Newman’s classic work on relationship between the Church and the World

The lectures in Anglican Difficulties, says Edward Short, “warn readers of the great evil establishments can do when they seek to warp, appropriate or suppress the Church.”

Left: "Portrait of Newman" (1844)by George Richmond; right: Painting of Cardinal Newman (c. 1876) by Jane Fortescue Seymour. (Wikipedia)

Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries (2011), Newman and his Family (2013), and Newman and History (2017). His critical edition of Difficulties of Anglicans has just been published by Gracewing. He lives in New York with his wife and two young children.

He recently corresponded with CWR about his new book and what Newman’s Anglican Difficulties offer to today’s readers.

CWR: Your critical edition of John Henry Newman’s Anglican Difficulties (1850, rev. ed. 1876) is your fourth book on Newman, the previous three treating, in turn, Newman and his contemporaries, his family, and his views of history. Tell us about this latest book.

Edward Short: Newman’s Anglican Difficulties consists of twelve talks that he gave at the London Oratory in King William Street in 1850, five years after his conversion. His audience comprised Catholics, Anglo-Catholics, Protestants and intrigued skeptics. In addition to Catholic priests and Anglican ministers, there were convert peeresses and “hard-faced” Irishmen in attendance as well—an ecumenical mix. While the stated purpose of the lectures might have been “to clear away from the path of an inquirer objections to Catholic truth,” especially Anglo-Catholic inquirers, the book is also a brilliant meditation on the Church and the World, an unsparingly satirical study of the Oxford Movement, an autobiographical dress rehearsal for the Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864) and a piece of masterly prose.

Neglected for over a century by many who regarded its hard-hitting criticism of the Erastian National Church of England as merely polemical, the book can now be seen as profoundly cautionary.  (Erastian is an eponymous word from the 16th-century Swiss theologian Erastus, who held that churches should be subordinate to the state.) If one of the book’s animating themes is to show how worldly establishments travesty “the Ark of Salvation,” Newman’s Anglican Difficulties has perennial appeal.

“For this is the truth,” he says in a famous passage: “the Establishment, whatever it be in the eyes of men, whatever its temporal greatness and its secular prospects, in the eyes of faith is a mere wreck.” One can only imagine how the Anglican Establishment in Newman’s day bristled at such a charge. They bristle still. Yet he was addressing them as a Dutch uncle, intent on telling them truths they needed to hear, not out of superciliousness or spite but charity and love. And since he, too, had once been avid to defend the Anglican Establishment there is an authority to his tough love:

We must not indulge our imagination, we must not dream: we must look at things as they are; we must not confound the past with the present, or what is substantive with what is the accident of a period. Ridding our minds of these illusions, we shall see that the Established Church has no claims whatever on us, whether in memory or in hope; that they only have claims upon our commiseration and our charity whom she holds in bondage, separated from that faith and that Church in which alone is salvation. If I can do aught towards breaking their chains, and bringing them into the Truth, it will be an act of love towards their souls, and of piety towards God.

Now that we see the Vatican subordinating the Church in China to the Chinese Communist Party, we can see that Newman’s concern about Erastianism has applications well beyond the nineteenth-century Anglicanism with which he had so many issues. As he points out in the lectures, the Church has always been threatened by states seeking to undermine her unique mission in the world.

One irony of Newman’s reading of these matters is that the entity that he credits with keeping the Catholic Church free of any lasting state interference over the centuries is the papacy, though it is always reassuring to keep in mind something Newman wrote in one of his letters during the First Vatican Council when the issue of papal infallibility was being debated: “The temporal prosperity, success, talent, renown of the Papacy did not make me a Catholic, and its errors and misfortunes have no power to unsettle me.”

CWR: You say that one of the book’s major preoccupations is one of Newman’s greatest themes, the relationship between the Church and the World. Can you expand on that?

Edward Short: The theme of the Church and the World goes to the heart of the overriding theme of the lectures but also Newman’s work as a whole. It exhibits the unity of his work, since he takes this theme up in so many of his other works, including his Arians of the Fourth Century (1833), The Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), The Idea of a University (1870) and A Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1875)

The theme also gives Newman the opportunity to reaffirm the unique mission of the Church, which the World always seeks to thwart, has indeed sought to thwart from the Church’s very inception. “There was once no independent jurisdiction in religion,” he writes, “but, when our Lord came, it was with the express object of introducing a new kingdom, distinct and different from the kingdoms of the world, and He was sought after by Herod, and condemned by Pilate, on the very apprehension that His claims to royalty were inconsistent with their prerogatives. Such was the Church when first introduced into the world, and her subsequent history has been after the pattern of her commencement; the State has ever been jealous of her, and has persecuted her from without and bribed her from within.”

CWR: One of Newman’s most winning qualities is his readiness to see matters as they are, before trying to make them what they should be. Can you give us an example of how he exhibits this quality in his lectures?

Edward Short: A perfect example of this is Newman’s readiness to concede the difficulties of conversion, not just for Anglo-Catholics, but for everyone, especially conversion to a Church so many of whose truths naturally revolt the natural man, let alone what Newman nicely refers to as the “coalition of wit and wisdom.”

Here one can also see the rhetorical élan of the lectures, which is never more in evidence than when Newman is recommending the consequential but overlooked truth of his subject. Speaking of the hostility that the Church has always incurred, he writes: “It would be wonderful, indeed, if a teaching which embraces all spiritual and moral truth, from the highest to the least important, should present no mysteries or apparent inconsistencies,” he says in his first lecture;

wonderful if, in the lapse of eighteen hundred years, and in the range of three-fourths of the globe, and in the profession of thousands of millions of souls, it had not afforded innumerable points of plausible attack; wonderful, if it could assail the pride and sensuality which are common to our whole race, without rousing the hatred, malice, jealousy, and obstinate opposition, of the natural man; wonderful, if it could be the object of the jealous and unwearied scrutiny of ten thousand adversaries, of the coalition of wit and wisdom, of minds acute, far-seeing, comprehensive, original, and possessed of the deepest and most varied knowledge, yet without some sort of case being made out against it; and wonderful, moreover, if the vast multitude of objections, great and small, resulting from its exposure to circumstances such as these, acting on the timidity, scrupulousness, inexperience, intellectual fastidiousness, love of the world, or self-dependence of individuals, had not been sufficient to keep many a one from the Church, who had, in spite of them, good and satisfactory reasons for joining her communion. Here is the plain reason why so many are brought near to the Church, and then go back, or are so slow in submitting to her.

Here one can see that Newman does his auditors the honor of never talking down to them. Charles Lamb once described one of his fellow clerks at the South Sea House as having “the air and stoop of a nobleman,” and by “stoop” he meant “that gentle bending of the body forward, which, in great men, must be supposed to be the effect of an habitual condescending attention to the applications of their inferiors.” Well, Newman was certainly a great man but he had none of the great man’s air or stoop. He always treats his readers as though they are on his own level. Consequently, he treats his old Anglican friends’ difficulties with Catholicism with the respect they deserve, though this does not always rule out his treating them with delicious satirical irony. As he said so memorably in his final lecture, “It is no work of a day to convince the intellect of an Englishman that Catholicism is true.”

Together with the respect he showed his fellows, there was also a great caritas about Newman, a humility suffused with solicitude for their well-being. “If I have been excessive here,” he said towards the end of his lectures, “if I have confused what is defective with what is hollow, or have mistaken aspiration for pretence, or have been severe upon infirmities of which self-knowledge would have made me tender, I wish it otherwise. Still, whatever my faults in this matter, I have ever been trustful in that true Catholic spirit which has lived in the movement of which you are partakers. I have been steady in my confidence in that supernatural influence among you, which made me what I am, which, in its good time, shall make you what you shall be. You are born to be Catholics; refuse not the unmerited grace of your bountiful God; throw off for good and all the illusions of your intellect, the bondage of your affections, and stand upright in that freedom which is your true inheritance.” This, by any estimate, is wonderful writing.

CWR: Most readers who have studied the Oxford Movement are familiar with Dean Church’s classic history. How would you characterize Newman’s own contribution to the history of the Movement? Throughout the edition, you call the reader’s attention to what you believe is Newman’s overlooked acuity as an historian. How does his handling of the Oxford Movement substantiate your claim that he was a redoubtable historian?

Edward Short: Dean Church writes his history of the Oxford Movement in his classic study in 1890 and Newman writes his history in Anglican Difficulties in 1850. That is a gap of 40 years and yet Church, although resolutely opposed to even considering following Newman into the Church of Rome, largely bases his account of the Movement on Newman’s insights. For example, he sees the Oxford Movement as having been launched to repel what Newman saw as the depredations of liberalism, especially in its attack on what he called the “dogmatic principle.” And he follows Newman in depicting the fizzling out of the Movement in Oxford as having been caused not only by Newman’s secession to Rome but by the rise of liberalism in Oxford.

Yet what makes Newman’s account of the Movement so much more cogent is his treatment of the claims to apostolicity of the Anglican High Church. While Church glosses over these claims, Newman demolishes them, and one of the reasons why Anglican Difficulties has been largely ignored by Anglo-Catholics and those who sympathize with the Anglo-Catholic position is that Newman’s demolition is fairly unanswerable.

Nevertheless, commentators still seek to deny the substance of Newman’s criticism of the Anglican Church. Peter Nockles, for example, argued in his book The Oxford Movement in Context (1991) that Newman and the Tractarians had done little that the High Church had not done in the 18th and early nineteenth centuries – a claim that he pinched from Frederick Meyrick, the Bursar of Trinity College – but one can see from both Newman’s and Church’s accounts that the Movement opposed High Churchmen as well as liberals. To try to substantiate his risible claim, Nockles went so far as to argue that Newman’s reading of the Erastian character of the Anglican Church in Anglican Difficulties “did much to perpetuate a misconception of Orthodox teaching on church and state” – as though the disavowals of the High Church themselves when it came to their Erastianism were proof that they were not Erastian. And he did this by citing of all people, Geoffrey Faussett, the High Churchman who delated poor Edward Pusey for preaching on the Eucharist.

If one were to concede Nockles’ point that there was no such thing as Erastianism in the Anglican Church, there should have been no basis for Anglo-Catholicism in the first place, for as Newman clearly reminds his readers: Anglo-Catholicism “has been formed on one idea, which has developed into a body of teaching of the National Church logical in the arrangement of its portions, and consistent with the principles on which it originally started. That idea, or first principle, was ecclesiastical liberty; the doctrine which it especially opposed was in ecclesiastical language, the heresy of Erastus, and in political, the Royal Supremacy. The object of its attack was the Establishment, considered simply as such.”

Ecclesiastical liberty… In Newman’s time, as in our own, this was a vital principle, the abrogation of which gave rise to much mischief and, indeed, much unbelief and much corruption of belief. Newman’s main argument in Anglican Difficulties is that by remaining in the Established Church the Anglo-Catholics were betraying their core principle.

But there is a lesson here for Catholics as well. It is precisely because we witness a Catholic Church in our own time accommodating the Zeitgeist of progressivism that we should attend to what Newman had to say about the Anglican Church accommodating the Zeitgeist of liberalism in the nineteenth century. For those who clamor that the Church must somehow remake herself as the agent of what the progressives call ‘social justice,’ Newman has a withering reply: “If the Church be a kingdom, or government, not of this world, I do trust you have provided for her a message, a function, not of this world, something distinct, something special, something which the world cannot do, which ‘eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor heart of man conceived.’ It is not enough to give her morality to preach about; why a heaven-appointed Society for that? With the Bible in his hands, if that be all, I do not see why one man, if properly educated, should not preach morality as well as another, without any disturbance of the rights of the magistrate or the order of civil society.”

Another interesting feature of Newman the historian is how his lectures confirm the ‘Catholicity’ of the Catholic Church by contrasting it with the special pleading of the Anglo-Catholics. No one makes the case for Anglo-Catholicism less persuasively than the Anglo-Catholics themselves. Newman makes particularly good satirical use of the writings of William Warburton, Bishop of Gloucester (1698-1779), the pre-eminent defender of Erastianism, and William Palmer of Worcester (1803-1885), the exponent of what became known as ‘the branch theory,’ according to which the Anglican Church is entitled to regard itself as ‘Catholic’ because it is a ‘branch’ of something the Anglo-Catholics call the ‘Universal Church.’

CWR: You say in your introduction that the lectures constitute something of a dress rehearsal for Newman’s great autobiography, the Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Can you elaborate?

Edward Short: Since Newman led the very Anglo-Catholic party within the Anglican Church that he criticizes so roundly in the lectures, the lectures are necessarily replete with autobiography. Newman’s detractors are fond of charging him with playing fast and loose with the truth of his own role in the Oxford Movement. Indeed, they treat his Apologia as though it were little more than an exercise in self-vindication. Yet the fact remains that in Anglican Difficulties, as in the Apologia, Newman is unsparing when it comes to criticizing his own role in attempting to salvage the “wreck” of Anglo-Catholicism, or what he refers to as “mimic Catholicism.”

One of the reasons why the Anglo-Catholic party, by and large, never responded to the lectures – other than to ignore them — is that they could never forgive Newman for repudiating the Via Media, about which he says in the final lecture that it may be “an interposition or arbitration between the extreme doctrines of Protestantism on the one hand, and the faith of Rome which Protestantism contradicts on the other” but “it is, from the nature of the case, but a particular form of Protestantism.” Why? Its “essential idea” is “that [Catholicism] has gone into error, whereas the essential idea of Catholicism is the Church’s infallibility…” For Newman to state so bluntly that the ‘halfway house’ of the Via Media was the manufacture of Protestantism – the very thing that the “Movement of 1833,” as Newman called it, most abominated — was simply intolerable to his erstwhile Anglo-Catholic friends, though no account of the Oxford Movement can have any genuine historical or theological value that does not concede this fundamental point. The Oxford Movement, after all, was a rather rarefied game of ‘hunt the slipper’ and the upshot was that most of its acolytes never found the slipper. Newman did, but few of his Tractarian friends followed suit.

CWR: Truth is obviously a great theme in the lectures. What is the significance of that?

Edward Short: Newman was a Servant of Truth. He found the writing of Anglican Difficulties such an ordeal precisely because he knew that in swearing his allegiance to the Truth when it came to the untenability of Anglicanism he would offend and estrange many dear Anglican friends. And yet he upheld the Truth – without ever showing his erstwhile friends any mean-spiritedness. On the contrary, he shows them how Truth is the very bond of fellowship.

CWR: What can you tell us about the textual variations?

Edward Short: They are tell-tale. Owen Chadwick’s claim that the book was an overzealous convert’s overzealous plug for Catholicism, a plug which the older Newman would never have made, is utterly false. “Ten years later,” the church historian wrote, “Newman would not have written in this language. He was suffering… from the disease of being a new convert, of burning what once he adored…” The changes that Newman made to the revised text of 1876 prove otherwise. They are syntactical, not substantive. I should only add that Dr. Andrew Nash did a superb job with the textual variants, which he identified and set out with great exacting care.

CWR: You say that the lectures are a treasure trove of Newman’s brilliance as a prose stylist. Can you provide a few examples?

Edward Short: In each of the 12 hour-long lectures, Newman includes set pieces of declamatory prose of great power, which, when one remembers that he had a lovely speaking voice, must have been enthralling to hear. That these are preserved on the printed page is a great blessing. For anyone discouraged by the rise of heterodoxy within the Church, Newman supplies an encouraging antidote:

Noli æmulari Is it not written in the book of truth, that the ungodly shall spread abroad like a green bay tree, and then shall wither? that the adversary reaches out his hand towards his prey, in order that he may be more emphatically smitten? “Yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be: I passed by, and lo! he was not; I sought him, and his place was not found. Better is a little to the just than the great riches of the wicked; for the arms of the wicked shall be broken, but the Lord strengtheneth the just.” So was it with the great Arian heresy, which the civil power would fain have forced upon the Church; but it fell to pieces, and the Church remained One. So was it with Nestorius, with Eutyches, with the Image-breakers, with Manichees, with Lollards, with Protestants, into whom the State would put life, but who, one and all, refuse to live. So is it with the communion of Cranmer and Parker, which is kept together only by the heavy hand of the State, and cannot aspire to be free without ceasing to be one. One power alone on earth has the gift and destiny of ever being one. It has been so of old time; surely so will it be now. Man’s necessity is God’s opportunity. Noli æmulari, “Be not jealous of the evil-doers.”

Here, we can see the contrast between the Church and the World at the very heart of the lectures, on which Newman expatiates at length in terms that we can readily recognize in our own increasingly baleful experience.

The world believes in the world’s ends as the greatest of goods; it wishes society to be governed simply and entirely for the sake of this world. Provided it could gain one little islet in the ocean, one foot upon the coast, if it could cheapen tea by sixpence a pound, or make its flag respected among the Esquimaux or Otaheitans, at the cost of a hundred lives and a hundred souls, it would think it a very good bargain. What does it know of hell? it disbelieves it; it spits upon, it abominates, it curses its very name and notion. Next, as to the devil, it does not believe in him either. We next come to the flesh, and it is “free to confess” that it does not think there is any great harm in following the instincts of that nature which, perhaps it goes on to say, God has given. How could it be otherwise? who ever heard of the world fighting against the flesh and the devil? Well, then, what is its notion of evil? Evil, says the world, is whatever is an offence to me, whatever obscures my majesty, whatever disturbs my peace. Order, tranquility, popular contentment, plenty, prosperity, advance in arts and sciences, literature, refinement, splendour, this is my millennium, or rather my elysium, my swerga; I acknowledge no whole, no individuality, but my own…

If this is the view of the world that Newman takes in the lectures, a view very much like our own, though the nineteenth century obviously managed such things as “literature,” “refinement,” and “splendour” better than its twenty-first century successors, this is the view he takes of the Church:

My dear brethren, do not think I am declaiming in the air or translating the pages of some old worm-eaten homily; as I have already said, I bear my own testimony to what has been brought home to me most closely and vividly as a matter of fact since I have been a Catholic; viz., that that mighty world-wide Church, like her Divine Author, regards, consults for, labours for the individual soul; she looks at the souls for whom Christ died, and who are made over to her; and her one object, for which everything is sacrificed — appearances, reputation, worldly triumph — is to acquit herself well of this most awful responsibility. Her one duty is to bring forward the elect to salvation, and to make them as many as she can to take offences out of their path, to warn them of sin, to rescue them from evil, to convert them, to teach them, to feed them, to protect them, and to perfect them. Oh, most tender loving Mother, ill-judged by the world, which thinks she is, like itself, always minding the main chance; on the contrary, it is her keen view of things spiritual, and her love for the soul, which hampers her in her negotiations and her measures, on this hard cold earth, which is her place of sojourning.

CWR: Any reflections in conclusion?

Edward Short: The lectures warn readers of the great evil establishments can do when they seek to warp, appropriate or suppress the Church. Certainly, we see that all around us now.

In Newman’s anatomy of the ways in which the Anglican Establishment tried to masquerade as the ‘Ark of Salvation’ over its 300-year history, he points out the corrosive influence of secular states that should be as much a warning to Catholics as Protestants. Erastianism, after all, is not simply a Protestant problem. Yet even more than this, Newman’s lectures show his evangelizing love for his old companions in the Oxford Movement and, by extension, for everyone of good faith who seek to know and embrace the Truth of God’s promises.

In his essence, Newman is not an intellectual or even a controversialist, though his books abound in intellectual fireworks and the most agile controversy. No, he is a parish priest. He dedicated his life to the cure of souls. And the best bits of Anglican Difficulties show this. “Provided she can do for the soul what is necessary,” he wrote of the Church that meant so much to him, “if she can but pull the brands out of the burning, if she can but extract the poisonous root which is the death of the soul, and expel the disease, she is content…” Readers dismayed by how beleaguered the Catholic faith has become in a world contemptuous of the Church will come away from reading the book with their faith renewed. Like so much that Newman wrote, Anglican Difficulties is a testament not only to God’s Truth but to his Grace.

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1 Comment

  1. Newman, and Newman enthusiasts, fascinate me. I find him inspirational, but impossibly hard to quantify. Especially in the context of modern Catholicism. Serious question: just what were Newman’s essential insights, and do they fit with the teachings of the modern Church? I mean, this is a man whose entire world was rocked by the question of Catholicism’s truth *as opposed to* Protestantism. That is a distinction today’s Church constantly seems to be burying. We seem determined to de-emphasize distinctions. Even to the point of the saved and the unsaved. Al of which makes Newman seem out of date.

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