John Henry Newman’s long war on liberalism

Blessed John Henry Newman’s devastating critique of liberal religion remains even more relevant in our own time.

Detail from 1889 portrait of John Henry Newman by Emmeline Deane [WikiArt.org]

Editor’s note: This article was originally posted on July 30, 2017; it is reposted today to mark Blessed Newman’s feast day.

There is truly nothing new under the sun. That’s the pedestrian conclusion at which I arrived after recently re-reading the address given by one of the nineteenth century’s greatest theologians, Blessed John Henry Newman, when Pope Leo XIII made him a cardinal on May 12, 1879.

Known as the Biglietto Speech (after the formal letter given to cardinals on such occasions), its 1720 words constitute a systematic indictment of what Newman called that “one great mischief” against which he had set his face “from the first.” Today, I suspect, the sheer force of Newman’s critique of what he called “liberalism in religion” would make him persona non grata in most Northern European theology faculties.

When reflecting upon Newman’s remarks, it’s hard not to notice how much of the Christian world in the West has drifted in the directions against which he warned. Under the banner of “liberalism in religion,” Newman listed several propositions. These included (1) “the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion,” (2) “that one creed is as good as another,” (3) that no religion can be recognized as true for “all are matter of opinion,” (4) that “revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective faith, not miraculous,” and (5) “it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.”

Can anyone doubt that such ideas are widespread today among some Christians? Exhibit A are the rapidly-collapsing liberal Protestant confessions. Another instance is that fair number of Catholic clergy and laity of a certain age who shy away from the word “truth” and who regard any doctrine that conflicts with the post-1960s Western world’s expectations as far from settled. Yet Newman’s description of liberal religion also accurately summarizes the essentially secular I’m-spiritual-not-religious mindset.

At the time, the directness of Newman’s assault on liberal religion surprised people. It wasn’t for idle reasons that the speech was reprinted in full in The London Times on 13 May, and then translated into Italian so that it could appear in the Holy See’s own newspaper L’Osservatore Romano on 14 May. Everyone recognized that Newman’s words were of immense significance.

The newly-minted cardinal had hitherto been seen as someone ill-at-ease with the Church’s direction during Pius IX’s pontificate. Newman’s apprehensions about the opportuneness of the First Vatican Council formally defining papal infallibility were well-known. Not well-understood was that concerns about Catholics being misled into thinking they must assent to a pope’s firm belief that, for example, the optimal upper-tax rate is 25.63 percent, didn’t mean that you regarded religious belief as a type of theological smorgasbord.

Those who had followed the trajectory of Newman’s thought over the previous fifty years would have recognized that the Biglietto Speech harkened back to a younger Newman and a consistent record of fierce opposition to liberal religion. In 1848, for instance, Newman had lampooned liberal religion in his novel Loss and Gain (1848). One character in the book, the Dean of Nottingham, is portrayed as someone who believes that “there was no truth or falsehood in received dogmas of theology; that they were modes, neither good nor bad in themselves, but personal, national, or periodic.”

Such opinions mirror the views of those today who primarily regard Scripture, the Church and Christian faith as essentially human historical constructs: a notion that invariably goes hand-in-hand with a barely-disguised insistence that the Church always requires wholesale adaptation to whatever happens to be the zeitgeist. The end-result is chronic doctrinal instability (and thus incoherence) and the degeneration of churches into mere NGO-ism: precisely the situation which characterizes contemporary Catholicism in the German-speaking world.

Another of the novel’s characters is Mr. Batts, the director of the Truth Society. This organization is founded on two principles. First, it is uncertain whether truth exists. Second, it is certain that it cannot be found. Welcome to the world of philosophical skepticism which, Newman understood, is based on the contradiction of holding that we know the truth that humans really cannot know truth.

Newman’s antagonism towards liberal religion, however, also reflected another side of his thought that, I suspect, some today would also prefer to ignore. This concerns Newman’s critical view of liberalism as a social philosophy.

Newman was fully aware of the ambiguity surrounding terms like “conservatism” and “liberalism.” In his Apologia Pro Sua Vita (1864), Newman specified that his criticism of liberalism shouldn’t be interpreted as slighting French Catholics such as Charles de Montalembert and the Dominican priest Henri-Dominique Lacordaire—“two men whom I so highly admire”—who embraced the liberal label but in the context of post-Revolutionary France: a world which differed greatly from the Oxford and England of Newman’s time.

We get closer to the “liberalism” against which Newman protested when we consider a letter to his mother dated 13 March 1829. Here Newman condemns, among others, “the Utilitarians” and “useful knowledge men” whose ideas were propagated by philosophical Radical periodicals such as the Westminster Review. These beliefs and publications were clearly associated with utilitarian thinkers and political radicals such as Jeremy Bentham (the Westminster Review’s founder), James Mill and, later, John Stuart Mill. In this sense, liberalism was Newman’s way of describing what we today call doctrinaire secularism.

This is borne out by the Biglietto Speech’s portrayal of a society’s fate as it gradually abandons its Christian character, invariably at the behest of those Newman calls “Philosophers and Politicians.” Newman begins by referencing their imposition of “a universal and a thoroughly secular education, calculated to bring home to every individual that to be orderly, industrious, and sober, is his personal interest.”

Recognizing, however, that utility, pragmatism and self-interest aren’t enough to glue society together, liberals promote, according to Newman, an alternative to revealed religion. This, he says, is made up of an amalgam of “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.” But while liberals uphold this mixture of particular moral principles, matter-of-factness and science, Newman points out that they simultaneously insist that religion is “a private luxury, which a man may have if he will; but which of course he must pay for, and which he must not obtrude upon others, or indulge in to their annoyance.”

It’s not, Newman says, that things like “the precepts of justice, truthfulness, sobriety, self-command, benevolence” etc. are bad in themselves. In fact, Newman adds, “there is much in the liberalistic theory which is good and true.” Nor did Newman adopt an “anti-science” view at a time when some Christians worried about how to reconcile the Scriptures with the tremendous expansion in knowledge of the natural world which marked the nineteenth century. Newman wasn’t, for example, especially troubled by Darwin’s Origin of the Species. As he wrote to the biologist and Catholic convert St George Jackson Mivart in 1871, “you must not suppose I have personally any great dislike or dread of his theory.”

What Newman opposed was a problem with which we are all too familiar today. This consists of (1) absolutizing the natural sciences as the only objective form of knowledge and (2) using the empirical method to answer theological and moral questions that the natural sciences cannot answer.

In such cases, Newman wrote in his Idea of a University (1852), “they exceed their proper bounds, and intrude where they have no right.” It also fosters a mentality which has seeped into the minds of those Christians who prioritize sociology, psychology, opinion-polls, and what they imagine to be the “established scientific position” when discussing what the Catholic position on any subject should be.

More generally, Newman argued that it’s precisely because these principles are un-objectionable in themselves that they become dangerous when liberals include them in the “array of principles” they use “to supersede, to block out, religion.” In these circumstances, those who maintain that religion, in the sense of divinely-revealed truths about God and man, cannot be relegated to the status of football teams competing in a private league are dismissed as unreasonable, intolerant, lacking benevolence, unscientific, and reflective of (to use the curious words employed in a recent L’Osservatore Romano opinion piece) a “modest cultural level.” In a word—illiberal.

Newman well-understood the ultimate stakes involved in the advance of liberal religion and the nihilism it concealed under a veneer of progressive Western European bourgeois morality. It was nothing less, he said, than “the ruin of many souls.” For Newman, there was always the serious possibility that error at the level of belief can contribute to people making the type of free choices which lead to the eternal separation from God we call hell.

The good news is that Newman had “no fear at all that [liberal religion] can really do aught of serious harm to the Word of God, to Holy Church.” For Newman, the Church was essentially indestructible. That didn’t mean it would be free of disputation or disruption. Newman himself spent his life immersed in theological controversies. But Newman’s deep knowledge of the Church Fathers made him conscious that orthodoxy had been under assault since Christianity’s earliest centuries.

Newman believed, however, in Christ’s promises to his Church. Moreover, Newman ended his Biglietto Speech by stating that “what is commonly a great surprise” is “the particular mode by which . . . Providence rescues and saves his elect inheritance.” Even in times where serious theological and moral error seems rampant, God raises up courageous bishops and priests, clear-thinking popes, new religious orders and movements, lay people who reject liberal Christianity’s mediocrity and soft-nihilism, and, above all, great saints and martyrs.

Against such things, Newman knew—and we should have confidence—liberal religion doesn’t have a chance.

About Dr. Samuel Gregg 22 Articles
Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has written and spoken extensively on questions of political economy, economic history, ethics in finance, and natural law theory. He is the author of many books, including Becoming Europe (2013) and For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance Can Serve the Common Good (2016).

18 Comments

  1. It is important to be a happy warrior – now – as always.

    Thanks Dr. Gregg. And thanks be to God for Cdl. John Henry Newman.

  2. Anything on John Henry Cardinal Newman is worth reading and Dr Gregg’s article is informative, delineating Newman’s expected criticisms of Liberalism. Ironically Newman at the time may not have foreseen the very premises listed by Dr Gregg as Liberal religious fallacies identify what many Catholics now hold. Needless to say not the many who comment on this site. News is so bad there is little to rejoice about. Expect for my personal experience as was the case at this morning’s at Mass. “Only about 1 in 3 adult Catholics (31.4 percent), chiefly older women, attend Mass in any given week, according to a survey of 1,007 self-identified Catholics by the Catholic research agency, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate”. That figure of which the majority are elderly women is staggering. It’s Apostasy. The rural church I offered 8:30 am Mass at this morning I’m told has far fewer persons in the pews than in previous years. What made up for it was happiness and real warmth of the parishioners. The earlier 7 am Mass in a much larger town is usually well attended including young adults, and increasingly so. If it weren’t for the joy I experience at these Masses there would be little to offset the desolation I frequently feel regarding the state of our Church. Faith, strong faith is needed. And a deepening of our intimacy with Christ. That itself is our mainstay.

    • We are the generation that will lead the comeback. We have been given a great gift, for we were here when the chips were down, and we were presented with the opportunity to really make a difference by turning it all around. The internet is probably the thing that will enable us to reach more people with the message of Christ than ever. The whole world is ripe for the message of Christ now, since the weird New Atheists have pretty much taken their best shot and failed. The fakers that hurt the church with their distortions of what Vatican II demanded have been exposed. Secularism has now become a heavy mental burden for those that rely on it. People are starting to realize their lives are formed around nothing, and they are beginning to realize secularism’s vapid emptiness. It’s always darkest before the dawn, and I am convinced that it is about 4:30 AM.

      • It’s always darkest before the dawn” Chairman Mao Zedong. The dawn may not be the bandied about notion of a revived Church lasting another millennium. Pogo’s “It’s always darkest before it becomes totally black” may be closer to what we may need to spiritually prepare for. Zechariah’s acclamation “In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace” has occurred. The next dawn indicates the Second Coming.

    • None of this makes much sense, expect for this:

      “That figure of which the majority are elderly women”

      IOW, the Church is dithering into irrelevance, and academics are appealing to…. Newman. A great but inaccessible man. Really? Wow.

      • Your assessment of Newman as “inaccessible” embodies his warnings about the dissolution of the culture into an emotivist one devoid of right reason and disdaining the wisdom of the ages (Chesterton’s ‘chronological snobbery’). Try reading his Apologia Pro Vita Sua or Loss and Gain, then some of his sermons. Acquire the taste for the beauty of his prose and his love of truth – it is well worth it!

      • Inaccessible? Really? Tough sledding maybe. And maybe not accessible to those who have been dumbed down, allowed themselves to be so treated, by journalistic prose/commentary aimed at those with a 6th-grade education. Inaccessible to those who park in front of their TV’s for hours on end, night after night and watch mindless (and worse) comedy, drama, or what passes for it.

        Question: Is all of Scripture “accessible”? It, too, is sometimes hard to understand but it can be with aids and involvement in well-led groups.

        Lyn said it well.

  3. This is an irritating column. I wish the author would put in a paragraph what his point is, because he is as verbose as Newman, and, I’d argue, thus as effective. Which means Not Very. Francis is instigating havoc, and we have men on our side writing essays extolling Victorian apologists, essays that the average man can’t make heads or tails of. And then we wonder why “development of doctrine” is a pox. Catholics, please for the love of God wake up, or become Episcopalians.

    • That comment about becoming Episcopalians would be very funny if it did not sound so sincere. Very informative article. It brings to memory Cardinal Ratzinger’s comment about the dangers of relativism. No one I know of ever preaches or writes much about these dangers. I mean in the general population of Catholics. I would guess that many Catholics are relativists. The problem is also that the Church will surely survive as promised but many will suffer because not enough leaders spoke out.

  4. Blessed John Henry’s placid hymn, Lead Kindly Light, in the original tune to which he ascribed its popularity, (Kindly Light) Lux Benigna.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z6QaKyWrpww

    Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom,
    lead thou me on;
    the night is dark, and I am far from home;
    lead thou me on.
    Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
    the distant scene; one step enough for me.

    I was not ever thus, nor prayed that thou
    shouldst lead me on;
    I loved to choose and see my path; but now
    lead thou me on.
    I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
    pride ruled my will: remember not past years.

    So long thy power hath blest me, sure it still
    will lead me on,
    o’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
    the night is gone,
    and with the morn those angel faces smile,
    which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.

  5. Bl Newman told seminarians: ” the trials which lie before us would appal and make dizzy even such courageous hearts as St. Athanasius, St. Gregory I, or St. Gregory VII. And they would confess that, dark as the prospect of their own day was to them severally, ours has a darkness different in kind from any that has been before.” But let’s not lose heart in the face of this ‘desertification’, as Pope BXVI said, because “in the desert people of faith are needed who, with their own lives, point out the way to the Promised Land and keep hope alive. Living faith opens the heart to the grace of God which frees us from pessimism.”

  6. Author P. Kreeft wrote that we are adept at self-deception and even more successful at this than deceiving others. Progressive liberals -both secular and many religious- have managed to ignore Bl. Newman and it has taken over a century for a few honest souls (like Dr. Gregg) to unmask their duplicity. A philosopher noted that “Truth has a quiet voice but it will [eventually] demand a hearing”. We cannot afford to ignore Newman, Benedict XVI and Saint J.P.II for another 100 years.

    • How nice that Blessed John Henry was associated in British public opinion with the visit of Pope Benedict XVI. They saw not “God’s rottweiler” or the “enforcer of the Holy Office”, but the kindly old grandfather figure shining with genuine love. We don’t know what action of grace is at work, which young people now diffused in forgotten corners, perhaps many who are not Catholic or even Christian, who have been deeply influenced by the Pope to consider the profound message of the Blessed, what good they might do for the world in undreamt of future times.

  7. The assault of Christianity was way before those we call the Church Fathers.
    ACTS 20: 28-31 ” 28Take heed to yourselves, and to the whole flock, wherein the Holy Ghost hath placed you bishops, to rule the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. 29I know that, after my departure, ravening wolves will enter in among you, not sparing the flock. 30And of your own selves shall arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. 31Therefore watch, keeping in memory, that for three years I ceased not, with tears to admonish every one of you night and day.” God bless, C-Marir

  8. Appreciate this so much. Way back in 1963, my wonderful late husband Bill would speak about John Henry Newman. He had read him through and through and I know all the points in your article were why my husband thought so much of him and he would talk about his analysis of liberalism.

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