a very different manner—by little knots of influential persons meeting quietly of a morning in the back room of some inconspicuous lodging-house, by a sunset rendezvous in the Borghese Gardens between a Cardinal and a Diplomatist, by a whispered conference in an alcove at a Princess’s evening party, with the gay world chattering all about. And, of course, on such momentous occasions as these, Manning was in his element. None knew those difficult ropes better than he; none used them with a more serviceable and yet discreet alacrity. In every juncture he had the right word, or the right silence; his influence ramified in all directions, from the Pope’s audience chamber to the English Cabinet. “Il Diavolo del Concilio” his enemies called him; and he gloried in the name.

The real crux of the position was less ecclesiastical than diplomatic. The Papal Court, with its huge majority of Italian Bishops, could make sure enough, when it came to the point, of carrying its wishes through the Council; what was far more dubious was the attitude of the foreign Governments—especially those of France and England. The French Government dreaded a schism among its Catholic subjects; it disliked the prospect of an extension of the influence of the Pope over the mass of the population of France; and, since the very existence of the last remnant of the Pope’s Temporal Power depended upon the French army, it was able to apply considerable pressure upon the Vatican. The interests of England were less directly involved, but it happened that at this moment Mr. Gladstone was Prime Minister, and Mr. Gladstone entertained strong views upon the Infallibility of the Pope. His opinions upon the subject were in part the outcome of his friendship with Lord Acton, a historian to whom learning and judgment had not been granted in equal proportions, and who, after years of incredible and indeed well-nigh mythical research, had come to the conclusion that the Pope could err. In this Mr. Gladstone entirely concurred, though he did not share the rest of his friend’s theological opinions; for Lord Acton, while straining at the gnat of Infallibility, had swallowed the camel of the Roman Catholic Faith. “Que diable allait-il faire dans cette galère?” one cannot help asking, as one watches that laborious and scrupulous scholar, that life-long enthusiast for liberty, that almost hysterical reviler of priestcraft and persecution, trailing his learning so discrepantly along the dusty Roman way. But there are some who know how to wear their Rome with a difference; and Lord Acton was one of these.

He was now engaged in fluttering like a moth round the Council, and in writing long letters to Mr. Gladstone, impressing upon him the gravity of the situation, and urging him to bring his influence to bear. If the Dogma were carried, he declared, no man who accepted it could remain a loyal subject, and Catholics would everywhere become “irredeemable enemies of civil and religious liberty.” In these circumstances, was it not plainly incumbent upon the English Government, involved as it was with the powerful Roman Catholic forces in Ireland, to intervene? Mr. Gladstone allowed himself to become convinced, and Lord Acton began to hope that his efforts would be successful. But he had forgotten one element in the situation; he had reckoned without the Archbishop of Westminster. The sharp nose of Manning sniffed out the whole intrigue. Though he despised Lord Acton almost as much as he disliked him—“such men,” he said, “are all vanity: they have the inflation of German professors, and the ruthless talk of undergraduates”—yet he realised clearly enough the danger of his correspondence with the Prime Minister, and immediately took steps to counteract it. There was a semi-official agent of the English Government in Rome, Mr. Odo Russell, and round him Manning set to work to spin his spider’s web of delicate and clinging diplomacy. Preliminary politenesses were followed by long walks upon the Pincio, and the gradual interchange of more and more important and confidential communications. Soon poor Mr. Russell was little better than a fly buzzing in gossamer. And Manning was careful to see that he buzzed on the right note. In his despatches to the Foreign Secretary, Lord Clarendon, Mr. Russell explained in detail the true nature of the Council, that it was merely a meeting of a few Roman Catholic prelates to discuss some internal matters of Church discipline, that it had no political significance whatever, that the question of Infallibility, about which there had been so much random talk, was a purely theological question, and that, whatever decision might be come to upon the subject, the position of Roman Catholics throughout the world would remain unchanged. Whether the effect of these affirmations upon Lord Clarendon was as great as Manning supposed, is somewhat doubtful; but it is at any rate certain that Mr. Gladstone failed to carry the Cabinet with him; and when at last a proposal was definitely made that the English Government should invite the Powers of Europe to intervene at the Vatican, it was rejected. Manning always believed that this was the direct result of Mr. Russell’s despatches, which had acted as an antidote to the poison of Lord Acton’s letters, and thus carried the day. If that was so—the discretion of biographers has not yet entirely lifted the veil from these proceedings—Manning had assuredly performed no small service for his cause. Yet his modesty would not allow him to assume for himself a credit which, after all, was due elsewhere; and, when he told the story of those days, he would add, with more than wonted seriousness, “It was by the Divine Will that the designs of His enemies were frustrated.”

Meanwhile, in the North Transept of St. Peter’s a certain amount of preliminary business had been carried through. Various miscellaneous points in Christian doctrine had been satisfactorily determined. Among others, the following Canons were laid down by the Fathers. “If any one do not accept for sacred and canonical the whole and every part of the Books of Holy Scripture, or deny that they are divinely inspired, let him be anathema.” “If any one say that miracles cannot be, and therefore the accounts of them, even those in Holy Scriptures, must be assigned a place among fables and myths, or that the divine origin of the Christian religion cannot rightly be proved from them, let him be anathema.” “If any one say that the doctrines of the Church can ever receive a sense in accordance with the progress of science, other than that sense which the Church has understood and still understands, let him be anathema.” “If any one say that it is not possible, by the natural light of human reason, to acquire a certain knowledge of The One and True God, let him be anathema.” In other words, it became an article of Faith that Faith was not necessary for a true knowledge of God. Having disposed of these minor matters, the Fathers found themselves at last approaching the great question of Infallibility. Two main issues, it soon appeared, were before them: the Pope’s Infallibility was admitted, ostensibly at least, by all; what remained to be determined was, (1) whether the definition of the Pope’s Infallibility was opportune, and (2) what the definition of the Pope’s Infallibility was. (1) It soon became clear that the sense of the Council was overwhelming in favour of a definition. The Inopportunists were a small minority; they were outvoted, and they were obliged to give way. It only remained, therefore, to come to a decision upon the second question—what the definition should actually be. (2) It now became the object of the Inopportunists to limit the scope of the definition as much as possible, while the Infallibilists were no less eager to extend it. Now every one—or nearly every one—was ready to limit the Papal Infallibility to pronouncements ex cathedrâ—that is to say, to those made by the Pope in his capacity of Universal Doctor; but this only served to raise the ulterior, the portentous, and indeed the really crucial question—to which of the Papal pronouncements ex cathedrâ did Infallibility adhere? The discussions which followed were, naturally enough, numerous, complicated, and embittered, and in all of them Manning played a conspicuous part. For two months the Fathers deliberated; through fifty sessions they sought the guidance of the Holy Ghost. The wooden seats, covered though they were with Brussels carpet, grew harder and harder; and still the mitred Councillors sat on. The Pope himself began to grow impatient; for one thing, he declared, he was being ruined by the mere expense of lodging and keeping the multitude of his adherents. “Questi infallibilisti mi faranno fallire,” said his Holiness. At length it appeared that the Inopportunists were dragging out the proceedings in the hope of obtaining an indefinite postponement. Then the authorities began to act; a bishop was shouted down, and the closure was brought into operation. At this point the French Government, after long hesitation, finally decided to intervene, and Cardinal Antonelli was informed that if the Definition was proceeded with the French troops would be withdrawn from Rome. But the astute Cardinal judged that he could safely ignore the threat. He saw that Napoleon III. was tottering to his fall and would never risk an open rupture with the Vatican. Accordingly it was determined to bring the proceedings to a close by a final vote. Already the Inopportunists, seeing that the game was up, had shaken the dust of Rome from their feet. On July 18, 1870, the Council met for the last time. As the first of the Fathers stepped forward to declare his vote, a storm of thunder and lightning suddenly burst over St. Peter’s. All through the morning the voting continued, and every vote was accompanied by a flash and a roar from heaven. Both sides, with equal justice, claimed the portent as a manifestation of the Divine Opinion. When the votes were examined, it was found that 533 were in favour of the proposed definition and two against it. Next day war was declared between France and Germany, and a few weeks later the French troops were withdrawn from Rome. Almost in the same moment the successor of St. Peter had lost his Temporal Power and gained Infallibility.

What the Council had done was merely to assent to a definition of the dogma of the Infallibility of the Roman Pontiff which Pius IX. had issued, proprio motu, a few days before. The definition itself was perhaps somewhat less extreme than might have been expected. The Pope, it declared, is possessed, when he speaks ex cathedrâ, of “that infallibility with which the Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed for defining doctrine regarding faith or morals.” Thus it became a dogma of faith that a Papal definition regarding faith or morals is infallible; but beyond that both the Holy Father and the Council maintained a judicious reserve. Over what other matters besides faith and morals the Papal infallibility might or might not extend still remained in doubt. And there were further questions, no less serious, to which no decisive answer was then, or ever has been since provided. How was it to be determined, for instance, which particular Papal decisions did in fact come within the scope of the definition? Who was to decide what was or was not a matter of faith or morals? Or precisely when the Roman Pontiff was speaking ex cathedrâ? Was the famous Syllabus Errorum, for example, issued ex cathedrâ or not? Grave theologians have never been able to make up their minds. Yet to admit doubts in such matters as these is surely dangerous. “In duty to our supreme pastoral office,” proclaimed the Sovereign Pontiff, “by the bowels of Christ we earnestly entreat all Christ’s faithful people, and we also command them by the authority of God and our Saviour, that they study and labour to expel and eliminate errors and display the light of the purest faith.” Well might the faithful study and labour to such ends! For, while the offence remained ambiguous, there was no ambiguity about the penalty. One hair’s breadth from the unknown path of truth, one shadow of impurity in the mysterious light of faith—and there shall be anathema! anathema! anathema! When the framers of such edicts called upon the bowels of Christ to justify them, might they not have done well to have paused a little, and to have called to mind the counsel of another sovereign ruler, though a heretic—Oliver Cromwell? “Bethink ye, bethink ye, in the bowels of Christ, that ye may be mistaken!”

One of the secondary results of the Council was the excommunication of Dr. Döllinger and a few more of the most uncompromising of the Inopportunists. Among these, however, Lord Acton was not included. Nobody ever discovered why. Was it because he was too important for the Holy See to care to interfere with him? Or was it because he was not important enough?

Another ulterior consequence was the appearance of a pamphlet by Mr. Gladstone, entitled “Vaticanism,” in which the awful implications involved in the declaration of Infallibility were laid before the British public. How was it possible, Mr. Gladstone asked, with all the fulminating accompaniments of his most agitated rhetoric, to depend henceforward upon the civil allegiance of Roman Catholics? To this question the words of Cardinal Antonelli to the Austrian Ambassador might have seemed a sufficient reply. “There is a great difference,” said his Eminence, “between theory and practice. No one will ever prevent the Church from proclaiming the great principles upon which its Divine fabric is based; but, as regards the application of those sacred laws, the Church, imitating the example of its Divine Founder, is inclined to take into consideration the natural weaknesses of mankind.” And, in any case, it was hard to see how the system of Faith, which had enabled Pope Gregory XIII. to effect, by the hands of English Catholics, a whole series of attempts to murder Queen Elizabeth, can have been rendered a much more dangerous engine of disloyalty by the Definition of 1870. But such considerations failed to reassure Mr. Gladstone; the British Public was of a like mind; and 145,000 copies of the pamphlet were sold within two months. Various replies appeared, and Manning was not behindhand. His share in the controversy led to a curious personal encounter.

His conversion had come as a great shock to Mr. Gladstone. Manning had breathed no word of its approach to his old and intimate friend, and when the news reached him, it seemed almost an act of personal injury. “I felt,” Mr. Gladstone said, “as if Manning had murdered my mother by mistake.” For twelve years the two men did not meet, after which they occasionally saw each other and renewed their correspondence. This was the condition of affairs when Mr. Gladstone published his pamphlet. As soon as it appeared Manning wrote a letter to the New York Herald, contradicting its conclusions, and declaring that its publication was “the first event that has overcast a friendship of forty-five years.” Mr. Gladstone replied to this letter in a second pamphlet. At the close of his theological arguments, he added the following passage:—

  • I feel it necessary, in concluding this answer, to state that Archbishop Manning has fallen into most serious inaccuracy in his letter of November 10th, where he describes my Expostulation as the first event which has overcast a friendship of forty-five years. I allude to the subject with regret; and without entering into details.
  • Manning replied in a private letter.
  • My dear Gladstone [he wrote], you say that I am in error in stating that your former pamphlet is the first act which has overcast our friendship.
    If you refer to my act in 1851 in submitting to the Catholic Church, by which we were separated for some twelve years, I can understand it.
    If you refer to any other act either on your part or mine I am not conscious of it, and would desire to know what it may be.
    My act in 1851 may have overcast your friendship for me. It did not overcast my friendship for you, as I think the last years have shown.
    You will not, I hope, think me over-sensitive in asking for this explanation. Believe me, yours affectionately,
  • My dear Archbishop Manning [Mr. Gladstone answered], it did, I confess, seem to me an astonishing error to state in public that a friendship had not been overcast for forty-five years until now, which your letter declares has been suspended as to all action for twelve…
    I wonder, too, at your forgetting that during the forty-five years I had been charged by you with doing the work of Antichrist in regard to the Temporal Power of the Pope.…
    Our differences, my dear Archbishop, are indeed profound. We refer them, I suppose, in humble silence to a Higher Power.… You assured me once of your prayers at all and at the most solemn time. I received that assurance with gratitude and still cherish it. As and when they move upwards, there is a meeting-point for those whom a chasm separates below. I remain always, affectionately yours,
  • Speaking of this correspondence in after years, Cardinal Manning said—“From the way in which Mr. Gladstone alluded to the overcasting of our friendship, people might have thought that I had picked his pocket.”