Article abstract: Although he never succeeded in finishing his planned monumental “History of Liberty,” Acton was one of the most learned scholars and probing intellects of his time. While a devout Roman Catholic, he was for much of his life at odds with the church hierarchy because of what he saw as its authoritarian tendencies. Acton was first and foremost a moralist, and his most passionate commitment was to the defense of individual freedom.
John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, or Lord Acton as he was known after his elevation to the peerage in 1869, was born at Naples, Italy, on January 10, 1834, the only child of Sir Ferdinand Richard Edward Acton, seventh baronet, and the former Marie Louise Pelline de Dalberg. The Actons were an old Shropshire family, the first baronet having received his title (conferred in 1643) in reward for his loyalty to Charles I. Acton’s paternal grandfather had been Prime Minister of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies; his mother belonged to one of Germany’s oldest noble families. His family heritage—on both sides—was staunchly Roman Catholic. Acton attended the Roman Catholic St. Mary’s School at Oscott, near Oxford, and then studied under a private tutor. The turning point in his intellectual development was his study, from 1850 to 1858, with Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger of the University of Munich, the leading Roman Catholic theologian and church historian of the time. The close ties that were forged between the two men had a decisive influence in shaping Acton’s most salient values. Döllinger was a champion of the Rankean scientific approach to the study of history, based upon exacting research into the primary sources. He simultaneously aspired to make Roman Catholicism intellectually and theologically respectable by opening the Church to modern philosophical and scientific thought. Most important, Döllinger taught that Christian dogma was not fixed but underwent change and development. The test of any doctrine thus lay in historical evidence. The revolutionary implications of this position first became apparent when Döllinger protested the 1854 proclamation of the Immaculate Conception of Mary because of its lack of historical status.
Acton’s social position gave him the opportunity to travel widely and provided him with access to the leading political and intellectual figures in England and on the Continent. An avid book collector, he built up a personal library of approximately fifty-nine thousand volumes that would, after his death, become part of the University of Cambridge collection. He was a prodigious reader, reputed to read, annotate, and memorize an average of two volumes per day. Fluent in English, German, French, and Italian, he was a brilliant conversationalist. “If the gods granted me the privilege of recalling to life for half an hour’s conversation some of the great men of the past I have had the good fortune to know,” politician and historian John Morley remarked, “I should say Acton.” Acton’s father died when he was three, and he succeeded to the title as the eighth baronet. His mother in 1840 married Granville George Leveson-Gower (who would become the second Earl Granville), a power in the British Liberal Party. His stepfather arranged for Acton’s election to the House of Commons in 1859, but he was not temperamentally cut out for the rough-and-tumble of politics and remained during his six years in the Commons an unimportant backbencher. His personal inclinations and talents lay in journalism and scholarship. In 1858, he became part-owner and an editor of the “liberal” Roman Catholic monthly, the Rambler, which in 1862 was converted into a quarterly under the name Home and Foreign Review. After worsening conflict with the church hierarchy led to its termination in 1864, Acton became associated with two other short-lived journals of liberal Catholic opinion—the weekly Chronicle (1867-1868) and the quarterly North British Review (1869-1872).
Acton’s difficulties with the Roman Catholic church hierarchy grew out of his hostility to its ultramontanism. In its narrower meaning, ultramontanism stood for the centralization of power within the Church in the Papacy. More broadly, the ultramontanist position—most explicitly summarized by Pope Pius IX in the Syllabus Errorum appended to his 1864 encyclical Quanta Cura—repudiated “progress, Liberalism, and modern civilization.” Among the heresies condemned in the Syllabus Errorum were separation of church and state, freedom of worship, and free intellectual inquiry in science, philosophy, and history. On the opposite side, Acton affirmed that faith could be reconciled with reason and science. Second, he called for a free church in a free state. Relying upon the force of the state would inevitably subordinate the Church to mere political expediency; alternately, an absolutist state could not tolerate an independent Church. Most important, Acton regarded individual liberty not as the antithesis of Christianity but as its product. In contrast with the theocracy of the Jews and the ancient Greek states, the Christian distinction between what was due to God and what was due to Caesar introduced the new conception of the individual conscience immune from political interference. When ultramontanists glorified the Inquisition, Acton replied that murder was no less murder because it was sanctioned by the Pope. He even published in 1869 a painstakingly researched article, “The Massacre of St. Bartholomew,” showing papal complicity in the bloody 1572 attack upon the Huguenots.
The high point of Acton’s conflict with the church hierarchy came over the doctrine of papal infallibility that Pius IX pushed through a tightly managed general council in 1870. Acton was in Rome during the meeting of the council, working behind the scenes as an adviser to the minority of prelates opposed to the promulgation of the doctrine. He even made an unsuccessful attempt to organize a protest from all the major European powers. In the aftermath of the council, he publicly marshaled the historical evidence in support of the anti-infallibilist position. His old mentor Döllinger was excommunicated because of his refusal to accept the new doctrine. For a time, it appeared that Acton would suffer the same fate. Such action was not taken, however, partly because Acton was a layman rather than a priest as was Döllinger, partly because of the political difficulties that his excommunication would have raised for the Church in England, and partly because of Acton’s tactfulness in keeping his distance from Rome while still avoiding open defiance. Shrinking from a break with the Church, Acton adopted the face-saving formula “I have yielded obedience.” He squared this acquiescence with his conscience by personally adopting a minimalist interpretation of the doctrine’s meaning. Regarding the Church as a holy body transcending the shortcomings of its official leaders, he took refuge in his faith that time—or what he termed “God’s providence in His government of the Church”—would undo the damage. While upholding the right of others to disbelieve, he never doubted that membership in the Church was the...
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