In the introduction to Lord Acton , the renowned English historian Owen Chadwick [p. ix] observes that those who know little of Acton’s life and works are at least familiar with one of Acton’s quotations which remains alive and well in English conversation to this day, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” What is not generally appreciated by Catholics and others is the context of the quote, a letter to the Catholic Archbishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, or seventeen years after Vatican I and the solemn declaration of papal infallibility. Writes Acton:
“I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility [that is, the later judgment of historians] has to make up for the want of legal responsibility [that is, legal consequences during the rulers' lifetimes]. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which . . . the end learns to justify the means. You would hang a man of no position, . . . but if what one hears is true, then Elizabeth asked the gaoler to murder Mary, and William III ordered his Scots minister to extirpate a clan. Here are the greater names coupled with the greater crimes. You would spare these criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them, higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice; still more, still higher, for the sake of historical science….”
This from the pen of a devout Catholic Englishman whose home included a chapel and chaplain for daily Mass. John Emerich Edward Dalberg Action [1834-1902] was possibly England’s most influential Catholic layman of the nineteenth century whose life, works, and particularly his ideas continue to throw much light upon the struggles of the Catholic Church in 2020. If one were to ask the nature of his profession, he would probably answer “historian,” and in fact he did hold the chair of history at Cambridge for the last six years of his life. It would also be fair to call him a political scientist, who learned that trade from a long and close friendship with William Gladstone [1809-1898], the British Prime Minister during the latter decades of Queen Victoria’s reign [r. 1837-1901]. His peers would call him “connected” both by birth and activism. Acton himself would serve six years in the House of Commons early in his career.
But Acton’s personal involvement in Church life and dialogue is what makes him a valuable source of reflection in our own times. He was born in 1834 in Naples, Italy, one of several sites where he maintained homes outside of England. By marriage, the Acton family had deep roots on both sides of the Channel [Bavaria and southern France being favorite retreats over the course of his life.]. His father was wealthy and well placed but died when the future Lord Acton was three. That both father and son were able to succeed to the degree they did is indicative of the slow but real restoration of Protestant tolerance of Catholics after several centuries of persecution begun in Henry VIII’s day. The Acton English homestead was in Aldenham, the site where he would accumulate as many as 70,000 books, a collection that has passed to Cambridge after his death in the twentieth century.
Acton applied to Cambridge in mid-century for his higher education but was refused admission, ironically because of his Catholic faith. This proved to be a blessing in disguise, for his family sent him instead to the University of Munich under the tutelage of the priest-historian Ignaz von Dollinger. Dollinger is a major name in Catholic history primarily for something he did not do—accept the 1870 proclamation of papal infallibility at Vatican I . But that was in the future. The teacher-student relationship blossomed into an intellectual and personal friendship that endured till Dollinger’s death at 91, through several stressful periods including Dollinger’s excommunication.
To grasp Acton’s life, some background in European history itself is vital. The author, Roland Hill, devotes enough description to explain Acton’s role in it, but the nineteenth century in Europe and in the United States is enormously complex. Consider that Acton was born in 1834, as Europe was still recovering from the roller coaster years of the French Revolution and Napoleon, and that he died just a decade before World War I. Acton studied the damages wreaked by uncontrolled popular excesses on the one hand, and the capricious and frequently disastrous actions of uncontrolled despots on the other.
Hoping to find a better middle way, there was a slow but consistent drift toward national unification in several regions, notably Italy, which existed as several autonomous kingdoms including the Papal States. A generic term for this era is the rise of nationalism, often along the lines of ethnic unity and history. When Garibaldi rallied the peoples of the Italian peninsula into one sovereign state, his intentions included absorbing the Papal States, land which held a practical and especially a religious significance for popes who had considered their sovereignty as religious and temporal since about 800 A.D. The national unification of Italy, with its critical implications for Catholic theology of the papacy, became an all-consuming issue for Catholics throughout the Western World, not least of all in Acton’s England.
Having been trained by Dollinger in Munich, Acton returned to his home in Aldenham and bowed to pressure to serve six undistinguished years in Parliament, eager to get on with his greater calling as a scholar, researcher, book collector, and most of all, a facilitator of discourse and ideas among men of letters, particularly but not exclusively Catholics. Given that he was independently wealthy, highly competent, and a known devout Catholic, his periodic journal the Rambler, could tolerate a broader range of views than more orthodox Catholic periodicals. Bishop John Newman [now a saint], a clerical convert to Roman Catholicism, was one of the Rambler’s most famous contributors as well as its editor for a time, and his famous Rambler contribution, “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine” [July, 1859] is required reading in higher religious education.
In the 1850’s Dollinger had introduced Acton to the renewal of the discipline of history that was sweeping Western Europe at that time. Scholars such as Leopold von Ranke [1795-1886] were revisiting the methodology of history, or historiography. [When you ignore a Facebook photo or report because there is no source provided, you are practicing sound basic historiography.] In the 1800’s the practice of history was evolving from a narrative of the names, dates, and places we all hated to memorize in high school into interpretations and judgments of past events with implications for present day life. If you look back at Acton’s letter to Archbishop Creighton above, you can see that Acton’s understanding of the “historian’s science” is restoration of just balance, calling to task past kings and popes for abuse of power. In a sense, the maturing Acton was defining for himself a philosophy of history as an act of public service for present day good order and morality.
It was Acton’s relentless search of books and documents on the history of the Church that led him to serious doubts about the wisdom of a declaration of papal infallibility. Ironically, Acton’s work was significantly enriched when he was granted access to secret Vatican archives through an intervention to Pope Pius IX [r. 1846-1878], who had met Acton and Dollinger in a private audience earlier in their careers. Convinced of his duty, Acton used his journal writings and exchanges with both English and European laymen and bishops to gather opposition to the solemn declaration of papal infallibility as a doctrine of the Church. One pressing reason for his urgency was the proposed doctrine’s threat, as he saw it, to freedom of conscience, a principle being embraced by progressive nations including his own England. Prime Minister Gladstone, though not a Catholic, shared Acton’s concern of a severe limitation on human thought and exchange. Gladstone was also concerned that papal claims to unfettered supremacy would seriously damage relations with the Church of England and the Orthodox. Interestingly, Acton was a correspondent with the Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his wife. Lee explained to Acton that he personally abhorred slavery but fought the war for the protection of freedom of conscience, understood by Lee as states rights and by Acton as an oppression of conscience by an intrusive federal government, i.e., the Union. Acton, of course, was not an English outlier on the subject; the British contemplated military support of the Confederacy until its defeat at Gettysburg in 1863.
Acton and his followers were at odds with the “Ultramontanes,” [literally, those beyond the mountains, specifically the Alps] who argued for retention of a powerful Roman centralized Church buttressed by the formal declaration of infallibility. Hill describes the battle leading up to the Council Vatican I [1869-1870], including the debates within England. The author concludes that Acton’s [and Dollinger’s] struggles to ward off an infallibility decree were, at the end, Quixotic. Most bishops may have questioned the need for such a profound declaration, but their respect for Pius IX remained strong. Acton and his family hosted a steady stream of bishops at a rented apartment in Rome for dinners and lobbying, but the control of the agenda of the Council by the Roman Curia and the instincts of bishops not to defy a sitting successor of Peter carried the day. Only two bishops voted against infallibility, one of them from a former Confederate state, Arkansas.
Dollinger, a priest, suffered much greater fallout for his opposition. Ordered to swear fealty to the new doctrine, he refused, was relieved of clerical duty, and eventually excommunicated. He became the organizing factor for an international schismatic Catholic Church [the “Old Catholic Church”] which was identical to the Roman Catholic Church except for its denial of a monarchical papacy. It is hard to know the degree of Dollinger’s actual sentiment and involvement with this movement, which exists to this day, but the Vatican justly identified him with it, and Dollinger was never reconciled to the Church. He was anointed on his deathbed by an Old Catholic cleric.
Acton, a married Catholic layman with five children, was never significantly disciplined by the Church and never truly lost his church or civil standing. As a layman, he was never summoned to swear an oath of fealty to the Council’s decree. And while excommunication was threatened by his longtime English foe, the Ultramontanist Cardinal Manning, it was hard for the auditors of the Index of Forbidden Books in the Roman Curia to sanction the thousands of journal articles, public letters, lectures, etc. that Acton would continue till his death in 1903. For the rest of his life Acton believed that the infallibility pronouncement was a mistake, and he did not hesitate to say so until his death, but he did not follow Dollinger’s radicalism and continued fidelity to the sacraments and a daily prayer regimen. In a recently discovered correspondence, his wife Maria writes to a close friend that, after intercourse, Acton got on his knees and prayed that they had conceived a child. Evidently his prayers were heard from time to time, though Maria found it peculiar. This was, after all, Victorian England.
Dollinger, despite his troubles, and others of Acton’s friends began to wonder what Acton’s literary legacy would be, given that he was now well into his 50’s. Given all his research, his contributions to journals, his book acquisitions, and his personal dinners and travels with learned men across England and Europe, he had never written a substantive book. His estate devalued to the point that the American industrialist Andrew Carnegie, at Gladstone’s request, purchased Acton’s collection of 70,00 books, keeping Acton solvent until he received two prestigious offers. The first was Queen Victoria’s appointment to the Regius Chair of History at Cambridge, a remarkable turn of events in that the university had rejected his application four decades earlier because of his Catholicism. Acton and the Queen were good friends stemming from the former’s past services at Buckingham Palace.
Acton was 61 when he received this honor, but his rich dining and utter lack of exercise produced a serious condition of gout which likely shortened his life. There is sadness in that Acton was born for Cambridge life, immensely popular among students and peers alike; he added informal seminars to his routine for those students eager to engage in historical studies careers. Alas, he had arrived there at the twilight of his life. A second recognition of respect was Cambridge’s invitation to edit the master Cambridge World History series, a complicated project which taxed his diminishing strength. He died in 1902 at the age of 68, at his Bavarian residence where he had gone for some hope of convalescence. The author notes that the Bavarian burial site is so overgrown that it is nearly impossible to find, as of 2000.
Acton was eulogized profusely by friend and foe alike. The year 1903 saw a resurgence of Ultramontane energies which spared no efforts to decry Acton’s suspicions of excessive Church authority and paint him into a corner with the expelled Dollinger. But those who knew him well understood that he was a complex lay Catholic who as a political thinker embraced the English liberal positions of self-determination [as with Ireland], freedom of conscience, and concern over the economic inequities of the industrial age. On the other hand, he was a most traditional Catholic who drew strength from such works as Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ. He serves well as a template for loving the Church by reforming the Church and laying the groundwork for lay activism in the post Vatican II era.
Acton’s understanding of history was almost prophetic in the Biblical sense, passing moral judgments on the actions of the major figures of history to correct them, with the end purpose of protecting human liberty and freedom. Acton’s relentless hard judgments on past figures led even Dollinger to tell him he was starting to sound like an old shrew. The consensus recurring criticism of Acton’s philosophy of history, manifested again in his lengthy quote at the opening of this post, is the inconsistency of denying moral righteousness and authority to kings and popes while awarding moral infallibility, so to speak, to historians.
Acton, were he alive today, would have much to say about America’s struggle over the interpretations of its history and the way it is celebrated or denounced. At the very least, he probably would have saved some of those Robert E. Lee statues for his garden at Aldenham.
There is a fine 30 minute presentation about Acton on YouTube.
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything