Catholic Church in the United Kingdom

The Catholic Church in the United Kingdom is part of the worldwide Catholic Church in communion with the Pope. While there is no ecclesiastical jurisdiction corresponding to the political union, this article refers to the Catholic Church's geographical representation in mainland Britain as well as Northern Ireland, ever since the establishment of the U.K.'s predecessor Kingdom of Great Britain by the Union of the Crowns in 1707.

For the Catholic Church in the British Isles before 1707, including during the Protestant Reformation, see:



Starting with Pope Pius V's Papal Bull Regnans in Excelsis in 1570 and lasting until 1766, Popes did not recognise the legitimacy of the English Monarchy and called for its overthrow. By the time of the creation of the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707, Catholics were discriminated against in England and Scotland in significant ways: in all the kingdoms of the British Isles, they were excluded from voting, from sitting in Parliament, and from the learned professions. These discriminatory laws continued after the Acts of Union 1800, which created the new United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801. At that time, Catholic Emancipation was gathering support but was not yet a reality, particularly in Ireland, where the Protestant Ascendancy was still in full force.

The Treaty of Union of 1707, like the Act of Settlement, had stated that no "Papist" could succeed to the throne.[1] Restrictions on the civil rights of Catholics only began to change with the passing of the Papists Act 1778, which allowed them to own property, inherit land and join the British Army, although even this measure resulted in the backlash of the Gordon Riots of 1780, showing the depth of continuing anti-Catholic feeling.


After 1790, a new mood emerged as thousands of Catholics fled the French Revolution and Britain was allied in the Napoleonic Wars with the Catholic states of Portugal and Spain as well as with the Holy See itself. By 1829, the political climate had changed enough to allow Parliament to pass the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829, giving Catholics almost equal civil rights, including the right to vote and to hold most public offices.

The Catholic Church in England included about 50,000 people in traditional ("recusant") Catholic families. They generally kept a low profile. Their priests usually came from St Edmund's College, a seminary founded in 1793 by English refugees from the French revolution. The main disabilities, as referenced above, were lifted by the Catholic Relief Act of 1829. In 1850 the pope restored the Catholic hierarchy, giving England its own Catholic bishops again. In 1869 a new seminary opened.[2]

Another, larger group comprised very poor Irish immigrants escaping the Great Irish Famine. Their numbers rose from 224,000 in 1841 to 419,000 in 1851, concentrated in ports and industrial districts as well as industrial districts in Scotland. A third group included well-known converts from the Church of England, most notably the intellectuals John Henry Newman and Henry Edward Manning (1808–1892). Manning became the second Archbishop of Westminster. The next most prominent leader was Herbert Vaughan (1832–1903), who succeeded Manning as Archbishop of Westminster in 1892 and was elevated to the cardinalate in 1893.[3]

Manning was among the strongest supporters of the pope and especially of the doctrine of papal infallibility. In contrast Cardinal Newman acknowledged this doctrine but thought it might not be prudent to define it formally at the time. Manning promoted a modern Catholic view of social justice. These views are reflected in the papal encyclical Rerum novarum issued by Pope Leo XIII, which became the foundation of modern Catholic social justice teaching. Catholic parochial schools, subsidised by the government, were set up in urban areas to serve the largely Irish element. Manning spoke for the Irish Catholic labourers and helped settle the London dock strike of 1889.[4] He gained acclaim for building a new cathedral in Westminster and for encouraging the growth of religious congregations largely filled by the Irish.


A number of prominent individuals have converted to the Catholic Church, including Edmund Campion, Margaret Clitherow, Charles II, John Henry Newman, Henry Edward Manning, Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, Augustus Pugin, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Siegfried Sassoon, G. K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox, Graham Greene, Malcolm Muggeridge, Katharine, Duchess of Kent, Kenneth Clark, and Joseph Pearce. Members of the Royal family such as the Duchess of Kent and former Prime Minister Tony Blair have also converted to the Catholic Church, in Blair's case in December 2007 after he had left office.[5][6][7][8]

Since the establishment of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, over 3000 former Anglicans have been received into the Catholic Church by this path.


There are 38 ecclesiastical circumscriptions and 3,104 parishes.


In 2011, in total there were roughly 5.7 million Catholics in the United Kingdom: 4,155,100 in England and Wales (7.4%),[9] 841,053 in Scotland (15.9%),[10][11] and 738,033 in Northern Ireland (40.76%).[12]

In large parts of Northern Ireland, Catholicism is the dominant religion. Also in a few Scottish council areas Catholics outnumber other religions, including in the most populous one: Catholics outnumber members of the Church of Scotland in Glasgow City (27% versus 23%). Other council areas in which Catholics outnumber members of the Church of Scotland are North Lanarkshire, Inverclyde, and West Dunbartonshire, according to the 2011 Scottish Census.[13]

See also


  1. The Treaty of Union 1706, accessed 15 February 2009 – see article 2
  2. Kenneth Scott Latourette, Christianity in a Revolutionary Age (1958) pp 454–58
  3. Latourette, Christianity in a Revolutionary Age (1958) pp 454–58
  4. Vincent Alan McClelland, Cardinal Manning: the Public Life and Influences, 1865–1892 (1962).
  5. "Tony Blair joins Catholic faith". BBC News online. 22 December 2007. Retrieved 22 November 2007.
  6. Francis Beckett and David Hencke, The Survivor: Tony Blair in War and Peace, 2005, Aurum Press Ltd, ISBN 978-1-84513-110-4
  7. Francis Beckett and David Hencke, "Regular at mass, communion from Pope. So why is Blair evasive about his faith?",The Guardian, 28 September 2004
  8. Ruth Gledhill, Jeremy Austin and Philip Webster, "Blair will be welcomed into Catholic fold via his 'baptism of desire'", The Times, 17 May 2007
  9. Table 1 2011 2012 statistics of RC population fourth draft by the Pastoral Research Centre Trust, an independent research organization Archived 20 April 2014 at the Wayback Machine
  10. Table 7 – Religion, Scotland, 2001 and 2011 by the Scottish Census2011
  11. "Scotland's Census 2011 – Table KS209SCb" (PDF). Retrieved 26 September 2013.
  12. Agency, Northern Ireland Statistics and Research. "statistics". Retrieved 22 March 2019.
  13. [ census 2011 Scottish Census Results by council area]

Further reading

  • Beck, George Andrew, ed. The English Catholics, 1850–1950 (1950), scholarly essays
  • Corrin, Jay P. Catholic Progressives in England After Vatican II (University of Notre Dame Press; 2013) 536 pages;
  • Dures, Alan. English Catholicism, 1558–1642: Continuity and Change (1983)
  • Harris, Alana. Faith in the Family: A Lived Religious History of English Catholicism, 1945–1982 (2013); the impact of the Second Vatican Council on the ordinary believer
  • Heimann, Mary. Catholic Devotion in Victorian England (1995) online
  • Hughes, Philip. The Catholic Question, 1688–1829: A Study in Political History (1929)
  • Latourette, Kenneth Scott. Christianity in a Revolutionary Age. Vol. I: The 19th Century in Europe; Background and the Roman Catholic Phase (1958), pp 451–59
  • Latourette, Kenneth Scott. Christianity in a Revolutionary Age. Vol. IV: The 20th Century in Europe; The Roman Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Churches (1961) pp 210–20
  • McClelland, Vincent Alan. Cardinal Manning: the Public Life and Influences, 1865–1892 (1962)
  • Mathew, David. Catholicism in England: the portrait of a minority: its culture and tradition (1955)
  • Mullet, Michael. Catholics in Britain and Ireland, 1558–1829 (1998) 236pp
  • Watkin, E. I Roman Catholicism in England from the Reformation to 1950 (1957)

Primary sources

  • Mullet, Michael. English Catholicism, 1680–1830 (2006) 2714 pages
  • Newman, John Henry. Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England (University of Notre Dame Press, 2000) 585pp; based on 6th edition of 1889
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