Until recently, Catholics in America thought they would be faced with the prospect of living out their faith in Hillary Clinton’s America. We got something of a shock in November, and now have to figure out what it means to be a Catholic in the age of Trump. British Catholics today face similar challenges, particularly poignant in election season: how does one live as a Catholic in the Britain of 2017? How do we fruitfully interact with our cultures, our nations, contemporary learning, and our political systems while remaining true to our ancient faith that proclaims a Lord born before all ages? It is very easy to get this wrong – sacrificing the truth for fleeting cultural acceptance, or retreating from and bitterly condemning society on the other. It is perilously difficult to get right.
I wish to introduce some Enlightenment-era English Catholics, the Cisalpines, who sought simultaneously to embrace their culture and political system, contemporary learning, and the fullness of their faith – in sum, to be truly English, truly Enlightened, and truly Catholic in a time of great prejudice and persecution. The Cisalpines are worth retrieving not because they necessarily got it all right (I don’t think they did), but because they provide an example of a valiant attempt at doing so, during a formative and tumultuous age.
The period 1780 to 1830 is often neglected in English Catholic history. It spans, roughly, from the close of the “age of Challoner” to Catholic Emancipation (1829) and the beginning of ultramontane “Second Spring” Catholicism. While the period of Cisalpine activity can boast neither the heroic martyrdoms of the 16th and 17th centuries nor the pious confidence of the growing church of Wiseman, Manning, and Newman, the years 1780–1830 were critical for the cultural, political and theological development of English Catholicism.
In 1780, Catholics made up only about 1 per cent of the population of England (this was before waves of Irish immigration). The surviving pockets of the Old Faith were generally huddled, out of necessity, around Catholic gentry. Priests and believers were financially maintained (and in some ways led) by families such as the Throckmortons of Coughton Court (Midlands), the Welds of Lulworth Castle (Dorset) and the various branches of the blue-blooded Howards.
Sir John Courtenay Throckmorton (1753–1819) and Lord Petre (1742–1801) were two of the most important Cisalpine gentry. The social status and respect these families commanded helped shield their dependants, clerical and lay, and enabled them to worship safe from harassment. The letter of the law was still brutally anti-Catholic, but the worst Penal Laws were rarely enforced.
Many prominent Cisalpine Catholics formed themselves into the Catholic Committee (1782), and later the Cisalpine Club (1792). They met in taverns and homes, formulating strategies to achieve full political emancipation. The name “Cis-alpine” was deliberately provocative: it was the opposite of transalpine or ultramontane (beyond the Alps, in Rome). The Cisalpine intellectual leader, Joseph Berington, summed up this attitude with his characteristic bluntness: “I am no papist, nor is my religion popery. [While] Catholic is an old family name, which we have never forfeited, the word Roman has been given to us to indicate some undue attachment to the See of Rome.” This desire to differentiate between Catholicism and “popery” was neither a rejection of the pope as supreme head of the Church, nor was it a new Enlightenment fad. It was rooted in an old and prominent strain of English Catholicism that sought to combat Protestant prejudice by seeking to clarify (their conservative critics would say downplay) true doctrine.
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