Paul Cullen (1803-1878) was the first Irish cardinal, who fundamentally shaped modern Irish Catholicism by bringing its church, its hierarchy, and its practices firmly in line with the Vatican's teachings.
Born on April 29, 1803, on the 76-acre farm called Prospect in the parish of Narraghmore, County Carlow, Ireland, Paul Cullen was one of 16 children (six were from his father's first marriage). During the late 18th century, the penal laws, which had long been imposed on Catholics in both Britain and Ireland, were beginning to be relaxed, if not removed. In the south of Ireland, Catholic families took advantage of this relaxation and began to buy land formerly reserved for Protestants. Hugh Cullen owned about 700 acres when his son Paul was born. This gave him the status of strong Catholic farmer, a class that greatly influenced 19th-century Irish society. They were fervent in their Catholicism and fearful of social unrest. That fear resulted from the human and material losses they suffered during the rising of the republican United Irishmen in 1798. Their fervent Catholicism provided financial support for the Church and younger sons for the priesthood.
Even though the Cullen family and others of their class were virulently anti-Protestant, young Paul was sent to the Quaker school in nearby Ballitore because it provided the best education available in the area and the Quakers had aided Hugh Cullen during the anarchy of the rising. In all, the Cullen clan sent nine of its members to this school, where the famous political philosopher, Edmund Burke, had received the rudiments of his training.
In 1816, at the age of 13, Cullen entered Carlow College. His natural academic gifts were soon recognized by his professors, many of whom would later hold prominent positions in the hierarchy of the Irish Catholic Church. On the recommendation of his godfather, James Maher, Cullen's family decided that the talented Paul should follow this strong-minded uncle to Rome. Ten years older, Maher was just completing his theological studies when the 17-year-old Paul arrived in Rome early in 1821 to enter Propaganda College.
It was the end of the pontificate of Pius VII, the pope who had stood up to Napoleon. The romantic hero of conservative Europe, Pius was revered as a symbol of all that was worth preserving in the tumultuous 19th century. In the atmosphere following Napoleon's defeat, the Eternal City was once again alive. Scholars flocked to its colleges, libraries, galleries, and museums, and the royalty and aristocracy of Europe streamed to the city, especially for the great religious holidays. As a young man from rural Ireland, Cullen was enthralled by the dynamic life of Rome and by its great baroque churches filled with the spirit of the Counter-Reformation.
The grandeur of the liturgical observances, the magnificent processions, the rich dress, and notable personages had a profound impact on the young seminarian from Ireland where, due to the lingering effect of the penal laws and local tradition, Catholic worship was held without pomp and ceremony. Amid the triumph of Pius' reign and that of his successor Leo XII, Cullen formed his lifelong system of religious and ecclesiastical beliefs. He wholeheartedly supported the religious, ecclesiastical, and political conservatism of Leo XII (1823-29), Gregory XVI (1831-46), and Pius IX (1846-78). This support stemmed from Cullen's natural conservatism and his adherence to the Ultramontane belief that the pope truly was the universal pontiff, the focal point of Catholicism to whom all Catholics owed obedience.
While Cullen was a student, Daniel O'Connell's campaign to emancipate Irish Catholics was making rapid progress. Recognizing his intelligence, the Vatican asked Cullen to keep them abreast of developments back home. But Ireland was not the foremost thing on Cullen's mind, for he was preparing to defend his doctoral dissertation. On September 11, 1828, Cullen brilliantly defended his 224 theses before an audience that included Leo XII, the Cardinal Prefect of Propaganda, the future Gregory XVI, and nine other cardinals. Writing to his father, Cullen reported proudly that, "Your son was the first among Irishmen who attempted to show his skill in theology in the presence of the Vicar of Christ." The Pope was so impressed that he personally conferred on Cullen the doctor's cap. To Cullen's delight, the Pope and others in the Vatican hierarchy then took him into their confidence on the affairs of the Irish Church. This spurred Cullen to begin an in-depth study of developments in Ireland about which he knew little.
Sometime in 1829 or 1830, Cullen was ordained a priest and appointed to the chairs of Greek and Oriental languages in the College of Propaganda. At this time, Europe was rocked by a series of political revolts. Many of the liberals prominent in these revolutions held anticlerical beliefs that frightened Cullen. Of special concern was the threat posed to the papacy's temporal possessions by the Young Italy movement founded by Giuseppe Mazzini in 1831. Holding to the Ultramontane belief in absolute papal supremacy, Cullen saw the liberal nationalist challenge to the papacy as a threat to Catholicism itself. From then on, Cullen was wary of all types of political agitation, especially ones led by oath-bound secret societies like Young Italy.
In February 1832, he was made vice rector of the Irish College in Rome and became rector when his predecessor died in June of that same year. The college, reestablished in 1826 after having been a barracks during the Napoleonic occupation, was in poor shape. Owing to his dedication, growing influence, and powerful personality, Cullen was soon able to build up the college's enrollment and endowment. He expected the Irish College to be instrumental in helping to bring Ireland into the Ultramontane camp. Under the strong guiding hands of Cullen and his vice rector and eventual successor, Tobias Kirby, the college was dedicated to molding young Irish priests who would then return home and lead in the reshaping of the Irish Catholic Church. Cullen was so committed that he passed up more prestigious job offers (i.e. bishop of Charleston, South Carolina) to remain at the head of the college, enforcing a rigid discipline.
Increased Influence in the Vatican
Papal authorities saw in Cullen a kindred soul, and his influence in the Vatican grew. In the 1830s, when the Irish bishops became aware of Cullen's influence, they began to seek his assistance. Cullen acted as their agent in transactions with the apostolic see. Both parties benefited from this relationship. The bishops gained an influential representative at the nucleus of the Church, while Cullen expanded his knowledge of Ireland and obtained information on Irish churchmen that would prove useful when he returned to Ireland in the 1850s as Apostolic Delegate.
The Irish bishops fell into two camps, which Cullen perceived as Gallican. First enunciated by the French Church in the 17th century, Gallicanism was the antithesis of the Ultramontanism. Gallicanism claimed limited autonomy from papal authority for national churches in alliance with national governments. One group of Irish bishops, the old Gallicans or "Castle bishops," allied themselves with the crown—as opposed to the pope—even though the Irish crown belonged to the Protestant monarch of Great Britain. The other group, the new Gallicans, were fervently opposed to the British government and professed loyalty to the Holy See, but resented taking direction from Rome. They wanted the Church to be free to identify with the liberal and national movements sweeping over Europe—movements that the Pope and Cullen feared. These clerics, led by John MacHale, the archbishop of Tuam, were deeply involved in Daniel O'Connell's drive to repeal the Union of Great Britain and Ireland, and did not wish to be told by a conservative Pope to stay out of politics.
Three great issues divided the Irish hierarchy during the years Cullen acted as agent in Rome. The divisions concerned the proper Catholic response to the 1831 government legislation which established a national system of secular primary education in Ireland, the Charitable Bequests Act of 1844 which reformed charity laws, and the nondenominational Queen's Colleges which were established in Belfast, Cork, and Galway in 1845. During the tumult following each of these contentious acts of Parliament, many bishops-especially the nationalists—solicited Cullen's and the Vatican's support.
The old Gallicans argued that the Catholics of Ireland would benefit from the educational and charitable institutions established by these acts. The followers of MacHale objected to the National Schools and Queen's Colleges as being either "godless" or establishments of proselytizing Protestantism. These bishops saw the three pieces of legislation as attempts by imperial Britain to encroach on the Irish Catholic Church and community. Cullen, like the MacHaleites, opposed all this legislation and gave support to these nationalist clerics. His opposition to these measures, however, stemmed not from a nationalist dislike of the British, but from his passionate Ultramontanism. In Cullen's eyes, schools, colleges, and charity boards controlled by the government and aided by the old Gallicans threatened to undermine whatever hold the papacy still had on overwhelmingly Catholic Ireland. Cullen believed such institutions would spread heretical ideas and make it that much harder for him to succeed in his nascent campaign to bring Ireland under Vatican discipline.
In 1849, while still negotiating to save Propaganda College from the forces of Mazzini that had captured Rome during the revolutions of 1848, Cullen was given a chance to carry his crusade to Ireland. During Holy Week of that year, William Crolly, archbishop of Armagh and primate of Ireland, died. Passing over the three nominated candidates, the pope appointed Cullen archbishop in December 1849. After his consecration in Rome in January 1850, he landed in Ireland in May. Meanwhile, in April, he had been made Apostolic Delegate and ordered by the pope to convoke a national synod as soon as he arrived in Ireland. An assembly of all the bishops and abbots in the land had not been held in Ireland since the 12th century. This gathering was intended not only to strengthen the ties between Ireland and Rome, but also to bring the bishops together in hopes of ending episcopal divisions.
When the synod was convoked at Thurles on August 22, 1850, the split over the Queen's Colleges was papered over but remained. Cullen succeeded in securing near unanimous approval of the papal recommendation to establish a Catholic university to compete with the "godless colleges," but his proposal to forbid priests to accept posts in these colleges and to exhort Catholic parents not to enroll their children passed by only two votes. Although this confrontation provided much drama, it was the less controversial decisions which had a greater impact on the Church and the nature of Irish Catholicism.
At Thurles, Cullen strongly pushed for major changes in religious practice. At his request, decrees were passed which mandated that the sacraments of baptism, marriage, and confession take place in the church building and not at the recipient's home. These dictums were part of a reform policy begun by Cullen in Armagh and continued when he was transferred to the Dublin archdiocese in 1852. This program sought to make Irish religious practice more respectable by having it conform to Vatican teaching, which centered worship in the parish church. Cullen introduced church-centered Roman devotional practices like the novena, benediction, and 40-hours adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. He also endeavored to move some traditional Irish practices, like the stations of the cross, from lay people's houses into the confines of a church or chapel. Wakes, patterns, and pilgrimages, popular religious customs that could not be brought inside a church building, were discouraged and eventually replaced by church funerals and other "respectable" devotions.
In this drive, Cullen put himself at odds with his former nationalist allies. Many of these bishops, especially those in the West where churches and priests were thin, preferred the traditional Irish customs to what they saw as foreign innovations. In 1853, the antipathy of the MacHaleites increased when Cullen prohibited the clergy in the diocese of Dublin from participating in public political movements. He thought clergy should spend their time strengthening the faith of their congregations rather than participating in ill-fated movements to topple the British government. Although he opposed this government because, as a Protestant power, it was a threat to the faith of the Catholic population, he found revolutionary nationalist movements a greater threat—one that could lead Catholics to secularism and anticlericalism.
In 1859, Cullen had no such qualms about his clergy being involved in the organization of the Irish Brigade which went to Rome to help defend the pope's forces in the Papal States against the invading Italian nationalist armies. Cullen's opposition was not to political activity per se, but to movements that were secretive and/or potentially revolutionary. In the 1860s, he denounced and opposed the Fenian brotherhood because it was a secret society pledged to obtaining Irish independence through violent revolution. Meanwhile, in 1864, Cullen founded the National Association to press for limited rights for tenant farmers, the disestablishment of the Protestant Church of Ireland, and government endowment of the Catholic University. It was basically a program which sought to strengthen the position of the Catholics vis-a-vis the Protestants in economic, religious, and educational terms.
Cullen saw the nationalist struggle in denominational terms. By becoming more Catholic, the Irish would set themselves apart from their British rulers. He did not want to destroy the British Empire, but rather to build an Irish one based on Catholicism. His political goal was to strengthen the position of Catholics within Ireland and the Empire. To this end, he aided in pressuring Prime Minister William Gladstone's Liberal government to pass some conciliatory measures. In 1870, a Land Act granting fixity of tenure and free sale to Irish tenant farmers was passed, and the Church of Ireland was disestablished in 1871. With the power of the government no longer supporting the Church of Ireland, Cullen, who was now a cardinal, continued his drive to make the reformed Catholic Church the true national church of Ireland.
Because of his influence with the Vatican and knowledge of the Irish clergy, Cullen was able to have most vacated bishoprics filled to his liking, thereby gaining unprecedented control over the Irish Church. During his tenure (1849-78), Catholicism began to touch every part of Irish life. The number of priests, nuns, and teaching brothers doubled and there was a tremendous spate of church, convent, and school building. Religious institutions spread the Ultramontane Catholicism into every corner of the land and to the emigrant communities overseas. The great bulk of Irish men and women became Catholics in practice as well as in name, their Catholicism an integral part of being Irish. Whether they remained at home or immigrated to foreign shores, they no longer identified themselves as "Irish" but as "Irish Catholics."
Throughout his life, Cullen remained an adamant Ultramontanist. For his service to the cause, in June 1866, he became the first Irishman raised to the rank of prince of the Church, taking the title of Cardinal San Pietro in Montorio. At the Vatican Council I in 1869, he was the main author of the document promulgating the dogma of papal infallibility. In 1875, he again presided over a national synod at Maynooth. This synod confirmed Cullen's influence over the Irish Church by reinforcing the mandates of Thurles to further Romanize Irish religious practice. In February 1878, Cullen received the news of Pius IX's death. Pio Nino had been pope longer than Cullen had been a bishop. Cullen departed from Ireland to pay his last respects, but arrived in Rome too late to participate in the election of a former Propaganda classmate to the papacy as Leo XIII. Soon after his return to Ireland, the 75-year-old Cullen died on October 24, 1878, in his office on Eccles Street, in Dublin.
Further Reading on Paul Cullen
Bowen, Desmond. Paul Cardinal Cullen and the Shaping of Modern Irish Catholicism. Gill & Macmillian, 1983.
Comerford, R. V. The Fenians in Context: Irish Politics and Society 1848-82. Humanities Press, 1985.
Corish, Patrick. The Irish Catholic Experience: A Historical Survey, Michael Glazier, 1985.
Larkin, Emmet. The Consolidation of the Roman Catholic Church, 1860-70. University of North Carolina Press, 1987.
Larkin, Emmet. The Making of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, 1850-1860. University of North Carolina Press, 1980.
Norman, E. R. The Catholic Church and Ireland in the Age of Rebellion, 1859-1873. Cornell University Press, 1965.