Blessed John Henry Newman: A Charter for Liberalism

Liberalism in religion was, according to Blessed John Henry Newman, the thing that he consistently fought against throughout his life. By Liberalism he meant the preference of our own private judgements over the mind of the Church, and the alteration of revealed truth to suit our own desires and/or the spirit of the age. His opposition to Liberalism is often misunderstood or simply ignored given that he was, in the classical sense of the word, a true liberal – he believed in taking a generous approach to the opinions of others, in the open discussion of ideas, and in charitable engagement with contemporary culture. And yet, he was also (again in the classical sense) a true conservative, believing in the importance of tradition, in the rightness of appeal to authority in settling disputes, and that the jettisoning of tried and tested truths in favour of new ideas based solely on their novelty was both imprudent and destructive.

It was this careful balance between his generosity of spirit and openness to debate on the one side, and his insistence on the need to adhere to and learn from tradition (especially revealed truth) and authority on the other, that gave Newman so many problems after his conversion – at a time when the kind of Liberalism abhorred by Newman (i.e.; the germ of what would later become known as Modernism) was being fortified against by retreat into an overly protective dogmatism zealous to increase papal powers beyond what Sacred Tradition could actually support, Newman was rejected by both parties. He was too ‘liberal’ for the Ultramontane party, and too ‘conservative’ for the Liberalist party. Nevertheless, out of his personal trials good would come, as the party spirit that was condemned by Saint Paul was exposed more clearly, and a more nuanced position would grow out of it – amongst other things, the idea of doctrinal development was given a surer and more robust definition.

Nevertheless, such things took time, and for Blessed John Henry, it was often a struggle (in remembering this, his testimony to the fact that he never once regretted his conversion and, despite his trials, always felt that he had found his home in the Church, have even more force). At any rate, when he wrote his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, he added an extensive note explaining exactly what it was that he meant by Liberalism in order to further settle some of the ferment surrounding it and his position on such matters, and in this note, which is in great part a reflection on his personal experience of theological Liberalism in action (the concrete always being of supreme importance to Newman), he provides a succinct and potent description of what the term does and doesn’t mean:

Whenever men are able to act at all, there is the chance of extreme and intemperate action; and therefore, when there is exercise of mind, there is the chance of wayward or mistaken exercise. Liberty of thought is in itself a good; but it gives an opening to false liberty. Now by Liberalism I mean false liberty of thought, or the exercise of thought upon matters, in which, from the constitution of the human mind, thought cannot be brought to any successful issue, and therefore is out of place. Among such matters are first principles of whatever kind; and of these the most sacred and momentous are especially to be reckoned the truths of Revelation. Liberalism then is the mistake of subjecting to human judgement those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it, and of claiming to determine on intrinsic grounds the truth and value of propositions which rest for their reception simply on the external authority of the Divine Word.

Apologia Pro Vita Sua (2004), p.254, Penguin Classics.

                Newman clearly draws a line in the sand here – liberty of thought and the free discussion of ideas are not only acceptable but goods in and of themselves; however, there are certain basic principles that cannot be subjected to critique or question, because they are the things which form the base from which we do all our other questioning. This latter thing, which Newman refers to as ‘false liberty of thought’ (presumably because whilst giving the illusion of freedom it actually, by removing the base from which thought is conducted, undermines the whole process of genuinely creative and critical reflection) is what he calls Liberalism. In matters of religion, the basic principles which thus cannot be questioned are the truths of Revelation – for once we start to question these, immediately we lose our identity with respect to the religion in question.

For any system of thought to maintain coherence and identity, the fundamentals must be set apart and not subjected to critique – otherwise we become caught adrift, and are no longer genuinely enjoying freedom of thought, but are rather beholden to a conceptual chaos. Saint John Paul II, in the opening sections of his encyclical Fides et Ratio, makes a similar point to Newman, but broadens its application to all philosophy – i.e.; to all critical thinking:

Although times change and knowledge increases, it is possible to discern a core of philosophical insight within the history of thought as a whole. Consider, for example, the principles of non-contradiction, finality and causality, as well as the concept of the person as a free and intelligent subject, with the capacity to know God, truth and goodness. Consider as well certain fundamental moral norms which are shared by all. These are among the indications that, beyond different schools of thought, there exists a body of knowledge which may be judged a kind of spiritual heritage of humanity. It is as if we had come upon an implicit philosophy, as a result of which all feel that they possess these principles, albeit in a general and unreflective way. Precisely because it is shared in some measure by all, this knowledge should serve as a kind of reference point for the different philosophical schools. Once reason successfully intuits and formulates the first universal principles of being and correctly draws from them conclusions which are coherent both logically and ethically, then it may be called right reason or, as the ancients called it, orthos logo, recta ratio.

Fides et Ratio, 4.

                This is of course exactly the sort of position that is now so often deliberately undermined (not usually by argument but rather according to the claim that it is ‘outdated’ to appeal to certain foundational, objective principles) and is at least partly why philosophy today has become to a large extent a matter of toying with words – something cut off from lived human experience and thus largely unable to engage with real life problems. Utilitarianism and relativism are, quite frankly, not fit for purpose – they do not aid or enrich people’s lives at a level which can effect long-term, meaningful change because they are cut off from that core body of insight that Saint John Paul speaks of. Just as there is Liberalism in religion, philosophical relativism represents a Liberalism in thought more generally, and it is this (with its destructive consequences for culture) that Pope Benedict XVI worked so hard to counter during his career.

Blessed John Henry Newman though was principally concerned with theological Liberalism, and at the end of his appendix to the Apologia he presents a list of propositions which he had drawn up during his days at Oxford as an Anglican – propositions which could be said to represent a kind of charter for Liberalism, and which he summarily rejected. He lists eighteen in total, but I shall only share the first ten, as the remaining eight are concerned more with the rights of civil powers and the relationship between Church and State:

1. No religious tenet is important, unless reason shows it to be so.

                Therefore, e.g. the doctrine of the Athanasian Creed is not to be insisted on, unless it tends to convert the soul; and the doctrine of the Atonement is to be insisted on, if it does convert the soul.


  1. No one can believe what he does not understand.

                Therefore, e.g. there are no mysteries in religion.


  1. No theological doctrine is anything more than an opinion which happens to be held by bodies of men.

                Therefore, e.g. no creed, as such, is necessary for salvation.


  1. It is dishonest in a man to make an act of faith in what he has not had brought home to him by actual proof.

                Therefore, e.g. the mass of men ought not absolutely to believe in the divine authority of the Bible.


  1. It is immoral in a man to believe more than he can spontaneously receive as being congenial to his moral and mental nature.

                Therefore, e.g. a given individual is not bound to believe in eternal punishment.


  1. No revealed doctrines or precepts may reasonably stand in the way of scientific conclusions.

                Therefore, e.g. 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.


  1. Christianity is necessarily modified by the growth of civilisation, and the exigencies of the times.

Therefore, e.g. the Catholic priesthood, though necessary in the Middle Ages, may be superseded now.


  1. There is a system of religion more simply true than Christianity as it has ever been received.

                Therefore, e.g. we may advance that Christianity is the “corn of wheat” which has been dead for 1800 years, but at length will bear fruit; and that Mahometanism is the manly religion, and existing Christianity the womanish.


  1. There is a right of Private Judgement: that is, there is no existing authority on earth competent to interfere with the liberty of individuals in reasoning and judging for themselves about the Bible and its contents, as they severally please.

                Therefore, e.g. religious establishments requiring subscription are Anti-christian.


  1. There are rights of conscience such, that every one may lawfully advance a claim to profess and teach what is false and wrong in matters, religious, social, and moral, provided that to his private conscience it seems absolutely true and right.

                Therefore, e.g. individuals have a right to preach and practise fornication and polygamy.

Apologia Pro Vita Sua, pp.259-260.

                Again, it is important to remember the depth of Newman’s commitment to conscience, and to the open engagement with culture, so that when he mentions scientific conclusions in no. 6, he is not being ‘anti-science’ and when he discusses freedom of conscience in nos. 9 and 10, he is not suggesting we stop thinking for ourselves. What he is concerned with is that we recognise the proper priority of the fundamentals of Revelation, so that we order our conclusions regarding scientific discovery (which is always to some extent provisional and subject to further evaluation) to what is already known via Revelation and allow our consciences to be formed by that teaching in a way that recognises its prior authority and does not place the self above it.

Making a couple of adjustments here and there to allow for examples more relevant to our age though, it seems to me that the points laid out here by Newman are, in essence, consistent with what we see in the theological Liberalism of today. Whilst typing out the propositions, I was struck by how many of their assumptions are still operative in the thought of many influential clergy and laity, across denominational boundaries. Thus Newman’s ‘charter’ for Liberalism is still something we would do well to pay attention to, summarising as it does some of the main expressions of the spirit of Liberalism within Christianity. The ‘mistake of subjecting to human judgement those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it’ and the ‘false liberty of thought’ which both precedes and succeeds this mistake are still very much in evidence, and the spirit that so concerned Blessed John Henry Newman is one we must continue to fight against.

The Real Via Media

Anglicanism has long identified itself as representing a via media or ‘middle way’ between the polarities of Catholicism and Calvinism – a sort of balanced middle ground that avoids what are seen to be the excesses of Rome and the Reformed tradition. This claim is well expressed in George Herbert’s poem The British Church, in which he praises the balance exhibited by the Church of England, describing it as:

A fine aspect in fit array,

Neither too mean, nor yet too  gay.

He goes on to compare the ‘painted shrines’ of Rome to the Puritan faction of his time, who, while avoiding their ‘neighbour’s pride’ instead ‘wholly goes on th’other side, and nothing wears’; and describes the ‘British Church’ in question as having ‘perfect lineaments, and hue both sweet and bright’ who God has deigned to ‘double-moat thee with his grace, and none but thee’. It is a confident defence of what Herbert believed the Church of England to be – a serene equilibrium between two styles of churchmanship, not too beholden to imagery and ceremony, nor given to stripping the walls bare and rejecting all past traditions. However, the equipoise praised by Herbert was not necessarily the middle way that was invoked by others and has been since.

It is common now to see Anglicanism as preserving a doctrinal balance, whereas it is clear from reading the literature at the time of the Elizabethan Settlement (and for long after) that the theology of the Church of England was fundamentally Protestant. Herbert himself subscribed to Calvinist doctrine, believing in double predestination and personal assurance of salvation (i.e.; Calvin’s perseverance of the saints), as well as a penal substitutionary view of the Atonement, and Richard Hooker – chief architect of Anglican polity and of central importance for the Anglican sense of self-identity – was very much a man beholden to Reformed theology (sola fide – yes please; asking the saints for intercession – no thank you). The Anglican via media was originally more to do with externals than preserving genuine theological balance.

Nevertheless, later generations would come to expand this theory to include an inclusive view of doctrine seeing virtue in being able to comprise many different theological schools rooted together in one church by the ‘bare essentials’ of the creeds of the first five centuries. It is this view – of the Church being both ‘Reformed and Catholic’, able to include many differing schools of thought in a genuine unity of faith – that Blessed John Henry Newman finally rejected as a ‘paper theory’, as something that was only a theory, but that lacked any substantive reality. The only really defensible reality existing within Anglicanism was (and is) that professed by the latitudinarians – to give a wide enough berth to theological positions that all things can be accepted under the one tent. This is not however a doctrinal balance, but doctrinal vagueness for the sake of a false and compromised unity.

Nevertheless, it is not my intention to focus on the flaws of Anglican theology or ecclesiology (something which I have examined in the past here and here) but rather to show what the via media is not, in order to better express what it is. The real via media is not the uneasy cohabitation of many contradictory doctrines and ecclesiological visions, nor is it a vague toleration of differences of opinion. It is instead a careful balancing act, a walking of the razor’s edge of Truth so that errors of different kinds may be avoided. There is only one Catholic Faith, but many subtle divergences from it (which subtleties more often than not lead into heresy) and it requires many subtle distinctions to preserve the Faith from falling to one side or the other of the path.

To be able to do this – ward off error on either side and preserve a path that goes through the middle of them – a recognisable sense of what the Faith actually consists of is required. The true middle way thus requires a strong foundation – the deposit of faith – and a means by which departures from that deposit of faith can be discerned and stated. This is presumably at least part of why Our Lord gave the name of rock – an image of strength and solidity with biblical allusions of steadfastness – to Saint Peter, at the same time as giving him the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven (c.f.; Matthew 16:13-20). The authority to call out error where it lies and to state the truths of the Faith are inseparably bound up with the very permanence of that Faith.

The real via media can never exist therefore in a broad church of the latitudinarian kind, but only in one where its path is clearly defined, and where true catholicity (true ‘broadness’) is thereby enabled to flourish. True breadth of expression and diversity of life can only come when there is a defined and authoritative touchstone to which all refer back to – the alternatives to this, as Blessed John Henry Newman also saw, are either sectarianism or vagueness in belief. The real via media saves us from both of these fates, as it acts as a common core that both enables and preserves unity and catholicity. The real via media is the recognition that truth matters and exists, combined with the sure knowledge of where ultimate Truth resides and what it is. The true middle way is akin to a ridged mountain path that leads us up to sublime heights whilst warding us off from the sheer drop that awaits us to our left and right.

Blessed John Henry Newman on Tradition and the Apostolic Ministry

Following on from the conclusions of my post of yesterday, which were essentially an affirmation of ecclesial infallibility, I would like to take a look at the dangers which come about from doubting this charism of the Church and of separating one’s belief from the Church’s traditional understanding of the Faith. As yesterday was the feast day of Blessed John Henry Newman, I would like to do this by sharing an extract from one of his Plain and Parochial Sermons, written whilst he was still an Anglican. The sermon (preached on Saint Peter’s Day in 1835) in question is entitled The Christian Ministry, and in it Newman asks what it is we may stand to lose should we deny the plain meaning of the promises Our Lord made to the Apostles.

The passage below begins with a discussion (via a comparison of Saint Peter and Saint John the Baptist) of the nature of Christian apostolic ministry in general, explaining that its essential character is not based upon a possession of certain information, but is marked by the reception of spiritual power – power conveyed by Our Lord Himself. John the Baptist was not lacking in knowledge of the Truth, but was lacking in the particular commission of power given to the Apostles. Blessed John Henry then goes on to consider the process by which either the individual or the society at large may, once having discounted something as basic to orthodox Christianity as the apostolic ministry, have opened a door which allows progressive doubt about other essential tenets of the Faith.

Once the traditionally held belief that Christ’s promises of power to administer Sacraments and to teach in His name did not extend past the Apostles themselves, and that the apostolic ministry continues in the institutional Church, are given up, a crack has been opened which then, having given priority to private inclinations and private judgement over Sacred Tradition and the authority of the Church, allows for doubts about more and more aspects of Christian orthodoxy to appear. Essentially, although he doesn’t mention it by name, what Newman is talking about here is theological liberalism – something that he considered to be the greatest of threats to Christianity and a life-long personal adversary.

Ironically, given that he was still an Anglican at the time this sermon was preached, it is in Protestantism that the doctrine of private judgement (which led to and to a great extent constitutes theological liberalism) was and is given greatest expression and opportunity to spread, eventually greatly impacting Western culture and Christianity in the West as a whole. Nevertheless, what we find in the extract here (which is quite lengthy, but worth including so much of) is the instinct within Newman that would eventually lead him to recognise both the need for a guarantor of Christian Truth, and its existence within the Catholic Church. This intuitive recognition of the need to preserve and correctly discern orthodoxy, as well as to protect it against liberalism, is something that characterises his whole career, both as an Anglican and as a Catholic.

Furthermore, despite being a member of a Protestant denomination at the time, he certainly did not see himself as being so (that Anglicanism was a valid branch of the Catholic Church was a basic principle of the Tractarian movement), and here shows a strong commitment to ecclesial authority and Tradition (both their logical necessity and the historical evidence of their importance). This commitment to Truth is a fundamental part of that instinct which eventually led him home to the Church, and which is perhaps his greatest legacy. The importance of that legacy has not even begun to be properly felt or fully appreciated; he is a widely (and rightly) revered man whose ideas are held in high esteem by many, but I believe the full impact of his thought and person are still yet to come:

We may end these remarks by recurring to the instances of St. Peter and St. John the Baptist; who, as types of God’s ordained servants, before and after His Son’s coming, may serve to explain the office of ordinary Christian Ministers. Even the lowest of them is “greater than John.” Now what was it that he wanted? Was it the knowledge of Gospel doctrine? No, surely; no words can be clearer than his concerning the New covenant. “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.”  “He that cometh from above, is above all … He whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God, for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto Him. The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into His hand. He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life, and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him.” [John i. 29; iii. 31-36.] Therefore, the Baptist lacked not the full Christian doctrine; what he did lack was (as he says himself) the Baptism of the Spirit, conveying a commission from Christ the Saviour, in all His manifold gifts, ordinary and extraordinary, Regal and Sacerdotal. John was not inferior to us Gospel Ministers in knowledge, but in power.

On the other hand, if, as I have made appear, St. Peter’s ministerial office continues as regards ordinary purposes, in the persons of those who come after him, we are bound to understand our Lord’s blessing, pronounced in the first instance upon him, as descending in due measure on the least of us His ministers who “keep the faith,” Peter being but the representative and type of them all. “Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona; for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but My Father, which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” August and glorious promise! Can it be, that it is all expended on St. Peter, how great soever that noble Apostle? Is it inserted in the “everlasting Gospel,” to witness merely of one long since departed? Is it the practice of the inspired word to exalt individuals? Does not the very exuberance of the blessing resist any such niggardly use of it? Does it not flow over in spite of us, till our unbelief is vanquished by the graciousness of Him who spoke it? Is it, in short, anything but the prejudices of education, which prevent so many of us from receiving it in that fullness of grace in which it was poured out?

I say our prejudices,—for these surely are the cause of our inconsistency in faith; adopting, as we do, a rule of Scripture interpretation, which carries us a certain way, and stops short of the whole counsel of God, and should teach us nothing, or a great deal more. If the promises to Christ’s Apostles are not fulfilled in the Church for ever after, why should the blessing attaching to the Sacraments extend after the first age? Why should the Lord’s Supper be now the Communion of the Lord’s Body and Blood? Why should Baptism convey spiritual privileges? Why should any part of Scripture afford permanent instruction? Why should the way of life be any longer narrow? Why should the burden of the Cross be necessary for every disciple of Christ? Why should the Spirit of adoption any longer be promised us? Why should separation from the world be now a duty? Happy indeed it is for men that they are inconsistent; for then, though they lose some part of a Christian’s faith, at least they keep a portion. This will happen in quiet times, and in the case of those who are of mature years, and whose minds have been long made up on the subject of religion. But should a time of controversy arise, then such inconsistencies become of fearful moment as regards the multitude called Christian, who have not any decided convictions to rest upon. Inconsistency of creed is sure to attract the notice of the intellect, unless habit has reconciled the heart to it. Therefore, in a speculative age, such as our own, a religious education which involves such inconsistency, is most dangerous to the unformed Christian, who will set straight his traditionary creed by unlearning the portion of truth it contains, rather than by adding that in which it is deficient. Hence, the lamentable spectacle, so commonly seen, of men who deny the Apostolic commission proceeding to degrade the Eucharist from a Sacrament to a bare commemorative rite; or to make Baptism such a mere outward form, and sign of profession, as it would be childish or fanciful to revere. And reasonably; for they who think it superstitious to believe that particular persons are channels of grace, are but consistent in denying virtue to particular ordinances. Nor do they stop even here; for denying the grace of baptism, they proceed to deny the doctrine of original sin, for which that grace is the remedy. Further, denying the doctrine of original sin, they necessarily impair the doctrine of the Atonement, and so prepare a way for the denial of our Lord’s Divinity. Again, denying the power of the Sacraments on the ground of its mysteriousness, demanding from the very text of Scripture the fullest proof of it conceivable, and thinking little of the blessedness of “not seeing, and yet believing,” they naturally proceed to object to the doctrine of the Trinity as obstructing and obscuring the simplicity (as they consider it) of the Gospel, and but indirectly deducible from the extant documents of inspiration. Lastly, after they have thus divested the divine remedies of sin, and the treatment necessary for the sinner, of their solemnity and awe, having made the whole scheme of salvation of as intelligible and ordinary a character as the repair of any accident in the works of man, having robbed Faith of its mysteries, the Sacraments of their virtue, the Priesthood of its commission, no wonder that sin itself is soon considered a venial matter, moral evil as a mere imperfection, man as involved in no great peril or misery, his duties of no very arduous or anxious nature. In a word, religion, as such, is in the way to disappear from the mind altogether; and in its stead a mere cold worldly morality, a decent regard to the claims of society, a cultivation of the benevolent affections, and a gentleness and polish of external deportment, will be supposed to constitute the entire duties of that being, who is conceived in sin, and the child of wrath, is redeemed by the precious blood of the Son of God, is born again and sustained by the Spirit through the invisible strength of Sacraments, and called, through self-denial and sanctification of the inward man, to the Eternal Presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Such is the course and issue of unbelief, though beginning in what the world calls trifles. Beware then, O my Brethren, of entering a way which leads to death. Fear to question what Scripture says of the Ministers of Christ, lest the same perverse spirit lead you on to question its doctrine about Himself and His Father. “Little children, it is the last time; and as ye have heard that Antichrist shall come, even now are there many Antichrists … They went out from us, but they were not of us.” [1 John ii. 18, 19.] “Ye shall know them by their fruits.” [Matt. vii. 16.] If any man come to you, bringing any scoff against the power of Christ’s Ministers, ask him what he holds concerning the Sacraments, or concerning the Blessed Trinity; look narrowly after his belief as regards the Atonement, or Original Sin. Ascertain whether he holds with the Church’s doctrine in these points; see to it whether at very best he does not try to evade the question, has recourse to explanations, or professes to have no opinion at all upon it. Look to these things, that you may see whither you are invited. Be not robbed of your faith blindfold. Do what you do with a clear understanding of the consequences. And if the arguments which he uses against you tend to show that your present set of opinions is in some measure inconsistent, and force you to see in Scripture more than you do at present, or else less, be not afraid to add to it, rather than to detract from it. Be quite sure that, go as far as you may, you will never, through God’s grace, be led to see more in it than the early Christians saw; that, however you enlarge your creed, you will but carry yourselves on to Apostolic perfection, equally removed from the extremes of presumption and of unbelief, neither intruding into things not seen as yet, nor denying, on the other hand, what you cannot see.

Plain and Parochial Sermons, Volume II, no.25.


There is a lot of both/and in Christianity (faith and reason for example, or nature and grace). But ultimately, the nature of the Faith in its entirety must be separated into one of two distinct possibilities. Either the traditionalists or the liberals are right; either Christianity is about saving souls (and therefore needs to be committed to the idea that particular actions and patterns of behaviour are not in accordance with God’s will), or it is just about being nice to people and any behaviour is fine, just so long as you’re not hurting anybody else.

The latter thesis is not only profoundly individualistic, and ignores the innumerable ways in which our actions resonate out into the wider society, but begs the question as to what justification we can have for reducing Christianity to such narrow criteria. If we reject the tradition that tells us certain ways of living are sinful (and therefore damage our relationship with God), then what grounds do we have for retaining one part of that same tradition, apart from the fact that it happens to be congenial to the way we are already living?

If the liberal thesis is sustainable, why bother with all the rigmarole of doctrine and ritual – why bother going to church? If Christianity is just a simple religion of kindness, tolerance and love, the application of which I can work out according to my own conscience, why can’t I practise it at home? In fact, why bring God into it at all? If faith and morals are negotiable, then clearly the idea of objective morality is meaningless, at least in practice, and we are quickly sliding towards atheistic territory.

However, I would suggest that it is not in fact sustainable to extract one part of the tradition and isolate it from the rest, as the working out of that ‘simple religion’ actually requires a great deal of difficult decision making when applied to particular circumstances (the answer to ‘what is the most loving thing to do when…?’ is by no means always obvious) and the only reason we know of this ‘simple’ core of the religion is because of the tradition. Therefore, we are actually presented, in the final analysis, with what Blessed John Henry Newman saw – a choice between Atheism and the Catholic Church.

In his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, as he began to summarise the reasons for his conversion, Blessed John Henry Newman wrote of what he saw as the individual’s ultimate choice between Atheism and Catholicism:

…I came to the conclusion that there was no medium, in true philosophy, between Atheism and Catholicity, and that a perfectly consistent mind, under those circumstances in which it finds itself here below, must embrace either the one or the other…

…there are but two alternatives, the way to Rome, and the way to Atheism: Anglicanism is the halfway house on the one side, and Liberalism is the halfway house on the other.

Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1994), pp.182&186, Penguin.

            He later clarified this point, which, as one can see, is almost ripe for misinterpretation and consequent attack, in Grammar of Assent, where, in an appendix he responds to such criticism:

Religion has, as such, certain definite beginnings and surroundings, and it calls for what Aristotle would call an investigator, and a process of investigation sui similes. This peculiarity I first found in the history of doctrinal development…but next I found it a law, which was instanced in the successive developments through which revealed truth has passed. And then I reflected that a law implied a lawgiver, and that so orderly and majestic a growth of doctrine in the Catholic Church, contrasted with the deadness and helplessness, or the vague changes and contradictions in the teachings of other religious bodies, argued a spiritual Presence in Rome, which was nowhere else, and which constituted a presumption that Rome was right.

Grammar of Assent (1955), pp.385-386, Doubleday.

            This is to say, that once one recognises the existence of meaning in the world (and so moves from Atheism) and accepts the existence of God, one is inevitably led to ask where the truth about this God may be found. When this process of investigation continues, and it is recognised that Christianity presents the most coherent and reasonable account of Theism, then one has to ask how one can begin to know what Christianity is all about – what it teaches, wherein lies its source of authority. The only place where one can find all religious truth embraced, clarified and presented in a clear and confident fashion is the Catholic Church.

As Newman also recognised, this does present something of an ideal sliding scale of religious truth, which reality does not always consistently bear witness to. This is because:

The multitude of men indeed are not consistent, logical, or thorough; they obey no law in the course of their religious views; and while they cannot reason without premises, and premises demand first principles, and first principles must ultimately be (in one shape or another) assumptions, they do not recognise what this involves, and are set down at this or that point in the ascending or descending scale of thought, according as their knowledge of facts, prejudices, education, domestic ties, social position, and opportunities for inquiry determine.

ibid, p.386.

            Of course, a non-Catholic will cry out here that it is the Catholic that does not have full knowledge of the facts, or is prejudiced, etc; but this only brings us back to the drawing board again. At the end of the day, it seemed to Newman (and it seems to me), that the most sensible line one can draw is from Atheism, through natural religion, to Christianity, and then to its fullness in the Catholic Church; and also that the real reason more people do not accept this is due more to the reasons Newman outlines above than to strict logic and fair assessment of historical evidence.

That some people dispute this is obvious, but I would then ask those people that if the Catholic Church, with its claim to infallible teaching, does not contain and represent the fullness of the Truth, what good reason can we give contra liberal Christians who seek to isolate one part of the Faith from the rest – if the Protestant Reformers could decide to throw out (amongst other things) the doctrine of purgatory and several books of the Old Testament, why should liberal Protestants today not throw out moral teaching on marriage and abortion, or give precedence to some of Jesus’ teachings over and against some of the ‘hard’ sayings?

The Eastern Orthodox churches rejected papal authority, and have not been able to convene an ecumenical council since – therefore they have been left in a state where, although the vast majority of Catholic doctrine is preserved, they cannot move forward and embrace development in response to changing circumstances. The Protestant world however, is built upon the principle of private judgement, and it is extremely hard to give a coherent rationale for rejecting one part of Tradition ‘according to conscience’ and not another. Once that door is opened, it is very difficult to say why a liberal Protestant should not reject just that bit more; if anything, the liberals are at least being consistent here.

And yet, if one goes down that road, and faith and morals are relativised to the degree that they have been, it is also hard to see what difference there is between liberal Christianity and modern, atheistic, secular humanism (which rests on the same – although, in the latter case, completely unjustified – basic assumptions of kindness, tolerance and non-interference). So, it does seem that we are presented with an either-or situation here: either we follow the route of the liberals, keeping a vestigial Christianity inseparable from the surrounding culture and which slides ever further into practical atheism; or we climb aboard the barque of Peter, where we can rest safely in the Truth and be guided towards Our Lord. For those who still care about the state of their souls, only the latter option will do.

Blessed John Henry Newman: the Natural Man’s distaste for the divine

In two sermons written whilst still an Anglican, Blessed John Henry Newman considered the drastic change that must come about in us if we are to love the things of God. In the first sermon I quote, appropriately titled ‘Religion a Weariness to the Natural Man’ Newman outlines the different stages in human life, evaluating the degree to which we are, if at all, drawn to religion. His survey produces a negative result, and he concludes the sermon thus:

It is then plain enough, though Scripture said not a word on the subject, that if we would be happy in the world to come, we must make us new hearts, and begin to love the things we naturally do not love. Viewing it as a practical point, the end of the whole matter is this, we must be changed; for we cannot, we cannot expect the system of the universe to come over to us; the inhabitants of heaven, the numberless creations of Angels, the glorious company of the Apostles, the goodly fellowship of the Prophets, the noble army of Martyrs, the holy Church universal, the Will and Attributes of God, these are fixed. We must go over to them. In our Saviour’s own authoritative words: “Verily, verily, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” [John iii. 3.]’

taken from Religion a Weariness to the Natural Man in Plain and Parochial Sermons, Volume 7 (1842).

            Here the crux of the issue lies – given humankind has no natural inclination to religion (e.g.; to worship God, to give up our leisure time for reading and meditation, to make a concerted effort to grow in holiness, to bear insults and pray for those who persecute us, etc), it is clear, that although there is in us (Newman does not mention this in his sermon, but I believe it to be undeniable) a deep yearning for God and a hidden, oftentimes repressed knowledge that our only true happiness lies in Him, our nature prefers not to turn to His ways. Our will is at conflict with His will. Our hearts do not seek what they know to be their ultimate good, and so need changing.

But, given that we also experience the promptings of conscience and the inclinations of our intellects, ever reminding us that there is indeed a God, and we will be judged by Him, Newman counsels that it is in our best interests to strive to usurp our wills, and beg God to change our hearts for us. It is just good sense to do so:

It is a plain matter of self-interest, to turn our thoughts to the means of changing our hearts, putting out of the question our duty towards God and Christ, our Saviour and Redeemer. “He hath no form nor comeliness, and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him.” It is not His loss that we love Him not, it is our loss. He is All-blessed whatever becomes of us. He is not less blessed because we are far from Him. It is we who are not blessed, except as we approach Him, except as we are like Him, except as we love Him. Woe unto us, if in the day in which He comes from Heaven we see nothing desirable or gracious in His wounds; but instead, have made for ourselves an ideal blessedness, different from that which will be manifested to us in Him.


            In another sermon, taken from the same collection, and preached in the same year, entitled ‘Love of Religion, A New Nature’, Newman expands on this theme. Firstly, he refers to the very same conflict mentioned above – that between our desire for God and the obstinacy of our wills – but describes it from the interior perspective, showing the two desires at war with one another (c.f.; Romans 7):

Oh, what a dreadful state, to have our desires one way, and our knowledge and conscience another; to have our life, our breath and food, upon the earth, and our eyes upon Him who died once and now liveth; to look upon Him who once was pierced, yet not to rise with Him and live with Him; to feel that a holy life is our only happiness, yet to have no heart to pursue it; to be certain that the wages of sin is death, yet to practise sin; to confess that the Angels alone are perfectly happy, for they do God’s will perfectly, yet to prepare ourselves for nothing else but the company of devils; to acknowledge that Christ is our only hope, yet deliberately to let that hope go! O miserable state! miserable they, if any there are who now hear me, who are thus circumstanced!

taken from Love of Religion, A New Nature in Parochial and Plain Sermons, Volume 7 (1842).

            Again the key thing that Newman is recognising here is that, despite a deeply felt attraction to God, a kind of existential nostalgia for His goodness and holiness, and a knowledge that our true home and happiness can only be found in Him, we adamantly resist this instinct, and allow our wills to be dragged towards the easy path of sin and the misery it inevitably yields. This is a point well worth bringing to the attention of many modern educators in religious studies, who seem to believe that the religious sense we all undoubtedly possess to some degree, is enough to lead us to enlightenment and/or salvation alone.

Further on, Newman then develops a theme touched on in the previous sermon – namely, having once recognised our inability to ‘feel’ our own way to God by natural inclinations alone, we must then make an effort to turn towards Him, and receive the transforming graces He is so desperate to pour into our hearts. However, this will involve a great deal of vigilance and self-discipline:

In this world, even the best of men, though they are dead to sin, and have put sin to death, yet have that dead and corrupt thing within them, though they live to God; they have still an enemy of God remaining in their hearts, though they keep it in subjection. This, indeed, is what all men now have in common, a root of evil in them, a principle of sin, or what may become such;—what they differ in is this, not that one man has it, another not; but that one lives in and to it, another not; one subdues it, another not. A holy man is by nature subject to sin equally with others; but he is holy because he subdues, tramples on, chains up, imprisons, puts out of the way this law of sin, and is ruled by religious and spiritual motives.


            Newman then adds a reminder, lest we forget, that although this work we must undoubtedly put in (in order to prevent our natural inclinations from taking hold and to subdue the ‘principle of sin’ within us) is very much necessary and very much our own work, the whole process of transformation would never even get off the ground, were it not for the grace of God. After all, it is the attitude that we can reach God simply by our own lights that leaves us in the conflicted mess described earlier:

Even those then who in the end turn out to be saints and attain to life eternal, yet are not born saints, but have with God’s regenerating and renewing grace to make themselves saints. It is nothing but the Cross of Christ, without us and within us, which changes any one of us from being (as I may say) a devil, into an Angel. We are all by birth children of wrath. We are at best like good olive trees, which have become good by being grafted on a good tree. By nature we are like wild trees, bearing sour and bitter fruit, and so we should remain, were we not grafted upon Christ, the good olive tree, made members of Christ, the righteous and holy and well-beloved Son of God.


            Or in other words ‘The doctrine of original sin is, so to speak, the “reverse side” of the Good News that Jesus is the Saviour of all men, that all need salvation and that salvation is offered to all through Christ…we cannot tamper with the revelation of original sin without undermining the mystery of Christ.’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church: 389). Newman, by considering the lived experience of human beings – their knowledge of a need for God, their preference for avoiding His will and asserting the desires of the self, and their inability to change for the better without His grace – has arrived at the classical doctrine of Original Sin.

It is often the case that we must so arrive at this doctrine. It is certainly one of the least popular that the Church professes. Yet, time and again, experience shows us it to be a fact of life – something has gone wrong in us, and we cannot fix it ourselves; we need help, and know this help must come from God. Yet we continue to resist the truths presented to us by our own experience. We need new hearts, hearts of flesh and not of stone. God has promised to give us this – ‘a new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you’ (Ezekiel 36:26) – but we must turn to Him first, and will to love Him. Like Blessed John Henry Newman, we must love our religion, and desire a new nature.

John Henry Newman: Atheism or The Fall – the choice that lies before us

I have often considered the nature of belief, particularly with respect to my own reasons for believing. My usual conclusion is approximately this – that it is utterly basic to our experience that there is a ‘bigger picture’ of some sort, and that it is very difficult to go through life and not be struck by a sense of wonder at our being here (or of anything being here) at all, and this inevitably leads to pondering the ‘why’ of our existence; but also, that much of life is characterised by trial, tragedy, suffering and a feeling of sheer futility. Thus, one is faced with the choice of either a.) A good God does not exist, or b.) God exists and is indeed good, but something has gone wrong with the world, and we thus see His purposes through a glass darkly.

Whilst it is sometimes tempting to go for the first option and deny the existence of a good God during periods of intense suffering or frustration, in doing so one ends up throwing the baby out with the bath water, so to speak. If you deny meaning and purpose to the world because bad things happen, you deny meaning and purpose to the good things as well – beauty, love, acts of kindness, sacrifice and bravery. Furthermore, as I have written before, with reference to the writings of C. S. Lewis on this topic, if, out of a sense of injustice, one denies God, one ends up denying the source of all objective justice and goodness as well – the shouting at the heavens and complaining to God is a sort of validation that there is something to shout and complain about.

Blessed John Henry Newman, in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, artfully expresses this choice we face by relating his own experience in reflecting upon the nature of the world. He also concludes that at the end the choice comes down to the two options I outlined above:

Starting then with the being of a God, (which, as I have said, is as certain to me as the certainty of my own existence, though when I try to put the grounds of that certainty into logical shape I find a difficulty in doing so in mood and figure to my satisfaction,) I look out of myself into the world of men, and there I see a sight which fills me with unspeakable distress. The world seems simply to give the lie to that great truth, of which my whole being is so full; and the effect upon me is, in consequence, as a matter of necessity, as confusing as if it denied that I am in existence myself. If I looked into a mirror, and did not see my face, I should have the sort of feeling which actually comes upon me, when I look into this living busy world, and see no reflexion of its Creator. This is, to me, one of those great difficulties of this absolute primary truth, to which I referred just now. Were it not for this voice, speaking so clearly in my conscience and my heart, I should be an atheist, or a pantheist, or a polytheist when I looked into the world. I am speaking for myself only; and I am far from denying the real force of the arguments in proof of a God, drawn from the general facts of human society and the course of history, but these do not warm me or enlighten me; they do not take away the winter of my desolation, or make the buds unfold and the leaves grow within me, and my moral being rejoice. The sight of the world is nothing else than the prophet’s scroll, full of “lamentations, and mourning, and woe.”

To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; and then their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship; their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long-standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the Apostle’s words, “having no hope and without God in the world,”—all this is a vision to dizzy and appal; and inflicts upon the mind the sense of a profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution.

What shall be said to this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact? I can only answer, that either there is no Creator, or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from His presence. Did I see a boy of good make and mind, with the tokens on him of a refined nature, cast upon the world without provision, unable to say whence he came, his birthplace or his family connexions, I should conclude that there was some mystery connected with his history, and that he was one, of whom, from one cause or other, his parents were ashamed. Thus only should I be able to account for the contrast between the promise and the condition of his being. And so I argue about the world;—if there be a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, a fact as true as the fact of its existence; and thus the doctrine of what is theologically called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God.

from Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1994), pp.216-218, Penguin Classics.

            Whilst Newman’s passage is a little pessimistic – his account of the world seems to me a little one-dimensional in that it ignores the many good and beautiful things about this life – he certainly captures the way we can see it in our darker moments. Also, by paying more attention to the futilities and evils of existence, and layering them on so thickly, he makes the choice we face even starker – when the world seems like a terrible place (and sometimes it does), what sort of universe will you remain committed to believing in? The choice must be made – a world created by a good God, spoiled by Original Sin, or no God at all.

This is the choice of faith: whilst we come to believe based on reason, experience, information and advice received from authoritative sources, reflections on our consciences, and many other things that, taken together, make a persuasive case for the world seen as through the eyes of the Holy Catholic Church, when the chips are down, what sort of a universe will we commit ourselves to seeing as the most reasonable? It is not a case of one hundred percent certainty here – one cannot prove the case conclusively. It is rather that we must weigh up the alternatives and decide which has the most explanatory power – which makes most sense of the world, which gives the best account of the greater part of my experience? Newman saw this, and saw that we have to make a choice – this choice, once made, we must also hold onto, through faith, during times of trial. The choice Newman himself made seems to me to be by far the most consistent, the most reasonable, and the most beautiful. My only hope is that I remain faithful to my choice during any times of trial that come my way, as he did in his.

The Anima Christi: Divine strength for hard times

A few days ago I wrote about an argument for the existence of God that C. S. Lewis developed in an address entitled De Futilitate, and how in my experience this was a particularly powerful means of recalling oneself to reality during periods of desolation, frustration or suffering, at times when the world can seem dark and meaningless, sometimes even bereft of God. The prayer below, the Anima Christi (i.e.; ‘Soul of Christ’ – a reference to the first line of the prayer), has, I have found, similar power to provide strength during these dark or testing periods (and also when enduring great temptation), but it appeals more to the imagination, as opposed to the intellectual fortification that one can draw from Lewis’ argument.

It is a magnificent devotional piece, which comes from the fourteenth century, and has in the past been attributed to Pope John XXII (the second pope of the Avignon papacy – a regrettable period for many reasons – he opposed the teaching of some of the more extreme Franciscans such as Michael of Cesena and William of Ockham, and canonised Thomas Aquinas). Also, unlike the poem I posted yesterday, I can be confident that this one is definitely about God! Its powerful imagery focuses on several key images of Christ’s passion that have great resonance and appeal deeply to the consonance between the suffering of the believer and that of Christ Himself, awakening in the person praying a greater awareness of God’s empathy with us and love for us. Here is the prayer in full below (and here can be found an alternative, slightly more poetic version written by Blessed John Henry Newman):

Soul of Christ, sanctify me,

Body of Christ, save me,

Blood of Christ, inebriate me,

Water from the side of Christ, wash me.

Passion of Christ strengthen me.

O good Jesus, hear me:

Hide me within your wounds

And never let me be separated from you.

From the wicked enemy defend me,

In the hour of my death, call me

And bid me come to you,

So that with your saints I may praise you

For ever and ever.