Historical Precedents
> Biblical Reference > Historical Precedents > Quotations & Writings > Commentary
> Home > Historical Precedents > Government > Church & State > "Lord Acton: 19th Century Catholic Champion of Religious Liberty" -- [1834 – 1902]
> Category

Lord Acton: 19th Century Catholic Champion of Religious Liberty

One might think that the brilliant stepson of a distinguished member of the British aristocracy could gain admittance to Cambridge University, but there was a problem: John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton was a Catholic and, as such, was barred from study there.1 So instead, he headed to Germany for university training—and never forgot the sting of religious discrimination. It stirred his life-long crusade for religious liberty, secured and nurtured by the conviction that a vibrant and pervasive Christianity was the only true guarantor of such freedom:

[Mine] is the story of a man who started in life believing himself a sincere Catholic and a sincere Liberal [i.e. lover of freedom]; who therefore renounced everything in Catholicism which was not compatible with Liberty, and everything in Politics which was not compatible with Catholicity.2

Acton’s simultaneous adherence to Liberalism and Catholicism baffled many of his admirers. As the English Liberal politician and writer, John Morley, commented: “[Acton’s] union of devoted faith in liberty with devoted faith in the Church of authority was a standing riddle.”3 But to Acton, this apparent contradiction was completely natural. From childhood he had experienced the dual influences of a Catholic (and aristocratic) German mother and a Whig (liberal) stepfather, Lord Granville. Moreover his education had been decisively shaped by the seven years he spent in Bavaria as a pupil of the eminent Catholic historian, Ignaz von Dollinger, at that time the intellectual leader of politically-liberal German Catholicism.

Acton believed that the Church had to be brought intellectually into the 19th century if it were to have any chance of remaining a vital moral force in the modern world. This meant that Catholics should wholeheartedly embrace freedom of inquiry, because, he argued, the unhindered pursuit of truth is a religious duty rather than a potential threat to the interests and reputation of the church. Furthermore, since God’s truth is internally consistent, there is no inherent conflict between religious, historical, and scientific knowledge. So the church should welcome, rather than resist, unimpeded research. Equally importantly, Acton believed the church ought to be in the vanguard of the struggle for political and civil liberty, because without such there is no respect for human dignity, no room for moral growth, and no barrier to the abuse of power:

The Church has to remind princes of their duties, and nations of their rights; and to keep alive the spirit of personal dignity and independence, without which the religious and the political character of men are alike degraded. . . . [There] is no position worthy of her in which she exercises no moralising influence upon the State.4

Acton’s passionate commitment to truth and liberty, and to the God who is their source and guardian, inspired both his opposition to the doctrine of papal infallibility (promulgated in 1870 by the Vatican Council under Pius IX) and his unshakeable conviction that the study of history and the evaluation of the past should be governed by an objective moral standard. This meant, above all, that the history of the Church should be subjected to a ruthlessly honest scrutiny regardless of any embarrassment caused to past or present popes and ecclesiastical hierarchies.5

Acton made an enormous contribution to the thinking about the relationship between Church and state, perhaps chiefly in the sense of balance he cultivated: The Church must, as the true fount of wisdom and virtue, enjoy wide influence and full expression of her counsel. Only then can rulers keep their moral bearings—and dissenters enjoy their liberties.


“John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton,” at The Acton Institute Website, http://www.acton.org/publicat/randl/liberal.php?id=75 (accessed January 4, 2006).


Lord Acton to Lady Blennerhassett, February 1879, in Selected Writings of Lord Acton: Essays in Religion, Politics, and Morality, vol. 3, ed. J. Rufus Fears (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1988), 657.


John Morley, Recollections (New York, 1917), 230, quoted in Ibid., xi.


Acton, “The Count de Montalembert,” the Rambler, December 1858, reprinted Ibid., 11.


Ibid., 657. His summary of the dark side of Church history included these words: “There I presently found that there had been a grievous evil in the Church consisting of a practice sanctioned by the theory that much wrong may be done for the sake of saving souls. Men became what we should otherwise call demons, in so good a cause. And this tendency overspread Christendom from the twelfth century, and was associated with the papacy, which sanctioned, encouraged, and employed it.”