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.