Tacking toward the Truth

The Wisdom of Cardinal Newman

This month marks the beatification of John Henry Newman (1801–90), long considered a saint by some and even worthy of being declared a doctor of the church. The London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement have recently published lengthy articles on Newman’s literary style (“the greatest Victorian master of English prose”) and his influence on Gerard Manley Hopkins and James Joyce.

But for Christians, Newman is something more, one of the finest religious minds of his century, whose work exerted a profound influence on the Second Vatican Council and thus on twenty-first-century Catholicism. Newman’s philosophy, theology, letters, and homilies continue to command both attention and reflection. And then there were also his achievements as an educator, spiritual director, and founder of religious houses.

To mark his beatification it is only appropriate to return to some of the vast store of Newman’s writings, as I have done in recent postings on dotCommonweal. As anyone who has attempted to write about Newman is quick to admit, it is Newman’s own words that soon rise to the top and illumine what follows. So they will here.

In 1877, thirty-two years after he became a Roman Catholic and more than a decade after his Apologia pro vita sua (1864), which described the culmination of his long intellectual and spiritual process with such passion, insight, and literary brilliance that it vindicated him in the eyes of many of his countrymen, Newman wrote a reflection that might have been addressed to the needs of the church today. More than a few Catholics will be able to enter fully into the sentiments of regret expressed in these words of Newman: “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.”

In 1870, Newman had published his An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. It set out his defense of the reasonableness of Christian faith, not by invoking external arguments but by a close analysis of the mind’s movement toward assent. For some years he had been republishing his Anglican works, among them his Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church, which was originally published in 1837 and was to reappear forty years later as the first volume of his Via Media. So that the new edition would not be left with its severe criticisms of Roman Catholicism unanswered, Newman prefaced it with a lengthy introductory essay.

Lectures had urged that Anglicanism be understood as a third way between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, a possible road, Newman called it, “between a mountain and a morass.” While that work was far more an assault on popular Protestantism than on “Popery,” the Catholic principles and doctrines Newman invoked in explaining the creed’s article on the church required him to explain why those who held such views were not becoming Roman Catholics. To this purpose, he had offered a recurrent contrast “between the theological side of Roman teaching and its political and popular side,” and his repudiation of the corruption of the latter had been expressed often in harsh and even violent language. Both in his new preface and in the many footnotes he appended to the original lectures, Newman now apologized for his language and clarified or corrected his earlier views.

But the new preface had another purpose also. The sentence from it quoted above has greater poignancy because it was preceded, only a few lines before, by a description of what was attracting so many of his contemporaries to the Catholic Church:

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.

Why, then, did their conscience not permit them to come into the church? “Certain great difficulties” were blocking their way, Newman said, similar to those that had prolonged his own journey, especially the contrast between formal teaching and popular and political manifestations of Catholic life. So Newman would explain in the preface how he had himself gotten over the difficulties that for years made him “cry out bitterly: ‘Union with Rome is impossible’”—a task made more necessary by the condition of the church at the time he was writing.


The great instrument of Newman’s overcoming the obstacles was the distinction, set out in the preface, of three offices in the church—teaching, worshiping, and governing—that correspond to the three great offices of Christ as prophet, priest, and king. In the first respect, Christianity is a philosophy or theology, a body of beliefs; in the second, it is a worshiping community; in the third, it is an apostolic ministry. Each of these has its own guiding principle: truth for theology, devotion and edification for worship, and expedience for ruling. Reasoning is the instrument of the first, emotion of the second, and command and coercion of the third. Each of them runs its distinct danger: “reasoning tends to rationalism, devotion to superstition and enthusiasm, and power to ambition and tyranny.” It is difficult enough for the church to fulfill any one of these roles; respecting them all at the same time is even harder since each has its own direction, interest, and claims; each must be influenced and modified by the others, even to the point that the needs of one may impose duties on the other. “What line of conduct,” Newman asked, “except on the long, the very long run, is at once edifying, expedient, and true?”

Of the three elements, Newman maintained that the theological was “the fundamental and regulating principle of the whole church system. It is commensurate with revelation, and revelation is the initial and essential idea of Christianity.” This respect for the fundamental role of faith in the constitution of the church, which permitted theologians to pass judgment on the actions of church leaders and the devotions of the people, did not exempt them from the duty to respect the exigencies of the other elements: “Theology cannot always have its own way; it is too hard, too intellectual, too exact, to be always equitable, or to be always compassionate,” Newman wrote. And it may, at times, have to bow before the demands of “religious sentiment or ecclesiastical interests” in matters both great and small.

On the other hand, if the church was promised the gift of infallibility, it was in her formal teaching, not in the realms of worship and political action. Only the gift of impeccability would preserve church leaders from mistakes in conduct, policy, words, and decisions, in her laws and administration, “and such a gift,” Newman dryly added, “they have not received.” It would always be easy for enemies of the church to criticize her on account of the contrasts of the three roles, because of the conduct of her rulers, her theologians, or her people. Some forty pages of the preface illustrated “the collision of those elements of the church’s constitution.” The footnotes Newman added to the lectures returned to the distinction when he pointed out that the political character of the church might lead church officials into grave scandals that “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.” While Holy Church is “the supernatural creation of God” and has as her general mark “an admirable consistency and unity in word and deed,” its life is also “crossed and discredited now and then by apparent anomalies which need, and which claim, at our hands an exercise of faith.”


Newman devoted his life principally to the theological element in the church’s constitution. He lived long enough to have witnessed the Christian faith lose “the luminousness and force of evidence” it once enjoyed when it was “the bond of society.” By the end of his life, such an experience of faith was widely considered the “private luxury” of individuals. In his biglietto speech, the night before his investiture as cardinal in Rome in 1879, Newman thanked Pope Leo XIII for the honor and summed up his own life’s work as resistance to that “great mischief” and to “the spirit of liberalism in religion” that justified it. In place of Christianity, liberals proposed a thoroughly secular education that would provide the masses with

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.

Readers familiar with Newman will recognize in that description the application to the whole of society of a central argument of his The Idea of a University (1852/58). There he argued that if a university claims to teach all knowledge, and if there is a God who can be known, then there must be a faculty of theology at a university. To neglect theology would be to offer an incomplete education and to call into question the validity of what was being taught. Further, if theology is banished, “its province will not simply be neglected, but will be actually 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.” What was happening in the new nonconfessional universities anticipated what would happen in the wider society. If religion were no longer to provide the social bond, then an incomplete theory of the human condition would take its place and the role that only religion could play would be usurped by philosophies and measures unequal to the task. “Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man.”

Newman’s opposition to these developments took several forms in a long life almost equally divided between the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches. There was, first, his positive presentation of the faith in hundreds if not thousands of sermons and lectures. The Parochial and Plain Sermons, preached over the eighteen years he served as an Anglican priest, set out a very demanding vision of Christianity that centered on the doctrines of sin and grace, Incarnation and atonement, justification by faith and sacrament within the church. Stark as the description of the state of the sinner is—“Impetuous hope and undisciplined mirth ill-suit a sinner”—as quietly joyful is the conviction of redemption:

This is Easter Day. Let us say this again and again to ourselves with fear and great joy. As children say to themselves,  “This is the spring,” or “This is the sea,” trying to grasp the thought, and not let it go; as travelers in a foreign land say, “This is that great city,” or “This is that famous building,” knowing it has a long history through centuries, and vexed with themselves that they know so little about it; so let us say, This is the Day of Days, the Royal Day, the Lord’s Day. This is the Day on which Christ arose from the dead; the Day which brought us salvation. It is a Day which has made us greater than we know.

The title of that sermon, “Difficulty of Realizing Sacred Privileges,” offers a clue to Newman’s purpose in his sermons: to bring his congregation to make real to themselves the truths of Christian revelation so they could give those truths a real and not merely notional assent. This was, after all, what had happened within him when at the age of fifteen he underwent the basic conversion of his life and received at once “impressions of dogma” and, with luminous clarity, the conviction of God’s presence—“myself and my Creator,” as he described it. These Anglican sermons were written in a chaste style, at times as stark as the interior of a Congregational church in New England, this in some contrast to the more richly furnished sermons of his Catholic years.

These pastoral sermons were supplemented by fifteen university sermons, preached at St. Mary’s Church, whose chief theme is the relation between faith and reason. Here was a second line of thought, the clarification and vindication of the process by which intelligent and rational people come to believe the Christian mysteries. Newman knew that the traditional proofs had been undercut by historical and critical investigations, but he had little faith in “the oligarchy of learning.” Neither would abstract argument succeed: “Logic makes but a sorry rhetoric with the multitude; first shoot round corners, and you may not despair of converting by a syllogism.... Life is not long enough for a religion of inferences; we shall never have done beginning, if we determine to begin with proof.” Instead, from his initial explorations in the Oxford University Sermons (1843) to the An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870), he focused on the serious inquirer who, he said, “is not a reasoning animal; he is a seeing, feeling, contemplating, acting animal.” Newman’s analysis in the Grammar of the concrete process that ends with assent was recently described by Anthony Kenny as “a classic of epistemology, unmatched in subtlety until Wittgenstein’s posthumous On Certainty.”


A third line of argument is illustrated by The Idea of a University. Speaking now to fellow Catholics, Newman first criticized them for failing to use their intellectual talents to the utmost:

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.

Against this lazy mediocrity Newman proposed “the culture of the intellect” as the goal of schools and universities that would enable students “to remove the original dimness of the mind’s eye; to strengthen and perfect its vision; to enable it to look out into the world right forward, steadily and truly; to give the mind clearness, accuracy, precision; to enable it to use words aright, to understand what it says, to conceive justly what it thinks about, to abstract, compare, analyze, divide, define, and reason, correctly.”

A splendid chapter in the Idea addressed one of the chief challenges of the nineteenth century: the relation between “Christianity and Scientific Investigation.” 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.” Less often remarked 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.

The principles stated in these two passages lie at the basis of the remarkable analysis Newman then offers of the concrete process by which the human mind reaches the truth. He said that “in scientific researches error may be said, without a paradox, to be in some instances the way to truth, and the only way.... 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.... No one can go straight up a mountain; no sailing vessel makes for its port without tacking.” To be fearful of allowing reason full freedom bespeaks a doubt about the sureness of one’s own faith: “Let us eschew secular history, and science, and philosophy for good and all, if we are 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.”

This rare confidence is also visible in the last chapter of Newman’s Apologia, written six months before promulgation of The Syllabus of Errors. At the time Catholic thinkers were again under ecclesiastical suspicion. Newman argues for “elbowroom” for scholars, but he does so in the course of a powerful defense of Catholic belief in the infallibility of the church. Denying the Protestant claim that this power paralyzes the intellect, Newman argued that it provides one of the principles that are necessary for the dialectical acquisition of religious truth. Authority and private judgment, he said, struggle within the church in an “awful, never-dying duel.”

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 willful 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 molding, by an incessant, noisy process, of the raw material of human nature, so excellent, so dangerous, so capable of divine purposes.

Another moment in that duel was being played out as Newman wrote the final pages of the Apologia. A “flood of facts” was rushing in on Catholic believers and it was only natural that they should consider its bearing on themselves and on those who were “in danger of being led away into a bottomless liberalism of thought.” On behalf of such people Newman took up St. Augustine’s words: “Let them be fierce with you who have no experience of the difficulty with which error is discriminated from truth, and the way of life is found amid the illusions of the world.”

Newman recognized the intellectual challenges were great, but he was often quite severe in his judgment of the Catholic intellect of his day. For example, he was appalled by the level of education he found when he studied in Rome soon after his conversion, and decades later he would complain that “the system goes on by the tradition of the intellect of former times”; there was a prejudice against new work on ancient foundations, confirmed by fear of scandalizing the faithful. Catholic theological philosophers, he said, “move in a groove, and will not tolerate anyone who does not move in the same,” which is why he postponed publishing his Grammar of Assent for so long.

This lack of creativity was compounded by excessive reliance on the exercise of authority. Newman himself was second to none in regarding authority as a central principle in the very “idea” of Christianity. But for almost the whole of his Catholic life he had to devote 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.”


After Vatican I’s definition of papal infallibility, Newman urged great patience with those who had difficulty accepting the new dogma. “To take up at once such an article, may be the act of a vigorous faith,” he admitted, “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.” Many high churchmen seemed to 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.” External authority rested on foundations it could not itself supply: “A Catholic is kept from skepticism, 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.” If those feelings go, appeal to authority will not suffice: “While he loves and trusts, it is not needed; when he does not love and trust, it is impotent.”

Many things may prevent others from coming to possess “admiration, trust, and love for Christ and his church” and lead Catholics, too, to lose this inner appreciation of the church as a sign and instrument of God’s purpose in the world. Today we appear to be undergoing, in as painful a form as any in our history, one of those moments that Newman anticipated, when grave scandals by church leaders are once again hiding from large numbers of people “the real sanctity, beauty, and persuasiveness of the church and her children.” Newman himself never permitted his own encounters with incomprehension, stupidity, and downright wickedness among his fellow Catholics, including among their leaders, to allow his own “admiration, trust, and love for Christ and his church” to diminish. That is not the least reason for being glad that with his beatification, Newman’s real holiness is being honored by the church.


Related: 'Credo in Newmanum', by Frank Oveis
The Upstairs Room, by Mary Frances Coady

Published in the 2010-09-24 issue: 

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.

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