Disendowment of the Protestant Church: Letter of the Bishop of Kerry

[From The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol. III, April 1867]

Every one acquainted with the history of this country must admit that the Established Church in Ireland has been a source of innumerable evils ever since it was called into existence by Henry the Eighth and Elizabeth. In their attempts to force this hated and alien system on Irish Catholics, its authors and supporters had recourse to confiscation of property, and to the enactment of cruel penal laws; they also frequently laid waste our fairest regions with fire and sword, and reduced the inhabitants of this kingdom to the condition of helots in their native land.

Thanks be to God, the efforts of our enemies to root out the faith planted by St. Patrick were vain, and at the end of centuries of persecution we learn from a synoptical table just published at the end of a pamphlet compiled by the Protestant Bishop of Down, Connor, and Dromore, that in the dioceses of Meath, Tuam, Killala, Achonry, Cashel, Emly, Waterford, Lismore, Limerick, Ardfert, and Aghadoe, the Protestants of the Established Church are not three per cent of the population; in Ossory, Ferns, and Leighlin, they are not six per cent.; in Cork, Cloyne, and Ross, they are not seven per cent.; and that in Derry and Raphoe, they are not nine and a-half per cent.; whilst in the very metropolis they are only sixteen per cent.1 But, though Protestantism never took root in Ireland, yet the means employed to propagate it were so cruel and so anti-Christian, that it was always an object of hatred, and was ever looked on as a standing insult to the great majority of the Irish people.

The same feeling which existed on this subject in past times still prevails, manifesting itself continually in various efforts to do away with an institution which has so sorely afflicted the country, and has been the cause of all its calamities.

For the past, the efforts to obtain redress have not been crowned with success. Of late, however, the growing liberality of many classes in England, the desire of the Reformers to conciliate Ireland, and the necessity of removing admitted grievances in order to strengthen the empire in those dangerous and revolutionary times, afford better prospects for the future, and give reason to hope that the Established Church will soon be disposed of in a way satisfactory to the Irish nation. During the last two years this important question has been frequently brought before the public, and numberless petitions have been presented to both houses of parliament praying for the disendowment of an establishment which, contrary to justice, enjoys the spoils of the ancient Catholic Church of Ireland.

Many valuable publications have appeared in which this question, most important not only to our temporal but to our spiritual interests, has been carefully examined. In former numbers of the Record we referred to several of these works; at present we shall give extracts from a letter addressed by the Bishop of Kerry to his clergy, in which we find most powerful arguments clothed in eloquent language in favour of the disendowment of the Protestant Church.2

1. The writer having made various preliminary observations, lays it down as an incontrovertible truth, "the one thing certain, that there can be no peace or prosperity in this land until we all enjoy complete religious equality" (p. 17), and to illustrate his statement he makes the following remarks:

"This thesis is so evident to us that it does not admit of serious discussion. Its truth has been long since acknowledged by our greatest statesmen.3 The nations of Europe look with amazement upon a people that bears, and upon a government that maintains, in this age of freedom and civilization, an injustice unparalleled in the annals of tyranny. If we read in the history of any civilized country, that there was a time when its people, or the legislature representing it, neglected to make any provision for the religious wants of the great mass of the population, and taxed itself largely for the maintenance of a faith and worship which that population rejected with horror, and in which only a small minority believed, we could not account for the strange phenomenon but by supposing that those who held power exercised it with tyrannical injustice, and that the people submitted with the most craven and servile obedience, or that both rulers and people had lost their reason. Yet it is true that this state of things, notwithstanding all our boasted progress and civilization, still exists among us" (p. 17).

2. Referring to the evil effects produced by such a system, his Lordship adds:

"Over thirty years ago the people rose up indignant against this great iniquity. They appealed to the wild justice of revenge. Their proceedings were lawless, and stained with the blood of those who, though they profited by the wrong, were not its real authors. The consequence of this, as of most other rebellious movements, was to perpetuate the injustice. By a dexterous ruse, the nobleman who at this moment guides the helm of the state, transferred from the clergy of the Established Church to the landlords, the duty of collecting the national tax for the maintenance of Protestantism. The people were blindfolded. They thought they were paying only their rent, while actually paying tithe with it. Many, no doubt, saw the practised fraud, but they dared not resist, for the territorial right of the landlord gives him, in a very strict sense, the power of life and death. He can deprive the tenant of food and clothes and shelter, the first necessaries of life, by depriving him of the land by which alone they can be produced. Thus it is that the Establishment has had a renewed lease of existence extending now over thirty years, although we are an emancipated people".

3. Having briefly shown the sophistry of those who pretend that the income of the Protestant Establishment is derived front the Protestant landlords, not from the Catholic tenants, his lordship proceeds to say:

"In whatever light we view the Establishment, it implies the forced maintenance of the religion of the minority by the vast majority of the people. It is a palpable, a grievous, a galling injustice. It is worse: it is an insult, submission to which is degrading and debasing. But, perhaps, we should say to you with St. Paul, 'Why do you not rather take wrong? Why do you not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded?' No; for when you do so, we must say to you with the same apostle, 'You do wrong and you defraud'. Under a constitutional government, and with a representative legislature, the people are answerable for those legalised injustices which by constitutional action they may prevent".

4. In the next place the writer shows that the discontent of Ireland arises from the existence of the Established Church, and having stated that "this injustice is the cause of that grievous disaffection which overspreads the land", and having briefly referred to the disturbances of 1848, he continues:

"Fenianism, with all its fraud and falsehood, with all its braggart cowardice, and with that hatred of religion which marked its every utterance, found sympathy and raised strange hopes in the Irish poor, and unfortunately the Irish poor means the Irish people. The domestic virtues of our people, their horror of crime and outrage, their gentle and too humble character, their habits and training, which leave them totally unacquainted with the use of arms or the ways of violence, render revolution impossible for them. .... But, though they shrink from a participation in riot and revolt, yet there was and is sympathy with rebellion, simply because of its antagonism to an authority they hate, and which they hate because it maintains in the face of reason and justice a Protestant ascendancy by the Established Church (p. 19). . . . Hence men live in the hope of what they call a deliverance of their native land. Hence a dreamy, unreal, discontented existence, directly opposed to the spirit of industry and enterprise. Like the Athenians asking in their streets,`What news? is Philip dead?' we have a people expecting good fortune from some unforeseen chance, or from the possible ruin of the power which they consider the cause of their misery. Now, is there any patent wrong which can account for this most unhappy state of national feeling? There is one, and that is the Church Establishment. This is the clear proof of an unjust ascendancy still maintained by the conquering nation. This makes the Catholic Irishman believe that he is ruled as of old for the benefit of a few English settlers; that he must pay even for their sermons and their sacraments; that he must provide not only for their earthly wants by the sweat of his brow, but that he must smooth for them the road to heaven. Take this wrong away; causes of complaint may still remain, but they will be such as are to be found amongst the most loyal; they will not furnish just grounds for national antipathy or revolutionary longings. The peasantry may continue to complain of the laws of tenancy; the clergy may complain of mixed education; we may still agitate for wiser legislation in those matters, as the English themselves agitate for Reform; but neither of these grievances, or any other that we suffer, indicate the oppression of our nation by another. When those who defend the policy of English rule in this country think they have answered every other objection of the disaffected, one remains unanswered and unanswerable - namely, the Church Establishment" (p. 22).

5. Having explained how great hostility is excited against the state by the existence of the Establishment, the learned writer proceeds to dispose of an argument which some adduce in favour of the Church, viz., that it prevents the Protestant mind from running into infidelity:

"We believe that it did so in times past. ..... But the spell is broken. Like the Jews of old, who cried out, 'The Temple of God, the Temple of God', teachers of Protestantism used to cry out, 'The Bible, the Bible'. Now we see ordained and beneficed clergymen of the Establishment treating the Bible as if it were a work of fiction which conveys some moral truth, as many a novel or romance does, but false and ridiculously absurd in its historic narratives. Beneficed clergymen may now deny without let or hindrance baptismal regeneration and the eternity of punishment. Others express discontent with the formularies they are required to sign, and with the prayer book they are obliged to use, because these contain truths in which they do not believe. Many, oh! thank God! a great many, are approaching nearer to the true standard of orthodoxy while these ordained or mitred infidels are receding from it; but it is evident that neither the gold of the Establishment, nor the authority of its tribunals, can now restrain its clergymen from the denial of any truth, or the profession of any error. The system has been tested in every possible way. Appeal after appeal has been made from one tribunal to another by truth-loving souls, who fondly think that they are in the Church of Christ; but there is no one to give judgment. There is no voice to speak with the warrant of a divine commission. There is no rock to rest upon. The higher the tribunal to which an appeal is made, the less seems its power of controlling man's belief. An humble parish clergyman may surely, in matters of dogma, command more respect than the Queen's Privy Council. In the Establishment all binding and cohesive power is at an end:-

'Urbs antiqua ruit multos dominata per annos'.

Its ministers may now walk each in his own way, and preach whatever doctrine suits his fancy. Chillingworth's large rule of faith has triumphed: ' Sentire quae velit, et quae sentiat loqui'" (pag. 36.)

6. Having proved that the torrent of infidelity is not restrained by Protestantism, his Lordship next shows that its endowments may prevent many from embracing the truth:

"Without attributing to the Protestant clergy less disinterestedness than is usually incident to human nature, may we not suppose that some are held unconsciously captive in error by the chains of riches or the pride of ascendancy? To belong to a favoured class - to be respectable - to be in social and religious union with the highest in the land - to have a decent income secured by the state - all this is calculated to strengthen the prejudices of birth and education. Remove all this, and men will be as free to go right as to go wrong. Some, no doubt, whose feet and turned toward the darkness, would wander through all the varieties of dissent. Some, in whom the principle of faith is wanting, would rapidly go down the steep descent to infidelity. But have we not reason to hope that the grace of God would lead some into the ways of truth? In the sister country, we witness now, and we have witnessed for more than twenty years past, the most extraordinary phenomenon that the history of religious life presents - a spontaneous growth of faith in the very bosom of a heretical communion. Resting on the Apostle's word - that faith comes by hearing - we were inclined to think that conversion could be wrought only by the apostolic action of the Church of Christ. But we have seen men who held no intercourse with Catholics, who were estranged from us by every circumstance of their position, who openly and vehemently expressed their hatred of the Catholic Church as they apprehended it, gradually grow, by study, and thought, and prayer, to the full measure of Catholic truth. Some day, when in their walk of life the embodied form of the Church appeared before them, they found to their amazement that they too were Catholics. Like those who in childhood were torn from a mother's arms, but whose dream of life was a longing desire to see her face again, they recognized, when they saw her, the true mother of their souls, and they rushed to her embrace.

"This extraordinary movement is still going on. Some years ago it had a more imposing intellectual form, when, with the silent unruffled grandeur of an ocean wave, it swelled up from the depths, and, slowly advancing towards us, bore on its crest and deposited on our shores the noblest minds and truest hearts that ever bowed before the divine authority of the Church - such men as Newman, Wilberforce, Faber, Ward, Manning, and the host of learned ecclesiastics and laymen who followed these great leaders. At the present time we see a movement, not so intellectual, but more popular. We see many zealously striving to restore the outward forms of the Catholic Church, forms essentially connected with her doctrines, and which for the multitude are the chief distinguishing marks of separation. Thus, very strong and inveterate prejudices are gradually broken down; at the same time, literature, architecture, archaeology, are making their own converts, and multiplying the paths of that compitum where we meet in the Fold of Christ".

7. The advantages to be derived from depriving the Protestant Church of its attractions having been developed, his Lordship reverts to the necessity of disendowing the Establishment in order to restore peace and confidence to the country:

"Until the last remnant of religious inequality shall disappear, there can be no peace in the land. Irritation of feeling, mutual distrust, hatred of law and of authority, rebellion held in leash, all the hinges of society disjointed - such must be the condition of Ireland as long as the Protestant Church holds an exceptional or favoured position. Let there be complete religious equality, without privilege, favour, or affection on the part of the state or of the law, for every religious denomination; then the traces, the traditions, of past misgovernment will be obliterated. We shall have a people acknowledging the legitimacy of the authority that rules them, and acknowledging those obligations of obedience and respect which are essential conditions of the order of society, as established by the Almighty" (p. 39).

8. His Lordship concludes that Fenianism is the offspring of the Church Establishment, and that to restore peace the Protestant Church must be disendowed and perfect equality established:

"Many will think we dream when we assert that there is a connection of cause and effect between Protestant ascendancy and Fenianism. We know full well that the leaders and organizers of the Fenian movement care not for the ascendancy, or, perhaps, even the existence of any Church; but it is equally certain that if the traditional hatred of the English government was not perpetuated in the country, they would not have found followers; and it is also certain that but for Protestant ascendancy that hatred would have long since died away. One thing, at all events, we can positively assert, whatever may be the cause of disaffection, the remedy is to be found in perfect religious equality" (p. 41).

9. Our limited space will not allow us to give further extracts from the letter now before us, nor have we time to examine the various plans for the application of the revenues of the Established Church, to which the Bishop of Kerry calls public attention, with the view that their merits should be accurately discussed. We shall merely observe, that in the arrangement of this matter it would be useless to make any attempt to pension the Catholic clergy, either directly or indirectly. In letters published in the first volume of the Record, page 54, the Holy See has manifested its disapproval of projects of this kind, and the Irish bishops have repeatedly declared that they and their clergy will never consent to receive salaries from the state, lest they should expose the Irish Church to the danger of losing the liberty which she enjoys. The system of supporting the clergy by a state pension was never popular in Ireland, and our ancient history shows that the possessions of our Church now in the hands of the Protestant Establishment, were originally derived from the pious donations of our Catholic forefathers, not from government grants. In these circumstances it would be only loss of time to discuss the merits of a state pension, which no one would receive.

10. In the next place, we say that if the Church property were to be disposed of according to the principles of justice, the question would be easily settled. Restitution in full should be made to the original and legitimate owners, that is, to the Catholic clergy, leaving them the entire and free right to apply the revenues to their own support, with the understanding that everything superfluous should be devoted to the relief of poverty, or the erection and maintenance of churches, or to other religious purposes. Justice would never sanction any project, founded on the principle that the funds should not be applied to the support of the clergy, the principal purpose for which they were first given.

11. But there does not appear to be the least probability that the laws of justice will be carried out in settling this case, and we suppose that the church question, if anything be done in regard to it, will be disposed of on grounds of expediency and on reasons of state.

What state reasons will prevail, or what parliament will do, we have no means of determining. We hope indeed that the Protestant establishment will be disendowed, and such a measure, drying up one of the greatest sources of the evils of Ireland, would be received with general satisfaction. As to the application of the church property, we do not expect that either the conservatives, who are such supporters of the establishment, or the radicals, who are all for the voluntary system, will restore it to the original owners, or even give them such a portion of it as any one would consider worth accepting. However, the mere disendowment of the Church, the taking away of property unjustly acquired from its present occupiers, would be in itself a great good work, and one which we must desire. If those on whom the disposal of the Church property devolves, do not afterwards make a proper application of it, the fault will be their own. We can only wish that they may act on principles of justice and public utility.

12. But leaving aside the general question, too important to he briefly discussed, we shall merely refer to a matter mentioned by the learned writer from whose letter we have given so many extracts. He states that one plan of arranging the Church property "would be realized if the whole Church income were paid into the imperial treasury, and thence disbursed to the different bodies requiring Church ministers or ministrations"; and he adds that as to this plan, "inasmuch as it is a partial restitution to the Catholic Church, we could, with due submission to superior authority, not only assent to it, but demand it" (page 28).

In all this there are many things implied, which require consideration. We think it would be wrong that property such as that held by the Protestant Church, which belongs exclusively to Ireland, and ought to be set aside for Irish purposes, should be paid into the imperial treasury; and we think it would be still worse to put the Catholic clergy under the necessity of receiving yearly allowances from that treasury, being persuaded that any such obligation would interfere with their liberty and alienate the people from them. If the clergy accepted any yearly grant, even small, from the government, all the sources now so abundant of charity would be dried up, and perhaps every grant of money would soon be impugned by bigotry in parliament, and finally withdrawn, in which case the Catholic clergy would be left without any support from the state, or any other source. Certainly it would be difficult to induce the people to return to the voluntary system.

As to the proposal, that the treasury should divide the Church income between the ministers of several religious denominations, it appears to us that Catholics, though they may look on whilst others take this step, could not conscientiously demand it (p. 28).

Were we to do so, should we not be endeavouring to put error on a level with truth, and asking that funds left for a sacred purpose should be employed in a manner directly opposed to the intention of the donors? Catholics cannot take an active part in carrying out such measures: and they cannot ask others to do what is wrong.

13. And here let us add, that as Catholics, up to the present, have not been officially consulted in regard to the settlement of the Church question, they cannot be expected to propose any definite measure. If they be asked for their opinion, undoubtedly they will suggest something just and feasible.

But if, without hearing those who are deeply interested in this question, our lawgivers act on their own responsibility, and if they determine not to restore the Church property to its legitimate owners, we think that at least they ought to preserve that property, appointing Irish commissioners to manage it, and enacting that donations or loans, without interfering with the capital, should be given out of its revenues for the promotion of works of religion or charity in Ireland. The landlords and the proprietors of the soil have no claim to this property, and it ought not to be given to them, nor ought it to be applied to alleviate the burdens of the state. If the temper of the times will not allow it to be restored to its original purposes, at all events let whatever of it remains, for a great deal has been alienated by Protestant dignitaries for family purposes, be applied to other good or religious works in Ireland.

14. To conclude, we must say that if a resolution be adopted to divide the property, probably the Protestant clergy will get the lion's share, whilst, if the treasury be charged to give annual salaries to Protestants, Presbyterians, and Catholics, the principle of indifference to truth, or that false religions are as good as the true one, will be proclaimed, and the rigid doctrines of the Gospel will lose that high place which they ought to hold in the affections of the people.

We shall add that in those countries where Church property is in the hands of its legitimate owners, and is applied to the purposes for which it was given originally, it is wicked and sacrilegious to alienate or confiscate it; but that in Ireland it would be only an act of justice to wrest it from the hands of those who have unjustly acquired it by confiscation and violence, and who apply it in a way most opposed to the ends for which it was first granted, and very often indeed for the destruction of the religion which the original donors held most dear. If any one be scandalized by the performance of a good work, or draw evil consequences from an act of justice, he is responsible himself for the evil to which he consents; and the scandal to which he subjects himself is such as the Pharisees were involved in when their indignation was excited by the holy and charitable works of our Redeemer.


1 The Irish Church, by the Bishop of Down, etc. Hodges and Smith, 1867.

2 A Letter on the Disendowment of the Established Church, addressed to the Clergy of the Diocese of Kerry, by the Right Rev. Dr. Moriarty: Fowler, 3 Crow Street, 1867.

3 See Mr. A. De Vere's pamphlet, The Church Establishment in Ireland illustrated exclusively by Protestant Authorities. Warren, Dublin.