Newman’s View of Liberalism in Religion. An Introductary Study  

von Günter Biemer


All through his life Newman was conscientiously aware of the responsibility one has as a theologian speaking of God and his revelation. “To write theology is like dancing on the tight rope some hundred feet above the ground”, was his vivid comparison in his sixties: “It is hard to keep from falling, and the fall is great … The questions are so subtle, the distinctions so fine, and critical jealous eyes so many … and you may get into hot water before you know where you are …”[1] There were not formal reasons at the origin of this awareness, rather his sense of the infinite mystery of God in whose presence he lived consciously since 1816 as a spiritual note of that early time shows: “In omnibus periculis egw eimi nos liberabit, si Illum invocaverimus” (In all dangers I AM will liberate us, if we call on Him).[2] At the peak of his influence as a spiritual leader in the Tractarian Movement Newman used the formula “to be in earnest” in order to describe the absolute devotion to God. Thus he sums up his sermon “Unreal Words” in June 1839: “What I have been saying comes to this: Be in earnest, and you will speak of religion where, and when and how you should; aim at things and your words will be right without aiming. …Each has his own way of looking at the things which come before him … There is but one right way; it is the way in which God looks at this world. …(Jesus Christ) has interpreted all things for us in a new way; He has brought us a religion which sheds a new light on all that happens. Try to learn this language… Let us receive the truth in reverence, and pray God to give us a good will, and divine light, and spiritual strength that it may bear fruit in us.”[3]


“To be in earnest” in one’s relations to God and his revelation is in Newman’s terminology the positive opposite to religious liberalism. In order to approach this difference between liberalism and earnestness in religion according to Newman I propose two parts, and the first one in six steps.





1. The emerging concept of religious Liberalism in Newman’s life at Oriel


“Newman’s mission was to stand alone in the 19th century as a father of a new age of Christian thought.” This is Edward Sillem’s judgment in his study on “Newman and Liberalism” with which he introduces the Philosophical Notebook.[4] Sillem describes how Newman took his stance beyond the usual alternatives of Idealism and Empiricism, the schools of philosophy, and how he mistrusted the definition of reason under the shelter of sciences. Newman’s door to his first serious religious “opinion” was the Evangelical approach of Thomas Scott to whom, as he said, “I almost owe my soul”. When in 1823 he began gradually to acquire more objective and dogmatic views of Christian doctrine this process implied his giving up and opposing Evangelicalism as an antidogmatic religion: “I would maintain, that if we take care of the Objects (i.e. the Word Incarnate, the Holy Trinity, the Sacraments etc, GB) and works of faith, faith will take care of itself,” he says in a letter.[5] And in his Lectures on Justification Newman sums up his critique: Evangelicalism “to consist in contemplating ourselves instead of Christ; not simply in looking to Christ, but in ascertaining that we look to Christ; not in his Divinity and Atonement, but in our conversion and our faith in those truths”.[6]

The other important antidogmatic attitude of which Newman confesses that it was for a short time part of his own intellectual tendencies in his twenties was religious Liberalism, whose famous representative was Richard Whately. We find characteristic elements of what religious Liberalism meant at that time in Newman’s correspondence with the Archbishop of Dublin in October1834. He accuses Whately “that the perilous measures in which your Grace has acquiesced are but the legitimate offspring of those principles, difficult to describe in a few words,    which bear upon the fundamentals of all argument and investigation , and affect almost every doctrine and every maxim on which our faith or our conduct depend. I can feel no reluctance to confess, that, when I was first noticed by your Grace, gratitude to you and admiration of your powers weighed strongly upon me; and, had not something from within resisted, I should certainly have adopted views on religious and social duty, which seem to my present judgment to be based in the pride of reason and to tend towards infidelity … “[7]   And Newman defines: “The opinions to which I especially alluded in my former letter as associated by the world with your Grace’s name under the title of ‘Liberal’ … are those which may be briefly described as the Anti-Superstition notions … I (however, GB) would instance the under valuing of antiquity, and the resting on one’s own reasonings, judgments, definitions etc rather than authority and precedent; and I think I gave very little into this; for a very short time too, (if at all), into the notion that the state, as such, had nothing to do with religion.”[8]


Newman mentions in the Apologia his unnecessary criticisms of the Athanasian Creed as an example “for a certain disdain for Antiquity which had been growing  on me for several years”: “The truth is, I was beginning to prefer intellectual excellence to moral; I was drifting in the direction of the Liberalism of the day. I was rudely awakened from my dream at the end of 1827 by two great blows – illness and bereavement.”[9]


Indeed Newman’s first public action against Liberalism was on the political scene in consequence of the anti-Erastian views which he had learnt from Whately. In 1829 he started an initiative against the reelection of Robert Peel. For Newman and other Oriel Fellows Peel’s change of view in the question of the Catholic Relief Act became an untolerable act of expediency. “A good churchman .. (has, GB) to fight for the principle”, Newman wrote to his mother: “It is once in a century that Oxford and the Church are in opposition to Government. I would not have lost the opportunity of showing our independence for the world. I look upon that opportunity as providential.”[10] Newman understood himself and those who joined arms with him as “appointed guardians and guides of Christ’s Church” at a specific kairos in history: “I think there is a grand attack on the Church in progress from the Utilitarians and Schismatics.”[11] He counts the Roman Catholics as one of these groups and calls the Catholic claims for emancipation only a beginning for further claims.


At this time, in march 1829, Newman gives a remarkable analysis of the situation in which he sees the development of society. “We live in a novel era – one in which there is an advance towards universal education. Men have hitherto depended on others, and especially on the clergy, for religious truths; now each man attempts to judge for himself.” Newman does not mention Immanuel Kant’s booklet “Was ist Aufklärung?” from 1784 although it is there that people are requested to get out of their dependence, also religious dependence, a specific source of liberalism. Newman emphasizes that “Christianity (is) not opposed to free inquiry”, however to that “particular form which that liberty of thought has now assumed: Christianty is of faith, modesty, lowliness, subordination; but the spirit at work against it is one of latitudinarianism, indifferentism, republicanism, and schism, a spirit which tends to overthrow doctrine.” And Newman adds a sentence which is still valid: “It is no reply to say that the majesty of truth will triumph, for man’s nature is corrupt; also, even should it triumph, still this will be only ultimately, and the meanwhile may last for centuries.”[12]


If we attempt a first summary, at the end of the 1820ies Liberalism contained for Newman a number of different headings:

-         preference of intellectual brilliance to moral excellence

-         under valuing or disdaining antiquity and authority of the Church in order to rest with one’s own reasonings, judgments, definitions etc

-         Evangelicalism in a certain aspect

-         antidogmatism

-         (the) Utilitarianism (of Henry Brougham and Jeremy Bentham)

-         religious indifferentism

-     schism (resp. Schismatics, including Roman Catholics)

-         the tendency to infidelity

-         republicanism …





2. Liberalism: Usurpations of the reason


In the history of his religious opinions, his Apologia, Newman mentions the Fathers as last but “not least important (source). In proportion as I moved out of the shadow of that liberalism which had hung over my course, my early devotion towards the Fathers returned.”[13] His diary marks Monday 23rd June 1828 as the first day that he started beginning with the Apostolical Fathers: Barnabas, Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, etc.[14] He read, and wrote comments. The importance of Tradition as an irreplaceable source of authority for Christian faith began to occupy Newman’s mind.


As a kind of prelude to his coming conflict with rationalism Newman described ironically in a sermon of 1829: “Indeed, there have been grievous mistakes respecting the nature of Christian knowledge. There have been at all times men so ignorant of the object of Christ’s coming as to consider mysteries inconsistent with the light of the Gospel … and  Christianity to be what they term a ‘rational religion’. And hence they argued that no doctrine which was mysterious, i.e. too deep for human reason, … could be contained in Scripture; as if it were honouring Christ to maintain that when He said a thing He could not have meant what He said, because they would not have said it …”[15] Between April 1830 and December 1832 Newman in his first series of eight “Sermons preached before the University of Oxford” drafted several situations how the human mind could get involved with divine revelation. Two seem to us of major importance: the usurping reason and personal influence. Newman understands his time and society as the kairos that shows us “a very extensive development of an usurpation which has been preparing ... for some centuries, the usurpation of reason in morals and religion.”[16] Newman complains of evidences having the place of faith in certain theological systems and moral Law being deprived by reason of its intrinsic authority. In a final summary the preacher gives a well balanced advice: “Our plain business to … be careful, while we freely cultivate the reason in all its noble functions, to keep it in its subordinate place in our nature … Our great danger is, lest we should not understand our own principles, and should weakly surrender customs and institutions, which go far to constitute the Church what she is, the pillar and ground of moral truth, - lest from a wish to make religion acceptable to the world in general … we betray it to its enemies …”[17]


The best guarantee of limiting the usurpations of secular reason in matters of religion was for Newman “Personal Influence, (as) the Means of Propagating the Truth”, the title of his fifth University Sermon in January 1832. In June 1831 he had begun research reading for his first book “The Arians of the Fourth century”, which he finished in July 1832. It was in between, on October 24, 1831, that he wrote his mother: “Today I received a very valuable present of books from many of my friends and pupils consisting of 56 volumes of the Fathers.”[18] Among them Athanasius, the hero of the Arian controversy. A lifelong spiritual friendship began. Newman found a pattern for his own battle against liberalism in the Church of his day in the resistance with which St. Athanasius had been fighting for the orthodoxy of the omoousion in the early Church where he survived several persecutions. In the sermon on “Personal Influence” Newman asks how the Gospel Truth was maintained against so many adversaries from without and within: “I answer, that it has been upheld in the world, not as a system, not by books, not by argument, nor by temporal power, but by the personal influence of such men (and women, GB) … who are at once the teachers and the patterns of it.”[19] Newman seems to say: God’s cause does not depend on majorities, and applies the struggle of the fourth century to his own time. “A few highly-endowed men will rescue the world for centuries to come. Before now even one man has impressed an image on the Church which, through God’s mercy, shall not be effaced while time lasts.”[20] Here the sermon draws the same conclusion as the book: Newman learned to put his confidence in a saintly elite with “clear heads and holy hearts” as he was going to summarize it decades later.[21] At that time Newman discovered the importance of an efficient catechumenate to avert danger from the faithful. He saw “in the system of early catechetical schools – especially the School of Alexandria – that catechumens underwent a “careful and systematic examination by which their growing in the faith was effected”. It was less a sum of doctrines they were taught, Newman says, rather the contents of revelation as a “divine philosophy”.[22]


Newman’s high estimation and even love of the Church of Antiquity develops as a positive antidote against liberalism. In the Sermon we cited he says about the importance of the Church of the Fathers: “…In its collective holiness (she) may be considered to make as near an approach to the pattern of Christ as fallen man ever will attain; being, in fact, a Revelation in some sort of that Blessed Spirit (as if)[23] in a bodily shape, who was promised to us as a second Teacher of Truth after Christ’s departure.”[24]


The more Newman identified himself with the faith of the Fathers the less he could believe in an adaptation of the apostolic kerygma to the taste of modern society, which was one of the characteristic usurpations of Liberalism. In August 1832 he analyses this feature of a civil religion in his sermon “The Religion of the Day”: “It has taken the brighter side of the Gospel -  its tidings of comfort, its precept of love; all darker, deeper views of man’s condition and prospects being comparatively forgotten. This is the religion natural to a civilized age … As the reason is cultivated, the taste formed, the affections and sentiments refined a general decency and grace will spread over the face of society quite independently of the influence of revelation.”[25] That religion of the day “is especially adapted to please men of sceptical minds … who have never been careful to obey their conscience, who cultivate the intellect without disciplining the heart, and who allow themselves to speculate freely about what religion ought to be without going to Scripture to discover what it really is.”[26] – Here it may be sufficient to state that a fashionable proclamation of the Christian kerygma is according to Newman very much in danger of religious liberalism.



3. Liberalism as Anthropocentric Theology (Rationalism)


During the dynamic first years of the Tractarian Movement Newman gives a key to the phenomenon of the colourful term liberalism in religion. In 1835 he publishes Tract 73 “On the Introduction of Rationalistic Principles into Revealed Religion.” The Tract can be said to contain the fruits of the first series of University Sermons (Nr. 2 – 8) dealing with the relation of faith and reason. Newman presents basic conclusions in clear formulations. “Rationalism is a certain abuse of reason; … To rationalize in matters of Revelation is to make our reason the standard and measure of the doctrines revealed … (and, GB) to reject them, if they come in collision with our existing opinions or habits of thought … And thus the rationalistic spirit is the antagonist of Faith; for Faith is … the acceptance of what our reason cannot reach, simply and absolutely on testimony.”[27] Newman does not critizise the method of Fundamental Theology which asks for the credibilitas et credenditas of the divine message. What Newman calls rationalistic resp. liberal is first “to accept Revelation and then explain it away, to speak of it as the Word of God, and to treat it as the word of man, to refuse to let it speak for itself … to put aside what is obscure, as if it had not been said at all … - To frame some gratuitous hypothesis about them (i.e. the contents of revelation, GB), and then … to colour them, trim, clip … and twist them, in order to bring them into conformity with the idea to which we have subjected them … -“[28]  “The Rationalist makes himself his own centre, not his Maker.” And in this sense it is true to say: “Our private judgment is everything to us … consulted as the arbiter of all questions.”[29]   It is certainly very remarkable that Newman is critizising here significant terms and imaginations of  the anthropocentric and rationalistic theology of enlightenment as it was used in Germany mostly by Protestant but also by Catholic representatives of  the newly established Pastoral theology of the 18th and early 19th century. 


One of the important features of theological rationalism is to stress  certain aspects of revelation at the expense of others. Newman refers to some of their  mainstreams: “Revelation contains a history of God’s mercy” and Newman’s comment that “while it is this, it is something more also”.[30] Or: “Religious Truth is neither light (only, GB) nor (only) darkness, but both together”. Again: It is not ascertainable “that the object of Christian Revelation is … to bring the character of man into harmony with that of God” because “every part of revelation runs on into mystery”.[31]


Newman’s central concern in his battle against rationalism is to receive revelation in the appropriate way as it is secured in the Tradition of the great “Catholic” doctrines, Trinity, Incarnation, Sacraments etc. “Each of these doctrines is a Mystery” and does not admit of being systematized ad libitum according to purely reasonable criteria. “The heavenly truth, which is revealed, extends on each side of it into an unknown world. We see but the skirts of God’s glory.”[32]


Popular theology of the day which easily simplifies, systematizes, and rationalizes revelation has the stigma of superficiality, audacity, and irreverence. In his “Lectures on the Prophetical Office” of 1836 Newman accuses even Roman Catholics in this sense of “subjecting divine truth to the intellect, and professing to take a complete survey (of Revelation, GB) and to make a map of it.”[33]


Newman warns not to reduce the explanation of divine initiatives to human analogies, as was the case with the central Evangelical doctrine of Atonement. It may be misunderstood as if divine “justice comes to be almost a modification of (human, GB) benevolence or … the carrying out of a transcendent expediency”. But: “the mystery remains, that the Innocent satisfied for the guilty.”[34] In a certain sense one could say that Newman is appealing to the dogma of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, that between “Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude.”[35]




4. Liberalism as secularized Salvation History


An important part of religious Liberalism is according to Newman the secularization of salvation history. Newman’s best example to demonstrate, how “the doctrine of Incarnation” is resolved “into a moral manifestation of God” simply by using pantheistic language, is Jacob Abbott’s book “Corner Stone”. Newman’s review is part of Tract 73. Abbott creates a theology “which robs the Christian Creed of all it contains, except those outward historical facts through which its divine truths were .. revealed to man”. The author levels “the sacred history to the rank of a human record”.[36] Newman notifies the objective scientific language Abbott uses and accuses him of an inappropriate way of presenting Jesus Christ. Abbott is for Newman a typical representative “of the spirit of the age, the voice of that scornful, arrogant, and self-trusting spirit, which has been unchained during these latter ages”.[37] Such books are “signs of the religious temper” of this time. They are “Socinian”, i.e. they deny the Trinity and the Divinity of Jesus Christ.


Newman’s opposition against a secularized understanding of “sacred hstory” is especially significant in his Essay on “Milman’s View of Christianity” (!841). Newman maintains there that “God’s dealings with his creatures (in general, and in Christianity especially, GB) have two aspects, one external, one internal … This is the law of Providence here below; it works beneath a veil, and what is visible in its course does but shadow out at most …what it invisible… It is not too much to say that this is one great rule on which the divine Dispensations with mankind have been and are conducted; that the visible world is the instrument, yet the veil of the world invisible – the veil, yet still the symbol and index: so that all that exists or happens visibly, conceals and yet suggests, and above all subserves, a system of persons, facts, and events beyond itself.”[38] 


Salvation history then can only be understood appropriately with the assumption of a twofold structure of historical events. Newman applies Joseph Butler’s “Analogy” respectively John Keble’s sacramental concept of the “Christian Year” to the analysis of Salvation History. He discovered that “the great characteristic of Revelation is addition, substitution. Things look the same as before, though not an invisible power has taken hold upon them.” It is true of the great narrative of the Old Testament, and the New, and the Church. “Its history is twofold, worldly to the world, and heavenly to the heirs of heaven.”[39] Now ”Milman’s View of Christianity” excludes the assumption of faith. “He has been viewing the history of the Church on the side of the world”.[40] He wanted to be merely a historian, not a Christian, which led him to suppressing the doctrinal truth contained in the history of Christianity, says Newman. In his attempt to speak objectively scientific he misconstrues Jesus. “The Agent, Speaker, Sufferer, Sacrifice, Intercessor, Judge is God in our flesh, not man with a presence of Divinity. …- Milman surely himself is contemplating not ‘the Saviour’ but his Saviour”.[41] – To sum it up: “Thew Christian history is ‘an outward visible sign of an inward spiritual grace’ : whether the sign can be treated satisfactorily separately from the thing signified is another matter”; but the intention of liberal church historians like Milman is “to view the Christian as a secular fact to the exclusion of all theological truth.”[42]



5. Liberalism and Infidelity


Barthold Georg Niebuhr was one of the first historians who applied a critical method in historical research as demonstrated in his Lectures on the “History of Rome” (1812 -1813).[43] Newman refers to his method of working with “presumptions verified by instances” in matters of human life. “Of course, as is plain, we may err grievously in the antecedent view which we start with.”[44] Niebuhr’s error is like Milman’s in the assumption that Holy Scripture is like any other secular document in history and has to be approached critically with methodical doubt. That is why Newman sees Niebuhr as a pace-maker on the way from science to infidelity. An anticipation possesses this kind of thinker that the discoveries of  modern sciences “will certainly solve all the Gospel miracles; or that to Niebuhrize the Gospels or the Fahters is a simple expedient for stultifying the whole Catholic system.” It is a “Form of Infidelity of the Day” says Newman in 1854 to exspect that  the results of scientific research will extinguish religion sooner or later,[45] because the “fundamental dogma” of infidelity “is that nothing can be known for certain about the unseen world. This being taken for granted as a self-evident point … the immense outlay which has been made (in the history of theology and philosophy, GB) has been simply thrown away.”[46] Newman’s reaction is to question their assumption. Supposing . religious truth cannot be ascertained, then … it is … idle (and) mischievous, to attempt to do so. (However) … It has not yet been shown … to be self-evident that religious truth is really incapable of attainment.”[47]


Newman’s prophetical vision in his lecture on infidelity of 1854 shows the extreme consequences of religious liberalism. Ten years later, in the Apologia, looking back on his battle against the Liberals in Oxford Newman explained: “The men who had driven me from Oxford were distinctly the Liberals; as it was they who had opened the attack upon Tract XC.” Tract Ninety is in this context Newman’s assertion that dogmas and the dogmatic principle are constitutive elements both of the Anglican Church as well as the Tridentine. This was denied first by the Anglican Liberals. Newman’s conclusion is far-reaching: “As I have said, there are but two alternatives: the way to Rome, and the way to Atheism. Anglicanism is the halfway house on the one side, and Liberalism is the halfway house on the other.”[48] The liberal way leads consequently to scepticism and atheism.   



6. Liberalism in Newman’s differentiation of 1865


It is not enough to call Liberalism the anti-dogmatic principle, Newman explains in his additional note A to the “Apologia”, because there are good Catholics who use the term in a favorable sense. Basicly “whenever men are able to act at all, there is the chance of extreme and intemperate action … 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 exercize of thought upon matters, in which … thought cannot be brought to any successful issue,” e.g. upon first principles and upon “the truths of revelation … which rest for their reception simply on the external authority of the Divine Word,”[49] not on the insight of the reason into their intrinsic grounds.


Liberalism came into existence in his time in Oxford between two generations, of which the elder generation “would have protested against their being supposed to place reason before faith, or knowledge before devotion.” However “they unconsciously encouraged and successfully introduced .. a license of opinion which went far beyond them.” They made allowance of “enlightened views, largeness of mind, liberality of sentiment … without seeing the tendency of their own principles” towards liberalism in religion.[50]


Newman concluded his description of Liberalism in Oxford giving a number of exemplary propositions which contain to my mind four tendencies:[51]


a.       the anti-dogmatic trend: in so far as  contents of faith and morals resp. of revelation are reduced to what reason can approve


b    the individualizing trend: when “matters religious, social, and moral”

      belong exclusively to the competence of the Private Judgment of the



c.       the secularizing trend: In so far as church property and religious standards in public life get under state authority which receives its legitimacy from the power of the people


d.      the educational trend of enlightenment: moral standards are gained by education, knowledge, travel; which reminds us of  Newman’s Tamworth articles.[52]


At the end of his Note on Liberalism in the Apologia Newman refers to a poem he wrote on “Liberalism” in June 1833 in Palermo. It begins: “Ye cannot halve the Gospel of God’s grace”, and the last verse runs:


“And so ye halve the Truth; for ye in heart

at best, are doubters whether it be true,

the theme discarding, as unmeet for you,

Statesmen or Sages. O new-compass’d art

Of the ancient foe! – But what if it extends

O’er our own camp, and rules amid our friends?”[53]







Before we complete our survey of Newman’s View of Liberalism we shall follow his remark that when treating religious subjects there is not only the danger of a “false liberty of thought”, rather that “liberty of thought is a good”. To fight against Liberalism did not exclude for Newman a high estimation of liberty and liberality as we shall consider under five aspects.




1. Liberal Education


In the Preface to his “Idea of a University” Newman describes: “Certainly a liberal education does manifest itself in a courtesy, propriety, and polish of word and action, which is beautiful in itself, and acceptable to others; but it does much more. It brings the mind into form.”[54] And in Discourse V on “Knowledge its own end” Newman portrays the university as a place of free, thorough, and universal learning: The student “apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts; … its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them. Hence it is that his education is called ‘Liberal’. A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; or what … I have ventured to call a philosophical habit.”[55] – Liberal in that context means also free of applications within the frame of a certain purpose: “That alone is liberal knowledge, which is independent of sequel, (and, GB) expects no complement … If, for instance, theology, instead of being cultivated as a contemplation, be limited to the purposes of the pulpit or be represented by the catechism, it loses … the particular attribute” of liberal knowledge: “just as a face worn by tears or by fasting loses its beauty.”[56] The liberal version of theology has a wide horizon, under which the reflection of revelation is its own end. This “Liberal pursuit” is of a distinct class compared with the useful pursuit of Practical resp. Pastoral theology.


Thus I can say in the form of a paradox: Newman’s intention of a liberal education in theology - as realized in Dublin or in the Birmingham Oratory – should exclude his students and Oratorians from the danger of becoming liberal theologians.



2. Liberty of Thought


Although Newman saw the dangers of libertinism it is true to say that his basic attitude means “Liberty of thought is a good”. Famous is his demand of liberty for scientific research: “Great minds need elbow-room, not indeed in the domain of faith, but of thought. And so indeed do lesser minds, and all minds.”[57] Nor does Newman hesitate in the Apologia to claim freedom of research for theology. While he presupposes submission to the teaching office of the Church he stresses the point that “it is individuals, and not the Holy See, that have taken the initiative and given the lead to the Catholic mind in theological inquiry”; and he continues with examples: “St. Augustine, he, no infallible teacher has formed the intellect of Christian Europe”. Origen, Hilary, Ambrose, and others “have been guided in their decisions by the commanding genius of individuals”, while the Church of Rome possessed no great mind in the whole period of persecution, and became all the more famous “as a sort of remora or brake in the development of doctrine”.[58]


Newman drawing a conclusion in 1864, the year of the Syllabus errorum, pleads for elbow-room in theological research. He would not dare to do this, “if he knew an authority, which was supreme and final, was watching every word he said … Then indeed he would be fighting, as the Persian soldiers, under the lash, and the freedom of his intellect might truly be said to be beaten out of him.”[59]  Newman presumes however a theologian in his responsible work himself to be “willing, or rather .. thankful … if (the  ideas he has put forward, GB) can be proved to be erroneous or dangerous… He is answered and he yields, or on the contrary he finds that he is considered safe” in what he teaches.[60] The freedom granted creates a stock of theological solutions in different schools of theology to be used by the teaching office of the Church in times to come.



3. Freedom of opinion


In a letter to Emily Bowles in May 1863 Newman paints the scenario of an “extreme centralization” in the Catholic Church during the 19th century and complains that “there are no schools  (of theology, GB) now, … (there is) no freedom, that is, of opinion. That is, no exercise of the intellect. No, the (ecclesiastical, GB) system goes on by the tradition of the intellect of former times. This is a way of things which, in God’s own time, will work its own cure, of necessity.”[61]


In principle Newman acknowledges a significant dialectic between reason and authority in matters of religion. Declaring his “own absolute submission to . (the) claim of infallibility” on one hand he defends the free use of the educated intellect on the other. “There are two great principles in action in the history of religion, Authority and Private Judgment”; and describing the process Newman asserts: “It is necessary for the very life of religion ... that the warfare should be incessantly carried on. Every exercise of Infallibility is brought out into act by an intense and varied operation of the Reason, both as its ally and as its opponent, and provokes again, when it has done its work, a re-action of Reason against it.” Newman compares the movement of reason and authority in religion to “the ebb and flow of the tide.”[62] And he is well aware of the effect the infallible office is intended to exert: “Not to enfeeble the freedom or vigour of human thought in religious speculation, but to resist and control its extravagance”.[63]


With his subtle and precise analysis of the interplay between the teaching authority and the reflecting mind Newman can show that it is only the authorized doctrines of the Church to which obedience it of obligation. And therefore, on the other hand: “It is intolerable that we should be placed at the mercy of a secret tribunal, which dares to speak in the name of the Pope, and would institute, if it could, a regime of espionage, denunciation and terrorism.”[64]  Writing directly to W.G. Ward, who belonged to those who accused Newman of being a liberal Catholic, he declares: “Pardon me, if I say that you are making a Church within the Church … and in St. Paul’s words are ‘dividing Christ’ by exalting your opinions into dogmas, and shocking to say, by declaring to me … that those Catholics who do not accept them are of a different religion from yours.”[65] 



4. “Conscience first”


Nowadays freedom of conscience is guaranteed in state constitutions and belongs to the identity of the modern citizen. Newman himself had used his freedom of conscience when in 1841 he protested against the institution of the Jerusalem bishopric: “By way of relieving my conscience, (I) do hereby solemnly protest against the measure aforesaid…”[66]


But is it freedom of conscience or duty to obey  conscience that Newman defends? Insofar as he reveals the abuse and misunderstanding of both he insists on the inalienable rights of conscience. Conscience is for Newman in a phenomenological view “the creative principle of religion” and it operates “as a dutiful obedience to what claims to be a divine voice, speaking within us.”[67] And in theological terms conscience is a “messenger” from God, the “aboriginal Vicar of Christ” in every human being.[68]


Newman claims freedom for a religious understanding and use of conscience and against its liberal deformations to be only an organ of ego-identity and self-determination. “When men advocate the rights of conscience, they in no sense mean the rights of the Creator, nor the duty to him, in thought and deed of the creature. …Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit … It is the right of self-will.”


In his “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk” Newman reflects upon conscience, and how the organ of human nature, ties in with infallibility, the quality of the Pope’s teaching office. On the one hand Newman asserts: “Did the Pope speak against conscience, in the true sense of the word, he would commit a suicidal act. He would be cutting the ground from under his feet.” For:“On the law of conscience and its sacredness are founded both his authority in theory and his power in fact.” And this is the reason why Newman would toast “to conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.” On the other hand Newman explains why he would not give absolute obedience neither to the British monarch nor to the Pope as such, but only to God’s revelation resp. to its infallible presentation by the Church. In that sense I read Newman’s important remark: “It is a great mistake to suppose our state in the Catholic Church is so entirely subjected to rule and system, that we are never thrown upon what is called by divines ‘the Providence of God’. … How else could (e.g., GB) private Catholics save their souls when there was a Pope and Anti-popes each severally claiming their allegiance?”







In the end I remind you of Newman’s presumption that the significant merit for his being elevated to the Cardinalate was his lifelong battle against liberalism. “For thirty, forty, fifty years I resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion … (It is) the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, and that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance daily.”[69] But were there not also many positive reasons for the Pope to appoint Newman a Cardinal? Was Newman not willing to see the value he had for a Catholic revival movement in the Anglican Church, for higher Christian Education on the British Isles, for a new estimation of Roman Catholics in England, for his ecumenical sobriety as shewn in the answer to Pusey’s Eirenicon, for his steady defense of the reasonableness of Christian faith in a new age of sciences, and most of all in his exceptional commitment to a renewal of faith and piety with his sermons, Anglican and Catholic, preached and printed? Newman saw clearly the work he had done, and even more the work that had to be done. However, he assessed his own usefulness according to the service he rendered to the Church in the dangers of his time. And the strongest dangers from within grew out of the anti-dogmatic principle, the principle of liberalism, as the strongest danger from outside was the growing scepticism and infidelity.  


Here is the final image: An Eschatological Asymptote is my figure for the course of salvation history, that the nearer we get to the end of the world the more dangerous become the attacks of the evil One against the Gospel of Christ.[70] The nearer the Eschaton the more powerful the danger of disfiguring the truth of revelation. As the asymptote does not touch the abscissa, so the Eternal Truth will never get totally eclipsed within the Church. However, as the Newman of 1841 asks: “Are you aware that the more serious thinkers among us are used, as far as they dare form an opinion, to regard the spirit of Liberalism as the characteristic of the destined Antichrist?”[71]  

And with that I finish my activities “on the tight rope”.[72]

[1] To Emily Bowden, 16 Apr. 1866: LD XXII 215 f

[2] LD I 29

[3] PS V 44 f. Cf Pierre Gauthier, L’emploi du mot « earnest » dans les sermons paroissaux de Newman. In : Etudes Newmaniennes Nr. 17 (Paris 2001) 59 - 74

[4] PhN I 24 ff

[5] Cf Letter to Lord Lifford from 12. 9. 37: LD VI 128 ff relating to Sermon on “Self-Contemplation”, PS II 15.

[6] Justif 324 f

[7] LD IV 349, italics mine

[8] Ibid. 358

[9] A crit (= J.H.Newman, Apologia pro Vita Sua, edited with an Introduction and Notes, by Martin J. Svaglic, Oxford 1967, ²1990) p. 26

[10] Letters from 1st and 4th March 1829: LD II 126 - 128

[11] Ibidem

[12] LD II 130

[13] A crit 35

[14] LD II 76

[15] PS I 204 f

[16] US 67 f

[17] Ibidem 73 f

[18] LD II 369

[19] US 91 f

[20] US 97

[21] VM vol I (³1877) p. LXXV. - Cf. Terrence Merrigan, Clear Heads and Holy Hearts. The Religious and Theological Ideal of J.H.Newman, Louvain 1991

[22] Ar 44 and 43

[23] Newman’s addition in: LD XII 32

[24] US 82 f – Even two decades later as a Roman Catholic Newman still adhered to his conviction that the laity of the early Church was a pattern of Christian faith: cf. HS I 209 f

[25] PS I 311

[26] Ibidem 316 f

[27] Ess Crit I 31

[28] Ess Crit I 32

[29] Ess Crit I 33f

[30] Ess Crit 40

[31] Ess Crit I 51 f

[32] Ess Crit I 45

[33] VM I 102 f . Newman’s example is Nicholas Wiseman.

[34] Ess Crit 67 f

[35] Denzinger-Hünermann 806

[36] Ess Crit I 86 f

[37] Ess Crit I 91

[38] Ess Crit II 190 – 192

[39] Ess Crit II 194f and 196

[40] Ess Crit II 196

[41] Ess Crit II 203 and 211

[42] Ess Crit II 188

[43] G.Biemer, Niebuhriser?: L’historiographie selon Newman: une reconstruction de la vie. In : C. Lepelley – P. Veyriras, eds., Newman et l’Histoire, Lyon 1992, 147 – 168 (Etudes Newmaniennes, No 8).

[44] Dev 113 f

[45] Idea of a University, edited with introduction and notes by I.T.Ker, Oxford 1976, (= Idea) p. 323

[46] Idea 319

[47] Idea 316 - 317

[48] Apologia crit 184 f. Cf PhN I 57

[49] Apol crit. 256

[50] Ibidem

[51] a: propositons 1 – 8; b. propositions  9 – 12; c.: propositions 13 – 17 ; d. : proposition 18

[52] The Tamworth Reading Room, in : DA 254 - 305

[53]  VV 144 f

[54] Idea crit 10

[55] Idea crit. 97

[56] Idea crit 101

[57] Idea crit. 383

[58] A crit 237

[59] A crit 239

[60] A crit 239

[61] LD XX 447. In the end Newman remarks: I never wrote such a letter to anyone yet, and I shall think twice before I send you the whole of it.”

[62] A crit 225 f

[63] A crit 226

[64] Letter from Apr. 26th, 1867: LD XXII 193

[65] Letter to W.G. Ward from May 9th 1867: LD XXII 216 f

[66] A crit 135

[67] An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, edited with introduction and notes by I.T.Ker, Oxford 1985, 76. And: A Letter Addressed to the Duke of Norfolk, 1875, Uniform Edition , 255

[68] This and the following quotations are taken from “§ 5 Conscience” in: Letter to Norfolk.

[69] MCI 395

[70] Newman described this process in his Tract 83: “Advent Sermons on Antichrist”  (1838).

[71] A crit 174

[72] cf. Footnote 1