HC Deb 27 May 1862 vol 167 cc61-6

said, he rose to move for leave to bring in a Bill to amend the law relating to the religions instruction of Roman Catholic prisoners in England and Wales. In the present temper of the House, and as the principle of the Bill had been admitted in the fairest manner by the noble Viscount, he would simply move for leave to bring in the Bill.


said, that looking to the character of the Bill, he thought it ought to be introduced in Committee of the Whole House.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That Mr, Speaker do now leave the Chair."

Motion agreed to.

House in Committee.


said, he thought that some explanation of the provisions of the Bill ought to be given.


said, the Committee were aware that the religious instruction of Roman Catholic prisoners in England and Wales was given under an Act of Parliament which was passed before the period of Roman Catholic Emancipation. It was, therefore, impossible that Roman Catholic prisoners could be legally assembled for religious worship within the walls of the prison. The visiting justices of some county prisons had dwelt on the injustice of the present state of things, and had expressed their regret that the law was so strong that Roman Catholic prisoners could not be assembled in class to be instructed by priests of their own persuasion. In 1853 the noble Lord at the head of the Government said— As far as Government prisons were concerned, he was quite prepared to state that he should feel it to be his duty to take steps for carrying into effect the views which had been expressed,—that in every Government prison there should be religious instruction given to every Catholic and Dissenter, as well as to every member of the Church of England, and that the person who gave it should receive that treatment which was consistent with a duo respect to his character, and such reward as might be adequate to the duties which he had to perform." [3 Hansard, cxxix., 1569–70.] And the noble Lord concluded— It would be his duty early next Session to prepare and submit to Parliament a measure for the purpose of placing religious instruction in county gaols on the same footing as religious instruction in prisons more immediately under the control of the Government." [Ibid.] The Government, however, did not bring in a Bill. The law continued unchanged. The grievance remained, and he now proposed to apply a remedy.


said, he was much obliged to his hon. Friend for the explanation he had given. He would admit that full liberty ought to be given for the religious instruction of Roman Catholic prisoners. His only fear was that the Bill involved a proposal for an additional grant of money from the public funds.


said, he would advise the hon. Member to postpone legislation for the present. Thirty thousand pounds a year were already appropriated to Roman Catholic purposes; and though it was painful to him to have to make further efforts to inform the House on the subject, he thought they ought to ascertain what system, doctrines, discipline, and laws the grant of that money to Roman Catholics tended to disseminate. It was a mistake to regard it as a question of religion. In the name of religion Roman Catholicism was a political system, the operation of which, in the opinion of the ate Sir Robert Peel, was utterly at variance with the social interests of the country. The canon law, which was in force to the full extent of the power of the priests, set at defiance every principle of social order, and sanctioned murder, theft, perjury, and every violation of the common law. The Commissioners in 1853 reported that they could not refer to books for the purpose of ascertaining what doctrines were taught in Maynooth. The system was one of practice, and the result was seen in the renewal of assassinations and agrarian outrages in Ireland. There were two societies in Ireland—St. Patrick's Brotherhood, at the head of which was Father Labelle; and the Catholic Young Men's Society, at the head of which was Dr. O'Brien. He might quote the opinion of Dr. O'Brien a leading authority in the Roman Catholic Church, to the effect that there were men who had taken oaths of conspiracy in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, and elsewhere; and that the aim of the combination was the suppression of public opinion. He also cited a statement of Father Labelle to a similar effect.


I understand the hon. Gentleman has, in accordance with one of our rules, moved the House into Committee for the purpose of asking leave to introduce a Bill, which is supposed, in some degree, to refer to the subject of religion. I am not aware that the hon. Gentleman proposes to ask the House to vote any sum of money in addition to what may be already granted by Parliament for Catholic priests or Catholic instruction. The hon. Gentleman's object appears to me very proper, and one which need not create much alarm here or elsewhere. We know there are about six millions of persons in the United Kingdom who are in communion with the Roman Catholic Church. They are called upon to pay taxes; they are subjected to the control of the laws; they form an important element in the population and power of the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman does not ask anything for them which Parliament does not constantly and willingly grant for the rest of the population. That being the case, I cannot understand the wisdom, patriotism, generosity, or Christianity of any Member of this House who seizes an opportunity like this to make a violent and abusive attack directed generally against 6,000,000 of people, but particularly against the priests in whom they repose confidence, and by whom they are taught the principles of their religion. Surely, if there be, as there unfortunately are, a good many members of that Church who, being in poverty and ignorance, fall into crime and are thrown into prison, what can be more proper than that they should there receive religious instruction? The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Whalley) acts on the assumption, that if any of these persons are brought into contact with a priest, they are more likely than they otherwise would be to commit a crime. Therefore he would be glad to shut them out from the instruction which the hon. Gentleman proposes they should receive. Now, you cannot exterminate the Catholics, nor can you convert them by any process of which the hon. Member for Peterborough is the apostle. I undertake to say, that if there be any man who is responsible more than another for anything that may be deemed disloyal or disaffected towards the Government on the part of the Roman Catholic population or Roman Catholic priests of the United Kingdom, it is the man who here and elsewhere takes every opportunity of making it appear that there is in the conduct or belief of 6,000,000 of our countrymen something which makes them unworthy of being treated by Parliament with common generosity and justice. I do not think that the Committee sympathizes with the hon. Gentleman. It is obvious that it does not, for I have heard from both sides of the House exclamations which we all understand, and which should have led the hon. Gentleman to abbreviate his speech. I beg of him, for the sake of his own character, for the sake of that Protestantism of which he professes to be the champion, and for the sake of the House of Commons, to refrain from heaping unmeasured abuse upon the Catholic priests of Ireland and England, and to allow us to deal with such questions as the one before us with calmness and justice.


said, he was sure that every hon. Member in the House would appreciate the kindness of the hon. Member for Birmingham (Mr. Bright), but he would assure him that it was not worth while at any future time to take the trouble to rebuke the hon. Member for Peterborough. In common with many others, he hoped that hon. Member would persevere in his course, for he firmly believed he had turned the whole anti-Catholic cause into ridicule, and it was now very little matter what he said. The hon. Member for Birmingham besought the hon. Gentleman, for the sake of his character, not to persist in his present line of conduct. Why, it was this mission which gave him a character, and it would be the height of cruelty to deprive him of it. For his own part, he really liked the hon. Gentleman, and thought him exceedingly entertaining. Instead of going to hear Buck-stone, he stayed in the House and listened to the hon. Member for Peterborough. The question before the House was one of common justice and prison discipline. There was unfortunately a large percentage of the poorer Roman Catholics who got into gaols from crimes to which their poverty had driven them, and they ought not to be sent back to the world worse than they went into prison. As a matter of policy and common fairness, the Catholic culprit ought to have the benefit of the ministration of the priest whose religion he professed. The object of the law should not be to punish, but to reform; and if a criminal was to be reformed, it would only be by the precept of religious teaching in the prison.


I am not acquainted with the nature of the Bill, and therefore I do not resist its introduction. But the question is evidently one that does not in the least affect the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church; and I think it is very much to be regretted that the doctrines of that or any other Church should become the subject of discussion in this House. Whether the hon. Gentleman behind me is well founded in his objection to the Bill or not, he ought to be the first to move for leave to introduce a measure on the subject, because the law as it stands distinctly recognizes the right of every Roman Catholic to be attended at his own request by a priest of his own Church; and, moreover, persons under sentence of death are by law exclusively under the care of the priests of their own religious persuasion. The law at present is certainly in an anomalous condition, and therefore, though I do not know what the Bill of the hon. Member is, I think it quite right to allow him to lay it on the table, and I shall be very glad to consider its provisions carefully and impartially.

Resolved, That the Chairman be directed to move the House, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Law relating to the Religious Instruction of Roman Catholic Prisoners in England and Wales.

House resumed.

Resolution reported.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. HENNESSY and Mr. SCHOLEFIELD.

Bill presented, and read 1o; to be read 2o on Tuesday next, and to be printed [Bill 140].