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The World’s Famous Orations.
Ireland (1775–1902). 1906.

Baron William Conyngham Plunket

On Catholic Relief

SIR, I hold in my hand a petition, signed by a very considerable number of his majesty’s Roman Catholic subjects of Ireland. A similar petition was presented, from the same body, the year before last. It is unnecessary for me to remind the House that, on that occasion, it was presented by the late Mr. Grattan. It was sanctioned by the authority of his name, and enforced by all the resistless powers which waited on the majesty of his genius. I have no design to give vent to the feelings with which my heart is filled, or to mingle with the public mourning the mere peculiar and selfish regrets, which have followed to the grave the friend by whose confidence I was honored, by whose wisdom I was instructed, by whose example I was guided. His eulogium has been heard from the lips of kindred eloquence and genius. The last duties have been rendered to his tomb by the gratitude and justice of the British people. In his death, as in his life, he has been a bond of connection between the countries.

I will not weaken the force of that eulogium, or disturb the solemnity of those obsequies, by my feeble praise, or unavailing sorrow; but with respect to the sentiments of that great and good man on this particular question, I wish to say a word. Sir, he had meditated upon it deeply and earnestly—it had taken early and entire possession of his mind, and held it to the last. He would willingly have closed his career of glory in the act of asserting within these walls the liberties of his countrymen; but still, regarding them as connected with the strength, the concord, and the security of the empire. Sir, he was alive to fame—to the fame that follows virtue. The love of it clung to him to the last moments of his life; but tho he felt that “last infirmity of noble minds,” never did there breathe a human being who had a more lofty disdain for the shallow and treacherous popularity which is to be courted by subserviency, and purchased at the expense of principle and duty. He felt that this question was not to be carried as the triumph of a party or of a sect, but to be pursued as a great measure of public good, in which all were bound to forego their prejudices, and to humble their passions for the attainment of justice and of peace.

Our duty is to inquire whether injustice is offered to our fellow subjects, and if so, to atone for it; whether grievances press on them at which they have reason to be dissatisfied, and if so, to remove them; whether injurious distinctions exist, and if so, to obliterate them. If these things excite discontent, the more our shame to suffer injustice, and grievances, and injurious distinctions to remain, and the more imperious the call on every honorable mind to do them away.

Whatever difference of opinion exists on this subject, there is little of hostility, nothing of rancor. Prejudices, I must say, I believe there are; but when I call them so, I acknowledge them to be derived from an origin so noble, and to be associated with feelings so connected with the times when our civil and religious liberties were established, that they are entitled to a better name; and I am confident that they are accessible to reason and open to conviction, if met by the fair force of argument without rudeness and violence. Sir, it is impossible to mistake the feeling of the House and of the enlightened part of the country on this subject, or to doubt that it is a growing one.

And now, sir, I shall proceed, without further preface, to the main argument. The question presents itself in three distinct points of view: as a question of religion, as a question of constitutional principle, and as a question of policy and expediency, in reference to the stability of our existing establishments.

In the first place, it appears obvious that the requiring a religious pledge to the State, as a qualification for civil rights, makes religion an affair of state; because you can not lay it down as a rule to be applied only in a case of true religion, for every religion is the true one in the opinion of its own professors; and therefore, if the position is true in our instance, it must be equally true that, in every State, Protestant or Catholic, Christian or Pagan, the interests of true religion require a pledge to the State that the person admitted to its privileges is of the religion of that State. All this leads to the unavoidable inference that, in the opinion of those who so argue, there is no truth in any religion, and no criterion other than its adoption by the State. I do not say that such a principle may not be taken on trust by an honest man, and hotly insisted on by him, if he happens to be a zealous man, but I say it can not be deliberately and rationally maintained by any person who believes that there is any absolute truth in any religion.

Again, if religion is to be an affair of state, why not require some positive profession of faith as a qualification? Such as that he is a Christian, or that he believes in God, or in a future state, or that he has an immortal soul? Why does the declaration sound only in horror, and antipathy, and denunciation of another religion? If the law is to be put into a state of electricity by the Church, why not of positive electricity?

Again; if we are to denounce, why denounce only one particular sect of Christians? Why not Socinians? Why not those who deny the divine nature of our Lord? Why select those who believe all that we do, merely because they believe something more? Why not Jews, Mohammedans, Pagans? Any one of these may safely make the declaration, provided he is willing to commit the breach of good manners which it requires. He may not only deny our God and our Redeemer, but he may worship Jupiter or Osiris, an ape or a crocodile, the host of heaven or the creeping things of the earth; let him only have a statutable horror of the religion of others, and agree to brand with the name of idolatry the religion of the greater part of the Christian world. But further, if the Roman Catholic religion is to be singled out as that, by the common bond of hatred to which we are all to be united in the ties of brotherly love and Christian charity, why select only one particular article of their faith, and say that the sacrifice of the Mass is impious and idolatrous? Why leave them their seven sacraments, their auricular confession, their purgatory; all equally badges of superstition, evidences of contumacy and causes of schism? Why make war exclusively upon this one article? We all declare solemnly that we consider the sacrifice of the Mass as superstitious and idolatrous. Now I entreat each member of this House to suppose that I am asking him individually, and as a private gentleman, does he know what is said, or meant, or done in the sacrifice of the Mass; or how it differs from our own mode of celebrating the Communion, so as to render it superstitious and idolatrous! If I could count upon the vote of every member, who must answer me that upon his honor he does not know, I should be sure of carrying, by an overwhelming majority, this or any other question I might think it proper to propose. Were I now to enter on a discussion of the nature of these doctrines, every member would complain that I was occupying the time of statesmen with subjects utterly unconnected with the business of the House or the policy of the country. Can there be a more decisive proof of its unsuitableness as a test?

By the Constitution of England, every liege subject is entitled, not merely to the protection of the laws, but is admissable to all the franchises and all the privileges of the State. For the argument I have now to deal with is this: “That by some principle of the Constitution, independent of the positive law, the Roman Catholic is necessarily excluded.” What, then, is this principle of exclusion? Merely this, “that the Roman Catholics acknowledge the spiritual supremacy of the pope.” Why then if, independently of the positive law, this acknowledgment deprives them of the privileges which belong to the liege subjects of the realm, the exclusive principle must have been in force before the law. If so, there did not exist in England a liege man entitled to the privileges of the Constitution before the time of Henry the Eighth; for till then all acknowledged the spiritual supremacy of the pope. Magna Charta was established by outlaws from the State. Those gallant barons, whose descendants have been so feelingly alluded to by my noble friend, tho they were indeed permitted to achieve, yet were not entitled to share the liberties of their country. They might not dare to open the great charter which had been won by their hardihood and patriotism. Nay, more; if this principle be true, there is not, at this moment, a liege subject in any Catholic country in Europe. Sir, such trash as this shocks our common sense, and sets all argument at defiance.

I speak in the presence of enlightened constitutional lawyers and statesmen, and I do not fear a contradiction when I assert that the doctrine of exclusion is not to be found in the principles, or in the analogies of our Constitution, or in the history of our country, or in the opinion of any statesman whose name or memory has reached us. It is at once inconsistent with the subject’s rights and with the king’s prerogatives. Ours is a free monarchy, and it is of the essence of such a government that the king should be entitled to call for the services of all his liege subjects, otherwise it is not a monarchy; and that no class of his subjects should be excluded from franchise, otherwise it is not a free monarchy. I use the word franchise, not in the lawyers’ technical sense of it, as a right supposed to be derived by prescription or grant from the Crown, but in the sense of Mr. Burke, when he applied it to the right of voting for members to sit, and to the right of sitting in Parliament. Sir, these are privileges not derived from the grace of the Crown or the permission of the Legislature, or from the positive declaration of any written law, but drawn from the great original sources from which crown and law and legislature have been derived; from the sacred fountains of British Constitution and freedom; the denial of which, as justified by any supposed principles of our Constitution, I take on me to denounce as founded on a radical ignorance of the essence and stamina of our civil polity.

This principle of exclusion is equally at war with the prerogative of the Crown and the title of the subject. It wrests the scepter from the king that it may strike at the liberties of the people, and obtrudes an unconstitutional monopoly on the just rights of both. It is an insolent republican principle, which has more than once been publicly and universally reprobated in this House; the principle of lawless association. for the purpose of lawless exclusion, and which promises a conditional allegiance to the monarch, so long only as he shall uphold the arrogant and exclusive claims of one class of his subjects against the inherent rights and privileges of the other.

In all continued struggles between a lawful government and a free people there can be but one issue. That party must prevail which has truth and justice on its side; otherwise there is an end of freedom or of government—it must end in despotism or anarchy. While you resist the claim of civil right, the Roman Catholic is armed with truth and justice. Grant him what he ought to have, and if he refuses the reasonable conditions or aspires to more, you transfer to yourselves these invincible standards, and you may look with confidence to the result.

Sir, to enumerate all the inconsistencies of this supposed measure of final adjustment would be endless; but there is one so glaring that I must beg leave particularly to allude to. You admit the Roman Catholic, both here and in Ireland, to the bar; you invite him to study the laws of his country, to display his knowledge on a public theater, where his talents and his acquirements are tried and known; you engage him in a career of honorable competition; you see him distinguished by the approbation of his countrymen; you see every relative connected with him gladdened and gratified by his successful progress; and when his heart is beating high with the consciousness of desert, and the hope of fame and honor, you stop him in his course, you dash his hopes, you extinguish his ambition, you leave him disgraced and mortified, sitting on the outer benches of your courts of justice, and imparting the gloom of his own hopeless exclusion to every one connected with him by consanguinity, friendship, or religion. Sir, in the name of the Protestant bar of both countries, I call on Parliament to rescue us from this disgrace, to relieve us from the odium and shame of this degrading monopoly, and to restore us to the privilege of equal and generous and honorable emulation.

One word more and I have done. It has been asked, where is concession to stop? I say, precisely where necessity, arising from public good, requires the continuance of the restriction. Exclusion is like war: justum quibus necessarium. Beyond this it would be folly to proceed. Short of this it is folly and injustice to stop. By this test let the claim be tried. If there is any office the possession of which by a Roman Catholic would be dangerous or injurious to our establishments, let him be excluded from it. If there is any franchise, whose exercise can be attended with real danger, let it be withheld. Such exclusion, or withholding, is not an anomaly, or inconsistency, in our system of conciliation, because, when the exclusion is not arbitrary and gratuitous, there is no insult. Such an exclusion forms no link of the chain, and the Roman Catholic will submit to it cheerfully; just as it would be the duty of the Protestant if, for similar reasons, a similar sacrifice were required from him. Let him know, in intelligible terms, the reason and the necessity, and he is satisfied. But do not, in so momentous a concern, give him words, and think to reconcile him. Talk to him of the Protestant establishment, and he understands you; he bows to it; he sees it engraved in capitals on the front of the political fabric. But if you tell him of Protestant ascendency, or Protestant exclusion, he asks in vain where its title is to be found; he looks in vain for it in the elements of our law or its traditions, in the commentaries of its sage expositors, in the Reformation, the Revolution, or the Union—he sees in it nothing but insult and contumacy; and he demands, in the name of the laws, and in the spirit of the Constitution, that he may be no longer its victim.