Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

John Henry Newman joined the Catholic Church on October 9, 1845, after concluding that the via media of Anglo-Catholicism, which he had sought for years to vindicate, existed only in theory, a dream of dons. He had constructed a “paper religion”; his notion of the Church of England “had no original anywhere of which it was the representative.” He escaped into the real Church Catholic, which canonizes him this October, with what irony shall be seen.

The unreality of ­Anglo-Catholicism was demonstrated in 1841 by the ­fiasco of Tract 90. In this last of the Oxford Movement’s Tracts for the Times, Newman attempted an esoteric reading of the Thirty-Nine Articles. His purpose was to subvert the Anglican formularies’ plain Protestant meaning, to present them as “patient, though not ambitious, of a Catholic interpretation.” In response, Oxford’s Hebdomadal Board posted a condemnation on the door of the Oriel College buttery; the Anglican bishops rebuked Newman; and the Martyrs’ Memorial, depicting ­Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley, was erected in Oxford.

Newman deserved everything he got. His method in Tract 90 exemplifies all that is wrong with paper religion. At its lowest point, the tract denies that Article Thirty-One condemns the sacrificial nature of the Mass. The article reads: “The sacrifices of Masses, in which it was commonly said, that the Priest did offer christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, were blasphemous fables, and dangerous deceits.” Newman flags the plural: “Here the sacrifice of the Mass is not spoken of, . . . but ‘the sacrifices of Masses,’ certain observances, . . . which involved certain opinions and a certain teaching.” For Newman, the article condemned superstitions about the Mass, but left untouched the possibility that the Mass ­reenacted Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. All this, from the pluralization of “Mass.”

The argument is both facially absurd and elitist—hermeneutically elitist, because esoteric; and socially elitist, because it entails distinguishing the true Church Catholic from its vulgarization by the vulgar masses, with their vulgar Masses. Information necessary to salvation, available to the super-subtle, is unavailable to the superstitious and the superficial. Foundational doctrinal and catechetical documents mean something other than what they say, and on the rather important point of whether or not Our Lord is present in the Eucharistic elements. The effect, if the argument of Tract 90 persuaded, would be to exclude all but the erudite from membership in ­Newman’s paper church.

Gerard Manley Hopkins was to write after his own conversion, “God must have made his Church such as to attract and convince the poor and unlearned as well as the learned.” And the Catholic Newman would relish the religion of the lower classes as proving the reality of the Roman Church. In a public letter to E. B. Pusey, he declined to deplore Catholic superstitions: “Things that do not admit of abuse have very little life in them.” The crudeness of ­popular ­religion is the result of a church’s rootedness in a real tradition and a real practice, which are attractive and convincing to the many as well as the few. Superstition is avoidable only in a church that “consist[s] of none but the educated and refined.”

Newman wrote his epistemological treatise, the Grammar of Assent (1870), in part to establish that “a given individual, high or low, has as much right (has as real rational grounds) to be certain, as a learned theologian.” An illiterate beggar professes the Catholic faith as validly as Thomas Aquinas did. But for this to be so, the clerisy must not be hiding the ball. The Church’s esoteric teaching cannot contradict its exoteric teaching, which reaches the unlearned through homiletics, devotions, basic catechesis, pious ­journalism. The Church must not be—like the paper church of Tract 90—esoterically Catholic and ­exoterically Protestant.

In recent decades, the trickery Newman abandoned has been employed by the Church into which he escaped. When the popes, whose task is to ensure the continuity of Church teaching, instead introduce discontinuities, it becomes difficult for Catholics to make sense of their faith without resorting to evasions and contortions in the manner of the Anglican Newman.

Since the pontificate of John Paul II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church has instructed the faithful that capital punishment, being no longer necessary for purposes of deterrence, is unjustified in our time. This teaching appears to contradict the Church’s traditional approval of the death penalty for purposes including retribution—but subtle minds can discover that the contradiction is only apparent. ­Antonin Scalia, writing in these pages in 2002, narrated his dismay on learning that “the latest, hot-off-the-presses version of the catechism (a supposed encapsulation of the ‘deposit’ of faith and the Church’s teaching regarding a moral order that does not change)” all but ruled out capital punishment. Scalia was then relieved to learn from canon lawyers that the Catechism is a sub-­magisterial document; its ­presentation of Catholic teaching is non-binding. The Church still admits the permissibility of capital punishment in principle, though recent popes wish to discourage it on prudential grounds.

That the Catechism, of all things, should need to be read against itself in light of learned counsel is subversive of the faith. The obvious purpose of the Church’s primary catechetical document is to render magisterial teaching exoteric. As Scalia acknowledged, most laymen are not schooled in Catholic tradition, and most are not Supreme Court justices accustomed to parsing lawyerly phrases and adjudicating comparative levels of authority. Most either will not perceive the discontinuity perpetrated by the Catechism, and so will accept as binding what is merely polite ­opinion—or they will perceive the discontinuity without knowing how to reconcile it, and cease to assume the stability of the magisterium. Unable to perceive the esoteric teaching available to Catholic intellectuals, they are misled by the exoteric ­teaching.

Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s 2016 apostolic exhortation on marriage and family life, has caused even worse confusion. On the basis of an ambiguous footnote, liberal commentators on Amoris have elaborated an ambitious revision of magisterial teaching on the sacraments. They conclude that communion may be validly received by civilly remarried Catholics who are objectively in grave sin but otherwise in good standing—as one Amoris bishop put it, by “people who tithe.”

The Catholic Newman might have counseled a “wise and gentle minimism” in the reception of Amoris Laetitia. For like his own infamous misprision of Article Thirty-One, the maximalist reading of the Amoris footnote is elitist, both hermeneutically (esoteric) and socially (­classist). It upends Church teaching on the basis of one mischievous passage in an otherwise anodyne 261-page document, and its social plausibility requires a distinction between bourgeois and vulgar divorcées.

Catholic esotericism prospers alongside papalism, the ­un-Catholic elevation of every word (and footnote) of the pope to magisterial authority. When Vatican I was brewing, and with it the dogma of papal infallibility, ­Newman classed himself with the “inopportunists.” He objected not to infallibility per se but to the polemical augmentation of it in ultramontane discourse, whereby Catholics were told they must regard not just ex cathedra statements but most every papal utterance as binding. This rule struck Newman as untenable (Pope Honorius!) and obnoxious, because he saw how ultramontane discourse empowered a certain kind of “cruel and tyrannous” papalist. He observed in the Apologia that papal authority “may be accidentally supported by a violent ultra party, which exalts opinions into dogmas, and has it principally at heart to destroy every school of thought but its own.”

The violent ultras—Newman names no names, but we may mention Louis Veuillot, Henry Edward Manning, and William George Ward—conformed to papal opinions rapidly and perfectly, performing their fidelity to Pius IX by their exaggerated piety toward his textual output. They kept abreast better than other Catholics, because they enjoyed the leisure to keep up with the latest pronouncements, were skilled in Latin, and had a love of lockstep. On the basis of their textual piety, they arrogated moral and hermeneutic authority. Flamboyant submission is a mode of mastery.

It is in the interest of the ultramontane party that the texts on which it claims authority should be binding on all Catholics—that papal opinions should be exalted into dogmas. “There is thunder in the clear sky,” Newman wrote, as positions that had not been thought magisterial, or had scarcely been thought of at all, suddenly become imperative. In the nineteenth century, it became an informal heresy to contemplate the loss of the Papal States. Though the dogma of the Temporal Power was never to be promulgated, the party that had placed the issue at the center of mid-Victorian Catholic debates succeeded in weakening and stigmatizing Newman. He complained to his diary in 1863, “I am passé, in decay, I am untrustworthy”; he was rumored to have donated to the Garibaldi Fund.

Ward liked to say that he wished to receive a new papal bull with his Times at breakfast each morning. I used to smile at this. But the appetite for papal pronouncements is perennial, and it reveals the ultramontane clerisy as a distinct class with its own ideology and interests. In the Francis pontificate, ultramontane discourse declares that capital punishment must be abolished; that climate change is un-Catholic; that plastics in the ocean are worse than sex abuse; that national borders are worse still; that mercy entails never excluding the stably married from communion, even to save their souls.

From the start of his pontificate, Francis has posed a hermeneutic ­challenge. Conservative papalists struggle to regularize his verbal output with their notions of the privileges of infallibility. (“What did he say? Peter can’t say that. Ergo, he meant something other than what he said.”) A few years in, one commentator was reduced to presenting the Holy Father as a practitioner of Straussian esoteric writing who sneaks subversive conservative messages into apparently progressive texts.

St. John Henry Newman even­tually saw that not every problem in ecclesiology can be solved by squinting hard at documents, an exercise that too often is both elitist and ­delusional. Catholics who do not wish to see their Church become exoterically Protestant should acknowledge with Newman that papalism pursued too far dictates piety to the person of the pope at the expense of the tradition he nominally secures.

Julia Yost is senior editor of First Things.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.