On October 13, Pope Francis will declare John Henry Newman a saint. Catholics from around the world will crowd St. Peter’s Square to see the greatest religious thinker of Victorian England raised to the altars. Amid the joy and apparent concord of that day, there will be at least two irreconcilable understandings of what has occurred.
On one side will be those who venerate Newman as the patron saint of liberal Catholicism. They believe that his writings authorize dissent from, and revolutions in, Christian doctrine. In their eyes, his canonization will be a sign that what is denounced as error in one age may later be embraced as truth.
On the other side will be those who have read Newman’s stinging denunciations of theological and political liberalism, and therefore imagine that he favored the illiberal and ultramontane form of Catholicism that flourished during the nineteenth century.
Both these images of Newman are false. Anyone who casts Newman as a liberal Catholic or illiberal ultramontane has constructed a tale less plausible than the most dubious chapter of hagiography. But such mistakes are almost inevitable. Newman’s subtle thought and evocative prose have long induced men of opposite opinions to believe that he must agree with them. During his own life, liberal and anti-liberal Catholics alike hoped he would champion their causes. In each case, he refused.
Of the two false Newmans venerated by Catholics, the liberal Newman is the least plausible. “For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion,” Newman said toward the end of his eventful life. He had begun his career as an Oxford don and Anglican priest. The Oxford Movement, which he led from 1833 to 1845, opposed religious and political liberalism and sought to recover the catholic character of the Church of England. In 1845, Newman converted to Catholicism, continuing his fight against what he called “the anti-dogmatic principle.”
Newman battled liberalism primarily within the Church. But he also opposed liberalism in politics insofar as it led men to deny the reality of sin and the need for redemption. Since at least the Glorious Revolution, he believed, “Men saw the good in themselves and not the evil, and consequently were puzzled by the failure of certain parts of the social system to work well, ascribing the failure to a lack of knowledge, rather than of personal virtue.” Liberals believed they could undo the effects of the fall without the aid of grace.
Newman’s belief in human wickedness made him skeptical of progress, in which liberals put such faith. It was an opium of the masses and had left his native Britain “drugged with this fallacious notion of its superiority to other countries and other times.” In Newman’s view, England would be better off if it were “vastly more superstitious, more bigoted, more gloomy, more fierce in its religion, than at present it shows itself to be.” He preferred retrograde devotion to sophisticated impiety.
Newman insisted that he opposed political liberalism only insofar as it sought “to supersede, to block out, religion,” but he had an expansive definition of what this meant. He looked askance at the most uncontroversial reformist projects if they tended to displace faith. Teetotalism was one example. He mistrusted the temperance movement because it sought to promote virtue “without Religion . . . on mere principles of utility.” Better to be a drunk than a Benthamist.
After his conversion, Catholic liberals vainly hoped that the brilliant Newman would join their cause. But he declined to help Lord Acton and Ignaz von Döllinger, the two great liberal Catholics of the age, in their campaign against the decree of papal infallibility at Vatican I.
Though Newman’s writings on development and conscience would later be put to bad use by clever men, they exclude the kinds of doctrinal revolution and moral autonomy favored by liberals. As Dean Inge hyperbolically observed, Newman’s freethinking admirers fail to realize that Newman “would gladly have sent some of them to the stake.”
Catholic anti-liberals also misunderstood Newman, if less drastically. In the face of revolutionary attacks on Catholic states across Europe, a group of “ultramontanes,” men who identified with the pope “over the mountains” in Italy, insisted on the necessity of the ancien régime. They harked back to a medieval vision of Christendom and defended the pope’s temporal rule over parts of Italy.
One of these men was Thomas William Allies, a protégé of Newman who defended what Allies called “the medieval system.” Newman startled his disciple by asking whether “Catholic civilisation . . . has been, or shall be, or can be, a good, or per se desirable.” The medieval system was good and necessary in its own time, but was it good and necessary for all time? Even at the height of Christendom, Newman believed, Scripture’s observation remained true: “The whole world lies in wickedness.” Declaring the rights of man could not change this grim fact, nor could reviving theocracy.
In Newman’s view, the illiberal who insisted that the establishment of Catholicism would per se improve society shared the worldly optimism of the liberal. Both imagined that institutional reforms could blot out the stain of original sin.
Newman believed that a Catholic nation would, as a matter of course, make Catholicism its established religion. But such an arrangement was merely “the accident of a particular state of things,” the spontaneous act of an already-Catholic people. It was not obligatory and need not be imposed. Some creeds require state power to maintain their hold on men, Newman wrote, but Catholicism “can do without establishment, and often dispenses with it to its advantage.”
Like his friend Richard Hurrell Froude, Newman had long been ready to say “farewell to feudalism.” In a poem of that title, Froude had lamented the passing of medieval society. But he urged Christians not to strive “vainly” against that development, which was part of the unfolding of providence. They should remember that “Heaven’s Keys are more than sceptred might,” that God needs no one system of earthly power to exercise his reign.
Newman also broke with the anti-liberals in his understanding of the papacy. He questioned Pius IX’s decision to remove a baptized Jewish boy from his family, an act that the ultramontanes defended. He doubted that temporal sovereignty was necessary for the exercise of the papal office. He noted that Clement XIV had succumbed to monarchs who demanded that he suppress the Jesuits, despite standing sovereign over the Papal States, whereas Pius VII had resisted the urgings of Napoleon, despite being Napoleon’s prisoner: “Contrast the act of Clement with the act of Pius. The subject-Pontiff has it.”
Unlike some of his ultramontane coreligionists, Newman had always been willing to make distinctions in his battle against liberalism. He acknowledged “much in the liberalistic theory which is good and true,” including “the precepts of justice, truthfulness, sobriety, self-command, benevolence.” Rather than dismiss these things, he sought to place them on a secure basis in heavenly justice and divine truth.
Newman hoped that the future would offer “some way of uniting what is free in the new structure of society with what is authoritative in the old, without any base compromise with ‘Progress’ and ‘Liberalism.’” This must be the project of anyone who wants to follow faithfully in Newman’s footsteps—not an impossible attempt to revive medieval society, nor a rigid insistence on current arrangements.
Just as certain men in Newman’s time consecrated the feudal order, many today regard the liberal order as sacred. Faced with social crises and political discontent, they are unwilling to say farewell to liberalism. Newman would have regarded this as folly. He thought it misguided to insist absolutely on any worldly settlement, whatever its virtues may be. If Christians were once wrong to insist on the feudal order, they are wrong today to insist on a liberal order that not only falls short of Christian ideals, but denies them explicitly.
Every year, Catholics will commemorate Newman on the day of his conversion, not (as is customary) on the day of his death. This unusual choice, made during the reign of Benedict, has angered some liberals. They rightly see it as a repudiation of the ecumenical hopes that flourished in the wake of Vatican II, when men imagined that all Christian bodies would converge, thus removing the need for conversion to the Catholic faith. It is fitting that the very way in which the Church will celebrate Newman’s sanctity offends against the liberal spirit some seek to divinize. In an age that is dogmatic about everything except dogma, St. John Henry Newman reminds us to place our faith only in eternal things.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things.