Newman and the Grace of Simplicity

The most prevalent false Newman is still the false Modernist Newman—posited by those who wish to argue that Newman’s thinking can be cited to reconcile the Church to the modern world’s most egregious moral errors.

Detail from "Portrait of Newman" (1881) by John Everett Millais [Wikipedia]

Now that the canonization of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman nears, we have seen a good number of articles from different quarters telling us what Newman thought and did not think. Of these, the piece I found most tell-tale was the July 22, 2019 essay by Ryan Marr that appeared on the Witherspoon Institute site in which Marr claimed, apropos the Biglietto Speech, that Newman had not opposed liberalism, as he explicitly stated he had “for thirty, forty, fifty years”. No, he had opposed what the author ingeniously called “religious indifferentism,” a claim reminiscent of the old Groucho Marx joke, in which the man caught in bed with his neighbor’s wife, turns to the cuckold and says, “Who are you going to believe: me or your own eyes?”

Here is the passage to which I refer from the Witherspoon post:

Of course, we should be careful not to conflate the “liberalism” that Newman opposed with the word as it is commonly used today. Certainly, there are errors intrinsic to contemporary political liberalism that need critiquing, but that conversation is distinct from the struggle against the spirit of liberalism in religion, which demands unqualified resistance. In the Biglietto Speech, Newman specifically described this strand of liberalism as “the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another.” This outlook teaches that “[r]evealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and [that] it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.” As his words indicate, the preeminent object of Newman’s concern was religious indifferentism.

As his words indicate? Newman’s words indicate nothing of the kind. He never mentions “religious indifferentism” in the speech. Marr has not written a gloss of the speech: he has bowdlerized it.

If we believe our own eyes, pace what the misguided author of this post claims, we will see that Newman did oppose liberalism. We will see that the liberalism he opposed has everything to do with our own liberalism, grounded as they both are in the calamitous arrogance of rationalism. And we will see that his opposition to liberalism was not restricted to religious liberalism. As Matthew Schmitz astutely pointed out the other day in First Things: Newman may have “insisted that he opposed political liberalism only insofar as it sought ‘to supersede, to block out, religion,’ but he had an expansive definition of what this meant. …Teetotalism was one example. He mistrusted the temperance movement because it sought to promote virtue ‘without Religion . . . on mere principles of utility.’ Better to be a drunk [in other words] than a Benthamist.”

For those who might have missed Schmitz’s piece, he rightly deplored the fact that leading up to the canonization there will be two camps disputing the meaning of Newman’s legacy:

On one side will be those who venerate Newman as the patron saint of liberal Catholicism. They believe that his writings authorize dissent from, and revolutions in, Christian doctrine. In their eyes, his canonization will be a sign that what is denounced as error in one age may later be embraced as truth. On the other side will be those who have read ­Newman’s stinging denunciations of theological and political liberalism, and therefore imagine that he favored the illiberal and ultramontane form of Catholicism that flourished during the nineteenth century. Both these images of Newman are false.

This is true as far as it goes, though one has to keep in mind that those who wish to claim that Newman was liberal and Modernist far outweigh those who claim that he was illiberal and unduly ultramontane. (Of course, he was ultramontane, though not excessively so.) The most prevalent false Newman is still the false Modernist Newman—the Newman, that is to say, posited by those like Marr and his friends at the Pittsburgh Newman Institute who wish to argue that Newman’s thinking (especially with regard to the development of doctrine) can be cited to reconcile the Church to the modern world’s most egregious moral errors.

What I should like to speak of in this essay is another Newman, one who often goes missing in such unreal debates, and that is the Newman who steered clear of the Charybdis and Scylla of liberalism and illiberalism to enter into the genuine simplicity of what he called “the one true Fold of the Redeemer.”

In the sermon he placed last in his 8-volume Parochial and Plain Sermons (1834-43), entitled “Ignorance of Evil” (1836), Newman took pains to remind his readers that there was a profound point to God’s forbidding those in paradise from eating from the Tree of Knowledge. “Our happiness as well as duty lies in not going beyond our measure—in being contented with what we are—with what God makes us,” he wrote. “They who seek after forbidden knowledge, of whatever kind, will find they have lost their place in the scale of beings in so doing, and are cast out of the great circle of God’s family.”

In the increasingly barbarous order that has taken shape in the wake of the collapse of Christendom, knowledge, of course, is everywhere adulated, even though it is shown repeatedly to be not only evil but factitious. For Newman, this adulation was an expression of our exile from God’s divine purpose, since it shows “how different is our state from that for which God made us.” However, if in reading that, anyone is inclined to suppose that Newman was speaking in easy generalities, he will be quickly disabused of the notion by Newman himself, who illustrates what he means with a terrible specificity.

[God] meant us to be simple, and we are unreal; He meant us to think no evil, and a thousand associations, bad, trifling, or unworthy, attend our every thought. He meant us to be drawn on to the glories without us, and we are drawn back and (as it were) fascinated by the miseries within us. And hence it is that the whole structure of society is so artificial; no one trusts another, if he can help it; safeguards, checks, and securities are ever sought after. No one means exactly what he says, for our words have lost their natural meaning, and even an Angel could not use them naturally, for every mind being different from every other, they have no distinct meaning. What, indeed, is the very function of society, as it is at present, but a rude attempt to cover the degradation of the fall, and to make men feel respect for themselves, and enjoy it in the eyes of others, without returning to God. This is what we should especially guard against, because there is so much of it in the world. I mean, not an abandonment of evil, not a sweeping away and cleansing out of the corruption which sin has bred within us, but a smoothing it over, an outside delicacy and polish, an ornamenting the surface of things while “within are dead men’s bones and all uncleanness;” making the garments, which at first were given for decency, a means of pride and vanity. Men give good names to what is evil, they sanctify bad principles and feelings; and, knowing that there is vice and error, selfishness, pride, and ambition, in the world, they attempt, not to root out these evils, not to withstand these errors;—that they think a dream, the dream of theorists who do not know the world;—but to cherish and form alliance with them, to use them, to make a science of selfishness, to flatter and indulge error, and to bribe vice with the promise of bearing with it, so that it does but keep in the shade.

That the world and the Church should somehow not be at odds is, of course, one of the basal convictions of the Modernists. For them, the only way the Church can hope to flourish in the modern world—or the ‘post-modern’ world, if one insists—is for the Church to accommodate the errors of the world, especially as they relate to sodomy, concubinage, contraception, and abortion. Newman, as anyone knows who has read him with any attentiveness, would never have shown the least sympathy with such an impious project. As he said in another sermon, “Nature and Grace” (1849), with his accustomed perspicuity:

Behold here the true origin and fountain-head of the warfare between the Church and the world; here they join issue, and diverge from each other. The Church is built upon the doctrine that impurity is hateful to God, and that concupiscence is its root; with the Prince of the Apostles, her visible Head, she denounces “the corruption of concupiscence which is in the world,” or, that corruption in the world which comes of concupiscence; whereas the corrupt world defends, nay, I may even say, sanctifies that very concupiscence which is the world’s corruption. Just as its bolder teachers, as you know, my brethren, hold that the laws of this physical creation are so supreme, as to allow of their utterly disbelieving in the existence of miracles, so, in like manner, it deifies and worships human nature and its impulses, and denies the power and the grant of grace. This is the source of the hatred which the world bears to the Church; it finds a whole catalogue of sins brought into light and denounced, which it would fain believe to be no sins at all; it finds itself to its indignation and impatience, surrounded with sin, morning, noon, and night; it finds that a stern law lies against it in matters where it believed it was its own master and need not think of God; it finds guilt accumulating upon it hourly, which nothing can prevent, nothing remove, but a higher power, the grace of God. It finds itself in danger of being humbled to the earth as a rebel, instead of being allowed to indulge its self-dependence and self-complacency. Hence it takes its stand on nature, and denies or rejects divine grace.

What is striking about this uncompromising assessment of matters is how much it animated Newman’s own reading of England’s worldly rejection of the ancient faith. Surveying the history of England before and after the English Reformation, Newman saw a people, who, after a thousand years, “grew tired of the heavenly stranger who sojourned among them;” a people who “had had enough of blessings and absolutions, enough of the intercession of saints, enough of the grace of the sacraments, enough of the prospect of the next life. They thought it best to secure this life in the first place, because they were in possession of it, and then to go on to the next, if time and means allowed. And they saw that to labour for the next world was possibly to lose this; whereas, to labour for this world might be, for what they knew, the way to labour for the next also. Anyhow, they would pursue a temporal end, and they would account any one their enemy who stood in the way of their pursuing it. It was a madness; but madmen are strong, and madmen are clever . . .” For Newman, this worldly madness was of a piece with England’s new “temporal end.”

And so with the sword and the halter, and by mutilation and fine and imprisonment, they cut off, or frightened away from the land, as Israel did in the time of old, the ministers of the Most High, and their ministrations: they ‘altogether broke the yoke, and burst the bonds.’ ‘They beat one, and killed another, and another they stoned,’ and at length they altogether cast out the Heir from His vineyard, and killed Him, ‘that the inheritance might be theirs.’ And as for the remnant of His servants whom they left, they drove them into corners and holes of the earth, and there they bade them die out; and then they rejoiced and sent gifts either to other, and made merry, because they had rid themselves of those ‘who had tormented them that dwelt upon the earth.’ And so they turned to enjoy this world, and to gain for themselves a name among men, and it was given unto them according to their wish. They preferred the heathen virtues of their original nature, to the robe of grace which God had given them: they fell back, with closed affections, and haughty reserve, and dreariness within, upon their worldly integrity, honour, energy, prudence, and perseverance; they made the most of the natural man, and they ‘received their reward.’ Forthwith they began to rise to a station higher than the heathen Roman, and have, in three centuries, attained a wider range of sovereignty; and now they look down in contempt on what they were, and upon the Religion which reclaimed them from paganism.

As we all know, ‘making the most of the natural man’ has served England very poorly indeed, though this would not be entirely evident until after Newman’s death. He certainly would have goggled at the spectacle of England’s continuing to surrender her sovereignty for what Shakespeare nicely referred to as “inky blots and rotten parchment bonds.”

Nevertheless, despite his being something of a Dutch uncle with his own English contemporaries, an uncle never averse to telling them the truth, even when it was least palatable, the English always respected him. He might, as Dean Church pointed out, have broken “with England and all things English in wrath and sorrow,” but he was still “recognised by Protestant England as one of its greatest men.” When Newman was given his red hat by Leo XIII in 1879, Church made an incisive point about the newly made cardinal and his relationship with his fellow Englishmen when he wrote in the Guardian, the Anglican paper of the time:

In a crowd of new Cardinals — men of eminence in their own communion — he is the only one about whom Englishmen know or care anything. His words, when he speaks, pass verbatim along the telegraph wires, like the words of the men who sway the world. We read of the quiet Oxford scholar’s arms emblazoned on vestment and furniture as those of a Prince of the Church, and of his motto — Cor ad cor loquitur. In that motto is the secret of all that he is to his countrymen. For that skill of which he is such a master, in the use of his and their “sweet mother tongue,” is something much more than literary accomplishment and power. It means that he has the key to what is deepest in their nature and most characteristic in them of feeling and conviction — to what is deeper than opinions and theories and party divisions; to what in their most solemn moments they most value and most believe in.

What the English “most value and most believe in” today may be anyone’s guess, but surely it is not only the English who should be moved by Newman’s mastery of his “sweet English tongue” to heed what he has to tell us of the primacy of holy simplicity in the exercise of our faith. “Let us, finding ourselves in the state in which we are, take those means which alone are really left us, which alone become us,” he writes in “Ignorance of Evil.”

Christ has purchased for us what we lost in Adam, our garment of innocence. He has bid us and enabled us to become as little children; He has purchased for us the grace of simplicity, which, though one of the highest, is very little thought about, is very little sought after. We have, indeed, a general idea what love is, and hope, and faith, and truth, and purity, though a poor idea; but we are almost blind to what is one of the first elements of Christian perfection, that simple-mindedness which springs from the heart’s being whole with God, entire, undivided. And those who think they have an idea of it, commonly rise no higher than to mistake for it a mere weakness and softness of mind, which is but its counterfeit. To be simple is to be like the Apostles and first Christians. Our Saviour says, “Be ye harmless,” or simple, “as doves.” And St. Paul, “I would have you wise unto that which is good, and simple concerning evil.” [Rom. xvi. 19.] Again, “That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation.” [Phil. ii. 15.] And he speaks of the “testimony of” his own “conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom, but by the grace of God,” he had his conversation in the world and towards his disciples.

Here is Newman’s signature eloquence in all of its biblical authority and moving sincerity. Yet, curiously enough, Marr has difficulties with this eloquence, claiming in his oddly philistine way that “Newman’s Victorian rhetoric can sometimes sound foreign to our ears, and the density of his prose means that it can prove difficult to wade through.” (That anyone capable of such a sentence should be put in charge of what calls itself a Newman Institute is a puzzler, but then there is a good deal that is puzzling in Pittsburgh.) Nevertheless, those who delight in Newman’s work will know that he does not write, like so many other prose stylists, to parade his mastery of style: he writes to speak ‘heart to heart’—to cure souls. And consequently, it is fitting that he should end this sermon—a most apposite sermon for our own ruinously sophistical contemporaries—with a prayer.

Let us pray God to give us this great and precious gift; that we may blot out from our memory all that offends Him; unlearn all that knowledge which sin has taught us; rid ourselves of selfish motives, self-conceit, and vanity, littlenesses, envying, grudgings, meannesses; turn from all cowardly, low, miserable ways; and escape from servile fears, the fear of man, vague anxieties of conscience, and superstitions. So that we may have the boldness and frankness of those who are as if they had no sin, from having been cleansed from it; the uncontaminated hearts, open countenances, and untroubled eyes of those who neither suspect, nor conceal, nor shun, nor are jealous; in a word, so that we may have confidence in Him, that we may stay on Him, and rest in the thoughts of Him, instead of plunging amid the thickets of this world; that we may bear His eye and His voice, and know no knowledge but the knowledge of Him and Jesus Christ crucified, and desire no objects but what He has blessed and bid us pursue.

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About Edward Short 36 Articles
Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries, Newman and his Family, and Newman and History, as well as Adventure in the Book Pages: Essays and Reviews. His latest book, What the Bells Sang, includes essays on poets, moralists, novelists, historians, and Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman. He lives in New York with his wife and two young children.


  1. Marr is criticized for saying, “Newman’s Victorian rhetoric can sometimes sound foreign to our ears, and the density of his prose means that it can prove difficult to wade through.”

    But, from Newman’s Idea of a University, we have this: “That aim [of “a great writer”] is to give forth what he has within him; and from his very ernestness it comes to pass that, whatever be the splendour of his diction or the harmony of his periods, he has with him the charm of an incommunicable simplicity…He expresses what all feel, but all cannot say.”

    “Incommunicable simplicity”? Rather than insisting on wading through on our own two feet, maybe Newman beckons us to more simply float–with our rediscovered feelings–buoyed up by the “density of his prose”.

  2. Newman was opposed to liberalism of any kind, even that with which he agreed! As he explained in an appendix (not generally included these days) to his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, he opposed liberalism as an Anglican, supposing the Anglican position to be conservative. After his conversion, he realized that what the English political and religious establishment regarded as conservative was really a different form of liberalism, and rejected it.

    He then expressed puzzlement at the fact that Montalembert and Lacordaire, both former associates of de Lamennais (the founder of liberal Catholicism) agreed with him in repudiating de Lamennais’s liberalism and English “conservative” liberalism, but continued calling themselves liberals! Newman concluded by saying that it pained him to disagree with two such eminent and orthodox thinkers, and supposed that they must mean something else by the term liberalism.

    That appears to be the case. Alexis de Tocqueville (who thought de Lamennais an arrogant jackass: “He has pride enough to walk over the heads of kings and bid defiance to God”) described three types of liberal democracy in “Democracy in America”: 1) French or European in which the collective or State is sovereign, 2) English, in which an élite is sovereign, and 3) American, in which the human person under God is sovereign.

    The American type of liberal democracy is embodied in the original intent of the U.S. Constitution, which almost every pope since Pius IX has approved — although not using the word liberal to describe it. Pius IX modeled the first constitution of the Papal States (the “Fundamental Statute”, which Gladstone erroneously thought was derived from the unwritten English constitution) on the U.S. Constitution, while Leo XIII kept a special copy of the Constitution, a gift of Grover Cleveland at the suggestion of Cardinal Gibbons, in his personal apartments, and showed it to favored visitors.

    Newman continued to reject the term liberalism, but eventually reached some sort of accommodation with American liberalism, most likely through his lively “debate” (I’m being polite) with Orestes Brownson (who like Montalembert and Lacordaire — and even Blessed Frédéric Ozanam) at first supported de Lamennais and then condemned him in his unique Brownsonian manner); Newman even invited Brownson to be on the faculty of the Irish university he was trying to put together, although probably fortunately for Brownson’s temper and Newman’s peace of mind Brownson declined.

    In Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae, Leo XIII carefully distinguished American liberal democracy (“Americanism”) as a political theory from Americanism applied to religious doctrine (modernism and socialism), largely as a result of a distorted translation into French of a biography of Brownson’s friend Father Isaac Hecker in which the translator Abbé Klein — possibly inadvertently — made the mistake of using terms that meant one thing in American liberalism and almost the exact opposite in French liberalism, giving the French modernists a weapon against the establishment. Some conservative French prelates were calling Archbishop Ireland and Cardinal Gibbons heretics as the French assumed that when Ireland and Gibbons called themselves progressive (another word that has completely changed its meaning) and liberal they meant the exact opposite of what the Americans actually meant.

    Gibbons and Ireland were both hurt that Leo XIII demanded their explicit submission to Testem Benevolentiae (which they gave after trying to figure out what was being condemned), but socialists, modernists, liberals, and progressives have used the diffrerent meanings of liberalism to spread confusion and obscure the inroads of socialism and modernism down to the present day.

  3. Edward Short notes: “The most prevalent false Newman is still the false Modernist Newman…”

    In 1908 Edward Thomas Bishop of Limerick published a defense of Cardinal Newman: “As to what Newman would have thought of the system of the Modernists as a whole there can be little room for doubt. The entire fabric of his theology rested on the truth, which is elementary, that man by his intellect can know God, and can recognise a revelation, when proposed with due credentials, as coming from Him, and, consequently, he would have dealt very summarily with the Subjectivism which the Pope now condemns.” [full text available at]

    The definitive verdict on Newman and Modernism was rendered by Pope Pius X himself when he endorsed Bishop Thomas’ defense of Newman. “Venerable Brother, greetings and Our Apostolic blessing. We hereby inform you that your essay, in which you show that the writings of Cardinal Newman, far from being in disagreement with Our Encyclical Letter Pascendi, are very much in harmony with it, has been emphatically approved by Us…” [Acta Sanctae Sedis, vol. 41, 1908;]

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