"In verbo veritatis" (2 Cor 6:7)

July 5, 2010

Newman and the Church’s Intellectual Responsibility

Filed under: Essays, Newman — komonchak @ 4:37 pm


 Joseph A. Komonchak

In this essay I wish to describe how John Henry Newman interpreted the intellectual challenges facing the Church of his time, how he assessed its ability to meet them, and what he himself attempted as a response to both. These are issues on which Newman showed a remarkable consistency over sixty years of sustained work, from the earliest of his Anglican writings, through the greatest of his Catholic publications, down to the Biglietto speech on the reception of the Cardinalate (1879) and the articles on biblical inspiration which he wrote in 1884, at the age of 83!

The Challenge of Liberalism

On June 19, 1870, Newman wrote to an unknown correspondent:

In the first centuries force was the tremendous engine brought against the Christian; and in this age, it is reason, that is, what looks like reason; I mean the discursive power of thought. Each of these is a most formidable antagonist; each has its own special edge. I am not comparing them; they are incommen- surable. There are obvious points, as to which it may be urged that this anatagonism of (apparent) reason to Christianity is worse than any other antagonism.1

Newman pressed the point by a comparison with the Middle Ages when, he said, the Church was “without rival and supreme, it seemed to have a divine blessing with a luminousness and force of evidence, which is now wanting to it.” Then “the minds of a race or a population were for the most part homogeneous;” but that day is passed, and now “every mind stands (so to say) by itself.”2

The cultural and social condition so developing Newman called “Liberalism.” It represented the loss by Christianity of that “organic power in human society which it once possessed.”3 Because Liberalism could not acknowledge that any one religion could be true, all must be tolerated. Because all must be tolerated, religion could safely be ignored in ordinary social relationships. “If a man puts on a new religion every morning, what is that to you? It is as impertinent to think about a man’s religion as about his sources of income or his management of his family. Religion is in no sense the bond of society.”4 To supply this role once played by society, the Liberals

would substitute first of all a universal and thoroughly secular education, calculated to bring home to every individual that to be orderly, industrious, and sober is his personal interest. Then, for great working principles to take the place of religion, for the use of the masses thus broadly educated, it provides–the broad fundamental ethical truths, of justice, benevolence, veracity, and the like; proved experience; and those natural laws which exist and act spontaneously in society, and in social matters, whether physical or psychological; for instance, in government, trade, finance, sanitary experiments, and the intercourse of nations. As to Religion, it is a private luxury, which a man may have if he will; but which of course he must pay for, and which he must not obtrude upon others, or indulge to their annoyance.5

Readers familiar with Newman will perhaps recognize in that description the application to the whole of society of a central argument of The Idea of a University. There Newman argued that, if there is a God, if he can be known, and if a University claims to teach all knowledge, then there must be a faculty of theology at a University. Further, “to withdraw Theology from the public schools is to impair the completeness and to invalidate the trustworthiness of all that is actually taught in them.”6 Finally, if theology is banished, “its province will not simply be neglected, but will actually be usurped by other sciences, which will teach, without warrant, conclusions of their own in a subject-matter which needs its own proper principles for its due formation and disposition.”7 The exclusion of theology from the new non-confessional universities had become by the end of Newman’s life, he feared, the elimination of religion from the social fabric. Religion was no longer to provide the social bond; an incomplete theory of the human condition was to take its place, and the role which only religion could play would be usurped by philosophies and measures unequal to the task.

Newman brilliantly described the social and cultural consequences of this Liberalism in “The Tamworth Reading Room” and in The Idea of a University. In the latter, Newman illustrated his point by dissecting the pretentious claims of the first occupant of the chair of Political Economy at Oxford.8 The analysis is repeated in the description of Liberalism which he appended to the second edition of the Apologia pro Vita Sua, where he provided illustrations for each of eighteen Liberal propositions. The sixth of these is that “no revealed doctrines or precepts may reasonably stand in the way of scientific conclusions,” which is illustrated with the view that, therefore, “Political economy may reverse our Lord’s declarations about poverty and riches, or a system of Ethics may teach that the highest condition of body is ordinarily essential to the highest state of mind.”9 The eighteenth proposition is that “virtue is the child of knowledge, and vice of ignorance,” so that “education, periodical literature, railroad travelling, ventilation, drainage, and the arts of life, when fully carried out, serve to make a population moral and happy.”10

We may perhaps smile at Newman’s examples, but a reading of his works against the Liberals’ notion of education will quickly absolve him of the charge of exaggerating the claims of his opponents. Newman was addressing a whole new philosophy of the human condition, which had been constructed on the principle that Christianity, or at least any dogmatic Christianity, is irrelevant to the economic, social, political and cultural orders. He was not attacking a phantom, for whatever the fortunes of the “secularization-thesis” may have been of late, few sociologists or historians today deny that the last century has seen a great loss in the social power of Christianity, the individualization and privatizing of religion, and the emergence of a plurality of worldviews and ethical systems.

In The Idea of a University, Newman highly praised the achievements of the empirical methods which were generating the developing science and technology of his day; and he insisted that the University which he founded must pursue excellence in their use. Nor did he deny the values proposed by the Liberals:

…it must be borne in mind, that there is much in the Liberalistic theory which is good and true; for example, not to say more, the precepts of justice, truthfulness, sobriety, self-command, benevolence, which, as I have already noted, are among its avowed principles, and the natural laws of society. It is not till we find that this array of principles is intended to supersede, to block out, religion, that we pronounce it to be evil.11

It is a position parallel to Newman’s famous description of a “gentleman,” which is so accurate and so sympathetic that many a reader has failed to recognize that Newman regarded such virtues as at best pale shadows of a genuine Christian character.

By the end of his life, Newman had recognized that he was fighting a losing battle, and he anticipated that Christianity would soon face, perhaps for the first time in its history, “a world simply irreligious,” “a time when the world does not acknowledge our first principles.”12 Little of what he wrote is intelligible except in the light of his struggle against this development; and it was particularly by reference to it that he assessed the condition of the Roman Catholic Church of his time. 

Newman’s View of the Church of his Time

Newman’s first close experience of the intellectual world of Roman Catholics came when he went to study in Rome, a year after his conversion. He studied theology at the Collegio di Propaganda, sitting in class with students half his age. He was appalled by both the methods of instruction and the quality of what was taught. He was astonised to find little of either theology or philosophy. Aristotle was not read, and Aquinas was paid only lip-service. What passed for philosophy was mere eclecticism: “Facts are the great things, and nothing else.”13 He found that his own Essay on the Development of Doctrine, when not suspected of heresy, was simply misunderstood.

Newman did not believe that Catholics in England had been well prepared for the intellectual challenge they had to face. Even before he went to Rome, he remarked that “Roman divines are generally nothing beyond accurate dogmatic teachers–and know little of history or scholarship–hence they make great mistakes.”14 Greater acquaintance with them did not change his mind on that point. Fifteen years latere he declared his agreement when Doellinger contrasted “the theology of the schools and real historical and patristic learning, as if the school-divines did not know history.”15 For Newman, this was no minor flaw, for, he wrote, “the two main instruments of infidelity just now are physical sciences and history; physical science is used against Scripture, and history against dogma.”16

In the opening lecture of The Idea of a University, Newman suggested another reason why English Catholics were unprepared for the great crisis. Their isolation from regular intellectual conflict and their confidence in the resources of faith had led them to neglect some of the natural gifts which they might have brought to bear:

…we sometimes forget that we shall please Him best, and get most from Him, when, according to the Fable, we “put our shoulder to the wheel”, when we use what we have by nature to the utmost, at the same time that we look out for what is beyond nature in the confidence of faith and hope. However, we are sometimes tempted to let things take their course, as if they would in one way or another turn up right at last for certain; and so we go on, living from hand to mouth, getting into difficulties and getting out of them, succeeding certainly on the whole, but with failure in detail which might be avoided, and with much of imperfection or inferiority in our appointments and plans, and much disappointment, discouragement, and collision of opinion in consequence.17

Such a failure to cultivate the natural gifts placed Catholics at a great disadvantage:

Here I would say that as secular power, rank and wealth are great human means of promoting Catholicism, so especially in this democratic age is intellect. Without dreaming of denying the influence of the three first named instruments of success, still I think the influence arising from repute for ability and cultivation of mind, in this age, is greater than any one of them. The Catholic body in England is despised by Protestants from their (unjust) idea of our deficiency of education, and in that power which education gives of bringing out and bringing to bear natural talent, which Catholics have as others. They have an idea that few Catholics can think justly or express themselves suitably.18

Newman often expressed his regret that such scorn produced its own reflection in those Catholics who would not acknowledge the natural and spiritual gifts of Protestants.19

Newman was often quite severe in his judgement of the Catholic intellect of his day.

There was true private judgment in the primitive and medieval schools–there are no schools today, no private judgment (in the religious sense of the phrase,) no freedom, that is, of opinion. That is, no exercise of the intellect. No, the system goes on by the tradition of the intellect of former times.20

In the Apologia, he discreetly remarked upon his own resolve not to attempt a response to the challenge of the day for fear that it would meet with opposition from authority and thus simply complicate matters further.21 In a letter five years later, he explained what he had meant:

Our theological philosophers are like the old nurses who wrap the unhappy infant in swaddling bands or boards–put a lot of blankets over him–as if he were not healthy enough to bear wind and water in due measures. They move in a groove, and will not tolerate any one who does not move in the same. So it breaks upon me, that I shall be doing more harm than good in publishing. What influence would I have with Protestants and Infidels, if a pack of Catholic critics opened at my back fiercely, saying that this remark was illogical, that unheard of, a third realistic, a fourth idealistic, a fifth sceptical, and a sixth temerarious, or shocking to pious ears? This is the prospect which I begin to fear lies before me.22

The work to which Newman was here referring was the Grammar of Assent, the fruit of over forty years of reflection on the problem of faith and reason, but beginning on a principle and proceeding by a method which he had little expectation would be understood by Catholic theologians. Few of them, he noted elsewhere, gave any indication that they agreed with him that “the first step is to lay the foundation, or rather to prepare the soil” or that “to show that there is a true philosophy of religion is the first step in the development and reception on a large scale of Christian and Catholic truth.”23

Instead, Church authorities and the theologians whom they favored opted for the exercise of authority. The Congregation of Propaganda, Newman wrote, “does not understand an intellectual movement. It likes quick results–scalps from beaten foes by the hundred.”24 Now Newman himself was second to none in regarding authority as a central principle in the very “idea” of Christianity. But from the time he undertook to found the Irish University, through the furor over his article, “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine,” the controversy over the Syllabus of Errors, the aggressive campaign to maximize papal infallibility, to his articles on inspiration, Newman devoted a great deal of his energy to defending himself and others from the abuse of that great principle. In 1863 he warned against the actions of those who were “blind to the intellectual difficulties of the day:”

You cannot make men believe by force and repression. Were the Holy See as powerful in temporals, as it was, three centuries back, then you would have a secret infidelity instead of an avowed one–(which seems the worse evil) unless you train the reason to defend the truth. Galileo subscribed to what was asked of him, but is said to have murmured, ‘E pur muove.”

And your cut and dried answers out of a dogmatic treatise are no weapons with which the Catholic Reason can hope to answer the infidels of the day.25

During the First Vatican Council, his conviction that “you must prepare men’s minds for the doctrine”26 provoked his anger at the “aggressive and insolent faction”27 which first sought to force on an unwilling Church the widest and least defensible definition of papal infallibility and then dismissed as simple infidelity the genuine difficulties of a Doellinger:

Every consideration, the fullest time should be given to those who have to make up their minds to hold an article of faith which is new to them. To take up at once such an article may be the act of a vigorous faith; but it may also be the act of a man who will believe anything because he believes nothing, and is ready to profess whatever his ecclesiastical, that is, his political party requires of him. There are too many high ecclesiastics in Italy and England, who think that to believe is as easy as to obey–that is, they talk as if they did not know what an act of faith is. A German who hesitates may have more of the real spirit of faith than an Italian who swallows.28

It was this refusal to enter into the genuine difficulties of Catholic faith and this effort to settle all issues by the test of authority which led Newman to remark in 1877 that “it is so ordered on high that in our day Holy Church should present just that aspect to my countrymen which is most consonant with their ingrained prejudices against her, most unpromising for their conversion.”29 Earlier, he had wondered whether it was not perhaps God’s will “that the Church should only consist of the poorer and uneducated classes, and that, as in the beginning, the talent and learning and wisdom of the world should be excluded from the divine election. But I feel strongly that the action of men of influence at Rome at this time is doing all it can to bring this about.”30

During the controversy over the Temporal Power of the Pope, he bemoaned the sectarianism of many Catholics:

At present things are in appearance as effete, though in a different way (thank God) as they were in the tenth century. We are sinking into a sort of Novatianism, the heresy which the early Popes so strenuously resisted. Instead of aiming a being a world-wide power, we are shrinking into ourselves, narrowing the lines of communion, trembling at freedom of thought, and using the language of dismay and despair at the prospect before us, instead of, with the high spirit of the warrior, going out conquering and to conquer.31

The refusal of the bishops to seize the moment to provide a Catholic presence at Oxford he saw as “only one out of various manifestations of what may be called Nihilism in the Catholic Body, and in its rulers. They forbid, but they do not direct or create.”32 And he offered the following rueful account of the origin of much of his own work:

There are those among us, as it must be confessed, who for years have conducted themselves as if no responsibility attached to wild words and overbearing deeds; who have stated truths in the most paradoxical form, and stretched principles till they were close upon snapping; and who at length, having done their best to set the house on fire, leave to others the task of putting out the flame.33

Newman’s Own Response

In my first two sections, I have tried to indicate what Newman saw to be the intellectual challenge posed to the Church in the nineteenth century and how he assessed the ability and the willingness of the Catholic Church to respond to it. In this section I want to summarize the several ways in which he attempted to offer a personal response to both the crisis and the Church which he believed could become the most effective instrument of God’s purpose in the world.

The first element of his response was the ideal of a liberal education which he defended in The Idea of a University. As I have already indicated, this book can be read as a statement not only about education, but also about society. Newman hinted as much himself when he wrote that the University’s “art is the art of social life, and its end is fitness for the world.”34 Utilitarianism not only offered an inadequate ideal of education; it also fell far short of an adequate theory of society and culture. The “cultivation of the intellect” which Newman, in some of his most vivid prosse, described as the necessary and sufficient end of education, was also the critical ability needed if Catholics and others were to be able to withstand and to oppose the spread of opinions and ideals which Newman believed to be greatly inadequate to a true view of the human condition. It was this conviction which drove him into his life-long commitment to education and led to his frustration at the series of setbacks he met when he tried to urge the necessity of providing an equal education to the Catholic laity. He never understood those who met the desire of Catholics to send their children to Oxford and Cambridge by asking whether they wanted the laity to be better educated than their priests and whose shorthand for the troubles of the day was to speak simply of “the heretical intellectual culture of the day.”35

Secondly, as a more specifically theological response, Newman sought to “prepare the soil” by the construction of a “true philosophy of religion.” It received its most systematic form in his Grammar of Assent, which built upon those foundations within human consciousness–the concrete processes of reasoning and believing–which Newman believed were the most effective grounds on which to construct a defence of Christianity. The work thus represents one of the earliest and most evocative works in what today is often referred to us as “the turn to the subject,” that anthropocentric method of religious inquiry which begins with the concrete living individual involved in the business of daily human life. It is the concreteness of Newman’s grammar of faith that makes his work still so attractive. It has proved what he once modestly hoped it might become, “a vein of metal which others may work out after me when I am gone.”36

But, third, the Church itself had to be a society in which such “real assent” could be possible and probable. This was in good part why Newman resisted the exclusive exaltation of authority:

A Catholic is kept from scepticism, not by any external prohibition, but by admiration, trust, and love. While he admires, trusts, and loves our Lord and His Church, those feelings prohibit him from doubt; they guard and protect his faith; the real prohibition is from within. But suppose those feelings go; suppose he ceases to have admiration, trust, and love, of our Lord and His Church; in that case, the external prohibition will not suffice to keep him from doubting, if he be of an argumentative turn.37

This was also why he turned, in the Preface to the third edition of The Prophetical Office of the Church, to an analysis of the three great “offices” of the Church, the theological, the sacerdotal, and the political, and to the argument that the health of the Church as a concrete body in the world consists in or derives from the dialectical tension of the three functions. The background of this essay is briefly described in a letter which Newman wrote three years earlier:

I am not denying that we too (in spite, as I firmly believe of our being the Lords’ heritage) have our own difficulties in this warfare–just of an opposite kind–not of want of foundation and fulcrum, but from our prejudice against new works upon that foundation. As Galileo three centuries ago, we cannot move in matters of speculation, into which the Church has not at all entered, without giving enormous scandal to our people, and thus for the present our arms are tied. I have long wished to write an Essay…on the conflicting interests, and therefore difficulties of the Catholic Church, because she is at once, first a devotion, secondly a philosophy, thirdly a polity. Just now, as I suppose at many other times the devotional sentiment, and the political embarrass the philosophical instinct–however, she has been prospered and has made way, in spite of this, for 1800 years and will still.38

This paragraph reflects Newman’s great confidence in the future of the Church, which he repeated many a time to a number of desponding correspondents. His knowledge of Church history here held him in great stead, as did his patient conviction that God would not abandon his Church, no matter how poorly her leaders might direct her. But this conviction was not simply an act of faith, for it at once permitted and was filled out itself by a great confidence that in the end truth would prevail; and it was this confidence that enabled Newman to be such a champion of intellect and defender of its freedom.

His classic statement on this issue is the essay, “Christianity and Scientific Investigation,” in The Idea of a University. Only a reading of the whole can do justice to the dialectical skills Newman here displays; but I must content myself with selections. The great statement of principle is often quoted, that the believer “is sure, and nothing shall make him doubt, that, if anything seems to be proved by astronomer, or geologist, or chronologist, or antiquarian, or ethnologist, in contradiction to the dogmas of faith, that point will eventually turn out, first, not to be proved, or, secondly, not contradictory, or thirdly, not contradictory to any thing really revealed, but to something which has been confused with revelation.”39 Perhaps less often noted are the principles that will guide the representative of the “imperial intellect” in his investigations:

If he has one cardinal maxim in his philosophy, it is, that truth cannot be contrary to truth; if he has a second, it is, that truth often seems contrary to truth; and, if a third, it is the practical conclusion, that we must be patient with such appearances, and not be hasty to pronounce them to be really of a more formidable character.40

The principles stated in these two passages lie at the basis of the remarkable analysis which Newman then offers of the concrete process by which the human mind reaches the truth:

It is the very law of the human mind in its inquiry after and acquisition of truth to make its advances by a process which consists of many stages and is circuitous. There are no short cuts to knowledge; nor does the road to it always lie in the direction in which it terminates, nor are we able to see the end on starting. It may often seem to be diverging from a goal into which it will soon run without effort, if we are but patient and resolute in following it out; and, as we are told in Ethics to gain the mean merely by receding from both extremes, so in scientific researches error may be said, without a paradox, to be in some instances the way to truth, and the only way. Moreover, it is not often the fortune of any one man to live through an investigation; the process is one of not only many stages, but of many minds. What one begins another finishes; and a true conclusion is at length worked out by the co-operation of independent schools and the perseverance of successive generations. This being the case, we are obliged, under circumstances, to bear for a while with what we feel to be error, in consideration of the truth in which it is eventually to issue.

The analogy of locomotion is most pertinent here. No one can go straight up a mountain; no sailing vessel makes for its port without tacking. And so, applying the illustration, we can indeed, if we will, refuse to allow of investigation or research altogether; but, if we invite reason to take its place in our schools, we must let reason have fair and full play. We cannot use it by halves; we must use it as proceeding from Him who has also given us revelation; and to be ever interrupting its processes, and diverting its attention by objections brought from a higher knowledge, is parallel to a landsman’s dismay at the changes in the course of a vessel on which he had deliberately embarked, and argues surely some distrust either in the powers of Reason on the one hand, or the certainty of Revealed Truth on the other. The passenger should not have embarked at all, if he did not reckon the chance of a rough sea, of currents, of wind and tide, of rocks and shoals; and we should act more wisely in discountenancing altogether the exercise of Reason than in being alarmed and impatient under the suspense, delay, and anxiety which, from the nature of the case, may be found to attach to it. Let us eschew secular history, and science, and philosophy for good and all, if we not allowed to be sure that Revelation is so true that the altercations and perplexities of human opinion cannot really or eventually injure its authority. That is no intellectual triumph of any truth of Religion, which has not been preceded by a full statement of what can be said against it.41

These brilliant paragraphs express a confidence in the truth of the faith and in the powers of reason that can without exaggeration be called heroic. It is true that they are preceded and followed by a careful distinction between the freedom that may be permitted with regard to dogma and that allowed with regard to other matters.42 But both the paragraphs quoted and the ones that follow, which develop the need for “elbow-room”, display an analysis, rare in its nuance and discrimination, both of the elements of intellectual inquiry and of the responsibilities of religious authority when such inquiry touches upon matters of faith. And the more experience Newman had in the course of his life of the absence of such nuance and discrimination in the face of unparalleled intellectual challenge,43 the more determined he became to resist the effort to restrict the “elbow-room” of Catholic philosophers, theologians, and scholars.

He pressed the issue in almost all of the great works from the Apologia on to the end of his life. The Apologia itself was written shortly after Pope Pius IX had condemned the great gathering of Catholic scholars at the Munich Congress and just before the publication of the Syllabus of Errors and of Quanta Cura. At the suggestion of Acton, it seems, Newman devoted the last chapter of this work to a response to the enthusiatic and indiscriminate authoritarianism of men like William George Ward and Henry Manning. The chapter includes a powerful defence of the Catholic belief in the infallibility of the Church,44 but so far from granting the Protestant claim that this power paralyzes the intellect, Newman argued that it provides one of the principles that are necessary for the dialectial acquisition of religious truth. Since the power of the prose here mediates the subtlety of the argument, I must again quote at length:

All this being considered as the profession wich I make ex animo, as for myself, so also on the part of the Catholic body, as far as I know it, it will at first sight be said that the restless intellect of our common humanity is utterly weighed down, to the repression of all independent effort and action whatever, so that, if this is to be the mode of bringing it into order, it is brought into order to be destroyed. But this is far from the result, far from what I conceive to be the intention of that high Providence who has provided a great remedy for a great evil,–far from borne out by the history of the conflict between Infallibility and Reason in the past, and the prospect of it in the future. The energy of the human intellect “does from opposition grow”; it thrives and is joyous, with a tough elastic strength, under the terrible blows of the divinely-fashioned weapon, and is never so much itself as when it has lately been overthrown. It is the custom with Protestant writers to consider that, whereas there are two great principles in action in the history of religion, Authority and Private Judgment, they have all the Private Judgment to themselves, and we have the full inheritance and the superincumbent oppression of Authority. But this is not so; it is the vast Catholic body itself, and it only, which affords an arena for both combatants in that awful, never-dying duel. It is necessary for the very life of religion, viewed in its large operations and its history, that the warfare should be incessantly carried on. Every exercise of Infallibility is brought out into act by an intense and varied operation of the Reason, both as its ally and as its opponent, and provokes again, when it has done its work, a re-action of Reason against it; and, as in a civil polity the State exists and endures by means of the rivalry and collision, the encroachments and defeats of its constituent parts, so in like manner Catholic Christendom is no simple exhibition of religious absolutism, but presents a continuous picture of Authority and Private Judgment alternately advancing and retreating as the ebb and flow of the tide;–it is a vast assemblage of human beings with wilful intellects and wild passions, brought together into one by the beauty and the Majesty of a Superhuman Power,–into what may be called a large reformatory or training-school, not as if into a hospital or into a prison, not in order to be sent to bed, not to be buried alive, but (if I may change my metaphor) brought together as if into some moral factory, for the melting, refining, and moulding, by an incessant, noisy process, of the raw material of human nature, so excellent, so dangerous, so capable of divine purposes.45

If infallibility itself did not destroy the work of human intellect, Newman went on, it was not to be expected that lesser exercises of Church-authority would. He insisted that the theological element in the Church needed the counterweight of what he would later call the “devotional” and the “political” elements; and he never had much patience with the dogmaticians of freedom for whom Fiat justitia et ruat coelum. But here his severest words were reserved for those in authority, and their defenders, who refused to sympathize with those troubled by the question, “how are the respective claims of revelation and of natural science to be adjusted.” The Liberalism of his youth, Newman said, was no longer simply one party among many; “it is the educated lay world,” and it asked urgent questions:

Few minds in earnest can remain at ease without some sort of rational grounds for their religious belief; to reconcile theory and fact is almost an instinct of the mind. When then a flood of facts, ascertained or suspected, comes pouring in upon us, with a multitude of others in prospect, all believers in Revelation, be they Catholic or not, are roused to consider their bearing upon themselves, both for the honour of God, and from tenderness for those many souls who, in consequence of the confident tones of the schools of secular knowledge, are in danger of being led away into a bottomless liberalism of thought.46

However fierce a Catholic may be with other representatives of Liberalism,

he does most deeply enter into the feelings of a fourth and large class of men, in the educated portions of society, of religious and sincere minds, who are simply perplexed,–frightened or rendered desperate, as the case may be,–by that utter confusion into which late discoveries or speculations have thrown their most elementary ideas of religion. Who does not feel for such men? Who can have one unkind thought of them? I take up in their behalf St. Augustine’s beautiful words, “Illi in vos saeviant”, etc. Let them be fierce with you who have no experience with the difficulty with which error is discriminated from truth, and the way of life is found amid the illusions of the world.47

Those who had eyes to see knew to whom Newman was referring.

Newman concluded his arguments by contrasting that fearful vigilance to the vitality of the theological schools in the Middle Ages.48 For the sake of brevity, I will quote the parallel statement in a letter of the same period:

Why was it that the Medieval Schools were so vigorous? becaus they were allowed free and fair play–because the disputants were not made to feel the bit in their mouths at every word they spoke, but could move their limbs freely and expatiate at will. Then, when they were wrong, a stronger and truer intellect set them down–and, as time went on, if the dispute got perilous, and a controversialist obstinate, then at length Rome interfered–at length, not at first–Truth is wrought out by many minds, working together freely. As far as I can make out, this has ever been the rule of the Church till now when the first French Revolution having destroyed the Schools of Europe, a sort of centralization has been established at headquarters–and the individual thinker in France, England, or Germany is brought into immediate collision with the most sacred authorities of the Divine Polity.49

Such were the lines of Newman’s defence of the “elbow-room” of the Catholic intellect, which he was to apply again and again in his later writings. At its heart were a remarkable intellectual integrity and honesty and a no less remarkable faith and trust. They bore fruit in his impatience at the “special pleading” of some Catholic interpretations of history,50 in his serenity at the prospect that modern science might invalidate the biblical assertions about the age of the human race,51 in the ease with which he thought that Darwin’s therories could be reconciled with faith in a Creator,52 in his caution, on the other hand, at such swift accomodations as W.S. Lilly’s “belief that the first men had tails,”53 and, perhaps above all, in his trust that the passage of time would eventually solve the difficulties created by the definition of papal infallibility at Vatican I. Here his knowledge of Church history confirmed his fundamental belief in the progressive and dialectical clarification of truth:

Another consideration has struck me forcibly, and that is, that, looking at early history, it would seem as if the Church moved on to the perfect truth by various successive declarations, alternately in contrary directions, and thus perfecting, completing, supplying each other. Let us have a little faith in her, I say. Pius is not the last of the Popes–the fourth Council modified the third, the fifth the fourth. Men were alternately (i.e. were called) heretics. Look at the history of Theodoret. The late definition does not so much need to be undone, as to be completed. It needs safeguards to the Pope’s possible acts–explanations as to the matter and extent of his power. I know that a violent reckless party, had it its will, would at this moment define that the Pope’s powers need no safeguards, no explanations–but there is is a limit to the triumph of the tyrannical–Let us be patient, let us have faith, and a new Pope, and a re-assembled Council may trim the boat.”54

Such serenity, of course is rare, and, as his Diaries especially reveal, Newman did not reach it without difficulty of pain. But reach it he did, and the history of the Church in this century is some vindication of the hope he often expressed that his labors and even his sufferings might in some future day have their effect. He wrote in 1859:

I have always preached that things which are really useful, still are done, according to God’s will, at one time, not at another–and that, if you attempt at a wrong time, what in itself is right, you perhaps become a heretic or schismatic. What I may aim at may be real and good, but it may be God’s will it should be done a hundred years later.55

And, a little later:

I begin to think that I may have opened a vein of metal which others may work out after me when I am gone. And hence I say to myself, who knows but I am intended to encourage others to a line of thought, which may cooperate with what other thinkers, whom I know nothing of, may be doing in other countries? What I write may be mixed with a good deal of error–but if it is done honestly, in the sight of God, under correction of the Church, good must come of it in some way or other, even though, certainly not in my day, it does not bring me any credit personally.56

And, again, two years later:

If I have been digging a field with my own ideas and my own hopes, and, though they have failed, have been preparing ground for the sowing, the showers, and the harvest, of divine grace, I have done a work, so far, though not the various definite works which I have proposed to myself; and I ought to be most thankful to be so employed. I was not so unmindful of God’s mercy to myself and others, in making us Catholics, when I wrote, but I looked on this, as His work, as it was, not mine–however, a digging, though it is but turmoil, confusion, and unsettlement, is a co-operation.57

If these reflections remind us of the lines from “The Pillar of the Cloud:” “I do not ask to see / The distant scene,–one step enough for me,” that is only a confirmation of how deeply and consistently “Waiting for God” (to use the title of one of his early sermons) was a guiding-principle of Newman’s life, a confirmation, too, of the spiritual depths from which his intellectual honesty and freedom drew, a confirmation, finally, of his great principle that Christian faith frees the Christian intellect into hopes and efforts and realms of which we otherwise could not even dream.


1.LD, XXV, 146.

2.LD, XXV, 147.

3.DA, p. 292.

4.Ward, II, p. 460.

5.Ward, II, p. 461; see DA, p. 262: “Mr. Bentham would answer that the knowledge which carries virtue along with it, is the knowledge how to take care of number one.”

6.Idea, p. 71.

7.Idea, p. 93.

8.Idea, pp. 83-89.

9.Apologia, p. 260. One is reminded of poor Sissy Jupe in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times. Mr. Choakumchild had sadly to report to Mr. Gradgrind, that “after eight weeks of induction into the elements of Political Economy, she had only yesterday been set right by a prattler three feet high for returning to the question, ‘What is the first principle of this science?’ the absurd answer, ‘To do unto others as I would that they should do unto me.'” Hard Times (New York: New American Library, 1961), p. 63.

10.Apologia, pp. 261-62.

11.Ward, II, p. 462.

12.Faith and Prejudice, pp. 124-25.

13.LD, XI, p. 279.

14.LD, XI, p. 240.

15.LD, XIX, pp. 538-39.

16.LD, XXVI, p. 59.

17.Idea, pp. 22-23.

18.LD, XXI, p. 423.

19.LD, XXI, pp. 209, 228.

20.LD, XX, p. 447.

21.See Apologia, p. 235.

22.LD, XXIV, pp. 316-17.

23.LD, XXV, p. 250.

24.LD, XX, p. 446.

25.LD, XX, pp. 425-26.

26.LD, XXV, p. 93.

27.LD, XXV, p. 19.

28.LD, XXV, p. 430.

29.VM, I, p. xxxvii.

30.LD, XXIV, p. 247.

31.LD, XXII, pp. 314-15.

32.LD, XXX, p. 143.

33.Diff., II, pp. 176-77.

34.Idea, p. 154.

35.LD, XXI, p. 308n, p. 507.

36.LD, XIX, p. 251.

37.LD, XX, p. 430.

38.LD, XXVII, p. 70

39.Idea, p. 376.

40.Idea, p. 372.

41.Idea, pp. 382-83.

42.”Great minds need elbow-room, not indeed in the realm of faith, but of thought” (Idea, p. 383; see LD, XXI, p. 48: “I cannot work without elbow-room.”

43.”I suppose there never was the time, since the Church was, when there were more formidable arguments against joining the Church” (LD, XXVII, p. 7).

44.Apologia, pp. 223-25.

45.Apologia, pp. 225-26.

46.Apologia, p. 233.

47.Apologia, pp. 234-35.

48.Apologia, pp. 238-40; see Idea, p. 378.

49.LD, XX, p. 426.

50.For example, see LD XIX, p. 224.

51.LD, XXI, p. 491.

52.LD, XXIV, p. 77.

53.LD, XXXI, p. 179; see Idea, p. 380: “…religious men, who, from a nervous impatience lest Scripture should for one moment seem inconsistent with the results of some speculation of the hour, are ever proposing geological or ethnological comments upon it, which they have to alter or obliterate before the ink is well dry, from changes in the progressive science, which they have so officiously brought to its aid.”

54.LD, XXV, p. 310.

55.LD, XIX, p. 179.

56.LD, XIX, p. 251.

57.LD, XX, p. 34.



  1. Dear Fr. Komonchak,

    Thanks for the piece. I am interested if you would develop the positive intelligibility of authority and dogma in relationship to the “elbow room” needed for the intellectual life. I am thinking for example of the 9th and 10th discourses in the 1852 Discourses on University Education, or the piece entitled “Christianity and Physical Science,” and also some of the abuses of private judgment that Newman discusses which point to the need for public judgment.

    I know others have written about this, but I am interested in your view…..


    Comment by David Fleischacker — August 9, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    • David:

      Good to hear from you, and sorry to be long in getting back to you. Yes, something needs to be done on Newman’s positive view of authority. In my essay, I point out his view, in the last chapter of the Apologia. on the dialectic of infallibility and private judgment, but that’s all I’ve worked on. What are your own ideas?

      Comment by komonchak — August 30, 2010 @ 9:20 pm

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