Church History

Research Article

‘The Willing Captive of Home?’: The English Catholic Women's League, 1906–1920

Paula M. Kanea1

a1 assistant professor of religious studies in the University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Henry Cardinal Manning wrote in 1863 that he wanted English Catholics to be “downright, masculine, and decided Catholics—more Roman than Rome, and more ultramontane than the Pope himself.” Given this uncompromising call for militant, masculine Roman Catholicism in Protestant Victorian England, frequently cited by scholars, it may seem surprising that a laywomen's movement would have emerged in Great Britain. In 1906, however, a national Catholic Women's League (CWL), linked closely to Rome, to the English clergy, and to lay social action, emerged in step with the aggressive Catholicism outlined by Manning 40 years earlier. The Catholic Women's League was led by a coterie of noblewomen, middle-class professionals, and clergy, many of them former Anglicans. The founder, Margaret Fletcher (1862–1943), and the league's foremost members were converts; the spiritual advisor, Rev. Bernard Vaughan, was the son of a convert. A short list of the clergy affiliated with the CWL reveals an impressive Who's Who in the Catholic hierarchy and in social work in the early twentieth century: Francis Cardinal Bourne (Archbishop of Westminster from 1903 to 1935), Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson (a convert and well-known author), and influential Jesuits Bernard Vaughan, Charles Plater, Cyril Martindale, Joseph Keating, Leo O'Hea and Joseph Rickaby. The CWL was born from a joining of convert zeal and episcopal-clerical support to a tradition of lay initiative among English Catholics.

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