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, Saint 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 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.
(Editor’s note: This article was originally posted on July 30, 2017.)
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!