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St. John Henry Newman

I’m particularly struck by how often Newman is co-opted by the various political parties active in the Church today—and how this co-opting both distorts Newman and actually makes him less interesting and relevant for our time.

A statue of Saint John Henry Newman is seen Feb. 5, 2018, on the campus of Newman University in Wichita, Kan. (CNS photo/courtesy Newman University)

As I compose these words, I am preparing to leave for Rome, where I will attend the canonization Mass for John Henry Newman, and then for Oxford, where I will give a paper on Newman’s thought in regard to evangelization.

Needless to say, the great English convert is much on my mind these days. As I read the myriad commentaries on the new saint, I’m particularly struck by how often he is co-opted by the various political parties active in the Church today—and how this co-opting both distorts Newman and actually makes him less interesting and relevant for our time. I should like to show this by drawing attention to two major themes in Newman’s writing—namely, the development of doctrine and the primacy of conscience.

St. John Henry Newman did indeed teach that doctrines, precisely because they exist in the play of lively minds, develop over time. And he did indeed say, in this epistemological context, “to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.” But does this give us license to argue, as some on the left suggest, that Newman advocated a freewheeling liberalism, an openness to any and all change?

I hope the question answers itself. In his Biglietto speech, delivered upon receiving the notification of his elevation to the Cardinalatial office, Newman bluntly announced that his entire professional career could be rightly characterized as a struggle against liberalism in matters of religion. By “liberalism” he meant the view that there is no objective and reliable truth in regard to religious claims. Moreover, Newman was keenly aware that doctrines undergo both legitimate development and corruption. In other words, their “growth” can be an ongoing manifestation of truths implicit in them, or it can be a devolution, an errant or cancerous outcropping. And this is, of course, why he taught that a living voice of authority, someone able to determine the difference between the two, is necessary in the Church. None of this has a thing to do with permissiveness or an advocacy of change for the sake of change.

In point of fact, the development of doctrine, on Newman’s reading, is not so much a pro-liberal idea as an anti-Protestant one. It was a standard assertion of Protestants in the nineteenth century that many doctrines and practices within Catholicism represent a betrayal of biblical revelation. They called, accordingly, for a return to the scriptural sources and to the purity of the first-century Church. Newman saw this as an antiquarianism. What appears unbiblical within Catholicism are, in fact, developments of belief and practice that have naturally emerged through the efforts of theologians and under the discipline of the Church’s Magisterium. His implied interlocutor in the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine is not the stuffy Catholic traditionalist, but the sola Scriptura Protestant apologist.

The second issue that particularly draws the attention of commentators today is the role of conscience. Conscience is one of the master ideas in Newman’s corpus; he discusses it from beginning to end of his career and it is the hinge on which many of his major teachings turn. One of the most cited mots of Newman’s is his clever quip regarding the authority of the Pope: “If I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please—but to conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.”

I cannot tell you how many pundits have run with that offhanded remark, concluding that Newman was flouting the Pope and advocating a moral subjectivism. Nothing could be further from the truth. In his late career masterpiece, The Grammar of Assent, Newman refers to conscience as “the aboriginal vicar of Christ in the soul”—that is to say, the felt presence of a “judge holy, just, and powerful . . . an all-seeing, supreme governor.” Conscience is not the voice of the individual himself, but rather the Voice of Another, who exercises sovereign authority, who makes demands and furnishes both reward and punishment. The Pope is indeed the Vicar of Christ in a formal and institutional sense, and the conscience is Christ’s representative in an even more intense, more interior, and “aboriginal” mode. This is why toasting the latter before the former by no means implies that they exist in tension with one another; just the contrary.

Now, am I implying through this analysis of two of Newman’s central notions that present-day conservatives are right in their claiming of the new saint? Well, sensible conservatives can and should do so, but there are excessive traditionalists in the Catholic Church against whom Newman stands athwart. The idea of real doctrinal development does indeed run counter to a Catholic antiquarianism that would see dogmas as changeless objets d’art, and the assertion of the primacy of conscience does indeed run counter to a fussy and hyper-judgmental legalism. As I suggested above, the setting of these discussions within the context of Newman’s own time permits us to see how his resolution of these complex matters takes us far beyond the exhausted left/right categories that dominate the present debates.

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About Bishop Robert Barron 203 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at


  1. Regarding the expression: “If I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please—but to conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards”…

    Can the case be made that Newman was referring to some particular action or instruction or another, but NOT to matters of morality, per se, whether a false “moral subjectivism” or not?

    In his “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk” from which the quote is taken, Newman quotes one Cardinal Jacobatius on this point: “If it were doubtful whether a precept [of the Pope] be a sin or not, we must detemine thus: that if he to whom the precept [again, “precept”?] is addressed has a conscientious sense that it is a sin and injustice, first it is duty to put off that sense; but, if he cannot, nor conform himself to the judgment [“judgment”?] of the Pope, in that case it is his duty to follow his own private conscience and patiently bare it, if the Pope punishes him.”

    Newman then goes on, quoted as above. Sounds a little/lot like this whole discussion is dealing with particular matters of discipline (precepts, narrowly construed)–for example, as to whether one is required to perhaps cook the books in the Vatican Bank–and not directly to questions of doctrine or morality, per se. Yes?

  2. I love John Henry Newman, and I have read him considerably, via his “Apologia,” His “Idea of a University,” his novel “Callista,” and of course in the dozens of essays here and at other faithful Catholic sites, especially regarding the topic of development of doctrine (and his axiom from Vincent of Lerins: “held always, everywhere and by all, with the same sense and meaning,”) and Newman’s own rules about doctrine “retaining its type” (or by analogy, retaining its identifying DNA).

    I have yet to read Newman’s “Development of Doctrine” or “Grammar of Assent,” so I am somewhat wanting in discussing Newman there.

    I no longer appreciate “narratives,” including the “conservative vs liberal” narrative, not merely because “the arguments” so loosely framed between the warring camps shed much heat, and little light, but even more so, because all too often, the writers that employ narratives shed very little light themselves.

    The “conservative vs liberal” theme may very well be exhausted, as Bishop Barron suggests. I venture to say that employing the narrative as done in this essay is utterly exhausted.

    The employment of “dog whistle” denunciations such as “antiquarianism” is a case in point, illustrating the failure to communicate: any number of readers are left to wonder what specific forms of antiquarianism are of concern to Bishop Barron. On the other hand, others, myself among them, can respond that perhaps Bishop Barron applauds some types of “antiquarianism,” such as the kind used by Msgr. Bugnini and Pope Paul VI as a “justification” for fabricating the New Order of The Mass, which was concocted by a man (Bugnini) whom Fr. Louis Bouyer called “as bereft of basic honesty as he was of Catholic culture.”

    And I have read Bouyers books, including, obviously, his recently published “Memoirs,” from which the description of Bugninibcimes, along with the utterly appalling revelation that the NO Mass text, on the day before it’s final approval, was so “bereft” of Catholic theology that Bouyer was ordered by Pole Paul himself to take the piece of junk and literally sat st a cafe table for several hours adding Catholic Eucharistic theology back into it.

    Now let me assure Bishop Barron that I trust he would not label me as an “extreme traditionalist,” since I reject the anti-catholic non-culture of Bugnini, with the same sense as the late Laszlo Dobszay (of Hungary).

    In light of the above, I simply say that when some writers use the “liberal vs conservative” narrative, I don’t think they are communicating. I hope, by contrast, in giving some concrete examples, I am showing a clear way of communicating.

    And in closing, Pope Francis is a wolf in shepherd’s clothing.

  3. What an infelicitous and appalling statement (above) by ‘Chris in Maryland’ vis-a-vis Pope Francis. How can a self-confessed ‘conservative’ Catholic believe that the present Pontiff is any other than God’s appointed leader of the Roman Church at this time in its chequered history? Far from being ‘a wolf in shepherd’s clothing’, Francis – together with his worthy predecessor Pope John XXIII – may yet prove to be the pontiff who most resembles his worthy namesake – Francis of Assisi – in his advocacy of the “great love of God as revealed in The Son” for ALL people who know their need of God.

    • Father Smith,
      I too am disturbed when I read some comments about Pope Francis but I think we all tend to pick & choose favorites when it comes to pontiffs. And it’s interesting to see your perspective. The Anglican Catholics I’ve met in the past were quite conservative. Your parish must be different in that respect.

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