According to R.W. Church, possibly the best (if not completely objective) historian of the Oxford Movement, the whole trouble and the reason for the ultimate downfall of the Movement and the loss of John Henry Newman to the Church of England was the result of ego and arrogance on the part of the Oxford authorities who looked on ancient Christian doctrines as dangerous novelties,
|Rev. R.W. Church|
. . . creating a wild panic from a quarter where it was the least expected; the terror of this panic acting on authorities not in the least prepared for a trial of their sagacity, patience, and skill, driving them to unexampled severity, and to a desperate effort to expel the disturbing innovators — among them some of the first men in Oxford in character and ability — from their places in the University. (Church, The Oxford Movement, op. cit., 203.)
Thus, as Church remarked, “The proceedings about Tract 90 were a declaration of war against the Tractarian party.” (Ibid., 202.)
In that, Rev. Church was correct, and he accurately reported the animus the Oxford authorities had against the Movement. Where he may have erred, however, was in attributing the hate and the fear to ignorance combined with a vague horror of “Romanism.” Supposed dread of popery and Romanism was to justify their actions to the presumably ignorant “masses.” The one thing that the politicized leaders of the Church of England simply could not afford was real Christianity, Catholic, Protestant, or Anglican, disrupting things and shaking the foundations of English or European liberalism.
That, and nothing else, was the point at issue for the authorities. Honest believers such as Dean Church could castigate the “Roman” Catholic Church for its departures from true doctrine in some of its practices, and still maintain that the body headed by the pope had never deviated one iota in Christian doctrine itself. That was, in fact, the argument the Church of England made from the beginning; that the Anglican Communion had separated from “the Church of Rome” over a “political issue,” i.e., the correct interpretation of a passage of Scripture and thus whether the specific case of Henry VIII Tudor’s marriage to Katharine of Aragon was valid or invalid. From the Anglican point of view, everything else was “just” accusations on each side as to how far and in what degree the other had misapplied doctrines they both accepted and who was more to blame for misunderstanding.
|The Tudors (minus one)|
The fact is that there was a great deal of truth in the Anglican position. The problem was that after the death of the eighth Henry “Protestantizers” had moved in and taken control of the boy king Edward VII. Queen Mary’s ill-advised — actually “non-advised” as she rejected the much more reasonable program of Cardinal Pole and listened to people who had some very interested motives instead — effort to restore the Catholic Church, followed by Elizabeth’s reign in which she was virtually under the complete control of whichever faction was in power at the time, then the chaos of the Stuarts, the Civil Wars, etc., etc., etc., all ensured that Anglican Christianity would be very political and increasingly less religious in any sense . . . which was the very thing the Oxford Movement tried to address.
|John Henry Newman|
The problem was that even the Oxford Movement was, as John Henry Newman noted later, operating within a flawed political paradigm. They were trying to counter liberalism — meaning collectivist European type liberalism that leads to socialism and modernism — with what they thought was conservatism . . . meaning elitist English type liberalism that leads to capitalism and traditionalism (and with a confusing mixture of paradigms when the two types of liberalism collide, resulting in such things as socialist traditionalism and capitalist modernism).
This confusion stayed with Newman for the rest of his life, making him suspicious of the only liberalism acceptable to the Catholic Church, that derived from the dignity and sovereignty of the individual human person under God. This was what Alexis de Tocqueville described as the type of liberalism that prevailed in the United States — at least in theory and with a number of flaws (to put it mildly) such as slavery and the treatment of native peoples — and was the reason that one, virtually every pope since Pius IX has praised the U.S. Constitution, and, two, have absolutely refused to use the term “liberal” to describe “American type liberalism.”
Newman even went so far as to disagree openly with Charles Forbes René de Montalembert (1810-1870) and Jean-Baptiste Henri Dominique Lacordaire, O.P. (1802-1861), both of whom he greatly admired, because they insisted on calling themselves “liberals,” which has caused a great deal of confusion down to the present day. It didn’t help any, of course, that both Montalembert and Lacordaire were at one time associates of Hugues-Félicité Robert de Lamennais (1782-1854), whose work was pivotal in the development of a “Catholic” form of Christian socialism, even though he repudiated his priesthood and renounced Christianity to found his own “Religion of Humanity.”
The simple fact is that no one in the 1830s and into the 1840s, any more than today’s historians and commentators, take into account the political and religious revolutions shaking traditional forms of government and organized religion to their foundations. Pope Gregory XVI, who was pope during this period, was faced with a political and religious situation that would have broken many other leaders.
Rebellions had broken out in the Papal States when Gregory’s election was announced because Prince von Metternich of Austria was believed to have influenced his election. Radicals wanted the abolition of Christianity, liberals wanted a unified Italy, and moderates wanted political reform. What they got was a rebellion that guaranteed they would get nothing except more repression.
|Prince Klemens von Metternich|
Politically, the object of Gregory XVI’s pontificate was to preserve the independence of the Church and keep order domestically at all cost — and the cost was high, described by commentators then and now as cruel, harsh, and despotic. It is, however, difficult to see what choice the pope had. If he had loosened the reins even a little after what happened even before he took office, he had ample reason to believe that the country would instantly have dissolved in chaos.
Worse, having gained Lombardy and Venetia from the Papal States following the Congress of Vienna in 1815 thanks to Metternich trading territory stolen from Poland for territory stolen from the pope, Austria could reasonably be expected to duplicate its earlier success in Poland and occupy more (if not all) of the Papal States. This would be on the pretext of restoring order, of course, and the pope would be completely powerless to stop them. For example, Gregory XVI was only able to prevent the permanent French occupation of Ancona due to the reluctance of the French Prime Minister, Casimir-Pierre Perier (1777-1832), to offend the pope or come into direct conflict with Austria.
It was also at this time the Kingdom of Sardinia — the Piedmont — began its campaign of manipulating the Italian unification movement with the goal of becoming the sole power on the peninsula. Sardinian agents constantly stirred up plots and conspiracies, and attempted to play France, Austria, and the Papal States off against each other.
All things considered, Gregory XVI’s achievement in keeping the Papal States independent — more or less — throughout his pontificate was remarkable. Adding the fact that he led the Church into the new area of social teaching without sacrificing doctrine or the deposit of faith raises the distinct possibility that history has not treated him fairly ‚ but it did nothing to calm the fears of the Anglican hierarchy regarding the Oxford Movement.