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Oct 18, 2019

St. John Henry Newman and His Critique of Modern Ideas

Dr. James Merrick

On the Feast of Corpus Christi, in a tiny chapel in St. Mary’s House nestled in Old Aberdeen, Scotland, just down the cobblestone road from the medieval Cathedral of St. Machar with its iconic towers and rare heraldic ceiling, my family and I were received into the Catholic Church.

Amidst his homily, the bishop of Aberdeen, Hugh Gilbert, OSB., gave me a first-class relic of the man who was then only Blessed but, as of October 13, is known as Saint John Henry Newman. I was stunned, not only by the invaluable gift but by the friendship it represented. St. John Henry Newman (1801-1890) had been important for my Anglican faith, as before his conversion to the Catholic Faith he was a major leader of “Anglo-Catholicism” with which I identified. 

Equally important for me was his journey into the Catholic Church which centered on the need for the Magisterium. My own experience as an Anglican revealed that Anglicans had surrendered to theological pluralism and settled for mere political unity. In other words, Anglicans preferred not to decide what was true, or which theological perspective or interpretation was correct, only to get along despite deep doctrinal divergences.

Even Scripture, often identified as the principal authority in Protestantism, could not function as a common authority, for all approaches were viewed as equally valid. Like Newman, I saw that God’s revelation was rendered ineffectual when it was neutralized by competing interpretations and interpretive methodologies. I took his point that for the natural development of doctrine over history to be healthy and productive, there needed to be a contemporary authority, a Magisterium, to resolve disputes and advance the Church’s understanding. 

I’d like, then, to tell you a bit more about this saint, who is being heralded as a “model saint for our times”, a “model for today’s students”, and the next “doctor of the Church”.

Famous Preacher

Born in London on February 21, 1801, Newman was raised an evangelical Anglican, a religion of personal prayer and Bible reading, as he described it. He was educated at Oxford and became a fellow of Oriel College in 1822. After (Anglican) ordination, he was appointed vicar of St. Mary’s Church in 1828 as part of his university position. He became a renowned preacher who delighted his educated audience with sermons that were talked about throughout England (you can read them in his famous Parochial and Plain Sermons). 

Keep in mind that these sermons were around an hour long and comprised of complex, unforgiving, and lengthy sentences that Newman read in a soft, uninflected voice. They were cherished for their literary elegance as well as intellectual profundity. Indeed, Newman is regarded as one of the best English prose stylists and is the author of some of the Church’s most beautiful prayers, devotions, and hymns. In this article, we must be content with just one example:

O Lord, support us all the day long,
until the shadows lengthen,
and the evening comes,
and the busy world is hushed,
and the fever of life is over,
and our work is done.
Then in your mercy,
grant us a safe lodging and a holy rest,
and peace at the last. Amen.

Scholar of the Early Church

Ever since the age of fifteen, when he read The History of the Church of Christ by Joseph Milner, Newman had an interest in the early centuries of Christianity. Among his scholarship was a major study of Arianism, the heresy that said Jesus is the highest creature of God but not consubstantial with God. Before converting, Newman was a member of the so-called “Oxford Movement” which saw Anglicanism as the expression of the early Church in England and endeavored to recover its rituals, devotions, doctrines, and liturgical customs lost in the aftermath of the Reformation. 

So devoted to this project was Newman that in an infamous “tract” he attempted to square the obviously Protestant and anti-Roman articles of faith (known as the “Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion”) to which everyone in public office had to subscribe, with the doctrines of the Council of Trent (Tract 90). The result was national scorn and dismissal from his post at Oxford. Newman was not deterred by his persecution, however, and, after retiring to Littlemore, he set himself to the task of discerning true from false doctrinal development, with the Church of the first six or so centuries serving as the standard. 

Theory of Doctrinal Development

This prompted him to write An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine in which he described the growth of doctrine as organic, like the growth of an acorn into a tree. An example of doctrinal development of this sort would be the Scriptural depictions of Mary as the New Eve and Ark of the Covenant, which required her holiness and moral purity, developing to the point that the Magisterium defined the dogma of her immaculate conception in 1854. 

This process of doctrinal development had discernible characteristics that could be used as criteria for distinguishing a genuine development from a corruption. However, Newman found that “to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant” (Newman, Essay on the Development of Doctrine, 8). He became a Catholic in 1845 because the study led him to conclude that the Roman Catholic Church was the only contemporary church that retained as well as faithfully developed the doctrines of his beloved early Church. 

Catholic Cardinal

Newman’s reception into the Church meant greater ostracization from English society, such that he would remark:

“As a Protestant, I felt my religion dreary, but not my life—but, a Catholic, my life dreary, not my religion.”

Family and friends abandoned him, the pain of which is manifest in his sermon “The Parting of Friends”. He wasn’t always warmly welcomed by Catholics either. Newman found himself in the humiliating position of being one of the most accomplished and esteemed religious thinkers of his day and yet “remarkably ignorant at the time of his conversion of the concrete system of Catholicism as it had developed through the middle ages and since the Council of Trent” (Newman and Conversion, edited by Ian Ker, 42)

To make matters worse, Newman experienced a series of trials and personal failures, including a failed experiment as the founder of a Catholic university in Dublin and a papal rebuke while serving as the editor of The Rambler. It is no wonder that he remarked in a letter of 1882:

“The rule of God’s providence is that we should succeed by failure.”

Thus, when in 1879 he was made a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII, he admitted in his acceptance speech that “such an elevation had never come into my thoughts, and seemed to be out of keeping with all my antecedents.” (“Biglietto Speech“.)

The Essence of His Life’s Work: Resisting Liberalism 

In the same speech, Newman explained the essence of his life’s work this way:

“For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion.”

He defined liberalism as follows:

“Liberalism is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another … It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.”

Newman attributed liberalism’s denial of the truthfulness of religion to a distorted understanding of human reason which he called “rationalism.” 

A proper account of reason that took into consideration the historical and personal nature of human knowing was a defining feature of Newman’s thought. In his autobiographical account of his life, Apologia pro Vita Sua, he explained that the view of reason he gained from his fellow Oxford Movement companion, John Keble, “runs through very much that I have written” (Apologia, Part 3). The centrality of Newman’s critique of rationalism was noted by St. John Paul II who, upon marking the second centenary of Newman’s birth, identified Newman’s account of the relationship of faith and reason as an inspiration for his own encyclical Fides et Ratio (“Faith and Reason”): 

The centrality of Newman’s critique of rationalism was noted by St. John Paul II who, upon marking the second centenary of Newman’s birth, identified Newman’s account of the relationship of faith and reason as an inspiration for his own encyclical Fides et Ratio (“Faith and Reason”): 

Newman came eventually to a remarkable synthesis of faith and reason which were for him “like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of the truth” (Fides et Ratio, Introduction; see ibid., 74).

Since it is still very much a problem in the Church and such an animating force of his thought, let us conclude our consideration of Newman with a brief look at his critique of “rationalism.” 

Tract 73

In his Anglican years, Newman contributed to the “Tracts for Our Times,” a series of essays that advanced the aforementioned “Oxford Movement.” One of them, Tract 73, was entitled: “On the Introduction of Rationalistic Principles into Religion” It contrasted a “rationalistic spirit” with the “catholic spirit.”

“To rationalize in matters of Revelation,” Newman explained, “is to make our reason the standard and measure of the doctrines revealed; to stipulate that those doctrines should be such as to carry with them their own justification; to reject them, if they come in collision with our existing opinions or habits of thought, or are with difficulty harmonized with our existing stock of knowledge” (“Tract 73,” 1).

There are many things we could say about Newman’s critique of this rationalistic spirit, but I want to focus on the ways Newman criticized it as prideful and inhumane. What worries Newman about rationalism, in other words, is not just that it undermines religious truth, but also that it diminishes the personhood of the human knower and his human sources. It treats the human mind more like a piece of technology than an act of personal love. 

Rationalism Is Unrealistic

To begin with, one of the first things Newman says about rationalism is that it espouses an unrealistic view of human knowledge. Rationalism holds that we cannot claim to know something truly if we cannot fully “account for it” (explain or justify it completely). That is simply not how humans know things. We know the world often through “half views and partial knowledge, of guesses, surmises, hopes and fears, of truths faintly apprehended and not understood … ” (“Tract 73,” 2). “There is,” he said, “a multitude of cases in which we allowably and rightly accept statements as true, partly on reason, and partly on testimony. We supplement the information of others by our own knowledge, by our own judgment of probabilities … ” (“Tract 73,” 1). 

In other words, human persons cannot be expected to have to fully explain their views. This is unrealistic, it is not how most human beings gain knowledge. We rely regularly on information given to us by authorities and those we trust. Reason is historical, in other words. It is situated in relation to a community of people who share knowledge. As always, Newman has before him the common person, not the academic scholar. And the common person cannot be expected to fully defend in a scientific way all of his or her beliefs. But does that mean that the vast majority of the human race is irrational? Newman wasn’t so misanthropic. 

Rationalism Is Inhumane

The second problem that Newman has with rationalism is similar. He worries that rationalism is reductive. It diminishes human experience to what is manageable and quantifiable. It works from a system or scheme that simply dismisses anything that does not fit. It’s archetype of knowing is scientific investigation and therefore it is comfortable only with the predictable and repeatable. Consequently, rationalism is comfortable only with laws, not persons:

“Laws are stable; but persons are strange, uncertain, inexplicable.” 

(“Tract 73,” 3)

The rationalist is impatient with the feebleness of human history and the mysteries of the human heart, and so prefers to work with impersonal objects or laws. What this means is that historical testimony and personal experience are discounted since they aren’t easily testable. And this can only lead rationalists to be skeptical of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. 

Rationalism Is Rebellion

This leads us to the third problem with rationalism. If rationalism is impatient with the vicissitudes of human history, it is even more so with divine mystery. Newman was careful to say a rationalist was not a pure naturalist, that is, someone who denied the existence of God or divine revelation. However, a rationalist does require that God’s revelation conform to what we know of the natural world. Thus, what is described in God’s revelation must always be conventional: 

“it is Rationalism to accept the Revelation, and then to 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 claim to be told the why and the how of God’s dealings with us, as therein described, and to assign to Him a motive and a scope of our own; to stumble at the partial knowledge which He may give us of them; to put aside what is obscure, as if it had not been said at all; to accept one half of what has been told us, and not the other half.”

(“Tract 73,” 1)

Perhaps an example of this rationalism would aid our understanding. A common liberal or rationalistic interpretation of the episode of Jesus feeding the five thousand “explains away” the miracle by saying that what in fact happened was that the crowd was moved to share their food by the young boy’s generosity. This interpretation is clearly uncomfortable with the supernatural and thus re-interprets the miraculous multiplication as a moral transformation of the hearts of the crowd.

It is typical of those who interpret the Scriptures this way to also look down upon ancient authors as primitive, pre-scientific, superstitious, or just plain deceptive. And thus discomfort with the supernatural is paired with disdain for human testimony. 

While it would be too much to explore Newman’s alternative, his critique of rationalism is quite useful. Rationalism remains very much alive today. There are many in the Church who prefer to downplay the supernatural aspects of the Faith and treat it as simply motivation for social justice or earthly progress. For example, the superior of the Society of Jesus, Arturo Sosa, recently declared that the devil is not real, only a symbol, thereby falling victim to the greatest trick the devil ever pulled: convincing the world that he didn’t exist. 

Rationalism is not only in the Church. It is in our society as well. It is the view that, impatient with human responsibility and moral growth, prefers to substitute in their place bureaucratic systems or technological contrivances. It is the view that seeks the computerization of everything. It is the view that replaces humans with robots and designs academic curriculums around learning that is quantifiable. 

Newman’s critique of rationalism reminds us that such a view of reason is ultimately inhumane and impious. It rests on disdain for what is human and disbelief in what is divine. It can only lead to a denial of mystery and so a loss of love. 


You May Also Like:

Epic: The Early Church [study program]

Liberty, How Can We Rediscover You?

Using Faith & Reason in Scripture Study

The Eucharist: Where We Begin and End


Dr. James R. A. Merrick is lecturer at Franciscan University of Steubenville, reviews editor for Nova et Vetera, and a theology and Latin teacher at St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania. Dr. Merrick is also on the faculty for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown’s Lay Ecclesial and Diaconal Formation program. Previously he was scholar-in-residence at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. Before entering the Church with his wife and children, he was an Anglican priest and college theology professor in the United States and in the United Kingdom. Follow Dr. Merrick on Twitter: @JamesRAMerrick.


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