Philosophy against Misosophy



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From Gertrude Himmelfarb, Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics, The University of Chicago Press, 1952, 95-128.  In the book, the numbering of the footnotes restarts on every page that has a note; here the footnotes form one series. 

See her "Lord Acton: In Pursuit of First Princi-ples," a review of Roland Hill's Lord Acton, elsewhere on this site.

Anthony Flood

February 18, 2013


The Vatican Council

Gertrude Himmelfarb 

The question of papal Infallibility had a polemical history dating back to the Middle Ages and engaging, on both sides, respectable theo-logians and historians until the very eve of the Vatican Council.  In opposing Infallibility, then, Acton was not, as his detractors pretended, indulging a private idiosyncrasy.  He was follow-ing in the familiar tradition of one of his distin-guished ancestors, Sir John Throckmorton, leader of the influential “Catholic Committee” of the 1790’s, who opened the campaign for the removal of Catholic disabilities by repudiating as a vicious slander the idea that papal Infalli-bility was a dogma of the Church.  Acton could cite the testimony of ecclesiasts and lay histori-ans, of official catechisms and manuals of theo-logy published as late as 1860, to support his claim that Infallibility was a vulgar perversion of faith.

Pius IX, however, was not easily moved by historical evidence or theological arguments. He had produced a new dogma in 1854, had canon-ized more saints than all of the popes together for a century and a half, and had opened an offensive against the whole of modern civiliza-tion.  Promises made by Catholics at the time of their emancipation in Great Britain could hardly prevail against the Pope’s conviction that he was the inspired vehicle of the Holy Ghost and enjoyed the special benevolence of the Mother of God.  The declaration of his Infallibility, foreshadowed in his very first encyclical of 1846 and eight years later in the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, was the logical culmination of the whole of his pontificate.

Long before the news was formally released, in 1867, it had been suspected that a general council would be convened and that papal Infallibility would be on the agenda.  Historians and theologians sought instruction from the last general council held three centuries earlier, the Council of Trent, which had inaugurated the ill-famed, or defamed, Counter-Reformation.  Acton, who had spent the winter of 1866-7 and the following autumn in the archives of Rome and Vienna examining the documents on the Council of Trent,1 concluded that the next coun-cil could occupy itself to no better advantage than by abolishing many of the so-called Triden-tine “reforms,” reforms that had perpetuated in the church a spirit of intolerant absolutism and “austere immorality."2 The strategy of the Ul-tramontanes, however, he knew, would be ex-actly the opposite: “To proclaim the Pope infal-lible was their compendious security against hostile States and Churches, against human liberty and authority, against disintegrating to-lerance and rationalizing science, against error and sin."3  In the Chronicle, Acton had de-nounced the Ultramontane compulsion to create new dogmas and add to the burdens of pious Catholics.4 On the eve of the council he sounded these warnings again in the pages of the North British Review.

His essay, “The Pope and the Council,"5 published in October 1869, was a summary of a book of that title which had appeared in Ger-many (and had immediately been translated into English) under the pseudonym of Janus who was commonly identified as Döllinger.6 The work of Janus was the most comprehensive historical documentation of the Liberal opposition to Infal-libility and the most important treatise on the subject published at the time.  The argument of Janus rested on the distinction between the ancient idea of the primacy of Peter and the modern papacy, that “disfiguring, sickly, and choking excrescence on the organization of the Church.”7 How the papacy lost its early inno-cence, degenerating into an absolute power, is the long and disreputable story of forgeries and fabrications, of which the Donation of Constan-tine in the eighth century and Isidorian Decre-tals in the ninth were only the more flagrant episodes.  Usurping the rights of the episcopacy and of the general councils, the papacy was finally driven to the principles and methods of the Inquisition to enforce its spurious claims, and to the theory of infallibility to elevate it beyond all human control.  Janus piled high the sordid details of inventions and distorted texts, of Popes involved in contradiction and heresy, of historians falsifying history and theologians perverting theology.

Yet Acton found even Janus too mild for his tastes.  The book presented so many new facts that he feared it might seem to supply the proponents of Infallibility with a refuge from the imputation of bad faith.  Indeed Janus himself, in a sudden accession of generosity, allowed that contemporary advocates of Infallibility might be sincere.  To Acton this was unthink-able.  In the present stage of learning, he insisted, it was idle to pretend ignorance of the wilful falsehood and fraud upon which the theory of infallibility was based.  Moreover the papal despotism was maintained by the same insidious arts with which it was first won.  “A man is not honest who accepts all the Papal decisions in questions of morality, for they have often been distinctly immoral; or who approves the conduct of the Popes in engrossing power, for its was stained with perfidy and falsehood; or who is ready to alter his convictions at their command, for his conscience is guided by no principle.”8 Nor was Janus rigorous enough in other respects.  No provision was made for theory of development, a defect that led Acton to doubt the reputed authorship of Döllinger, in whose writing the theory played such a promin-ent part.9  More serious was the reluctance of Janus to face up to the enormity of the evil of Trent or to such awkward questions as what doctrinal authority the Church could still be said to possess in the event that Infallibility was proclaimed.

Perhaps to satisfy Acton’s criticism, and certainly to correct a gaping flaw in his reason-ing which his opponents were quick to exploit, Döllinger published a pamphlet taking account of the theory of development.10 The infallibilists, who had always been suspicious of the theory, had recently discovered that by interpreting it as a carte blanche for innovation, it might be used to justify a multitude of sins.  Döllinger had to restore the original meaning of development, which was not the negation of tradition, but was rather the progressive fulfillment of a tradition working itself out by internal necessity.  Janus, Acton’s essay, and Döllinger’s pamphlet con-tained the main counts in the indictment against Infallibility as the case stood just before the opening of the council.  No amount of “coaxing” of the documents, to use Renan’s famous phrase, could make of the Ultramontane defence—the book Anti-Janus by Joseph von Hergenröther11—more than a feeble essay in apologetics.   Nor did Rome’s prompt con-signment of the work of Janus to the Index en-hance the Ultramontane reputation for intel-lectual integrity or fearlessness.


Döllinger, the most outstanding German theologian of his generation, was not one of the many theologians invited by the Pope to assist at the preparations for the council.  But two of his disciples were in Rome: Friedrich, who came as theologian to the Cardinal Prince Hohenlohe, papal chamberlain, Liberal Catholic and brother of the Prime Minister of Bavaria; and Acton, oc-cupying no official position but strategically lo-cated because of his influential family con-nections and his inaccessibility to Vatican pres-sure.

Acton and Friedrich supplied Döllinger with the material for what became the most remark-able literary achievement of the council and one of the greatest scandals in Rome, the famous Quirinus letters.12  From December 1869 until July 1870, through the whole course of the council, letters over the pseudonym of Quirinus appeared regularly in the Allgemeine Zeitung, revealing the most intimate backstairs secrets of Rome: unpublished or restricted documents, details of private interviews, secret machina-tions and intrigues, and the speculations, hopes and fears that ran through the council.  The papal court tried vainly to uncover the identity of the ubiquitous author of “Die Römische Briefe über das Konzil,” the name under which they appeared in the Zeitung.  Prominent Liberal Catholics were ordered to leave Rome; when it was once reported, erroneously, that Acton had been expelled, the New York Nation issued an indignant protest.  But in spite of censorship ex-ercised against suspects and oaths of secrecy imposed upon the bishops, the letters of Quiri-nus continued to appear with the same uncanni-ly accurate information.

That Döllinger put the letters in their final shape for the Zeitung was not seriously doubted (except for one period when it was falsely ru-moured that Huber had taken over this task).  The only real question was the identity of his in-formants, and here too the facts have finally been established, although writers on the Vati-can Council sometimes persist in assuming that they are still open to speculation.  Friedrich, it appears, dispatched to Döllinger a series of let-ters from Rome and also part of his diary (which was later published and with Quirinus remains one of the best sources on the council).  Acton forwarded, by way of the Bavarian Embassy, much material that Friedrich could not obtain, and when Friedrich returned to Germany in May, Acton bore the brunt of the work alone.  After he, in turn, had left Rome, early in June, his cou-sin, Count Arco, took over for the remaining six weeks of the council.13  Döllinger often printed these communications exactly as he received them, so that whole passages from Acton’s let-ters were printed verbatim over the pseudonym of Quirinus.14

Because the Quirinus letters convict the council of deliberate fraud and deception, apolo-gists for Infallibility, under the pretence of neu-trality, have tried to pass them off as violently partisan and, therefore, untrustworthy.  Yet no one has succeeded in seriously disputing them, and those who have, with much effort, contrived to challenge some minor point in the narrative, have in the process unwittingly confirmed the burden of it.15 The fact is that the violence often taken to be characteristic of Quirinus was really a characteristic of the council itself.  Even Pius found three distinct periods in the council, of which the first, the preparatory, was satanic, the second, the assemblies, human, and only the third, the decrees, divine.  To Quirinus the entire council alternated between long periods of the satanic and brief intermissions of the human.

Much publicity had attended the summoning of bishops and theologians to Rome for the pre-liminary work of organization, but it remained for Quirinus to reveal the less publicized facts that as far as possible only those well disposed to Infallibility had been invited, and that not until protests by leading German Catholics was the University of Munich, the most celebrated (and Liberal) Catholic academy, represented at all. The Roman penchant for mystery first con-cealed from the theologians the real purpose for which they had been convened, and then bound them by the seal of secrecy of the Holy Office (the Inquisition).  By these and many similar devices it was made certain that the regulations drawn up for the conduct of the council would redound to the Pope’s favour.  Thus it was de-cided that decrees would be issued in the name of the Pope instead of the council, a procedure not invoked even by the Council of Trent.  Nor were the bishops to have the right to originate motions; this function was reserved to two com-missions from which the “minority,” as the Li-beral opposition became known, was carefully excluded, so that on the most important, the Commission of Faith, the 200 Liberal bishops had not a single representative.  These rules of procedure were so much to the liking of the papal party that it was also decided to prohibit discussion or amendment of them at the council itself, which provoked Acton to remark that the Pope left the council with nothing but “the function of approving.”16

In addition, the minority was grossly under-represented numerically at the council.  Wher-ever it happened to be strong—Germany, the Austrian Empire, France and America—the num-ber of bishops relative to the Catholic popula-tion was infinitesimal compared with the pro-portion in Italy and Spain, the main infallibilist countries.  Typically in Acton’s vein are the passages in Quirinus describing the preponder-ance of Latins at the council: the 700,000 inha-bitants of the Roman States were represented by sixty-two bishops constituting half or two-thirds of every commission, while 1,700,000 Polish Catholics were represented by the Bishop of Breslau, who was not chosen for a single commission; four (out of sixty-two) Neapolitan and Sicilian bishops could, and did, out-vote the archbishops of Cologne, Cambray and Paris, re-presenting a total of 4,700,000 Catholics. In ec-clesiastical statistics, it appeared that twenty learned Germans counted for less than one un-tutored Italian.  “The predilection for the Infal-libilist theory,” Quirinus deduced, “is in precise proportion to the ignorance of its advocates.”17

With the organization of the council weighted in advance against the minority, the additional impediments placed in the way of free discus-sion and consultation seemed supererogatory: debates conducted in Latin condemning nine-tenths of the prelates to silence and most of the others to confusion, wretched acoustics in the lavishly fitted and spectacularly high assembly hall, the refusal to permit bishops to examine the stenographic reports of even their own speeches, the prohibition of meetings of twenty or more bishops outside of the council, the strict censorship of literature (which meant that the minority documents had to be  printed in Naples or Vienna and smuggled in illegally), and the time-honoured custom of the Roman post office of opening letters suspected of heresy or error.  And if all these precautions should by chance fail, it was made a mortal sin to communicate anything that took place in the council, “so that any bishop who should, for instance, show a theologian, whose advice he sought, a passage from the Schema under discussion, or repeat an expression used in one of the speeches, incurred lasing damnation!”18

When the opposition persisted in spite of these difficulties, other expedients, described by Quirinus, were attempted.  Debate was cut short, minority speakers were interrupted, a few violent scenes were staged, and rules of order were liberally interpreted to favour the infallibil-ists.  Toward the end of the council all pretence of sober and free discussion was abandoned, and the final text of the constitution was rushed through without any debate at all.  Outside of the assembly hall, other more or less subtle mechanisms operated to undermine the spirit and destroy the force of the minority.  There were the enticements of the well-stocked papal preserves—the titles, benedictions and dispen-sations which the Pope could issue or withhold at will.  There were fifteen vacant cardinals’ hats dangled over many more vacillating heads.  The exercise of papal influence ranged from the most obvious appeal to clerical vanity, as in the case of a uniquely decorated stole bestowed upon one gratified bishop, to the genuine senti-ments of affection felt for the Pope and the de-sire to compensate him for the disrespect of the world.  Pius himself had thrown off the sham of neutrality early in the proceedings of the coun-cil, affirming his personal conviction of his Infal-libility, issuing papal briefs commending the ef-forts of the majority bishops, and openly chas-tising and even censuring members of the mi-nority.  An aged Chaldean patriarch, having deli-vered a speech against infallibility, was roundly abused by the Pope and force to resign his office, while another cardinal, the Archbishop of Bologne, guilty of the same offence, was con-fined to the isolation of his room and ordered to prepare a formal retraction. In most cases there was no need to exercise such  overt pressure.  Many Italian bishops and others from distant lands were not allowed to forget that it was the papal court that supplied them with food, lodging and traveling expenses.

If everything else failed, there remained one final threat, the idea that resistance to the Pope was blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, and that the members of the minority, as Manning as-sured them, were guilty of heresy even before the official promulgation of the dogma.  Those who were worried because they could see no-thing in the tradition of the Church to support the dogma of Infallibility were supposed to have been soothed by Pius’ bland assurance, “The tradition is myself,”19 and by his frank admis-sions of divine inspiration. The assembly hall with the miserable acoustics was not so ill-chosen after all, it was later discovered, for the rays of the sun were seen to fall exactly on the place occupied by the papal throne from which Pius would announce his Infallibility.  That the throne was not accidentally put in that position was suspected by those familiar with the Pope’s attachment to the mystical symbol of the sun.  On his own order a portrait had been  painted of him, in which, in Quirinus’ description, “he stands in glorified attitude on a throne pro-claiming his favourite dogma of the Immaculate Conception, while the Divine Trinity and the Holy Virgin look down from Heaven well pleased upon him, and from the Cross, borne in the arms of an angel, flashes a bright ray on his coun-tenance.”20


In the guise of Quirinus, Acton helped ex-pose the elaborate apparatus of temptation, ex-hortation an coercion which bore down upon the bishops at the council; at the same time in his own name, he occupied himself with a com-pletely different strategy—the organization of protests from the major powers of Europe.  The Bavarian minister, Prince von Hohenlohe, was the first officially to propose that the govern-ments communicate to the Vatican their views on those questions raised at the council affect-ing the civil allegiance of Catholics.  Acton used his influence with Gladstone, then Prime Minis-ter, to rally support to Hohenlohe’s scheme and to impede the work of the Ultramontanes.  He persuaded Gladstone to release a letter expres-sing English displeasure with the idea of papal infallibility, thus giving the lie to Manning who had been assiduously cultivating the impression that he, as a good friend of the Prime Minister, could attest England’s indifference.  And he alerted Gladstone to the successive acts of hos-tility by which “the papal absolutism” declared war against “the rights of the Church, of the State, and of the Intellect.”21  “We have to meet,” he wrote, “an organized conspiracy to establish a power which would be the most formidable enemy of liberty as well as of science throughout the world.”22  He described the proposals for ecclesiastical reform that would transfer a large body of civil law to the jurisdiction of the Church, which meant to the arbitrary will of the Pope, and the revival of old excommunications and censures which would reintroduce the criminal practices of the Inquisition and the deposing power. Without the intercession of the governments, he warned, the new “papal aggression” was certain to succeed.  On 1 March, the English representa-tive at the Vatican, Odo Russell, telegraphed the Foreign Office in Long: “Lord Acton is anxious the French Government should know that further loss of time will be fatal to the Bishops of the Opposition.”23

Just as Acton sought the intervention of Europe, so the majority bishops feared it, and through their own diplomatic channels played upon the cautious instinct of statesmen who feared involvement.  Their chain of communica-tions led from Manning through Odo Russell to Lord Clarendon, the Foreign Secretary.  While Manning was publicly execrating the minority bishops for divulging information, he and three other infallibilists, absolved of the oath of secrecy by the Pope, were issuing their own private accounts of the proceedings.  For many years Manning was to rail against the intrigues of Acton while keeping a discreet silence in regard to his own intrigues.  He once com-plained to Gladstone that “the shadow of Lord Acton between you and the Catholics of Great Britain would do what I could never undo,” to which Gladstone sharply retorted that he wished the general body of English Catholics compared to Acton, adding, in obvious criticism of Manning’s own devious behaviour: “For though I have noticed a great circumspection among his gifts, I have never seen anything that bore the slightest resemblance to a fraudulent re-serve.”24 As it turned out, Manning proved to be the more successful intriguer. When the Bava-tian proposal for intervention was considered by the Cabinet, Lord Clarendon, the Foreign Secre-tary, supported oddly enough by Granville, pre-vailed against Gladstone. Acton had played his last trump card and had lost.25

In this matter, as in others, Acton had been the spearhead of the Liberal opposition.  Odo Russell, a political opponent, paid tribute to the energies and talents that made him indispen-sable to the minority: “Without his knowledge of language and of theology the theologians of the various nations could not have understood each other, and without his virtues they could  not have accepted and followed the lead of a layman so much younger than any of the Fathers of the Church.”26  The Roman hierarchy, less generous in its judgments, saw in Acton only a contumacious courting of heresy.  The Pope, for whom Acton’s behaviour was not only religious apostasy but also, and perhaps more importantly, a personal affront, took no pains to conceal his displeasure.  He even went so far as to deny his blessing to Acton’s children, after which Acton fled in anguish to Russell’s home to spend a sleepless night.*  Feeling ran so high against Acton that for a time he feared assassination at the hands of the Jesuits, which makes it possible to credit the rumour that he sometimes thought it prudent to move about Rome in disguise.

* Not according to Roland Hill who, in his life of Acton, notes that "the astute Odo Russell, always eager to record any significant Roman scandal, made no mention of it anywhere, nor does Acton in his extensive Roman correspondence with Döllinger or any of his close friends" (Lord Acton, Yale University Press, 2000, 204).  In his reference note for this passage Hill cites the memoir of Mamy, Acton's eldest daughter: "One of my earliest recollections was when I was about 3 or 4 in Rome and we children, Annie and myself and the nurses were being driven round the Pincio when suddenly we were told that His Holiness Pope Pius IX was also driving around and our carriage stopping, we all got out and kneeling on the road were blest by the Pope." Cambridge University Library Add. 8119/9/427.-A.F.

Weary of the long, ineffectual struggle and oppressed by the terrible heat of a Roman summer, Acton finally left Rome early in June, admitting defeat.  For five more weeks the deli-berations of the council dragged on, with the minority capable only of some delaying actions.  On 13 July, the preliminary voting occurred.  The 764 bishops in attendance in January had dwindled to 680 or 690, and of those eighy-eight voted non-placet, sixty-two placet juxta mo-dum, and eighty or ninety abstained although they were present in Rome.27  The opposition resolved to leave Rome in a body rather than yield to the dogma immediately, and in the public session of the 18th, when the dogma was solemnly promulgated, only two bishops remained to pronounce the words non-placet and then to make their submission.

The historian, William Lecky, visiting Rome in 1870, spoke of the justice of a much quoted saying, “The bishops entered the council shep-herds, they came out of it sheep.”28  For the first time in the history of the Church, the Pope was accredited with supreme personal and immediate authority reaching to every indivi-dual communicant over the heads of all mediat-ing officials, an authority extending not only to matters of faith and morality but also to Church governance and discipline.  It was explicitly for-bidden to appeal from a papal judgment to an ecumenical council, so that the last stronghold of the bishops was destroyed together with the whole structure of jurisdictional autonomy.  Not satisfied with having scored a triumph over the bishops, the council, in the words of Manning’s famous boast, had also “triumphed over history.”29 The decree proclaimed, as a divinely revealed dogma, the Infallibility of the Pope when he spoke ex cathedra, and solemnly pronounced anathema upon anyone who denied this Infallibility.


In the autopsy conducted by Acton several months after the close of the council, he discovered that the blows inflicted by Rome had been painful but not actually fatal to the minority, because the real cause of death was a prolonged act of suicide.  The bishops, even those of the minority, had so long cultivated the habit of blind obedience, that they had become constitutionally incapable of effective opposi-tion. “They petitioned,” Acton said, “they did not resist.”30 Each time they were tempted to reject a decree, they decided instead to save their strength for the main battle, but by the time that battle had arrived, they had dissi-pated both their strength and their will-power.  When in March they acquiesced to a decree pro-scribing opinions not actually heretical, Rome discovered that there was no principle they would not betray rather than defy the Pope in his wrath.  No compromise was regarded as too costly, no subterfuge too ignoble.

Before this insidious infirmity of purpose, even the hatred of infallibility succumbed.  Many minority bishops persuaded themselves that they did not doubt the dogma itself but only the opportuneness of its definition.  With the “Inop-portunists,” as they were known, Acton had no patience.  To grant the truth of the dogma even obliquely, he insisted, was to grant everything.  Nor did he think it possible to chance upon a compromise formula that would propitiate the majority and yet not offend the more rigorous members of the minority.  No definition of papal Infallibility that the majority would consider worth having could be accepted by those for whom the only possible innovation was one that reduced the papal power.  Acton’s notes reflected his growing distrust of the minority itself:


“Take them all in all, the opposition are not better men than the others.  They are getter in one important item, but in that they are not entirely guided by the supreme motive of truth, but often of utility.  It may be a calculation of what will serve religion, and in that case the majority are just as respectable as the minority. Their motive is equally good.

“The blunders and ignorance of many of the opposition show that it was not based on any firm foundation of certain-ty.  Then, all the mitigated, conditional forms of resistance are virtually a surren-der of principle.31

“Pius called us Jansenists.  He meant not in point of grace, but of authority.  He alluded to the silence respectueux, and meant to indicate the ceremonious prac-tice by which men veiled their displea-sure and disrespect.”32


The minority surrendered its last effective weapon when it tacitly admitted the ecumeni-city of the council.  That the council was not genuinely ecumenical Acton suspected as soon as it became clear that a mere majority rather than the customary unanimity would be suffi-cient to carry the dogma.  Even the notorious Council of Trent had recognized that no decision of faith could be issued without substantial physical and moral unanimity.  (Trent, surpri-singly, proved to be freer than the Vatican Council, which was why the Pope had forbidden the bishops access to the Vatican documents relating to the procedure at Trent, and furiously dismissed the keeper of the Vatican archives when it became known that copies of the procedure had been circulated by Acton, among others.)  Acton alone pressed the point of ecumenicity, and it was he who introduced into a protest drawn up by the French minority bishops the paragraph stating that “the claim to make dogmas in spite of the opposition of the minority endangers the authority, liberty, and ecumenicity of the Council.”33 He had wanted to go further, to declare bluntly that until this claim was repudiated, the minority would not admit for discussion the topic of Infallibility.  But the bishops of the opposition balked at this.  Ano-ther attempt was made in June to issue a state-ment on the question of ecumenicity, but again it was rejected.  “They never used their strong-est argument,” Acton noted, “That they would not accept a dogma without unanimous con-sent.  It might have failed, but it was deluding the Pope into the belief that they would yield, to avoid so carefully saying that they would not.”34

The last opportunity for defiance came at the solemn session on the 18th.  It was proposed by the hardier of the minority bishops that they attend, repeat their votes of non-placet, and refuse their signatures to the decrees.  “They exhorted their brethren,” Acton wrote, “to set a conspicuous example of courage and fidelity, as the Catholic world would not remain true to the faith if the bishops were believed to have faltered.”35  But they were irresolute to the last and left Rome without taking formal action.  The Pope did not permit them the doubtful dignity of retreat, and called upon each to submit to the decrees.  Acton had earlier observed that “the only invincible opponent is the man who is prepared, in extremity, to defy excommunica-tion, that is, who is as sure of the fallibility of the Pope as of revealed truth.”36  And the mi-nority bishops were not of this invincible cast.  One after the other they yielded, some, like the theologian Auguste Gratry, explaining that the dogma was not so objectionable as he had feared because it claimed only official and not personal Infallibility, others submitting purely for the sake of obedience to avoid excommuni-cation.  There was no intervention of the Holy Ghost, as Manning predicted, but only a slow, painful process of soul-searching.

Acton was not at this time called upon to subscribe to the dogma.  As a layman respon-sible neither for the salvation of souls nor the instruction of youth, he enjoyed a temporary immunity, which permitted him the luxury of acting as the moral censor of those who had already submitted or were contemplating sub-mission.  In September 1870, he published, over his own name, an open letter to an anonymous German bishop,37 intended as a call of con-science to all the bishops of the minority.  The letter opened with a testimonial to the ideals represented by the minority, and continued, for thirteen pages, to recapitulate the evidence from which the minority had concluded that the council was a “conspiracy against divine truth and law” and the dogma a “soul-destroying error.”38—evidence so conclusive that one bishop insisted he would rather die than accept Infallibility, and another predicted the suicide of the Church.  Yet in spite of their own testimony, some bishops had proclaimed the decrees to their dioceses with no mention of the errors and sins of which they were fabricated or the insuf-ficient authority upon which they were issued.  They had neither retracted their earlier views nor refuted them.  As a result their followers were left without spiritual or religious guidance.  Acton concluded his letter:


“It depends upon them [the bishops] whether the defence of the ancient Church organization would be held within lawful bounds and for the purpose of its preservation, or whether Catholic science would be forced into a conflict which would then be turned against the bearers of ecclesiastical authority itself.

“I believe you will not forget your words and you will not disown your work; for I place my trust in those bishops—there were Germans among them—who in the last hour of the Council exhorted their colleagues, ‘that one must persevere to the end and give the world an example of courage and constancy which it so greatly needs.’”39


Acton was apparently suggesting, although somewhat cryptically, that if the minority bishops persisted in their refusal to accept the decrees, their flock could do so in clear con-science, confident that they were not flouting legitimate authority.  If the bishops surrendered their principle, however, those who continued to hold to the truth would be driven into conflict with the episcopacy and so into schism.  The first alternative, he argued, was intellectually more honest and spiritually less perilous.

The ultimate question that must have been plaguing Acton, as it certainly did the minority bishops, he did not explicitly raise.  Should the bishops stand firm in their refusal to submit even at the risk of excommunication?  Had the letter been written in July or even August, Acton might conceivably have been entertaining the naïve hope that Rome, faced with a united and hostile episcopacy, would yield, either recalling the council (which had never been officially terminated) to alter the terms of Infallibility, or, more probably, simply permitting the decrees to lapse into oblivion.  But by September that hope had been certainly exploded.  Resistance clearly meant excommunication.  Knowing that, Acton nevertheless counseled resistance, perhaps because the excommunication of a number of prominent bishops would be irrefutable proof of lack of unanimity and therefore of the ecumen-icity of the council.   As a last resort, Acton probably had in mind the formation of a national Church independent of Rome but under the direction of Catholic bishops.  This would have the double virtue of preserving “the ancient Church organization within lawful bounds” and of reconciling “Catholic science” with “the bearers of ecclesiastical authority.”40

A long essay by Acton, entitled “The Vatican Council” and published in the October issue of the North British Review, followed the same pattern of forthrightness in describing the council and circumspection in alluding to the future.  One of the most satisfactory contem-porary accounts of the council, it remains to-day probably the best interpretive study.  Systematically and soberly Acton described the errors and frauds of which Infallibility was compounded.  Concluding his narrative with the departure of the minority and the formal promulgation of the decrees, he declared, for the first time, that the minority’s decision to leave Rome was an abdication of principle only on the part of some, that for others it was an act of conscience and wisdom.  Those, he pointed out, who were most firmly persuaded of the evil of Infallibility were most confident that the decrees would eventually dissolve of their own accord.  They preferred, therefore, to rely on the “guiding, healing hand of God”41 rather than to precipitate a schism.  They hoped to deliver the Church from the decrees by teaching Catholics to reject a council “neither legitimate in consti-tution, free in action, nor unanimous in doc-trine,” and at the same time to “observe mo-deration in contesting an authority over which great catastrophes impend.”42

Most of the bishops, however, saw no prac-tical way of rejecting the council without reject-ing the Church, and reluctantly submitted to the decrees.  Appalled by the submission of one after another of the staunchest members of the minority, Acton wrote to some of them inquiring into their motives and reasons.  The reply of Kenrick, Archbishop of St. Louis, typified the prevalent state of mind.  Like Acton, Kenrick had hoped that a considerable part of the minority would join him in refusing to accept the decrees, depriving Infallibility of the seal of unanimity and ecumenical authority.  The submission of most of the bishops, however, put the remain-ing few in the untenable position of seeming to defy the clearly established authority of the Church.  This, Kenrick said, he had never intended to do.  “I could not defend the Council or its action but I always professed that the acceptance of either by the Church would supply its deficiency.”43  His submission, he insisted, was an act of pure obedience an did not signify a change of heart.  The decrees themselves were no less objectionable than they had been before, no less objectionable, for that matter, than many other practices and episodes in the history of the Church.  Fortu-nately, he added, his functions were almost exclusively administrative, so that he would not have to teach or expound the doctrine of Infallibility.

The day before Kenrick sent off his letter to Acton justifying his submission, Döllinger wrote to Mgr. Von Scherr, Archbishop of Munich, justifying his refusal to submit.  Starting at almost exactly the same position as Kenrick, Döllinger had arrived at exactly the opposite conclusion.  The decree offended him as a Christian, for it violated Christ’s injunction against establishing the kingdom of this world; as a theologian, for it was in contradiction with the whole tradition of the Church; as an historian, for it flouted the warnings of history against universal sovereignty; and as a citizen, for it threatened to subvert the civic order and create a fatal discord between State and Church. Less than three weeks after dispatching this letter, Döllinger was excommunicated.

Acton appeared to be treading hard upon the heels of Döllinger.  He translated into German his essay on the Vatican Council, which Rome, correctly interpreting it as a gesture of rebel-lion, promptly put on the Index.  And his next public act seemed to be a public declaration of war.  On 30 May, Döllinger and other recalcitrant priests and laymen issued their first statement following their excommunication, and Acton’s name was fifth in the list of signatures appended to it. This “Munich Declaration of Whitsuntide, 1971,”44 rejecting the decrees illegally promulgated at Rome and reaffirming the dogmas of the ancient Catholic faith, was the declaration of independence that presaged the creation of the Old Catholic Church.

The sequel to the publication of this document, however, revealed Acton in a less belligerent mood than might have been expected. Sir Roland Blennerhassett, the Liberal Catholic and good friend of Acton who had been in Rome with him during the council and whose name appeared beside his on the document, wrote a letter to the London Times repudiating his own and Acton’s signature.  Neither signature was “authentic,” he said, his own name, which appeared as “Sir Blenner-Hassett” (Acton’s as “Lord Acton-Dalberg”), having been affixed to the document without his consent.  In the course of the controversy that followed, two other signatories of the declaration elicited the facts that Blennerhassett had attended the final sessions of the Munich Conference at which the declaration had been drafted and had not then objected to the inclusion of his name, and that Acton, although not himself present at the final sitting, had been vouched for by Döllinger who was in his confidence.45  Blennerhassett himself later admitted that he had not meant to divorce himself from the principles enunciated in the declaration but only from the assembly itself, which was a German one and in which he and Acton had no right to participate.  Others, he added, who interpreted his letter rightly, were scandalized that he had done nothing more than repudiate that particular document.

Less scandalizing, perhaps, but more dis-turbing, was Acton’s unusual reticence during this public exchange of letters.  It is certain that, like Blennerhassett, he agreed completely with the purport of the declaration.  But it is also apparent, from the fact that he studiously re-frained from commenting on Blennerhassett’s letter to The Times, that he was uncomfortable about the publication of the declaration, and perhaps for reasons other than those of Blen-nerhassett. Later this episode was to emerge as a turning point in Acton’s relations with Rome.

Events had carried Acton far beyond the single-minded indignation he had felt during the council or the desperate hopes he had enter-tained afterwards. In the summer of 1870 it had been possible to think that an adamant minority might force Rome to yield and, for those bishops at any rate, permit the decrees to remain a dead letter.  Later that year, when he published his open letter and his essay and when it had become clear that Rome would exact submis-sion or impose excommunication, he could fall back on the hope that the excommunicated bishops would lead a legitimate movement of resistance and reformation.  This final hope was dispelled in April 1871, with the submission of the last two bishops.  Deprived of episcopal leadership, the opposition forfeited its claim to ecclesiastical legitimacy.  For a few more weeks Acton was drawn along by the momentum of the past year and a half during which eh had inces-santly preached the virtue of resistance.  He attended the Whitsuntide meetings and tacitly, if not explicitly, permitted his name to appear on the declaration.  But that he had begun to doubt the propriety of the Old Catholic move-ment, as it became known, is evident in his failure to repudiate the letter of Blennerhassett and, more decisively, in his absence from the Old Catholic Congress which met in Munich in September and to which Englishmen and laymen had been explicitly invited.

As the Old Catholic movement took form and matured in the next few years, Acton’s instinc-tive distaste for schismatic groups came to the surface.  Spurred on by ideological and organi-zational incentives, the Old Catholics left ortho-dox Roman Catholicism far behind, first when they invited the Jansenist Archbishop of Utrecht to consecrate the first bishop of the Old Catholic Church of Germany and so laid the basis for a new hierarchy, and later when they abolished compulsory celibacy of the clergy and auricular confession.  Even Döllinger complained of the sectarian quality of the movement, and Acton had less reason than Döllinger to be in the unhappy position of a schismatic.  He had not been excommunicated or even called upon to submit to the decrees, and as long as Rome did not trouble him, he could remain in the Church with a clear conscience.  In this he had the approval of Döllinger, for whom excommunica-tion had been personally a “deliverance,” but who nevertheless, as Acton put it, “held very strongly that nobody should voluntarily sever himself from the Roman communion.”46  When Eugène Michaud, a French Liberal theologian, left the Church of his own accord, without first having been excommunicated, Acton criticized him for “renouncing communion with us who wish to remain in communion with Rome.”47  Michaud’s action implied that there had been nothing heretical in the Church before July 1870, which Acton contrasted to his own view that the decisive objection to the decrees was the fact that they sanctioned and revived old evils in the Church.  “I think very much worse,” he wrote, “of the Vor Juli Kirche than he does, and better of the Nachjuli Kirche.”48

He even picked a quarrel with Gladstone, who once chanced to use the term “Ultramon-tanism” to describe the post-July Church.  There were assuredly Ultramontane principles and practices in the Church, Acton argued, but Ultra-montanism as a complete religious and moral system was so outrageous that no conscien-tious or intelligent man could possibly subscribe to it.  Most of those who went by the label of Ultramontane made it a habit to deny, conceal or try to explain away the evils that been per-petrated in the name of Ultramontanism, and they accepted the papacy only with private re-servations and interpretations.  It was impos-sible to exaggerate the depravity of Ultramon-tanism, but it was easy to exaggerate the depravity of Ultramontanes.

If Acton retreated from the position he had taken at the time of the council, it was only a tactical retreat.  His distinctions between good and evil were as sharp and absolute as before, and he still discerned behind the mask of the inopportunist Dupanloup the unprepossessing countenance of the infallibility Veuillot.  Papal Infallibility still meant immorality and impiety—murder, lying and treachery.  What he came to realize, however, since the harassed days of the council, was that the Vatican decrees neither brought these evils into existence nor made of them a consistent system of belief.

Acton did not carelessly or easily arrive at this judgment.  In the years after 1870 he turned over the evidence again and again.  He reread the official literature of the council and the mass of pamphlets it had inspired.  He asked Gladstone to make available to him the stenographic reports of the debates that were in the possession of the French government.  He corresponded with the minority bishops who had submitted and with the Old Catholic priests who had not.  And he continued his research in the history of the medieval and post-Reformation Church.  By 1874, when he was publicly challenged to state his position, his ideas were in order and his stand taken.


Infallibility Reconsidered

It was Gladstone who revived the slumbering issue of Infallibility and so precipitated the next crisis in Acton’s life.  In November 1874, four and a half years after the promulgation of the decrees, Gladstone attacked them in a thirty-five page pamphlet carrying the dignified title, “The Vatican Decrees in their Bearing on Civil Allegiance: a Political Expostulation.”49  It was odd that the renewal of the controversy should be brought about by an intimate friend of Acton, and odder still that the friend should be Glad-stone, the high churchman for whom Roman Catholicism was an ally in the struggle against the greater evils of secularism and atheism, wand who alternated, during the Vatican Coun-cil, between trying to dissuade Rome from pro-ceeding with the decrees and dissuading the English from curtailing Catholic rights.  Yet in 1874, when he could no longer hope either to di-vert Rome or to sustain the minority, when the passions of Englishmen had subsided and Rome was contemplating no new affront, he launched the bomb that erupted all the old grievances and suspicions.  Perhaps he did not realize how explosive a weapon he had created or that in two months 145,000 copies of the pamphlet would be sold.

Acton had tutored Gladstone too well, for the main argument of the “Expostulation” might have been taken verbatim from Acton’s letters to him during the council—the argument that papal Infallibility was inimical to freedom in history, science and society.  For his own part Gladstone was most fearful lest the temporal pretensions of the Pope undermine the civic allegiance of Catholics.  Just what he hoped to accomplish by rekindling this controversy is difficult to see, unless he thought that it might drive the Liberal Catholics into the arms of the Old Catholics, in whom he took a benevolent interest.  If so, he misjudged the situation.  In the years that had elapsed since the passage of the decrees, most Liberal Catholics who were unable to come to terms with them theologically or historically cold at least take comfort in the pacific and conservative spirit that seemed to have descended upon Rome.  The publication of the pamphlet had two results, neither of which Gladstone could have desired: non-Catholics were once again tempted to revoke Catholic emancipation, and Liberal Catholics were bur-dened with the disagreeable task of publicly de-fending the Church and the Pope.  The replies of Newman and Acton in particular were read with great relish by those who delighted in the em-barrassment of these two prominent opponents of Infallibility.

Acton’s was the first reply.  Prepared some days in advance in the form of a letter to the editor of The Time, it only awaited the release of Gladstone’s pamphlet, which he had read in manuscript and had vainly urged Gladstone not to publish.  He was in the familiar position of having to conduct a campaign on two fronts, this time against Gladstone and against Rome.  Indeed it was only by convicting Rome of sin that he could convict Gladstone of error.  Rome, he argued, had tolerated abuses and immorality compared to which the decrees were trifles.  For three centuries the canon law, through mur-derous revisions and editions, had affirmed that the killing of an excommunicated person was no act of murder and that allegiance need not be kept with heretical princes.  Yet in spite of these well-publicized evils, in spite of the extensive power claimed by the Pope long before the Vatican Council, Catholic emancipation had been voted for.  It was felt then, as it should be now, that Catholics could be trusted to abide by the generally accepted canons of morality.  Gladstone seemed to think that the council had replaced haphazard evil by systematic, organ-ized evil in the form of Ultramontanism.  This was not so, Acton replied.  “There is a waste of power by friction even in well-constructed machines, and no machine can enforce that de-gree of unity and harmony which you appre-hend.”50  Thus Fénelon could publicly aver his orthodoxy and privately protest the truth of his condemned views; or Copernicanism could be officially condemned and universally tolerated in private.  Similarly Catholics could be exposed to doctrines having distinctly disloyal implica-tions without being guilty of actual disloyalty.  Yet the demonstration of loyalty Gladstone asked of them, Catholics had to refuse.  They could neither deny the Pope’s right to vast discretionary powers, which was legally his, nor pledge themselves to resistance if he exercised that right, for this “is not capable of receiving a written demonstration.”51 Only experience would prove Gladston’s misgivings to be unwar-ranted.

The ordinary Times reader, it may be presumed, found Acton’s letter bewildering.  The non-Catholic must have been vexed to se him go so far in criticism of the papacy without crossing the line into defiance of the Pope, while the conventional Catholic must have been furious that a public letter ostensibly in defence of Catholicism should give so much ammunition to the enemy.  Only the Liberal Catholic could appreciate the gymnastics involved in strad-dling the fence between submission and resis-tance, and even he might fear that Acton was teetering dangerously on the side of resistance.  It is no wonder that The Times, in an editorial comment, concluded that Acton had, in plain words, rejected the decrees or had decided to treat them “as a nullity.”52  Acton composed a denial of this imputation but, for some reason, failed to send it.  Instead he wrote three more letters to The Times documenting the facts he had earlier adduced, the first of which concluded after five thousand words of quotations and bibliographical references, with a plea for truth and honesty, and an intimation of other more grievous and still unknown episodes in the history of the Church.

It is unfortunate that Acton chose to terminate the public phase of the controversy on this note.  He might have said much more in clarification of his position.  In denying to the “post-July” Church the stigma of Ultramontan-ism, he might have gone on to explain, as he did in private,53 that the council had not so unalterably tied itself to Ultramontanism as to preclude entirely an acceptable Catholic inter-pretation of the decrees.  The decrees were cer-tainly a victory for the Ultramontanes and an expression of Ultramontane prejudices, but they were not binding, legally and formally, in their extreme Ultramontanist sense.  When a high church functionary could deny that the Syllabus of Errors was “literally and certainly” sanc-tioned in the decrees, because of some tech-nical flaw in formulation, then honest men had the right to avail themselves of the benefit of this doubt.  If Manning was justified in saying, as he did when the argument redounded in his favour, that apostolic constitutions were tech-nical, legal documents, then the Liberals were justified in claiming that they need be accepted only in their technical, legal sense, that they could be “minimized,” rather than, as was Manning’s custom, “maximized.”  It was be-cause Acton, like Newman (another notorious “minimalist”), felt it possible to subscribe to a minimal interpretation of the decrees that he could make the remarkable statement, on one occasion, that nothing in his letters “contra-dicted” any doctrine of the council.  (He had at first intended to use the word “inconsistent,” but replaced it with “contradicted” when it was suggested to him that inconsistent might imply assent, whereas contradicted had the more limited connotation of non-dissent.54

What positive content Acton may have assigned to the decree of Infallibility, according to this minimal interpretation, is suggested in one of his notes:


It [the decree] might have been corrected if the council had continued.  A declaration that it did not mean to inno-vate; that the decree shall not be under-stood or interpreted otherwise than in harmony with all tradition; that no change was intended in the constant and universal doctrine of Catholics, might still be expected.  But the council closed with-out it.  There was always room for this, und es versteht sich eigentlich von selbst.55


Apart from this special interpretation of the decree, Acton also clung to the right to reserve judgment upon the ecumenicity of the council.  The list of ecumenical councils had never been definitely established, and it was not even cer-tain that the Council of Trent was among them, so that it was permissible to entertain the same suspicions about the Vatican Council.  For this reason Acton did not feel obliged to retract his published criticism of the council or even to exercise reticence in the future.

Acton and Newman were the two famous exponents of the minimalist position.  But their differences are, in some ways, more instructive than their similarities.  When Newman published his “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk” in reply to Gladstone’s “Expostulation,” his only concern was to provide a minimal interpretation of the decrees that would not fall into heresy.  Acton’s letters to The Times were a more complicated affair, for while he was arguing against Glad-stone that the decrees need not be accepted in an Ultramontane sense, he was also denouncing in the most unequivocal fashion the principles and practices of Ultramontanism.  His purpose, which was no part of Newman’s, was to “make the evils of Ultramontanism so manifest that men will shrink from them, and so explain away or stultify the Vatican Council as to make it innocuous.”56 Under the most trying circum-stances, Acton did not permit himself to relax his offensive against Rome.


The Catholic Archbishop of Westminster might allow Newman’s letter, however distaste-ful, to pass without comment, but he could not afford to ignore Acton’s, particularly since The Times had taken pains to spell out its heretical implications.  Besides, Manning had long har-boured suspicions of Acton’s unorthodoxy.  He had hoped that the promulgation of the decrees would bring to their knees the proud, self-right-eous opponents of Infallibility, who thought they were wise men and the Ultramontanes fools.  “At last,” he had rejoiced, “the wise men have had to hold their tongues, and, in a way not glorious to them, to submit and to be silent.”57  But Acton was conspicuous neither by his sub-mission nor by his silence, and when it began to look as if the moral victory as well as the patent intellectual superiority was with him and his party, Manning decided it was time to assert his authority.

Three days after Acton’s first communication to The Times, Manning addressed two questions to him: Did his letter have any heretical intent, and did he accept the decrees?  The reply was satisfactory on the first score but not on the second.  Acton, Manning deduced, was one of those who adopt “a less severe and more conciliatory construction”58 of the decrees—in which case Manning wanted to know what con-struction that was, or more simply, whether he adhered to them as defined by the council.  This was the critical moment for Acton.  To answer Manning in his own terms would be a total capitulation, and for this he was unprepared.  Should he say that he “submitted” to the de-crees without difficulty or examination, mean-ing, he explained, “that I feel no need of har-monizing and reconciling what the Church her-self has not yet had time to reconcile and to harmonize?”59  He decided against it, settling on a formulation which avoided the objection-able word.  His letter dated the 18th, read:


“My Dear Lord,--I could not answer your question without seeming to admit that which I was writing expressly to deny, namely, that it could be founded on anything but a misconception of the terms or the spirit of my letter to Mr. Gladstone.

“In reply to the question which you put with reference to a passage in my letter of Sunday, I can only say that I have no private gloss or favourite inter-pretation for the Vatican Decrees.  The acts of the Council alone constitute the law which I recognize.  I have not felt it my duty as a layman to pursue the com-ments of divines, still less to attempt to supersede them by private judgments of my own.  I am content to rest in absolute reliance on God’s providence in His government of the Church.—I remain, my dear Lord, your faithfully, Acton.”60


The reply had overtones that Manning’s sensitive ear could hardly have missed.  Acton was politely informing him that he did not feel obliged to answer any question not specifically arising from the letter to Gladstone, for it was only his public acts that manning had the right to challenge.  As Simpson less delicately put it, Manning had the right to know whether Acton’s letter had any heretical intent, but not the right to question his acceptance of the decrees.  Only Acton’s bishop had that authority, and Acton had already satisfied him.  Dr. Brown, Bishop of Shrewsbury, in whose diocese Aldenham was located (and formerly one of Acton’s masters at Oscott), knew Acton as a conscientious and pious man, whose unwillingness to be separated from the Church was assurance enough of his orthodoxy.  But Manning was less easily per-suaded.  In his opinion Acton was a heretic who desired to remain in the Church for subversive reasons of his own: “He has been in and since the council a conspirator in the dark, and the ruin of Gladstone.  His answers to me are obscure and evasive.  I am waiting till after Sunday, and shall then send one more final question.  We need not fear this outbreak for our people.  Some masks will be taken off, to our greater unity.”61

For the third time Manning requested from Acton an unequivocal declaration of submission, and again Acton took refuge in Bishop Brown.  It was probably upon Manning’s prompting that Brown then called upon Acton for a confession of belief.  After consulting with several friends, Acton composed a respectful but firm state-ment:


“To your doubt whether I am a real or a pretended Catholic I must reply that, believing all that the Catholic Church be-lieves, and seeking to occupy my life with no studies that do not help religion, I am, in spite of sins and errors, a true Catholic, and I protest that I have given you no foundation for your doubt.  If you speak of the Council because you suppose that I have separated myself in any degree from the Bishops whose friendships I en-joyed at Rome, who opposed the Decrees during the discussion, but accept them now that it is over, you have entirely mis-apprehended my position.  I have yielded obedience to the Apostolic Constitution which embodies those Decrees, and I have not transgressed, and certainly do not consciously transgress, obligations imposed under the supreme sanction of the Church.  I do not believe that there is a word in my public or private letters that contradicts any Doctrine of the Council; but if there is, it is not my meaning, and I wish to blot it out.”62 

This may not have been the whole of Acton’s letter; a hand-written draft contained among his manuscripts includes a passage that probably concluded the letter: “You bear testimony to the [orthodoxy—deleted] Catholicity of my doctrine, and I am grateful to you for it; but I will not relinquish the hope that, in resisting tactics which are dishonourable and [ruinous to the Church—deleted] injurious I retain your sympathy as my bishop and your confidence as a friend.”63

Brown, no Ultramontane, was apparently willing to let the matter drop there, particularly when Thomas Green, Acton’s private chaplain at Aldenham (and another former Oscott master), came to Acton’s support.  But Manning was obdurate.  Early in January he delated the case to Rome, and Acton, who was spending the win-ter at Torquay, prepared for a siege of research in order to defend his position.  As late as 13 April 1875, he wrote to Lady Blennerhassett: “It is simply at the choice of the authorities, Pope, Cardinal, bishop or priest, when I am excom-municated. . . . It can only be a question of time.”64

As his strategy of defence was revised, first to take shelter behind Brown and then behind the bishops of the minority, so his strategy of offence shifted: the target was no longer the decrees themselves but Ultramontanism and Ultramontanes.  By interpreting the decrees in a minimal sense, he put them out of the range of discussion, which permitted him at the same time to persevere in his war against Ultramon-tanism and to remain within the Church by accepting the decrees.  The new strategy might have succeeded had Manning been willing to re-cognize the legitimacy of this minimal inter-pretation or to appreciate the fact that a revela-tion of Ultramontane corruption was a matter of historical truth and not of dogmatic authority.  As it was, Manning suspected, and rightly, that Acton’s distinction between the decrees and Ultramontanism was only a formal device of po-lemic, that in fact he was using Ultramontanism as a club to beat down the decrees.  Privately Acton admitted that he wanted to “stultify the Vatican Council” and “make it innocuous,”65 so that the decrees would eventually be nullified.  When he wrote to Manning that he would rely upon “God’s providence in His government of the Church” (to which was added, in the first draft, “[and] the construction she herself shall adopt in her own true time,”66) Manning must have recognized the indomitable theory of development that Acton and Döllinger knew how to wield so dexterously.  It was because Acton had faith in the power of the Church to regurgitate the unwholesome material fed it by zealots that he could reconcile himself to the temporary discomfort of yielding to the de-crees.  The important thing, he felt, was to create the conditions which would promote a quick recovery, and this meant proceeding against Ultramontanism “in the root and stem” of immorality, rather than in the “flowering top”67 of the decrees:


“What I want people to understand is that I am not really dealing with the Council, but with the deeper seat of the evil, and am keeping bounds with which any sincere and intelligent bishop of the minority must sympathize.  If I am ex-communicate—I should rather say when I am—I shall not only be still more isolated, but all I say and do, by being in appear-ance at least, hostile, will lost all power of influencing the convictions of common Catholics.”68


Acton under-estimated the prudence of Rome, for he was not excommunicated.  As an influential layman, peer and associate of Glad-stone, he was too valuable to be discarded.  Bishop Brown declared himself satisfied with Acton’s statement, and Rome took that to be adequate.  Grant Duff, Acton’s good friend, thought that the interview between the bishop and Acton must have resembled the historic one described by Byron, when “Betwixt his Darkness and his Brightness.  There passed a mutual glance of great politeness.”69  Politeness, at least on the side of Rome, henceforth also characterized the relations of Acton and Rome.  Although Acton continued his frank examination of Church history and neither retracted nor recalled any of his writings on the Vatican Council, he was never again seriously troubled by the ecclesiastical authorities.

Acton had yielded obedience to Rome, but on his own terms, so that it was less a submission than an assertion of independence.  It is stretching a point to claim, as his Catholic bio-grapher, Lally, does, that Acton accepted the issue of the Vatican Council with “filial piety,” and that the question of papal Infallibility, as a point of faith, was “closed for him for ever after 1870.”70 But this is no less a travesty of Acton’s dilemma than a common non-Catholic opinion, best expressed by the popular historian, Lytton Strachey.  To Strachey, Acton was that ludicrous phenomenon, “an 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.”  If he could swallow the camel of Roman Catholicism, why should he strain at the gnat of infallibility?  So Strachey wondered, as he watched “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.”71  Yet there were some who knew how to wear their Catholicism with a difference, Strachey admitted, and Acton was one of them.

Neither the ordinary pious Catholic, who saw the controversies of 1869-74 as a blot upon Acton’s memory to be thoroughly erased before the process of rehabilitation could get under way, nor the scoffing non-Catholic, for whom the controversies were as meaningless as Acton’s ambiguous submission, could appreci-ate the difficulty of his problem and the delicacy of his solution.  Neither could understand how Acton, in the worlds of his friend, Lord Bryce, could have “remained all his life a faithful member of the Roman communion, while adhering to the views which he advocated in 1870.”72  The traditional Catholic would be quick to expose the weaknesses of Acton’s argu-ments, while the non-Catholic might find it hard to credit the sentiment, the conviction and the personal sense of propriety which were his ultimate justification.  Belief, for Acton, admit-ted of many shades and variations, so that it was possible to give formal adherence to a de-cree while reserving judgment on its meaning, wisdom, and even legitimacy.  For a while, when pressed about the decrees, he considered say-ing nothing beyond, “I do not reject,”73 which was all the council required under its extreme sanctions.  Instead he used the more gracious formula, “I have yielded obedience,” a euphem-ism for “I do not reject” and a far cry from the “I assent” that Manning would have liked to hear.  And because belief was a delicate thing, not to be summoned at will or rejected lightly, he felt perhaps that its private complexion need not be identical with its public, and he could take com-fort in the example of Fénelon, who was finally obliged to assert publicly what he denied pri-vately.  The Anglican priest, Frederick Meyrick, who saw a good deal of Acton at Torquay in the critical winter of 1874-5, recalled his state of mind: “Lord Acton told me that he did not believe, and could not believe, the Infallibility of the Pope, as defined, any more than Döllinger, who declared that he could as soon believe that two and two made five.  He said that he should appoint a private chaplain with the same senti-ments as himself, and proceed just as if the Vatican Council had not been held.”74  If Mey-rick’s memory can be trusted, Acton was indeed prepared to follow in the path of Fénelon.  Con-vinced that the Vatican decrees, if not already made innocuous by vague wording and con-flicting interpretations, would become so in the course of time, he decided that it was the way of wisdom and piety to “yield obedience” to the Church.

The final word may rest with Lord Acton’s daughter, who observed, in obvious reference to her father, that the part played by the Pope and the hierarchy in the thoughts of lay Catholics could be much exaggerated, and that a man’s relationship to the Church is governed by his inner sentiments, his love for the sacra-ments and respect for the traditions.75

1 Add. MSS., 4979.

2 “The Vatican Council,” North British Review, LIII (1871); reprinted in Freedom and Power, pp. 300-1.

3 Ibid., p. 302.

4 “The Next General Council,” Chronicle, I (1867), 368-70.

5 North British Review, CI (1869), 127-35.

6 Part of the volume was an expansion of articles which had been published in March in the Allgemeine Zeitung of Augsburg.  Friends of Döllinger at Munich agree that Döllinger wrote the articles and that the book was composed by his colleague, Johannes Huber, under his super-vision. (See Friedrich, III, 484-8; Eberhard Zirn-giebl, Johannes Huber [Gotha, 1881], p. 150).  (According to one report, the publisher of the volume spoke of Döllinger as the author [Ferdin-and Gregorovius, Roman Journals, ed. F. Alt-haus, tr. G. W. Hamilton (London, 1911), p. 338])  Acton may have provided Döllinger with some of the historical material (without knowing to what purpose it was to be put), but otherwise he was not involved either in the publication of the articles or of the volume, although the latter, at least in part, is often attributed to him (e.g., G. G. Coulton, Papal Infallibility [London, 1932], pp. 13 and 207).

7 Janus, The Pope and the Council, authorized trans. (London, 1869), p. xix.

8 “The Pope and the Council,” North British Review, CI (1869), 133.

9 No one except Acton seems to have ques-tioned Döllinger’s authorship of the Allgemeine Zeitung articles, and Döllinger himself, when publicly identified as their author and chal-enged to deny it, did not do so.  In July Acton maintained that Döllinger had not written them (Acton to Wetherell, 30 July 1869, Gasquet, p. 356), but he must have altered his opinion in September when he, Dupanloup and Döllinger met at Herrnsheim to discuss the impending council, and when the articles must have been mentioned.  His remarks in the North British Review in October about the identity of Janus were  probably intended as a warning that the whole work should not be ascribed to Döllinger, for in a letter written the next month he admitted that Döllinger was the “inspiring mind” behind it (Acton to Gladstone, 24 November 1869, Correspondence, p. 86).

10 “Considerations for the Bishops of the Coun-cil Respecting the Question of Papal Infallibil-ity,” in Declarations and Letters on the Vatican Decrees, ed. F. H. Reusch (Edinburgh, 1891).

11 Trans. J. B. Robertson (Dublin, 1870).

12 Quirinus, Letters from Rome on the Council, authorized trans. (London, 1870).

13 Johann Friedrich, “Römische Briefe über das Konzil,” Revue internationale de théologie, XI (1903), 621-8; Charlotte Blennerhassett, “Acton,” Biographisches Jahrbuch und deutscher Nekrolog, VII [1902], 19; Johann Friedrich von Schulte, Lebenserinnerungen (Giessen, 1908), I, 269.

14 Friedrich and later Woodward, both of whom had access to the original manuscripts of Acton’s letters, remarked upon this.

15 This is the effect of a work intended to support the infallibility position: Cuthbert Butler, The Vatican Council (2 vols.; London, 1930).  A more recent example of the uncritical, off-hand rejection of Acton and Quirinus is Lillian Parker Wallace, The Papacy and European Diplomacy (Chapel Hill, 1948), in which the name of Acton is linked with the adjective, “violent” (pp. 52, 67, and twice on 87), although no pretence is made of analyzing his essays and letters or of refuting a single one of his charges.  The partial-ity of the author is exposed by her obvious pre-ference for Manning, who is never, in her pages, “violent,” but only “ardent” as he “pursued his unwavering course” (pp. 88 and 91).

16 Acton to Gladstone, 1 January 1870, Correspondence, p. 89.

17 Quirinus, p. 143.

18 ibid., p. 164.

19 ibid., p. 713.

20 ibid., p. 224.

21 1 January 1870, Correspondence, p. 91.

22 ibid.

23 Shane Leslie, Henry Edward Manning (London, 1921), p. 223.

24 ibid., pp. 231-2.

25 When E. S. Purcell’s Life of Cardinal Manning (2 vols., London), was published in 1896, Acton insisted that too much had been made of his correspondence with Gladstone, and that he recalled writing only two letters to him during the course of the council.  Acton’s memory was clearly at fault, for the Correspondence alone includes twelve letters.

26 Leslie, p. 220.

27 These are the correct figures.  Quirinus made the error of deducting the eighty or ninety ab-stentions from the 600 bishops who voted rather than from the 680 or 690 present in Rome at the time.

28 Elizabeth Lecky, A Memoir of the Right Honourable William Edward Hartpole Lecky (London, 1909), p. 78.

29 Quirinus, p. 69.

30 “The Vatican Council,” North British Review, LIII (1870), reprinted in Freedom and Power, p. 333.

31 Add. MSS., 5542.

32 Add. MSS., 4992.

33 Acton to Gladstone, 10 March 1870, Corres-pondence, p. 107.

34 Add. MSS., 5542.

35 Freedom and Power, p. 355.

36 Acton to Gladstone, 1 January 1870, Corres-pondence, p. 96.

37 Sendschreiben an einen deutschen Bischof des vaticanischen Concils (Nördlängen, 1870).

38 ibid., p. 16.

39 ibid., pp. 18-19.

40 See p. 155.

41Vatican Council,” Freedom and Power, p. 356.

42 ibid.

43 Johann Friedrich von Schulte, Der Altkath-olicismus (Giessen, 1887), p. 267.  In add. MSSS., 4905, Acton transcribed parts of Ken-rick’s reply without identifying them as such; as a result, in the introduction to Freedom and Power (p. xxvi), I mistakenly assumed the note to be an original expression of Acton’s views.  The wording is, of course, Kenrick’s, although the view was one that Acton eventually adopted.

44 First published in the Rheinischer Merkur and reprinted in von Schulte, pp. 16-22.

45 The secretary of the Munich Conference, Professor Berchtold, replied in a letter to the Allgemeine Zeitung, which was reprinted, toge-ther with a comment by von Schulte, in Der Alt-katholicismus, p. 339.  Acton’s copy of this volume in the Cambridge University Library is scored at several points in the text of the declaration, but there are no query or exclamation marks to indicate disagreement either with the declaration itself or with the explanations of Berchtold and von Schulte.

   F. E. Lally, one of Acton’s biographers, claimed that the inclusion of Acton’s name was “wholly arbitrary and unwarranted,” that Acton was nei-ther present at the deliberations at von Moy’s” nor “in any way interested in them” (As Lord Acton says [Newport (R. I.), 1942], p. 107).  None of these statements is accurate.  Acton did attend the deliberations (although not the final one), was vitally interested in them, and the inclusion of his name was neither arbitrary nor unwarranted.

46 Add. MSS., 4912.

47 Acton to Blennerhassett, 1872, Correspon-dence, p. 117.

48 ibid.

49 Ed. Philip Schaff (New York, 1875).

50 London Times, 9 November 1874.

51 ibid.

52 ibid.

53 Acton to Simpson, 18 December 1874, Gasquet, p. 336; Acton to Gladstone, 30 December 1874, Correspondence p. 150.

54 Acton to Simpson, 10 December 1874, Gasquet, p. 365.

55 Add. MSS., 5600.

56 Acton to Gladstone, 19-20 December 1874, Correspondence p. 147.

57 George W. E. Russell, Portraits of the Seven-ties (London, 1916), p. 331.

58 Manning to Acton, 16 November 1874, Cor-respondence p. 152.

59 Acton to Simpson, 17 November 1874, Gas-quet, pp. 359-60.

60 Correspondence p. 153.

61 Manning to Bishop Ullathorne, 27 November 1874, Leslie, p. 232.

62 Probably 12-15 November 1874, Leslie, p. 233.

63 Add. MSS., 4863.

64Correspondence p. 155.

65 See above, p. 122.

66 Acton to Manning, 18 November 1874, Cor-respondence, p. 153.

67 Acton to Gladstone, 16 December 1874, ibid., p. 49.

68 Acton to Gladstone, 19-20 December 1874, ibid., p. 148.

69 Mountstuart E. Grant Duff, “Lord Acton’s Letters,” Nineteenth Century and After, LV (1904), 773.

70 Lally, p. 128.

71 Strachey, Eminent Victorian (New York, n.d.), pp. 101-2.

72 James Bryce, Studies in Contemporary Bio-graphy (New York, 1903), pp. 385-6.

73 Acton to Simpson, 10 December 1874, Gas-quet, p. 363-4

74 Meyrick, Memories of Life at Oxford, and Ex-periences in Italy . . . . (London, 1905), pp. 287-8.

75 Coulton, Papal Infallibility, p. 223.

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