Feast of John Dalberg Acton (June 19)   Leave a comment

Above:  John Dalberg Acton

Image in the Public Domain

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JOHN EMERICH EDWARD DALBERG ACTON, FIRST BARON ACTON AND THIRTEENTH MARQUESS OF GROPPOLI

(JANUARY 10, 1834-JUNE 19, 1902)

English Roman Catholic Historian, Philosopher, and Social Critic

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Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

–Lord Acton

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John Dalberg Acton comes to this, A Great Cloud of Witnesses:  An Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days, via Robert Ellsberg, All Saints:  Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (1997).

The first issue I choose to address is the question of the hyphen.  Depending on the source one consults, one may read our saint’s name as John Dalberg Acton or as John Dalberg-Acton.  If one consults editions of our saint’s writings published during his lifetime, as one can easily do at archive.org, one sees his name listed both ways.  I choose to forgo the hyphen.

Lord Acton was a child of expatriates.  His grandfather had been Sir John Francis Edward Acton, Sixth Baronet Acton (1736-1811), a Neopolitan admiral and prime minister.  Our saint’s mother was German, hence “Dalberg” in his name.  Lord Acton’s father was Sir Richard Acton, who died before 1840.  Our saint, born in Naples, Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, on January 10, 1834, grew up with his stepfather, Granville George Leveson-Gower, Second Earl Granville (1815-1891).  The stepfather, prominent in the Liberal Party, brought Lord Acton into the orbit of William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898), Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1868-1874, 1880-1885, 1886, and 1892-1894).  Lord Acton became one of Gladstone’s chief advisors.

First, however, Lord Acton had to study and travel.  He studied at Oscott College, Warwickshire, then continued his studies in Munich.  Our saint’s teacher and mentor in Munich was Father Johann Josef Ignaz von Döllinger (1799-1890), a Roman Catholic priest, historian, and theologian.  Döllinger taught Lord Acton proper historical methodology.  The two men remained friends and allies for the rest of Döllinger’s life.  Our saint also traveled in Europe and the United States before returning to England in 1858.

[Aside:  I have made a note to myself to add Father Döllinger to this Ecumenical Calendar eventually, on schedule.]

Lord Acton blended public service and private-sector religious activity for a while.  From 1859 to 1864, he edited The Rambler, renamed Home and Foreign Review in 1862.  (He succeeded John Henry Newman in that role.)  Our saint could not imagine not being a Roman Catholic, even when maintaining that identity became difficult for him.  Pope Pius IX (reigned 1846-1878) was, for most of his papacy, a reactionary; he disapproved of modernism, science, constitutional government, the loss of the Papal States to the new Kingdom of Italy, et cetera.  Lord Acton, however, approved of all of the above.  According to our saint, there was no discrepancy between correct Christian doctrine and the properly rigorous, scientific study of the past, and, for that matter, science.

Lord Acton retired for public life circa 1870.  He, the First Baron Acton from 1869, openly disagreed with Pio Nono and papal allies in person at the First Vatican Council (Vatican I) in 1870.  Our saint never supported papal infallibility.  Father Döllinger also argued against papal infallibility and kept doing so after Vatican I.  He, excommunicated in 1871, joined the Old Catholic Church and continued as a priest.  Lord Acton somehow talked his way out of an excommunication.  That conversation with Henry Edward Manning (1808-1892), the Archbishop of Westminster from 1865 to 1892, must have been exceptional.  Lord Acton was not renowned for personal diplomacy.  In fact, he did not suffer fools easily.  His customary bluntness made him many enemies.

Lord Acton married Bavarian Countess Marie von Arco-Vallery in 1865.  The couple raised three daughters and one son.

Lord Acton offered a distinct political philosophy.  He would have argued with Samuel and Henrietta Barnett regarding Christian Socialism.  (I support disagreement among saints on my Ecumenical Calendar.)  Lord Acton drew influences from Edmund Burke (1729-1797) and Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859).  Our saint, an opponent of nationalism, had an internationalist approach.  His background informed that opinion.  Our saint argued that the union of sacred and temporal power was dangerous.  He also distrusted any state with what he considered excessive power.  Such a state posed a threat to liberty, he insisted.  And, when one’s conscience conflicted with the state, our saint favored acting on conscience.  Lord Acton was neither an anarchist nor a libertarian.  The state was necessary and could be a force for he good, he understood.  Our saint also made a distinction between the nation and the state, and understood the Biblical concept of collective responsibility.  He cautioned

The nation is responsible to heaven for the acts of the state.

Lord Acton was primarily a historian after Vatican I.  He wrote and lectured on an elite academic level.  Our saint, the Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge (1895-1902), died in Tegernsee, Bavaria, German Empire, on June 19, 1902.

Lord Acton was a man of his time.  He pondered principles quoted in his faith, in real time.  He also changed his mind over time, as well-adjusted people have done since time immemorial.

His example challenges us to do the same in our contexts.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

MAY 10, 2020 COMMON ERA

THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER, YEAR A

THE FEAST OF SAINT ENRICO REBUSCHINI, ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIEST AND SERVANT OF THE SICK; AND HIS MENTOR, SAINT LUIGI GUANELLA, FOUNDER OF THE DAUGHTERS OF SAINT MARY OF PROVIDENCE, THE SERVANTS OF CHARITY, AND THE CONFRATERNITY OF SAINT JOSEPH

THE FEAST OF ANNA LAETITIA WARING, HUMANITARIAN AND HYMN WRITER; AND HER UNCLE, SAMUEL MILLER WARING, HYMN WRITER

THE FEAST OF SAINT IVAN MERZ, CROATIAN ROMAN CATHOLIC INTELLECTUAL

THE FEAST OF JOHN GOSS, ANGLICAN CHURCH COMPOSER AND ORGANIST; AND WILLIAM MERCER, ANGLICAN PRIEST AND HYMN TRANSLATOR

THE FEAST OF SAINT VASILE AFTENIE, ROMANIAN ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOP AND MARTYR, 1950

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O God, you have endowed us with memory, reason, and skill.

We thank you for the faithful legacy of [John Dalberg Acton and all others]

who have dedicated their lives to you and to the intellectual pursuits.

May we, like them, respect your gift of intelligence fully and to your glory.

In the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9

Psalm 103

Philippians 4:8-9

Mark 12:28-34

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

MARCH 6, 2013 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF SAINT CHRODEGANG OF METZ, ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOP

THE FEAST OF EDMUND KING, ANGLICAN BISHOP OF LINCOLN

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