Newman’s Canonization: A Summons to Truth

Towards the end of his life, when he peered into the future, Newman saw with prophetic clarity the unprecedented scale of the general irreligion to come.

John Henry Cardinal Newman in 1887. [Wikipedia]

Once the news came out today that John Henry Newman (1801-90) would soon be made a saint, after the Vatican announced that the pope had formally approved a second miracle attributed to the great convert’s intercession, many around the world will have rejoiced that the Servant of Truth in Newman will finally be given his proper due. Yet to begin to understand this defining aspect of the man, we have to understand the heroic fight he undertook to combat those who sought to deny or mutilate the Truth.

When Newman was given his red hat by Leo XIII in 1879, the new cardinal made a point in his ‘bigiletto speech’ to say two things about his long career, both as a Catholic and as an Anglican. First, he meant his audience to know that he had never ceased opposing liberalism. “For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism,” he declared. Since some in the liberal academy have an interest in misrepresenting what Newman meant by liberalism, we should let him say for himself what he meant. “Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true. 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. Devotion is not necessarily founded on faith. …Since, then, religion is so personal a peculiarity and so private a possession, we must of necessity ignore it in the intercourse of man with man. If a man puts on a new religion every morning, what is that to you? It is as impertinent to think about a man’s religion as about his sources of income or his management of his family. Religion is in no sense the bond of society.”

Secondly, Newman wished his auditors to appreciate that he had waged this campaign against liberalism against a definite historical backdrop.

Hitherto the civil Power has been Christian. Even in countries separated from the Church, as in my own, the dictum was in force, when I was young, that: “Christianity was the law of the land.” Now, everywhere that goodly framework of society, which is the creation of Christianity, is throwing off Christianity. The dictum to which I have referred, with a hundred others which followed upon it, is gone, or is going everywhere; and, by the end of the century, unless the Almighty interferes, it will be forgotten. …As to Religion, it 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. The general character of this great apostasia is one and the same everywhere.

For Newman, the English Reformation had been a tragedy for the unity of Christendom because it ultimately opened the door not only to apostasy but to the private judgment essential to liberalism. And liberalism gave rise to unbelief, a species of apostasy that was at the very heart of Newman’s apostolate, because it was at the heart of his recognition that there could be no re-evangelization of the English people without proper Catholic education. Unbelief was also more insidious than the repudiation of Catholicism exacted by more formal apostasy because it was so much more prevalent in a society suffused with No Popery. Moreover, the unbelief that followed apostasy posed formidable problems for the newly reconstituted English Catholic Church. If three hundred years of Protestant Christianity had left the English radically hostile to Catholic Christianity, any attempt at reviving the Church in England would have its work cut out for it

Another ancillary problem, as Newman saw it, was that the English had apostatized twice. If their first apostasy had been from their traditional Catholic faith to the Protestant faith of the Tudors, their second caused them to abandon the Bible Christianity of the Established Church for the rationalism of the Enlightenment, which Newman saw as interchangeable with the liberalism that he spent his life combatting. (One can see this in his excoriating criticism of the Enlightenment historian, Edward Gibbon.) Again, in his ‘bigiletto speech,’ there was nothing happenstance about his speaking of his fight against liberalism in the context of what he called “the great apostasia.” They went hand-in-hand.

The apostasy bred of liberalism – what he called “the all-corroding, all-dissolving scepticism of the intellect” — faced Newman throughout his long life. Indeed, it turned his two brothers away from the Christian faith, not to mention many of his dearest friends. Towards the end of his life, when he peered into the future, he saw with prophetic clarity the unprecedented scale of the general irreligion to come. “I am speaking of evils, which in their intensity and breadth are peculiar to these times,” he wrote. “But I have not yet spoken of the root of all these falsehoods… The elementary proposition of this new philosophy which is now so threatening is this—that in all things we must go by reason, in nothing by faith, that things are known and are to be received so far as they can be proved. Its advocates say, all other knowledge has proof—why should religion be an exception?”

One of the reasons why Newman held such abiding sway over his contemporaries was precisely because he spoke of the character of this new faithless rationalism with such terrible accuracy. Matthew Arnold’s younger brother, Thomas, who would later teach English literature in Newman’s Catholic University in Dublin, after converting to the Church not once but twice, to the chagrin of his wife, certainly acknowledged his debt to Newman on this score. (His wife Julia was understandably livid that his conversions had left her husband effectively unemployable in Protestant England.) In his very first letter to the Oratorian convert in 1855, he wrote from New Zealand:

My excuse for writing to you and seeking counsel from you, is that your writings have exercised the greatest influence over my mind. I will try to make this intelligible in as few words as possible. My Protestantism which was always of the liberal sort and disavowed the principle of authority, developed itself during my residence at Oxford into a state of absolute doubt and uncertainty about the very facts of Christianity. After leaving Oxford I went up to London, and there, to my deep shame be it spoken, finding a state of doubt intolerable, I plunged into the abyss of unbelief. You know the nature of the illusions which lead a man to this fearful state far better than I can tell you; — there is a page in your lectures on the University system where you describe the fancied illumination and enlargement of mind which a man experiences after abandoning himself to unbelief, which when I read, it seemed as if you had looked into my very heart, and given in clear outline feelings and thoughts which I had had in my mind, but never thoroughly mastered.

The passage to which Arnold refers, from Newman’s Discourses on the Scope and Nature of University Education (1852), which would later be expanded into his classic The Idea of a University (1873), describes the seeming “illumination” that the mind experiences when it first “comes across the arguments and speculations of unbelievers, and feels what a novel light they cast upon what he has hitherto accounted sacred; and still more, if it gives in to them and embraces them, and throws off as so much prejudice what it has hitherto held, and, as if waking from a dream, begins to realize to its imagination that there is now no such thing as law and the transgression of law, that sin is a phantom, and punishment a bugbear, that it is free to sin, free to enjoy the world and the flesh…”

For Newman’s part, in the midst of such factitious “illumination,” such antinomian licentiousness, he never lost sight of the fact that:

…Religion has its own enlargement, and an enlargement, not of tumult, but of peace. It is often remarked of uneducated persons, who have hitherto thought little of the unseen world, that, on their turning to God, looking into themselves, regulating their hearts, reforming their conduct, and meditating on death and judgment, heaven and hell, they seem to become, in point of intellect, different beings from what they were. Before, they took things as they came, and thought no more of one thing than another. But now every event has a meaning; they have their own estimate of whatever happens to them; they are mindful of times and seasons, and compare the present with the past; and the world, no longer dull, monotonous, unprofitable, and hopeless, is a various and complicated drama, with parts and an object, and an awful moral.

And here it is telling that Newman should have chosen to exemplify his point by referring to the case of “uneducated persons” because, while never flagging in his advocacy of proper education – education, that is to say, where faith and reason were in equipoise, not at daggers — he was never of the now prevalent opinion that only the “educated” could somehow access the Truth.

What made Newman’s descriptions of the life of faith so captivating to so many of his contemporaries was that they were honest about the absence of faith amongst the Victorian English. If one looks at his sermons and letters one can see that he had grounds for suspecting that unbelief was much more widespread in his day than many imagined. Indeed, in the National Church, ravaged as it was by the latitudinarianism of liberal divines, unbelief was rampant. For the most part, when it came to the Christian faith, the Victorians tended to be not so much ill-formed as unformed: they were not so much apostate as pagan.

Henry Mayhew, for example, in the course of the interviews he conducted for London Labour and the London Poor (1851), found that ‘‘not three in one hundred costermongers had ever been in the interior of a church, or any place of worship, or knew what was meant by Christianity.” The upper classes, to whom the National Church primarily catered, may have known very much more, but whether theirs was a genuine, as opposed to merely a tribal faith was highly questionable. Certainly, Newman saw a kind of travesty of Christian faith in what he called, in one of his best Anglican sermons, “The Religion of the Day” (1839), a “religion of the world,” in which there

is an existing teaching… built upon worldly principle, yet pretending to be the Gospel, dropping one whole side of the Gospel, its austere character, and considering it enough to be benevolent, courteous, candid, correct in conduct, delicate,—though it includes no true fear of God, no fervent zeal for His honour, no deep hatred of sin, no horror at the sight of sinners, no indignation… at the blasphemies of heretics, no jealous adherence to doctrinal truth, no especial sensitiveness about the particular means of gaining ends, provided the ends be good, no loyalty to the Holy Apostolic Church, of which the Creed speaks, no sense of the authority of religion as external to the mind: in a word, no seriousness…

Newman, in other words, recognized that the Church could be susceptible to a rationalism of her own, which, in some respects, could be even more destructive than the world’s rationalism.

Certainly, rationalism of both the ecclesiastical and the worldly variety is still with us, though our rationalism is infinitely more ruinous than the sort adopted by the Victorians. Victorian rationalists, after all, did not set about trying to redefine something as fundamental to the “goodly framework of human society” as marriage. What makes Newman such a lively contemporary of ours is the perspicuity with which he saw the import of this God-defying reliance on the human intellect. No one saw the battle-lines forming between Roman Catholicism and its liberal enemies as clearly as Newman. The late Yale professor Frank Turner, whose attacks on Newman’s integrity have become such a rallying cry for Newman’s detractors, argued that Newman’s very understanding of liberalism was flawed because it was somehow lacking in specificity. My readers can judge for themselves whether Newman is vulnerable on this score. Certainly, throughout his long life, he took up the evils posed by liberalism with commanding acuity. “I look out, then, into the enemy’s camp, and I try to trace the outlines of the hostile movements and the preparations for assault which are there in agitation against us,” Newman wrote in 1858. “The arming and the manoeuvring, the earth-works and the mines, go on incessantly; and one cannot of course tell, without the gift of prophecy, which of his projects will be carried into effect and attain its purpose, and which will eventually fail or be abandoned.” (The fact that Newman chose an analogy to trench warfare here is striking in light of the fate that awaited the Victorians’ belief in progress in the fields of Flanders.)

Newman delineated clearly enough the main lines of the liberal philosophy that would seek to discredit and dislodge the teachings of the one holy catholic and apostolic Faith from the minds and hearts of men. ”You may have opinions in religion, you may have theories, you may have arguments, you may have probabilities,” Newman portrayed his rationalist liberal arguing, “you may have anything but demonstration, and therefore you cannot have science. In mechanics you advance from sure premises to sure conclusions; in optics you form your undeniable facts into system, arrive at general principles, and then again infallibly apply them: here you have Science.” But for the liberal rationalists, “it is absurd for men in our present state to teach anything positively about the next world, that there is a heaven, or a hell, or a last judgment, or that the soul is immortal, or that there is a God.”

In capturing the ethos of this anti-Christian rationalism so precisely, Newman captured not only the skepticism of his own age but that of ours as well.

Well, then, if Religion is just one of those subjects about which we can know nothing, what can be so absurd as to spend time upon it? what so absurd as to quarrel with others about it? Let us all keep to our own religious opinions respectively, and be content . . . upon no subject whatever has the intellect of man been fastened so intensely as upon Religion. And the misery is, that, if once we allow it to engage our attention, we are in a circle from which we never shall be able to extricate ourselves. Our mistake reproduces and corroborates itself. A small insect, a wasp or a fly, is unable to make his way through the pane of glass; and his very failure is the occasion of greater violence in his struggle than before. He is as heroically obstinate in his resolution to succeed as the assailant or defender of some critical battlefield; he is unflagging and fierce in an effort which cannot lead to anything beyond itself. When, then, in like manner, you have once resolved that certain religious doctrines shall be indisputably true, and that all men ought to perceive their truth, you have engaged in an undertaking which, though continued on to eternity, will never reach its aim; and, since you are convinced it ought to do so, the more you have failed hitherto, the more violent and pertinacious will be your attempt in time to come. And further still, since you are not the only man in the world who is in this error, but one of ten thousand, all holding the general principle that Religion is scientific, and yet all differing as to the truths and facts and conclusions of this science, it follows that the misery of social disputation and disunion is added to the misery of a hopeless investigation, and life is not only wasted in fruitless speculation, but embittered by bigotted sectarianism.

Here, one can see the satirical genius with which Newman entered into the liberal prejudices of his opponents, and it is this critical clairvoyance that makes him such an incomparable guide to the rationalism at the heart of liberalism. At the same time, if in meeting his opponents, he could play the witty barrister, putting their arguments better than they could put them themselves, he was also a redoubtable advocate for the Truth against which liberalism has always warred. Robert Pattison, in his brilliant book, The Great Dissent: John Henry Newman and the Liberal Heresy (1991) nicely encapsulates the upshot of his advocacy. “The great virtue of Newman’s critique of liberalism is that it should exist at all,” Pattison writes.

That there should be one consistent view of the world opposed to liberalism, root and branch, sharing none of its premises and despising all of its works is an inestimable benefit, for no one more than the liberal himself. Without some honest and unforgiving voice such as Newman’s, the liberal would be lost in the labyrinth of his own ideology. He would smugly assume that the paradoxical tenets of his creed are what Jefferson assured them they were: self-evident truths . . . The poverty of feeling without belief, the politics that is expediency, and the humanism that denies truth all fall within the scope of Newman’s invective and receive from him no quarter. He treats the ugliest manifestations of liberalism with the contempt they deserve but rarely provoke. Newman is the master of those who dissent.

One can readily corroborate Pattison’s point by looking at Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, which Cardinal Kasper and his liberal friends have gone to such strenuous lengths to misrepresent. There, Newman cannot have been more categorical about what he refers to as “the dogmatic principle,” his abiding riposte to the clever falsehoods of liberalism.

That there is a truth then; that there is one truth; that religious error is in itself of an immoral nature; that its maintainers, unless involuntarily such, are guilty in maintaining it; that it is to be dreaded; that the search for truth is not the gratification of curiosity; that its attainment has nothing of the excitement of a discovery; that the mind is below truth, not above it, and is bound, not to descant upon it, but to venerate it; that truth and falsehood are set before us for the trial of our hearts; that our choice is an awful giving forth of lots on which salvation or rejection is inscribed; that “before all things it is necessary to hold the Catholic faith;” that “he that would be saved must thus think,” and not otherwise; that, “if thou criest after knowledge, and liftest up thy voice for understanding, if thou seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasure, then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God,”—this is the dogmatical principle, which is strength.

In contrast to the dogmatical principle, Newman described the objections to dogma that animates liberals, and here we have no problem understanding what Newman is describing because we encounter such convictions daily in our own lives.

That truth and falsehood in religion are but matter of opinion; that one doctrine is as good as another; that the Governor of the world does not intend that we should gain the truth; that there is no truth; that we are not more acceptable to God by believing this than by believing that; that no one is answerable for his opinions; that they are a matter of necessity or accident; that it is enough if we sincerely hold what we profess; that our merit lies in seeking, not in possessing; that it is a duty to follow what seems to us true, without a fear lest it should not be true; that it may be a gain to succeed, and can be no harm to fail; that we may take up and lay down opinions at pleasure; that belief belongs to the mere intellect, not to the heart also; that we may safely trust to ourselves in matters of Faith, and need no other guide,—this is the principle of philosophies and heresies, which is very weakness.

In thus giving such arresting expression to the stark divide between the Truth espoused by the Church and the shibboleths of liberalism, Newman was not simply framing an abstract war of ideas. An inveterately practical man, he was deeply concerned about what the issue of doctrinaire anti-Catholicism would be. “Where men really are persuaded of all this, however unreasonable,” he asks, “what will follow?” For Newman, liberal relativism would not be inconsequential, and the accuracy of his predictions can be verified by our own increasingly tragic experience: it would issue in “A feeling, not merely of contempt, but of absolute hatred, towards the Catholic theologian and the dogmatic teacher. The patriot abhors and loathes the partisans who have degraded and injured his country; and the citizen of the world, the advocate of the human race, feels bitter indignation at those whom he holds to have been its misleaders and tyrants for two thousand years.”

The upshot of Newman’s assessment of the gains that rationalism had made since the French Revolution was sobering. “Christianity has never yet had experience of a world simply irreligious,” he wrote in 1873.

Perhaps China may be an exception. We do not know enough about it to speak, but consider what the Roman and Greek world was when Christianity appeared. It was full of superstition, not of infidelity. There was much unbelief in all as regards their mythology, and in every educated man, as to eternal punishment. But there was no casting off the idea of religion, and of unseen powers who governed the world. When they spoke of Fate, even here they considered that there was a great moral governance of the world carried on by fated laws. Their first principles were the same as ours. Even among the sceptics of Athens, St. Paul could appeal to the Unknown God. Even to the ignorant populace of Lystra he could speak of the living God who did them good from heaven. And so when the northern barbarians came down at a later age, they, amid all their superstitions, were believers in an unseen Providence and in the moral law. But we are now coming to a time when the world does not acknowledge our first principles.

In conclusion, if Newman devoted his life to anatomizing and combating the evils of liberalism, he was sensible enough to recognize that such evils would not be either easily or speedily removed. After all, he was enough of a scholar of liberalism’s progress to know that it had its roots in the heresies of the Primitive Church, especially the Arian heresy, in which men sought to rationalize away the Divinity of Our Lord. Removing any heresy of that durability would not be the work of a day. Consequently, he clearly recognized that the work he initiated would have to be carried forward by others, and it is precisely because of the necessity for this continuing charge that we should all welcome the news today that Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman will soon be canonized.

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About Edward Short 15 Articles
Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries and Newman and his Family, both published by Bloomsbury, and Adventures in the Book Pages, published by Gracewing. His most recent book Newman and History has just been published by Gracewing. He lives in New York with his wife and two young children.


  1. A brilliant essay on a Saint of our times. St. John Newman, pray for us in our battle against Rationalism and Liberalism – the scourges of our day.

    • Will start my comments by telling a joke as follows: The President has to hire a new Chairman for the Federal Reserve so he interviews three people. The first is an accountant. The President ask what is 2+2; the accountant responds with the answer 4. Next the President interviews a renowned physicist and ask the same question what is 2+2. The physicist wanting to demonstrate his intellect responds it is the cube root of 64. Then the President brings in a Noble Prize winning economist and ask the same question. The economist ponders the question and then whispers in the presidents ear the answer – “What do you want it to be?”
      That is what liberalism is in religion and for the matter everything else. It is not about the truth but “what we want it to be”. So heresy is built on our ideas, not revealed truth, not Christ ways. Truth is all about us. That is why we have thousands of protestant churches and why so many Catholics really who want there own version of the truth. Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation was just humans wanting to be their own god in defining truth. This seems to be a virus that is prevalent in people higher up on the intellectual chain, as pride provides food for deception that we do not need to submit to core truths.
      Newman recognized this. He was able to be converted to the Catholic Faith. One of things I so admire and am humbled is by catholic converts who are on search of the truth come to the Catholic Faith, thus deposing of any pride that got in the way. One thing I do wonder about is why it took so long for Newman to be recognized. Now is the time for the Church to emphasize his warnings on liberalism.

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