HC Deb 28 February 1821 vol 4 cc949-61
Mr. Fitzgibbon

presented a Petition from the Roman Catholics of Limerick, praying to be admitted to the full enjoyment of the privileges of the British constitution. The hon. gentleman begged to offer his testimony to the loyalty and respectability of the petitioners, and expressed an earnest hope that the result of that night's debate would determine that a large portion of the people of Ireland should no longer be excluded from participating in the blessings of the constitution.

Mr. S. Rice

supported the prayer of the petition, conceiving it to be founded on justice. No paltry question of expediency, if expediency could ever be separated from justice, ought to induce them to exclude from the full enjoyment of all constitutional rights, men who had proved by their patience under severe privations, how well they deserved them. He hoped the House would consent to go into a committee on the Catholic claims. If securities were wanted to guard the Protestant church from danger, he should vote for them. But he was satisfied that the best security the church of England could receive, would be afforded by an act of conciliation and generosity towards the Roman Catholics.

Sir T. Lethbridge

presented a Petition from Bruton, against the Catholic claims. The petitioners looked with great anxiety to the recurrence of this question, but relied on the wisdom of that House, if the subject should go to a committee, to provide suitable securities for the Protestant interest. In this feeling he agreed with the petitioners. He should be inclined to consider the appointment of a committee only a delusion; for he could not see how any thing could be done that would relieve the Catholics, and at the same time give security to the Protestant establishments. It was from this feeling that he was always disposed to object in limine to any plan of this kind, and he now called upon those who wished to hand down the constitution unimpaired to posterity to oppose the claims of the Catholics.

Mr. Grenfell

said, that so far was he from thinking that by conceding what was prayed for they would do any thing to undermine the constitution, that he was convinced the measure in question would prove one of its firmest supports.

Mr. Warre

, when an hon. baronet called on the House to oppose the claims of the Catholics in limine, wished them to remember in what situations they had heretofore been called upon to oppose them in limine. In 1806, when it was proposed to admit Catholics to a certain rank in the army and navy, the hon. baronet called on the House to oppose this proposition in limine. Then the cry of "no Popery," was raised, and the proposition failed. Since, the measure alluded to had been carried by the very persons who then opposed it. At that time they were told, "if you do this, you will pave the way for overturning the constitution, as it was established at the period of the revolution." But this excellent measure had since been carried. It was introduced in the Lords and when it came to the Commons, it was passed sub silentio; and they might now have a Catholic general at the head of an army, and a Catholic admiral commanding the Channel fleet. Had this endangered the constitution? It had not, and he hoped the Catholics would still go on step by step till they gained the consummation of their wishes.

Mr. Barham

objected to the foul calumnies urged against the Catholics in one petition which had been laid before the House. It was stated that the prayer of the Catholics ought not to be attended to now, because the concessions formerly made were given as their ultimatum. This he must declare to be utterly false. They had been content to receive so much as parliament was disposed to grant; but at no time had any compromise taken place. Though he was ready to believe that much of this petition originated in ignorance, yet he could not suppose the petitioners so ignorant as to believe that the Catholics had a mental reserve when making oath, under the impressions that faith was not to be kept with heretics. He thought they must know that such were not the tenets of the Catholic church from the results of the various inquiries that had taken place. Yet on this calumny they founded the bold charge that a Catholic was not to be believed on his oath. This was an idea so absurd, that he might defy the devil himself to produce one more so.

Lord Nugent

said:—I rise to present a Petition from upwards of 8,000 of the Roman Catholics of Great Britain, piling for admission to certain civil privileges, from which they are now by law excluded. The petition, Sir, is signed by seven peers, sixteen baronets, and seven bishops, besides a very considerable body of their clergy, as well as laity. And if I permit myself to look forward with the sincerest and most sanguine hope to the success of its prayer, that hope is not founded upon an expectation on my part of any very extensive change in the opinions on this subject, of this House or of the country;—but it is founded upon the increased and increasing claims of the petitioners themselves upon your favourable consideration:—it is founded upon their uniform and exemplary good conduct;—upon the tone and temper of this petition;—but, above all, upon one new and most important declaration;—a declaration, not new in principle, but now for the first time thus explicitly made, which I trust the House will feel entirely removes the one great obstacle, which has hitherto presented itself to the admission of these petitioners to a community of privileges with their fellow-subjects—The House is aware, that the oath of supremacy, in the renunciation it contains of the spiritual power of the pope, now remains the one, and I may almost say the only one, great practical difficulty in their way. The declarations of the thirtieth of Charles 2nd, against the doctrine of transubstantiation and the invocation of saints, are now, I believe on all hands, allowed to be justifiable only as tests subsidiary to the declaration contained in the oath of supremacy. On the oath of supremacy, therefore, I conceive, now hinges the whole of that long-contested question of foreign influence, and of what has been called divided allegiance: and on this subject I should wrong these petitioners if I presumed to state their opinions in any terms but those in which they have themselves so admirably described them. They state in their petition, that "they have been accused of giving to a foreign potentate part of that allegiance, which is due to their rightful sovereign, but they have repeatedly denied the charge, and again deny it." They state, that to their sovereign "they swear full and undivided allegiance: in him alone they recognise the power of the civil sword within the realm of England" (these words are the words of the thirty-seventh article of the Church of England). "They acknowledge in no foreign prince, prelate, state, or potentate, any power or authority to use the same, within the said realm, in any matter or cause whatever, whether civil, spiritual, or ecclesiastical."

Sir, the prayer, then, of these petitioners reduces, as far as they are concerned, this great question to within a very narrow compass. There remains but one plain question of practical justice, which in fact embraces the whole matter so long at issue in this House. Is it on account of their religious opinions only, or on account of presumed political opinions, that the Roman Catholics of your empire are disqualified from performing certain services to the state? For the answer, let us look at the oaths and declarations which are the instruments of their exclusion, and let us look at the terms of the petition which I shall move to lay upon your table; and it appears, both from the grievances it states, and from the relief it prays for, that the removal of certain tests, of a purely spiritual effect, and relating to spiritual matters only, would leave your Roman Catholic countrymen as fully qualified for the enjoyment of every privilege they ask, as you are from whom they ask them: that they are excluded, not by virtue of any political test, but by virtue of a spiritual test only; and, ex vi termini, they put it to the proof; for they ask you to abolish the spiritual test only—the political test they are ready to embrace. But it is said, that from these spiritual tenets certain political tenets may be inferred. Then, Sir, let us come at that truth by direct means, which by indirect we never can arrive at. Put to them what political test you will. Stronger, if you will, than that already imposed by the nineteenth of the late king, in Scotland; stronger, if you will, than that already imposed by the thirty-third of the late king in Ireland; the Roman Catholics of Great Britain are willing, and are eager, to meet you. Charge it with every security which the utmost ingenuity can devise, or the most jealous caution impose, for the safety of our Protestant establishment in church and state—the Catholics of Great Britain are willing, and are eager, to meet you still. They state their allegiance, political and civil, to be as entire and as extensive as your own: and they urge no less than character, conduct, the evidence of history, and even of the very oaths which exclude them, to support this statement.

If, then, we refuse this prayer, it is not that we protest against this or that particular form of relief, it is not that we protest against such or such extent of toleration, but we must do a great deal more: we must do this; we must declare that, in our deliberate judgment, no man ought to be admitted into a participation in civil privileges with ourselves, who dares, contrary to our opinion of the efficacy of such invocation, to invoke, in his closet, the intercession of saints between himself and his Maker; who ventures to believe in the spiritual efficacy of the pope in council to interpret the Holy Scriptures; or who presumes to recognise a real presence of the Deity in the consecrated elements of our Lord's Supper. We must be prepared to declare, that these opinions, for it is against these alone that the oaths of exclusion operate, are opinions so full of danger to the state, that it is wisdom to protect ourselves from them at no less a sacrifice than that of one fourth of the moral strength of our whole empire—one fourth of the property, one fourth of the talents, one fourth of the energy, zeal and integrity, of the whole empire, by law excluded from the civil service of the state. This we must assert, before we can upon principle reject the prayer of this petition.—But if, on the other hand, it is only that, under cover of these spiritualities, you enable yourselves to exclude persons against whom certain social tenets are imputed, then, Sir, allow me again to say, come at this directly, for indirectly you never can; and do not endeavour, in breach of every moral law, to appeal to the consciences of men on such false pretences, when considered as political tests, as are these doctrines of transubstantiation and the invocation of saints.

You find the Roman Catholics of Great Britain professing a religion to which they are fondly and firmly attached. How fondly, and how firmly attached, the history of their sufferings, their privations, the undeserved obloquy they have endured for now upwards of two centuries, sufficiently attests. Use, then, that strong principle of religious fidelity to your own advantage; and, by the bond of an oath, make it, instead of being the instrument of their disfranchisement, the pledge and guarantee of your own security and union.—And what, let me ask, has been hitherto the operation of these declarations of the 30th of Charles 2nd? Declarations enacted under the belief in two things;—under the belief in the evidence of Titus Oates's plot; and under the belief in the influence of what is called the king-killing clause in the council of Lateran. True that upon the monstrous falsehoods and perjuries on which that plot was founded, history has long since solemnly pronounced its verdict; but the effect of those perjuries is still in operation against the Roman Catholics. True that no atonement could be made for the innocent blood of those who were the victims of those perjuries; but the laws of exclusion which were enacted upon the belief in those perjuries, still remain a blot, a disgrace, and an anomaly upon our Statute book. Sir, that monstrous other assumption, namely, that Roman Catholics believe themselves absolved from keeping faith with Protestants, although now on all hands abandoned, and by common consent brushed away with the rest of the rubbish with which this great question was obscured: still let us remember, that even this assumption it was for years vain to combat:—vain that the council of Constance was urged, abrogating that profligate that thousand times denied and disproved clause of the council of Lateran:—vain the general and indignant disclaimer of all Catholic Europe tendered to Mr. Pitt in 1788:—vain the evidence of the civil history of every nation in the world, where Catholic and Protestant live together, with the same privileges, under the same laws and the same government. Oaths of exclusion remain upon our Statute book, which can exclude only those whom their very being excluded by those oaths shows are religiously scrupulous of what engagements they enter into with a Protestant government. By one single act of that perjury, be it observed, which we have so untruly and cruelly imputed to him, the Roman Catholic might at any time have admitted, or might now admit himself to all he seeks, and from which it is only those oaths that exclude him. And, having done so, he might turn round again, and declare himself to you and to the world to be a Roman Catholic; but that would not exclude him. You exclude him, therefore, not because he is a Roman Catholic, but because he is a Roman Catholic who does keep faith with Protestants, and abandons even the common law privileges of his citizenship for the sake of his religion and his oath.

These petitioners submit, that to the declaration against transubstantiation is to be objected, first, that, in its terms, it is intemperate and calumnious; secondly, that it affects matters of belief of much too subtle and metaphysical a nature for human laws to take cognizance of; and thirdly, that, if its terms were as temperate, as charitable, as incontrovertible, as they are the reverse, still, that in effect this declaration nullifies the very securities it affects to give, and illustrates how train the attempt to protect yourselves by oaths against a perjurer. For example: after applying to this doctrine of transubstantiation the word idolatrous (a rather violent and hazardous epithet by the way, and one which I think I could show, if strictly taken, is quite untrue), you profess "in the presence of God, without any evasion, equivocation, or mental reservation whatever, and without any dispensation already granted, or hope of such dispensation," and so on. Why, Sir, if the Roman Catholic had received such dispensation, or if he hoped for such dispensation, or if he thought that such dispensation could avail him in the sight of God, he might take currently every oath on your table, admit himself to the eligibility he seeks, and Parliament might, in despite of your laws, be filled not only with popery but with perjury too. And yet this is what we term security! The security of an oath against those whom no oaths will bind! Sir, we know what is meant by a bad reasoner arguing in a circle; but what shall we say of a law, which calls upon us to swear in a circle thus? If the imputation were true, the oaths could not secure you: they only do secure you because you know the imputation to be untrue. But it is in a much wiser, a much more conciliatory and much truer spirit, that the thirty-nine articles, the work of better hands and of better times, speak of this same doctrine of transubstantiation. It is there described as "having given rise to many superstitions." But not a word of idolatry. We are therefore, in this House called upon to declare on oath what the articles of our own church do not even profess; and now, above a century and a half since its enactment, when even the political pretext has long ceased to operate, this unwarrantable, this horrid declaration still subsists upon our Statute books.

Sir, on the oath of supremacy I will say nothing; because, modified or explained in the spirit of this petition (I mean as renouncing all temporal supremacy in the Pope, and all spiritual or ecclesiastical supremacy which can be enforced by temporal means, or can, in any manner or for any purpose, conflict or interfere with the civil duty and allegiance which is due to his majesty, and his successors; or, with the civil obedience and submission which is due to his courts in all matters affecting the legal rights of his majesty's subjects):—so understood and declared, I am enabled, I am authorised, to say, that the great body of the Roman Catholics of Great Britain are prepared to take it with you: and that this is all which you have, on other occasions, thought necessary; witness your laws concerning the elective franchise and civil appointments, the thirty-first and thirty-third of the late king in Ireland and Scotland. By these acts the admission of a foreign supremacy in foro conscientiœ, is distinctly recognized, and such spiritual supremacy is declared "not dangerous to society or civil liberty." Now, farther than this, by these acts you have declared, that there is no necessity to demand:—farther than this you have no reason or right to demand.

Sir, it is singular, that three of our greatest text authorities in divinity, in law and in moral philosophy, concur in almost prophetically describing the present state of the Roman Catholics of your empire as a state, in which it would be no longer either expedient or just to hold them in exclusion from the full enjoyment of the privileges to which birth, property, talents, or merit, might fairly entitle them. I shall take the liberty of quoting a short but striking passage from each of these authorities. And, first, bishop Hoadley. The Tenerable champion of Protestantism, the staunch advocate of civil liberty, the zealous antagonist of popery, connected as in his day popery was with arbitrary power:—bishop Hoadley thus expresses himself in his treatise entitled "The Common Rights of Subjects defended." "I cannot," says he, "justify the exclusion of a papist from civil office upon any ground but that of his open and avowed enmity, to civil government, as now settled in this land." Mr. Justice Blackstone is much more explicit—"If a time shall ever arrive, when all fears of the Pretender shall have vanished, and the civil influence of the Pope shall have become feeble and despicable, not only in England, but in every kingdom in Europe, then will be the time to remove these rigorous edicts against the Catholics, at least till their civil principles shall again call on the magistrate to renew them." Thus far, then, divinity and law. My third authority is archdeacon Paley, in his Moral Philosophy, treating of "Religious Establishments and of Toleration." "It should be remembered, that, as the connexion between Popery and Jacobitism, which is the sole cause of suspicion, and the sole justification of those severe and jealous laws, was accidental in its origin, so probably it will be temporary in its duration; and these restrictions ought not to continue one day longer than some visible danger renders them necessary for the preservation of public tranquillity. The measure certainly cannot be defended at all, except where the suspected union between certain obnoxious principles in politics and certain tenets in religion is nearly universal. In which case it makes little difference whether the test be religious or political: and the state is somewhat better secured by the one than by the other." Thus, Sir, the Roman Catholic, without the bad grace of claiming his enfranchisement as a right, refers you to these authorities; he points to divinity, to law, and to ethics, and in the view, at least of Hoadley, Blackstone, and Paley, he proves to you that it is a right.

Sir, these laws are laws enacted against conscience. If, by dint of them, you induce the Roman Catholic to conform, you weaken in him the conscientious principle, and leave him a worse man than you found him. If you fail to induce him to conform, you bring, as far as he is concerned, the conscientious principle to act against yourselves. But God has so ordained it, that, generally speaking, conscience is too strong for your laws. You have failed in the encounter. It is a principle, that you cannot control if you ought, and you ought not if you could. Nor ought you to make the tenets of your established church an engine of political torture to those whose pious, sincere, honest, and avowed opinions forbid their conformity. An engine, like the bed of Procrustes, of torture to those who cannot dilate their opinions to your proscribed extent, or contract them within your prescribed limits. Thus it is, Sir, that these tests operate everywhere within the wide range of the British islands. But in Great Britain you find this petition signed by a large portion of a small but deserving population. Do not mock their prayer by saying they pray for what is not worth having, do not insult their invariable truth and honour by telling them you doubt their professions. They meet you on your own terms, and call upon you to try their sincerity: only do not insult their Cross, do not insult their relics, do not insult the private and innocent altars of their ancient worship, and they offer you all. They offer you their allegiance, they offer you the services of their lives on your own terms. You say they will deceive you;—they ask you to give them their trial.

Sir, the Roman Catholics of your empire would scarcely deserve what they ask, did they not strongly feel and strongly urge this upon your humanity and justice. Were they really content under this abridgement of rights, I should not think of them as I do. I should think them scarcely worthy of civil liberty. But now their petition, their cause, is in your hands. Do not throw it back upon a disappointed and despairing population, to make it again a subject of mortification, discontent, and division. Above all, allow me to implore it of you, do not make securities again a subject of negotiation between yourselves and the Roman Catholics. For parliament, before it can treat with petitioners, must descend to a level with the body it treats with, or raise them to an undue elevation, from which alone they can make terms with parliament. Do not consult Catholic boards, or Catholic authorities, but consult your own wisdom and justice, and act upon your own authority for your own securities. But, in the mean while, if their should be a few who struggle rather intemperately, when struggling, be it remembered, for no less than civil right and political existence, let not the possible intemperance of a few be visited on all. It is not liberality, it is not justice, it is not truth. On the other hand, let the few miserable bigots, if such there be, the fiery champions in the nineteenth century of the intolerance and bigotry of the six- teenth, let them answer for themselves, let them answer to their sect, to their country, to their God, for all that they have preached, have written, and have acted. But, in the name of truth and justice, try your own countrymen by their own declarations and by their own conduct. These entitle them to a far different measure of consideration. Remember, that if this night you are to resolve upon taking into your consideration the interests in Ireland, of the majority, by millions, of the people; in England, you are to pronounce upon the destinies of the Howards, the Talbots, the Arundels, and the Cliffords; men, whose ancestors were the founders of your greatness, and fame, and freedom; men, whose hearts are now bursting with the hope, long, too long, deferred, of being enabled one day to serve their country, uninsulted by your tests and unshackled by your restrictions; of being one day enabled to share the full benefits of that constitution, of which, let it never be forgotten, it was their forefathers who laid the corner stone.

Let us act in the spirit of men well aware of the great and touching appeal on which we are this night to decide. Let us act in the spirit, words cannot describe it better, of those with which I will place, Sir, this petition in your hands. They are the words of the preamble of a wise and good law, the act of the twenty-second of the late king in Ireland, which says, "that it must tend to the prosperity and strength of his majesty's dominions, that his subjects of all denominations should enjoy the full benefits of a free constitution, and be bound to each other by mutual ties of interest and affection." And, by the blessed issue of a wise and healing spirit like this, let us this night do what yet remains for the honour and justice of England,—for the happiness and security of Ireland,—and for the peace and union of both.

Lord Glenorchy

trusted, that the House would no longer deny the privilege of exercising the rights afforded by the constitution, to a numerous class of the people, merely because they did not hold the same religious opinions as themselves.

Lord Nugent

said, there was one circumstance connected with the first signatures to this petition which, he was quite sure, would speak to the feelings of the House. There were now but four of the baronies remaining, the holders of which signed Magna Charta. The rest were extinct. The representatives of all the four baronies that had survived the lapse of ages were Roman Catholics, were debarred from their seats in parliament, and had signed the petition just read.

Mr. Plunkett

said, he held in his hand a Petition signed by some thousands of Roman Catholics in Ireland. From the means he possessed of knowing the people of that country and the opinions entertained by them, he could say that the petition contained the sentiments of the great body of the Roman Catholics of Ireland. A similar petition had been presented to that House the year before last. On that occasion the prayers of the petitioners had come forward to that House with all the eloquence, with all the experience, with all the authority of the late Mr. Grattan. In now undertaking the duty devolved on him, he felt his heart melted with the public sorrow and private regret with which he had followed to his grave that great man, by whose confidence he had been honoured, by whose wisdom he had been enlightened, by whose example he had been guided. After the unrivalled eloquence with which he had been lamented in that House, and the distinguished honours with which the justice and liberality of Englishmen had accompanied his remains to the tomb—for at his death, as during his life, he had been the bond of union between the two countries—after these tributes to his virtues, he would not disturb the solemnity of his obsequies by his feeble praise and unavailing sorrow. Yet be could not avoid to mention his name when presenting this petition. The subject was one on which his departed friend had deeply meditated; it had taken early and entire possession of his mind, and held that possession to the last hour of his life; he would have willingly laid down his life in advocating the rights and liberties which he believed to be due to the Roman Catholic subjects of the king, and beneficial to the whole empire. It had been his deliberate conviction, that there could be no sympathy of feeling between the two countries, until this question should be set at rest. He had always been alive to the desire of fame, and showed in the various actions of his life, that love of the approbation and esteem of the wise which clung to every aspiration of a good man, while on earth. But never man had treated with more absolute disdain the hollow and faithless popularity which is obtained by subserviency, and preserved by dereliction of principle. He had never, therefore, urged the great measure which he had so cordially espoused, but on terms by which it could be reconciled to the Protestant interests of the country. In following his departed friend's steps, he was actuated by the same spirit. In that spirit he now moved for leave to bring up this petition.

The several petitions were ordered to lie on the table, and to be printed.