From the archive: On the bicentenary of Cardinal Manning’s birth Robert Gray says he is under-appreciated by Catholics today

On November 5 2008 Westminster Cathedral held a dinner to celebrate the bicentenary of Cardinal Manning’s birth (actually on July 15 1808). Yet the attention of English Catholics in 2008 has been far more absorbed by the campaign for the canonisation of his contemporary, Cardinal Newman. Hardly anyone seems to know or care that Manning, through his social work, did more than any other ecclesiastic since the Reformation to edge Catholicism back towards the mainstream of British life.

Yet when he died in 1892, hundreds of thousands lined the streets to pay him tribute. The popular lamentation at the cardinal’s passing, however, has rarely been echoed among English Catholics of superior social or intellectual standing.

Manning, on his side, had never been impressed by those whom he categorised as “the Upper Ten Thousand” of his flock; indeed, he held that the spiritual malaise of the well-to-do was every bit as serious as that of the lower orders. His keen sympathy for material suffering, however, drew him first and foremost to the relief of physical distress.

Alas, those who devote themselves to such causes as education and housing, while remaining indifferent to the lettered elite, are unlikely to flattered in elegant biography. Manning’s reputation was ruined by Edmund Purcell’s spiteful Life, which was in turn pilfered by Lytton Strachey for his malicious essay on the cardinal in Eminent Victorians. Sir Shane Leslie, an Irishman, was the only Catholic writer seriously to bestir himself in the cardinal’s defence.

The injustice, however, went back a great deal further than that. From 1851, when Manning, already 42, converted from Anglicanism, he was regarded with deepest suspicion by the more rarefied brand of English Catholic. “Parsonical” was the favourite word of abuse. How could this newcomer, a widower deeply stained by Evangelical influence, possibly become a convincing Catholic ecclesiastic?

This hostility deepened as Manning showed every sign of wanting to get on in the Church. The nerve of the fellow! By contrast Dr Newman, who wrote so brilliantly about the intellectual foundations of the Faith; who seemed content to devote himself to the Birmingham Oratory or to the Catholic University in Ireland; and who subjected the Anglican Church which he had abandoned to such withering scorn – Dr Newman certainly seemed to be imbibing the true Catholic spirit.

For the more cerebral of English Catholics, was it not inevitably a more grateful occupation to ponder the excellencies of their religion through the medium of Newman’s beautiful prose than to be hectored by the charmless charitable injunctions of the parson Manning?

To make matters worse, the parsonical personage proved remarkably proficient in achieving promotion. “I hate that man,” declared the President of Ushaw, “he is such a forward piece.” Today, perhaps we may reflect that if Manning, whose extraordinary energy and efficiency were matched with a first-class mind, considered himself qualified for high ecclesiastical office, he knew no more than the truth.

At Oxford, indeed, contemporaries had spoken of him as a future Prime Minister, with young William Gladstone a likely bet for Archbishop of Canterbury. Now in the 1850s it was alarmingly evident that the pushy convert had acquired the total confidence of both Cardinal Wiseman, the first Archbishop of Westminster, and of Pope Pius IX, who, on Wiseman’s death in 1865, nominated Manning to succeed him. The new archbishop had been a Catholic but 14 years.

“The amount of good he does is wonderful,” one of the Westminster canons wrote soon after Manning’s elevation. “I have never seen a sign of the least weariness about him, and however pressed he may be, his readiness to listen to everyone and to help everyone, and to take part in every good work, I never saw in anyone in my life.”

Rather than raise a cathedral, for which he bought land in 1868, Manning used the available funds to preserve the children of Irish immigrants for the Faith, providing some 10,000 new places in Catholic elementary schools. He also fought to establish the principle that denominational schools should receive government support on the same basis as the non-denominational Board schools.

Mindful of the distress inflicted on the more impoverished members of his flock by drink, the archbishop became an eager advocate and exemplar of the temperance crusade – not a cause likely to inspire the Upper Ten Thousand.

Among English society at large, though, Manning’s steely devotion to principle gradually left its mark. “Had there been some half a dozen Mannings,” reckoned the Secretary of the Commission for Housing the Working Classes on which the archbishop served, “England would have run the risk of being converted to Christianity.”

Yet still there were Catholic exquisites resolved to be unimpressed. “Poor Cardinal,” reflected the poet Coventry Patmore after Manning’s death, “it is wonderful how he imposed on mankind by the third-century look of him, and his infinite muddle-headedness, which passed for mystery. I knew him well, and am convinced that he was the very minutest soul that ever buzzed in so high a place.”

There is, of course, the very best precedent for being without honour in one’s own country. Surely now, though, 116 years after Manning’s death, it should be possible for even distinguished Catholics to give the cardinal his due. For Manning demonstrated that, however difficult it may be to eliminate natural flaws of character, it is entirely possible to direct one’s path into the way of virtue.

His younger self, decided in opinion, inflexible of will, dominant in action and consumed by political ambition, had seemed destined to become a model of self-satisfied Establishment values. When Manning was 21, however, the collapse of his father’s business ruined his political hopes. In his first disappointment he reacted with an almost Byronic spleen; at the same time, though, the moral imperative inherent in his Evangelical family background was fully awakened. While he had to struggle fiercely to follow the call to religion, his resolve never failed.

And so the smooth Harrovian lived to adopt the vulgar temperance crusade. The first class Balliol man on the make became the leader of what was, in Victorian England, a despised religious sect. The fierce Jingo developed into the champion of Ireland and the Irish. The youthful Tory dedicated himself to the outcast.

Sometimes Manning even seemed to flirt with socialism. He remained clear, though, that the roots of good and evil lie not in forms of government but enmeshed in each individual soul, where, as he believed, none but supernaturally ordained authority can hold the line for virtue. In becoming an uncompromising ultramontane Catholic Manning cleared his intellectual decks for philanthropic action. There could have been no better demonstration of the beneficent power of the Church.

Yet Manning was never a rigid sectarian. Far from deriding Anglicans and Nonconformists, he looked gratefully on all who worked for the good. “All the great works of charity in England,” he recognised, “have had their beginning outside the Church.” “When the world is drifting to chaos and suicide,” he elaborated, “I have no will for controversies. The English are not heretics, they have never rejected the Catholic religion; it has been wrested away from them.”

In sum, Manning held that charity should always be the paramount principle in human conduct. “The Good Samaritan,” he observed, “did not delay to pour oil and wine into the wounds of a man halfdead until he had ascertained whether he was responsible for his own distress. Necessity has no law, nor has present distress, except a claim for prompt relief.”

Thus Manning earned the moral authority that enabled him, in 1889, to resolve the London Dock Strike, a triumph which established him in many minds as the real Primate of All England.

Decidedly he was never a comfortable presence, and the Church has yet to proclaim that he was a saint. He was certainly, though, as remarkable as a saint, a man who dedicated everything, even his love of power, to the service of the Gospels. Hilaire Belloc, who knew Manning at the end of his life, did not hesitate to call him “much the greatest Englishman of his time”. But then Belloc was half French.


Robert Gray is the author of Cardinal Manning: A Biography (St Martin’s Press)

This feature first appeared in the Catholic Herald, November 7, 2008