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Reference group
Catholic Committee (act. 1782–1792) was a group of English Roman Catholic laymen who came together to work for greater emancipation at a time of growing tolerance towards Catholics and wider demands in English society for further civil, political, and religious rights. Such lay leaders were responsible for appointing and maintaining the majority of priests who worked as their chaplains in the English mission, and so enjoyed a high degree of control and influence over the Catholic community. This prerogative was occasionally a cause of conflict with the four bishops appointed by Rome, known as the vicars apostolic, who exercised a limited jurisdiction in their four districts (London, midlands, northern, and western). An earlier committee of leading Catholic nobility and gentry had supported the first Catholic Relief Act of 1778, which gave a modicum of emancipation. On 3 July 1782 a general meeting of the English Catholics in London elected a new body—to be known as the Catholic Committee—for five years to work for further religious freedoms.

The Catholic Committee's original three leaders were Robert Edward Petre, ninth Baron Petre, John Courtenay Throckmorton, and Thomas Hornyold; the other members, elected to represent the four episcopal districts, were Sir Henry Englefield, William Fermor (d. 1806), Charles Clifford, sixth Baron Clifford (1759–1831), Sir Carnaby Haggerston, fifth baronet (1756–1831), and John Townley. The guiding genius of the committee was, however, its secretary, the lawyer Charles Butler.

From the start the vicars apostolic were divided in their opinion of the committee. Some welcomed the establishment of a lay group to provide official representation of Catholic interests. Others felt that it threatened their episcopal authority and their concerns increased when the committee demanded a new oath of allegiance and the establishment of a fully constituted episcopal hierarchy to replace the papally appointed vicars apostolic. Both were likely to enhance the position and influence of the laity in the church. Lesser objectives of the committee included the provision for a vernacular liturgy to replace Latin, and the creation of lay secondary schools in England to cater for Catholic children whose parents belonged to the developing commercial class. To its enemies the committee was dangerously Gallican in its attempt to set up a quasi-autonomous English Catholic church largely free of papal interference and closer to English law and institutions.

The 1782 body achieved little and a new committee was elected in May 1787. To its leaders was now added Charles Philip Stourton, seventeenth Baron Stourton (1752–1816), and to its local representatives William Jerningham and Sir John Lawson. Joining the committee for the first time from May 1788 were three nominated clergy: Bishop James Talbot of the London district; Charles Berington, then coadjutor to Thomas Talbot of the midland district; and Joseph Cuthbert Wilks (1748–1829), the English Benedictine missioner in Bath. During this period the committee also received support from Berington's cousin, Joseph.

By the following year the new committee was pressing the prime minister, William Pitt the younger, to support a further Catholic relief bill that would allow Catholics to join the armed forces and professions, and give them the same status as religious dissenters. Pitt's government was sympathetic to further relief. As a preliminary step to mollify protestant public opinion, a declaration of Catholic principles, or protestation, was drafted by the government with the committee's help. This would enable Catholics to ‘protest’ their loyalty to the crown and disclaim any dangerous doctrines supposedly held by them, notably in regard to the pope's dispensing, deposing, and absolving powers in England. An early draft of the protestation was signed in 1789 by over 1500 Catholics. However, later drafts—as well as the oath of June 1789 derived from the protestation—were rejected by others because of a lack of clarity concerning the pope's spiritual and temporal powers. Serious opposition was encountered when the term ‘protesting Catholic dissenters’ was introduced into the bill by the committee at the behest of the government. At the same time the Catholic bishops were increasingly apprehensive at being sidelined by the committee during negotiations with the government, and in October 1789 they published an encyclical letter condemning the form of the oath.

The committee's response was the first of the famous blue books (1789), which summarized the debate and defended the committee's version of the oath. A meeting between committee and bishops in February 1790 reached near unanimity on a revised text, but parliament postponed further discussion on Catholic relief. By January 1791 three of the four bishops had withdrawn their earlier support and were highly critical of the committee's continuing negotiations with the government without their approval. The committee responded with a ‘manifesto and appeal’ (17 February, subsequently known as the second blue book) that attacked what it saw as the bishops' disregard for the natural, civil, and religious rights of its members and of all who strove for further Catholic relief. The quarrel became more bitter when the committee's principal episcopal opponent, Bishop Charles Walmesley of the western district, suspended Joseph Wilks from the exercise of his priestly faculties for refusing to agree to submit to the bishops in future negotiations over reform.

Temperatures were high when the relief bill was introduced into parliament in March 1791. Various amendments were made to the text as the bill passed through its reading and parliamentary committee stages, notably the substitution of ‘persons professing the Roman Catholic religion’ for the committee's preferred phrase, ‘protesting Catholic dissenters’. The bill's passage through the House of Lords was largely due to a persuasive speech by Samuel Horsley, the high-church bishop of St David's, who insisted that English Catholics were no longer a threat to the government or constitution, and that it would be possible to produce an amended text of the oath which was sufficiently precise both to unite the present divisions among Catholics and to acknowledge the fullness of the pope's spiritual authority—an outcome achieved by adopting the Irish oath of 1774 as the basis for an improved English oath. The bill was given royal assent on 10 June 1791.

Though the committee had achieved many of its aims with the act, it continued to be embroiled in controversy as it approached the end of its second term in May 1792. Wilks still remained suspended by Bishop Walmesley and the committee felt itself largely responsible for his predicament. Wilks was persuaded to sign a declaration on 10 September 1791, designed to distance him from the committee, in which he apologized to Walmesley for his perceived disobedience. However, the reconciliation proved short-lived. On 28 September Wilks issued a private manifesto in which he justified his conduct on behalf of the committee. This caused Walmesley to withdraw his priestly faculties again and to remain impervious to all protests and petitions on his behalf. Disagreement broke the superficial unity that had been present among English Catholics at the passing of the 1791 Relief Act. A number of members, agreeing that the committee should not be reconstituted following the completion of its term on 3 May 1792, joined other English Catholics to form the Cisalpine Club on 12 April 1792. The committee met for the final time on 3 May when it defended its actions in another manifesto that became the third blue book. The issues discussed here were predictable: disapproval of the bishops' conduct, episcopal appointment, and the Wilks case.

Attempts at mediation between the bishops and former committee members had little success and divisions remained. Following disbandment, former members of the committee continued to exert some influence though they now lacked authority. In its place, the newly formed Cisalpine Club debated general issues of Catholic interest. It did not see itself as a continuation of the Catholic Committee charged with representing the body of English Catholics; even so, the bishops remained suspicious of its motives, especially in 1794 when it announced its adherence to the terms of the protestation of 1789 as part of its campaign to further Catholic emancipation. Although it continued for a further forty years, by the time the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed in 1829 the Cisalpine Club had been transformed into a dining association. The 1829 act fulfilled many of the aspirations of the Catholic Committee by giving Roman Catholics civil and political rights, allowing them to develop schools, and opening the way for the restoration of the hierarchy in 1850—though in the changed climate of the mid-nineteenth century this was an ultramontane hierarchy rather than the Anglo-Gallican form previously advocated by the Catholic Committee. These new bishops looked principally to the papacy for guidance and were less reliant on the old English Catholic families, which had by then lost their pre-eminence to a new Catholic lay leadership that included representatives of industry and commerce, as well as Oxford Movement converts, and whose own ultramontanism appealed to a rapidly expanding Catholic community.

Geoffrey Scott


B. Ward, The dawn of the Catholic revival in England, 1781–1803, 2 vols. (1909) · E. Duffy, ‘Ecclesiastical democracy detected, parts 1 and 2’, Recusant History, 10 (1969–70), 193–203, 309–31 · G. Scott, ‘Dom Joseph Cuthbert Wilks (1748–1829)’, Recusant History, 23/3 (1997), 318–40 · P. Hughes, The Catholic question, 1688–1829 (1929) · W. J. Amherst, The history of Catholic emancipation, 2 vols. (1886) · D. Gwynn, The struggle for Catholic emancipation, 1750–1829 (1928) · D. Gwynn, The dawning of emancipation, 1791–1821 (1928) · U. R. Q. Henriques, Religious toleration in England, 1787–1833 (1961) · J. A. Lesourd, Les catholiques dans la société anglaise, 1765–1865, 2 vols. (Paris, 1978) · L. Gooch, ed., The revival of English Catholicism: the Banister–Rutter correspondence, 1777–1807 (1995) · C. Butler, Historical memoirs of the English, Irish, and Scottish Catholics since the Reformation, 3rd edn, 4 (1822) · J. P. Chinnici, The English Catholic Enlightenment: John Lingard and the Cisalpine movement, 1780–1850 (1980) · M. D. Petre, The ninth Lord Petre, or, Pioneers of Roman Catholic emancipation (1928) · G. L. Nelson, ‘Charles Walmesley and episcopal opposition to English Catholic cisalpinism, 1782–1797’, PhD diss., Tulane University, 1977


BL, Catholic Committee documents