Roman Catholic Relief Act 1791
The Roman Catholic Relief Act 1791 is an Act of the Parliament of Great Britain passed in 1791 (31 George III. c. 32) relieving Roman Catholics of certain political, educational, and economic disabilities. It admitted Roman Catholics to the practise of law, permitted the exercise of their religion, and the existence of their schools. On the other hand, chapels, schools, officiating priests and teachers were to be registered, assemblies with locked doors, as well as steeples and bells to chapels, were forbidden; priests were not to wear their robes or to hold service in the open air; children of Protestants were not to be admitted to the schools; monastic orders and endowments of schools and colleges were prohibited.
It was far more extensive and far-reaching than its predecessor, the Papists Act 1778. By it there was again an oath to be taken, in character much like that of 1778, but including an engagement to support the Protestant Succession under the Act of Settlement 1701. No Catholic taking the oath was henceforward to be prosecuted for being a Papist, or for being educated in Catholicism, or for hearing Catholic Mass or saying it, or for being a priest or deacon or for entering into, or belonging to, any ecclesiastical order or community in the Church of Rome, or for assisting at, or performing any Catholic rites or ceremonies. Catholics were no longer to be summoned to take the Oath of Supremacy, or to be removed from London; the legislation of King George I, requiring them to register their estates and wills, was absolutely repealed; while the professions of counsellor and barrister at law, attorney, solicitor, and notary were opened to them.
It was however provided that all their assemblies for religious worship should be certified at Quarter Sessions; that no person should officiate at such assembly until his name had been recorded by the Clerk of the Peace: that no such place of assembly should be locked or barred during the meeting; and that the building in which it was held, should not have a steeple or bell. The Relief Act of 1791 undoubtedly marked a great step in the removal of Catholic grievances, but the English statesmen felt, along with the Catholic body, that much more was required. William Pitt the Younger and his rival, Charles James Fox, were alike pledged to a full measure of Catholic Emancipation, but they were both thwarted by the obstinacy of King George III, who insisted that to agree to any such measure would be a violation of his coronation oath.
There were also at this period considerable dissensions within the Catholic ranks. These concerned first the question of Veto on the appointment of bishops in Ireland, which it was proposed to confer on the English Government, and belongs chiefly to the history of Emancipation in that country. There was another cause of dissension, more properly English, which was connected with the adjuration of the supposed Catholic doctrines contained in the oath imposed upon those who wished to participate in the benefits conferred by the Act of 1791, as previously by that of 1778. The lay members of the Catholic committee who had framed this disclaimer were accused by the Vicars Apostolic, who then administered the Catholic Church in England, of tampering with matters of ecclesiastical discipline; and although the bishops had their way in the matter of the oath, the feud survived, and was proclaimed to the world by the formation in 1792 of the Cisalpine Club, the members whereof were pledged "to resist any ecclesiastical interference which may militate against the freedom of English Catholics".
- This article includes content derived from the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 1914, which is in the public domain.
- J. H. Overton and F. Relton. The English Church (1714–1800). London, 1906. pp. 226–227.
- This article incorporates text from the entry Roman Catholic Relief Bill in the public-domain Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913.