Gasson Lecture Highlights Pioneer of Modern Catholic Political Engagement

Henry Edward Cardinal Manning seen in his study from this 1893 illustration
Henry Edward Cardinal Manning seen in his study from this 1893 illustration

by Jonathan Gaworski


On Wednesday, February 13, Fr. Jeffrey von Arx, S.J. delivered the Spring Gasson Lecture in the Heights Room of Corcoran Commons. Fr. von Arx focused his talk on the social and political engagement of 19th century British clergyman Henry Edward Cardinal Manning. Like his contemporary, John Henry Cardinal Newman, Cardinal Manning was a convert to the Catholic Church from Anglicanism. But unlike Newman, Manning made his mark on the Catholic Church through his ecclesiastical leadership, rather than through theological and intellectual prowess.

Both Manning’s supporters and opponents recognized his political abilities, and it was said of Cardinal Manning that he would have become Prime Minister if he had not entered the clergy. Fr. von Arx argued that Cardinal Manning anticipated the thought of Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J., who developed a model of creative engagement between the Catholic Church and liberal democracy.


Cardinal Manning sought to work actively with the modern liberal democratic state in order to advance the interests of Catholics, especially of the Catholic working class in England and the Catholic Irish. Just as 21st century Catholics often think of the Second Vatican Council as the watershed moment in the history of modern Catholicism, Cardinal Manning and his contemporaries saw the 19th-century First Vatican Council as an event of similar importance. Since the Papal States had been annexed by the Piedmontese as part of the unification of Italy, the Catholic Church at the end of the 19th century was looking for new ways to engage politically with the modern world.


Cardinal Manning recognized that in a liberal democracy, citizens can advance policies by building a popular movement. He proposed that the Catholic Church reshape its diplomatic policy around the model of populist engagement. To this end, he recommended a series of changes within the Church’s diplomatic structure, including the suppression of papal nuncios (or papal ambassadors). According to Manning, these nuncios were more appropriate to an aristocratic age that had passed away. Since popular movements control liberal democracies, Manning believed that the Church should politically engage with the people at large, rather than with political leaders. For this reason, he attested that the bishops of the Church were the most apt conduit for the Church’s political engagement—not the papal nuncios, who existed primarily for engagement with heads of state.


Cardinal Manning himself developed a political relationship with Charles Stewart Parnell, a Protestant landowner and leader of an Irish nationalist movement. Through this alliance, Manning pushed both for the development of an Irish educational system, as well as for the establishment of Catholic schools in England. This political alignment between Irish nationalists and the Catholic bishops of Ireland and England served to deepen the cultural presence of Catholicism within Irish identity.


As a pioneer in developing a new relationship between the Catholic Church and modern political structures, Cardinal Manning’s vision carried forward into the post-Vatican II Church in many respects. While some parts of his vision, such as the abolition of papal nuncios, were never realized, the Catholic Church has reshaped its vision of political engagement in terms of forming Catholic citizens in the context of a liberal democracy. In this way, Manning's influence still runs in the blood of 21st-century Catholicism.


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