Newmania - 6: Hiding the Church's beauty

In one of his major Anglican works, Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church (1837), Newmanargued that the Anglican Church represented a middle road (via media) between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, with almost all his attention given to the differences between Anglicanism and Romanism. Even in that work he admitted that what he was sketching was an ideal on paper, and when he eventually concluded that it could exist only on paper, he moved toward Rome.In 1877 Newman prepared to republish this work by writing a lengthy preface in which he explained what he had attempted in that work, retracted the violent language he had used against Rome, and offered a distinction among three aspects of the Churchtheology, polity, devotion--as a way of dealing with difficulties he had raised. [More on that distinction in another post.] In addition, to the original text he added footnotes here and there that offered his mature comments on his own earlier positions. It is an interesting exercise to see where he felt it necessary to addsuch comments and where he chosenot toqualify his original statements.

Before embarking on the main points of his new Preface, Newman clarified who his desired audience were and what he was attempting in their regard:

I am not here addressing those who unhappily find themselves unable to profess Christianity. I shall assume a great number of principles and facts, which they will deny; as they on their part often cause me to wonder and grieve, by the strange assumptions they themselves make without hesitation or remorse. But there are those, not a few, who would be Catholics, if their conscience would let them; for they see in the Catholic Religion a great substance and earnest of truth; a depth, strength, coherence, elasticity, and life, a nobleness and grandeur, a power of sympathy and resource in view of the various ailments of the soul, and a suitableness to all classes and circumstances of mankind; a glorious history, and a promise of perpetual youthfulness; and they already accept without scruple or rather joyfully feed upon its solemn mysteries, which are a trial to others; but they cannot, as a matter of duty, enter its fold on account of certain great difficulties which block their way, and throw them back, when they would embrace that faith which looks so like what it professes to be.To these I would address myself, as far as my discussion on a very large subject extends; and, even if I do not succeed with them, at least I shall be explaining, as I have long wished to do, how I myself get over difficulties which I formerly felt as well as they, and which made me for many years cry out bitterly, "Union with Rome is impossible." Most probably I shall be able to do little more. 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; and what can one writer do to counteract this misfortune? But enough of this; whatever comes of it, I must be content to have done what I feel it an obligation to do.

Early in the fourth lecture of the original work, Newman had written:

Now the Church of Rome is a political power; and, if she stunts, or distorts the growth of the soul in spiritual excellence, it is because, whether unconsciously or not, she has in view political objects, visible fruits, temporal expediency, the power of influencing the heart, as the supreme aim and scope of her system; because she considers unity, peace, the public confession of the truth, sovereignty, empire, the one practical end for which the Church is formed, the one necessary condition of those other and unknown benefits, whatever these be, which lie beyond it in the next world.

Here, in the third edition of the work, Newman added this footnote:

The Catholic Church is by its very structure and mission a political power, by which I mean a visible, substantive body of men, united together by common engagements and laws, and thereby necessarily having relations both towards its members and towards outsiders. Such a polity exists simply for the sake of the Catholic Religion, and as a means to an end; but since politics in their nature are a subject of absorbing interest, it is not wonderful that grave scandals from time to time occur among those who constitute its executive, or legislative, from their being led off from spiritual aims by secular. These scandals hide from the world for a while, and from large classes and various ranks of society, for long intervals, the real sanctity, beauty and persuasiveness of the Church and her children.

After illustrating at some length historical instances of "the collision of those [three] elements of the Church's constitution," Newman ended his Preface with this paragraph:

To conclude:whatever is great refuses to be reduced to human rule, and to be made consistent in its many aspects with itself. Who shall reconcile with each other the various attributes of the Infinite God? and, as He is, such in their several degrees are His works. This living world to which we belong, how self-contradictory it is, when we attempt to measure and master its meaning and scope! And how full of incongruities, that is, of mysteries, in its higher and finer specimens, is the soul of man, viewed in its assemblage of opinions, tastes, habits, powers, aims, and doings! We need not feel surprise then, if Holy Church too, the supernatural creation of God, is an instance of the same law, presenting to us an admirable consistency and unity in word and deed, as her general characteristic, but crossed and discredited now and then by apparent anomalies which need, and which claim, at our hands an exercise of faith.

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

Also by this author
The "Gospel of Judas" revisited

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