HC Deb 21 March 1865 vol 178 cc24-35

Order for Committee read.

Roman Catholic Oath Actconsidered in Committee.

(In the Committee).


, in rising to move that the Chairman be directed to move the House that leave be given to bring in a Bill to substitute an oath for the oath required to be taken and subscribed by the Statute passed in the tenth year of the reign of King George IV., for the relief of His Majesty's Roman Catholic Subjects, said, he was sure that although he could not appeal to any party or political feeling, he would receive the kind indulgence of the House. The question he was about to bring under their notice aid not touch the majority of the Members of the House. It affected the honour and disturbed the conscience of but a small minority, and on behalf of that minority lie confidently appealed to the justice and good feeling of the House—the time for bringing it forward was an opportune one. It was perhaps natural that immediately after the passing of the Emancipation Act Members should group themselves under theological banners. This had passed away, and he believed that hon. Members now took their seats on this or that side of the House according to political not theological views. Another point which had been frequently alluded to in former debates was the idea that some compact was made between the Roman Catholics and the Duke of Wellington at the time of the proposing the Emancipation Bill, That idea, however, had been dissipated by the statement of the more competent authority on the subject—namely, Earl Russell—who distinctly informed the House that there was no communication at all between the Roman Catholics and the Government upon the introduction of the Emancipation Bill. He had been urged by many persons, both in and out of the House, to extend the scope of his Motion, and instead of dealing simply with the Roman Catholic oath, to substitute for all oaths now taken a simple oath of allegiance to be taken by all Members entering that House, ["Hear!"] He entirely agreed with the feeling which that cheer indicated. He would desire that all Members of that House should have simply an oath of allegiance to take; but he would state the reason why lie did not think it expedient or desirable that he should be the person to make such a proposal. It was obvious that one oath still imposed on certain great public officers ought to be got rid of. He could conceive no scene more degrading than that which took place the other day in the Castle at Dublin, and he knew for a fact that Lord Wodehouse felt it as strongly as man could do. Lord Wodehouse stood with the Catholic Law Officers by his side, with Catholic Privy Councillors around him, and had to take an oath declaring the Roman Catholic religion to be damnable and idolatrous. He would for a single instant allude to the oath which touched a majority of the Members of that House, the oath taken by Members not belonging to the Roman Catholic religion. Every Protestant Member when he came to the table had to swear that "no foreign prince, prelate, or potentate hath, or ought to have, any spiritual jurisdiction within this realm;" and in speaking of this oath Lord Plunket said— My idea of the oath of supremacy is, I confess, that in the strict and literal interpretation of the words it is impossible to be taken by any one, for it not only denies that any foreign Power ought to have ecclesiastical or spiritual authority within this realm, but it denies even that any foreign Power has such authority. Now, if we admit that there are Roman Catholics in the country the Pope must have spiritual power here. And he went on to say that its meaning was that no foreign Power had authority over the Established Church. This was the interpretation put upon the oath by so eminent a man. But he recollected that Lord Chelmsford (then Sir Frederic Thesiger) gave another interpretation—that it meant that no foreign Power had any authority here that could be enforced by law. But when we found two such eminent men, both Lord Chancellors, differing in opinion as to the interpretation of an oath, I it was quite time that the oath was abolished. At the same time, it would be presumptuous for him to deal with anything more than the very limited subject to which his Motion referred. He should leave it to those to whom those two oaths applied to deal with them. He only proposed to deal with the Roman Catholic oath, and he sincerely trusted that the result of the inquiry he suggested might lead to a modification of the other oaths. Hon. Members were perhaps aware that one of the securities discussed by the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel at the time of the Catholic emancipation was to limit the number of Roman Catholic Mem- bers in that House. The force of circumstances had limited them even lower than the number—he believed forty—which at that time was suggested. He might appeal to the House whether so small a number of Roman Catholic Members was likely to do any injury to the Protestant institutions of the country, even if they were so disposed. He preferred to rest his case on other grounds. He would ask what had been the mainspring of all the beneficial alterations which had been made in the laws of this country during the last thirty-five years? Was it not the confidence we reposed in each other? Commencing with the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, and coming down to the emancipation of the Jews, had it not been through the confidence which they had been led to repose in one another—had it not been that principle which had led them to admit to the representation so many who were before excluded? All he asked of the House on the present occasion was to carry out that principle, and to have sufficient confidence in the small Roman Catholic minority to believe that they had no desire to injure the institutions of the country, but only to act in harmony with the other Members of the House in those questions in which they were all engaged. The shortest way of discussing the question was to lay down three simple principles on which he thought the oath now taken by Roman Catholic Members was objectionable, in which he thought the great majority of Members would agree. He did not suppose there were more than two hon. Members who would not desire that there should be only one mode of admission to an assembly in which all Members occupied the same position and had the same duties to discharge. Nothing could be more monstrous than that there should be a symbol of division presented to Gentlemen as they went up to the table of that House after an election, and that the House should thus divide itself, not into political but into religious and theological parties. On that ground the Roman Catholic oath was objectionable. Again, he apprehended there would be no difference of opinion that an unnecessary oath was an absolutely immoral thing. We were not justified in imposing upon any one an oath, unless we considered that there was some predominant reason which compelled us to do so. One mischievous effect of multiplying oaths was that it diminished the value of oaths in the public mind, and, therefore, such a proceeding had an absolutely injurious and immoral effect. On this point he would read the opinion of one of the most distinguished predecessors of the Speaker, Mr. Speaker Onslow, who stated at the time of the disputed succession, when the toast of Oxford was— God bless the King, the Faith's Defender! God bless—no harm in blessing—the Pretender! But who Pretender is, and who is King, God bless my soul! that's quite another thing! —well at that period, when if at any, oaths might be considered likely to be useful, Mr. Speaker Onslow made use of these words— I cannot help observing of what little use to a Government the imposition of oaths has ever been. A Government is never secure of the hearts of the people but from the justice of it, and the justice of it is generally a real security. … When men habituate themselves to swear what they do not understand, they will easily be brought to forswear themselves in what they do understand. The like danger is from the frequency of them, which always takes off from the awe of them and consequently their force. In my opinion no oaths should be appointed but in judicial matters. His third point, one on which he thought the House would also unanimously concur, was that it was an absolutely immoral act to present to anyone an oath which was not precise in its terms—an equivocal oath, one about the meaning of which there could be any difference of opinion. On that point he would refer to a statement made by his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer four or five years ago. Speaking on March 22nd, 1858, the right hon. Gentleman observed— What he wished the House to bear in mind was this—that if there were these difficulties in the construction of an oath, which were held to be of great constitutional importance, that of itself was a clear proof that the matter required the attention of the House; for it was not a subject which ought to be left to A, B, and C to construe for themselves. There ought to be a legislative construction put upon an oath."—[3 Hansard, cxlix. 484.] According to that most reasonable statement if he (Mr. Monsell) succeeded in showing the House that the Roman Catholic oath was an equivocal one—one about the construction and meaning of which there was legitimately and necessarily a great difference of opinion, they were bound either to repeal it or to make some alteration in it which would render it clear and unequivocal. But, before addressing himself to that point, he would call the attention of the House to the passage in the oath— I do further declare that it is not an article of my faith, and that I do renounce, reject, and abjure the opinion that princes excommunicate or deprived by the Pope or any other authority of the See of Rome may be deposed or murdered by their subjects or by any person whatsoever. That passage about abjuring the belief that princes might be murdered had been removed from the Protestant oath; and there could be no good reason for continuing to make Catholics swear to it, for if they were murderers no oath would be likely to bind them. Then came this passage in the oath— I do swear that I will defend to the utmost of my power the settlement of property within this realm as established by the laws. Those words referred to an Act passed in the beginning of the reign of Charles II., for the purpose of establishing the arrangement made immediately after the Cromwellian Rebellion. As he believed that most of the Catholic nobility and gentry held their properties under that settlement, it was very unnecessary to make them swear to defend it. He now came to the more important part of the oath—that respecting the construction of which gentlemen of great influence took different views— I do hereby disclaim, disavow, and solemnly abjure any intention to subvert the present Church Establishment as settled by law within this realm; and I do solemnly swear that I never will exercise any privilege to which I am, or may become, entitled to disturb or weaken the Protestant religion or Protestant Government in the United Kingdom. I do solemnly, in the presence of God, profess, testify, and declare that I do make this declaration and every part thereof in the plain and ordinary sense of the words of this oath, without any evasion, equivocation, or mental reservation whatsoever. There were three different opinions held as to the obligation imposed on Catholic Members by that part of the oath. The late Duke of Norfolk acted on the belief that it prevented him from interfering with Church property. As against that opinion, he would quote one given by a Protestant statesman. Lord Althorp, speaking in 1833, was reported to have— Reminded the House that in the progress of the Catholic Relief Bill a clause had been proposed to prevent the interference of Catholic Members in any matters relating purely to the Church, and the House had rejected it; and as that was the case he thought that Catholic Members had as much right as Protestants to take part in the discussion of any matter that came before the House as Protestants."—[3 Hansard, xvi. 1353.] It was the intention of the House which passed the Relief Bill that Roman Catholics should possess the same rights in every respect as Protestant Members. The third view was that taken by Mr. Justice Shee and others. They believed that the words he bad read were intended to prevent Catholics from overthrowing the Establishment, but not from reducing it to proper limits. For instance, if in the War Department you found 500 clerks who only wrote three letters a day, you would not be subverting the War Office if you cut down the staff of clerks by 400, keeping only a sufficient number to do the work. He thought there could be no doubt that an oath must be interpreted according to the sense in which it was understood by those who imposed it. Now, what was the sense of the people of England in which the Roman Catholic oath was imposed at the time the Emancipation Act passed? There could be no doubt that they regarded it as a security for the Established Church. He recollected that the Duke of Wellington, in 1840, in replying to some observations of the Earl of Shrewsbury in the other House, took that view of the oath; but, on the other hand, Sir Robert Peel stated that the oath in question was taken from two oaths enacted by the Irish Parliament in 1779 and 1793. What was the state of Ireland at that time? The belief of the Protestants was that if the Catholics obtained power in any way they would exert it to overthrow, by force of arms, the Establishment. The Catholics were kept down completely at that period; they were not permitted to buy land nor to keep a horse of a greater value than £5, and the object of the oaths was to prevent them rising by force of arms and leading the people to subvert the established state of things. Was it not clear that the fear was that violent and not constitutional and legal means would be used to overthrow the Establishment? When Sir Wilmot Horton proposed that Catholics should not be allowed to interfere with the property of the Church Sir Robert Peel rejected the Motion, and said that Catholics were to have every power and privilege which Protestants had. Taking these authoritative statements of Sir Robert Peel, it did not seem a forced interpretation to apply the same rule which Protestants applied when they considered the word "legally" or rightfully as understood in the oath they themselves take. It must be recollected that the Catholic oath was not imposed on Members only, but on students at Maynooth, and on Catholic mayors and magistrates and on councilmen. Did not hon. Members feel that there was really some difficulty in the question? Was it justifiable to force an equivocal and doubtful oath upon any man's conscience? He thought it was a positive crime to permit the oath to remain in force. A very remarkable statement had been made within the last few days by the Dean of St. Paul's, in which he said— I confess that to me all this is a very dangerous, a very objectionable, I will freely say, a very immoral trial of the conscience; a perpetual temptation to tamper with its sensitive jealousy of itself—a temptation to gulp down all without thought or without inquiry, or to act under the paralyzing torture of doubt. Those words were spoken in reference to a different subject, but were singularly applicable to the present question. There was one other point to which he would draw attention. This was an oath imposed solely upon the Roman Catholic Members of the House. Let him suppose his hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham (Mr. Bright) and Sheffield (Mr. Roebuck) were walking up to the table after the general election along with himself. In their opinion the whole system of the Establishment was absolutely vicious, and they thought it ought to be got rid of root and branch. It was the unclean thing placed on the altar. He, on the contrary, had no such belief. He did not want to attack the Church Establishment in England, and, as long as the English people were anxious for its maintenance, far be it from him to attempt to touch a stone of it, as he believed it to be a great bulwark against rationalism and infidelity. Yet he was compelled to take this oath, while Gentlemen who would, if permitted, turn Westminster Abbey into a conventicle were not required to take it. Now, was not that a monstrous injustice and anomaly? He could only sincerely and heartily thank the House for the interest they had shown in a matter which, after all, only concerned a small minority of their Members, and he trusted they would join him in an endeavour to get rid of the grievance of which he complained, which was, after all, only a relic of a bygone day. The oaths had been framed, with other severe measures, for the purpose of forcing a sort of fictitious uniformity in a Christian country, and as men's minds grew softer, the penal statutes were got rid of, while the oaths were preserved. The only foundation upon which any institution ought to rest was that of confidence for confidence. When the people believed that the House of Commons was sincerely desirous of adopting that principle, they would join them in the maintenance of our Constitution, and in the support of our Sovereign. Let hon. Members go up to the table of the House without any such invidious distinction as was implied by the terms of the existing oath; let them all be in a position to join heartily in the prayer that the dignity and honour of the country might be maintained by their united efforts, and that they might never allow theological differences to separate them in the discharge of those duties which devolved upon them as Members of that Legislature. The right hon. Member concluded by moving the Resolution.


The only observation I feel called upon to make at present is to say on the part of Her Majesty's Government that we give a ready assent to the Motion which has been made by the right hon. Member for Limerick, so far as regards the preliminary step for bringing in a Bill for the purpose he has in view. I think it is impossible to deny that the subject is one which is entitled to consideration. I agree with him that oaths and declarations, which are unnecessary, of doubtful interpretation, or needlessly offensive to those to whom they are tendered—not because they cannot conscientiously make the declaration, but because it imputes to them opinions which they repudiate are objectionable. How far this objection applies to the oath taken by the Roman Catholic Members of this House, we shall have an opportunity of considering on the second reading of the Bill. I believe that no objection will be made by any hon. Member to the introduction of the Bill, and therefore I think that it will be better to postpone any discussion upon this subject until the second reading, and I hope we shall approach the discussion then, with a desire, while parting with no real security for the maintenance of the Protestant religion, to do justice to every reasonable claim made by our Roman Catholic fellow subjects.


I confess I do not think the present a favourable period for taking into consideration such questions as those involved in the Motion of the right hon. Member for Limerick. The whole of Europe—and I do not see how England can ignore these proceedings on the Continent—has just been alarmed at the issue of a document termed the Encyclical Letter of the Pope. This document is of so important a character that it has occupied the attention of the French Legislature for a considerable time, and the compliance of certain Roman Catholic bishops in France with the terms of that document has compelled the French Government to interfere. No one would suppose that the French Emperor would lightly set himself against the feelings of a certain number of the clergy of France, who claim what they affirm to be the liberty of obeying the Pope within the dominions of the Empire. I advert to this subject the more strongly because I think it is unwise in the Legislature of England at this moment to lend any countenance to this Papal aggression, when the Legislatures of France and other Roman Catholic countries find it necessary to resist it in the interests of social and political order and the peace and happiness of society. I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary has on this occasion manifested that same leaning towards Ultramontane doctrines that we have witnessed in him before. I think that, under the existing circumstances, the restrictions imposed in the oath taken by Roman Catholic Members at this moment are really a protection to Roman Catholics. If the Government of this country will not resist these encroachments of the Papacy, in support of the resistance offered by the Roman Catholic Governments of France, Spain, and other countries, whence is resistance to these aggressions to be expected? I think England ought to be mindful of her duty. Hitherto she has maintained the great cause of civil and religious liberty against the encroachments of that Power which, although now limited as to its immediate sphere of action as a temporal Government, was, perhaps, never more active than at the present moment in opposing the great principles of civil and religious freedom throughout the world. Perhaps the House will allow me just to read a description by a very eloquent author in France of the character of the Encyclical Letter, because it will illustrate my opinion of the proceeding which the House is invited to take. This is the description by a Roman Catholic of the document which the Papacy is attempting to impose upon every Roman Catholic conscience— According to the Encyclical there is no truly Christian society except where the subjects obey their princes without discussion, and the princes in like manner obey the Pope, and the Pope alone, as God; where the crime of heresy is persecuted and punished with the whole rigour of the law. Therefore, in such a society the religious theocratic power exists alone, for princes will not know how to deal with the affairs of the Church without offending God, while the Pope will be at liberty to intervene in the affairs of Catholic States. The writer further says— Freedom of conscience, freedom of worship, freedom of opinion, the independence of the civil power in contradistinction to the religious, the ecclesiastical, or spiritual, are all described as detestable errors. The theory (system) which is hence adduced is this:—The people at the mercy of their princes; the princes under the authority of the Pope; the Pope having all liberty of intervention in the affairs of the temporal power; princes and Governments cannot in any sense claim of right to deal with religious, spiritual, or ecclesiastical affairs; the Roman Catholic religion alone in possession of the right of public worship; the Roman Catholic Church having the right to inflict corporal punishment upon those who violate her laws; the offence of heresy, which has been obliterated from all the modern codes, is continued, and is to entail punishment, just as in the worst days of the Middle Ages. Now, Sir, this document issued from the Vatican may excite a smile upon the part of those who do not acknowledge the power of the Pope as the head of the religion which they adopt; but I cite the action of the Emperor of the French, who has forbidden the publication of this document, and I cite even the action of the Government of Spain, to show that Roman Catholic countries at this moment find it necessary to impose restrictions far more stringent than the restrictions in the oath which you are now asked virtually to abrogate. If it be the opinion of this House that this meddling with a grave matter should be permitted, I feel it would be idle for me to resist; but I feel it my duty not only to the Protestant constituency which I represent, but to my Roman Catholic fellow-countrymen, to deprecate the course now about to be taken by the Government of the country and this House, which is not in accordance with the action adopted by France, Spain, and other Roman Catholic Governments in Europe. The object of the restrictions in the oath proposed to be abrogated is to prevent the disturbance of the constitution and settlement of property in this country. When the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Monsell) adverts to the circumstances at the close of last century as being a period of Roman Catholic rebellion in Ireland, assuredly his argument tells against himself, because it was in order to obviate the possibility of questions being raised in this country which might excite similar disturbances that these restrictions were imposed. It is against that very danger that the Government of France is acting. The Emperor has declared that it is in the cause of civil and social order that he forbids the reading of the document issued by the Pope. M. Rouher, in the French Senate, called attention to this subject in a celebrated speech. He complained, as a Roman Catholic, that this edict issued from the Vatican is aimed at the remaining liberties of the Roman Catholic Church in France, no less than against that civil and social order which it is the duty of the ruler of France to maintain, and which the present ruler has maintained to the admiration of the world. I do deprecate that the representative body of a nation in close alliance with the French nation—of a nation which respects and admires the Emperor of the French for the manner in which he has adapted himself to the government of a noble but excitable people, should take this action, which appears to me to cast a slur upon the course which the Emperor has found it necessary to adopt in order to secure social and religious order within his own dominions. I deprecate this movement for another reason. We, as members of the Church of England—as Protestants—ought not to do anything that shall embarrass the Roman Catholics of France in re-asserting those national liberties and privileges of their Church in France which were termed the Gallican liberties of that church, and for centuries constituted the pride and blessing of that great establishment. As a member of the Church of England, not less as a representative of a large constituency, I deprecate this movement. I deprecate the conduct of the Government in thus lending at this moment their aid to the disturbance in this country of questions which are agitating the whole continent of Europe—the disturbance of questions, which every lover of peace, of order, and of religion wishes should remain permanently settled in the interests of humanity and civilization.


said, he did not intend to reply to the arguments of the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Monsell), but merely to point out to the Government that the proposal involved a constitutional change in the organization of the House—a change in an arrangement which was the subject of great deliberation when it was agreed upon. When, therefore, the Home Secretary invited calm discussion for the question, he begged leave to make this observation, that he, for one, would not discuss it he should vote against it; and he would charge the Government, whenever an opportunity should occur, with having disregarded their duty. If a change of this kind was to be made, it ought to be made by the Government and upon their responsibility. It was not sufficient for the right hon. Gentleman to say that the matter would form the subject of discussion in the House. That was not the way to uphold the principles of the Constitution, or to maintain an arrangement made within the memory of living men, which was the result of the deliberate contract by which Roman Catholic gentlemen obtained seats in that House.

Motion agreed to. Resolved, That the Chairman be directed to move the House, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to substitute an oath for the oath required to be taken and subscribed by the statute passed in the tenth year of the reign of King George the Fourth, for the Relief of His Majesty's Roman Catholic Subjects.

House resumed.

Resolution reported.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. MONSELL, Lord JOHN BROWNE, Sir COLMAN O'LOGHLEN, and Mr. HENNESSY.

Bill presented, and read 1°. [Bill 86.]