The Dispatch: More from CWR...

John Henry Newman’s long war on liberalism

Saint John Henry Newman’s devastating critique of liberal religion remains even more relevant in our own time.

Detail from 1889 portrait of John Henry Newman by Emmeline Deane []

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!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Dr. Samuel Gregg 39 Articles
Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. The author of many books—including the prize-winning The Commercial Society (Rowman & Littlefield), Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy (Edward Elgar), Becoming Europe (Encounter), the prize-winning Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization (Regnery), and over 400 articles and opinion-pieces—he writes regularly on political economy, finance, American conservatism, Western civilization, and natural law theory. He can be followed on Twitter @drsamuelgregg


  1. It is important to be a happy warrior – now – as always.

    Thanks Dr. Gregg. And thanks be to God for Cdl. John Henry Newman.

  2. Anything on John Henry Cardinal Newman is worth reading and Dr Gregg’s article is informative, delineating Newman’s expected criticisms of Liberalism. Ironically Newman at the time may not have foreseen the very premises listed by Dr Gregg as Liberal religious fallacies identify what many Catholics now hold. Needless to say not the many who comment on this site. News is so bad there is little to rejoice about. Expect for my personal experience as was the case at this morning’s at Mass. “Only about 1 in 3 adult Catholics (31.4 percent), chiefly older women, attend Mass in any given week, according to a survey of 1,007 self-identified Catholics by the Catholic research agency, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate”. That figure of which the majority are elderly women is staggering. It’s Apostasy. The rural church I offered 8:30 am Mass at this morning I’m told has far fewer persons in the pews than in previous years. What made up for it was happiness and real warmth of the parishioners. The earlier 7 am Mass in a much larger town is usually well attended including young adults, and increasingly so. If it weren’t for the joy I experience at these Masses there would be little to offset the desolation I frequently feel regarding the state of our Church. Faith, strong faith is needed. And a deepening of our intimacy with Christ. That itself is our mainstay.

    • We are the generation that will lead the comeback. We have been given a great gift, for we were here when the chips were down, and we were presented with the opportunity to really make a difference by turning it all around. The internet is probably the thing that will enable us to reach more people with the message of Christ than ever. The whole world is ripe for the message of Christ now, since the weird New Atheists have pretty much taken their best shot and failed. The fakers that hurt the church with their distortions of what Vatican II demanded have been exposed. Secularism has now become a heavy mental burden for those that rely on it. People are starting to realize their lives are formed around nothing, and they are beginning to realize secularism’s vapid emptiness. It’s always darkest before the dawn, and I am convinced that it is about 4:30 AM.

      • It’s always darkest before the dawn” Chairman Mao Zedong. The dawn may not be the bandied about notion of a revived Church lasting another millennium. Pogo’s “It’s always darkest before it becomes totally black” may be closer to what we may need to spiritually prepare for. Zechariah’s acclamation “In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace” has occurred. The next dawn indicates the Second Coming.

    • Your assessment of Newman as “inaccessible” embodies his warnings about the dissolution of the culture into an emotivist one devoid of right reason and disdaining the wisdom of the ages (Chesterton’s ‘chronological snobbery’). Try reading his Apologia Pro Vita Sua or Loss and Gain, then some of his sermons. Acquire the taste for the beauty of his prose and his love of truth – it is well worth it!

      • Thank you, Lyn and T H Hubert! I will try to press forward and study more – despite the cracking and crumbling round about.

    • Inaccessible? Really? Tough sledding maybe. And maybe not accessible to those who have been dumbed down, allowed themselves to be so treated, by journalistic prose/commentary aimed at those with a 6th-grade education. Inaccessible to those who park in front of their TV’s for hours on end, night after night and watch mindless (and worse) comedy, drama, or what passes for it.

      Question: Is all of Scripture “accessible”? It, too, is sometimes hard to understand but it can be with aids and involvement in well-led groups.

      Lyn said it well.

  3. Blessed John Henry’s placid hymn, Lead Kindly Light, in the original tune to which he ascribed its popularity, (Kindly Light) Lux Benigna.

    Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom,
    lead thou me on;
    the night is dark, and I am far from home;
    lead thou me on.
    Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
    the distant scene; one step enough for me.

    I was not ever thus, nor prayed that thou
    shouldst lead me on;
    I loved to choose and see my path; but now
    lead thou me on.
    I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
    pride ruled my will: remember not past years.

    So long thy power hath blest me, sure it still
    will lead me on,
    o’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
    the night is gone,
    and with the morn those angel faces smile,
    which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.

  4. Bl Newman told seminarians: ” the trials which lie before us would appal and make dizzy even such courageous hearts as St. Athanasius, St. Gregory I, or St. Gregory VII. And they would confess that, dark as the prospect of their own day was to them severally, ours has a darkness different in kind from any that has been before.” But let’s not lose heart in the face of this ‘desertification’, as Pope BXVI said, because “in the desert people of faith are needed who, with their own lives, point out the way to the Promised Land and keep hope alive. Living faith opens the heart to the grace of God which frees us from pessimism.”

  5. Author P. Kreeft wrote that we are adept at self-deception and even more successful at this than deceiving others. Progressive liberals -both secular and many religious- have managed to ignore Bl. Newman and it has taken over a century for a few honest souls (like Dr. Gregg) to unmask their duplicity. A philosopher noted that “Truth has a quiet voice but it will [eventually] demand a hearing”. We cannot afford to ignore Newman, Benedict XVI and Saint J.P.II for another 100 years.

    • How nice that Blessed John Henry was associated in British public opinion with the visit of Pope Benedict XVI. They saw not “God’s rottweiler” or the “enforcer of the Holy Office”, but the kindly old grandfather figure shining with genuine love. We don’t know what action of grace is at work, which young people now diffused in forgotten corners, perhaps many who are not Catholic or even Christian, who have been deeply influenced by the Pope to consider the profound message of the Blessed, what good they might do for the world in undreamt of future times.

  6. That comment about becoming Episcopalians would be very funny if it did not sound so sincere. Very informative article. It brings to memory Cardinal Ratzinger’s comment about the dangers of relativism. No one I know of ever preaches or writes much about these dangers. I mean in the general population of Catholics. I would guess that many Catholics are relativists. The problem is also that the Church will surely survive as promised but many will suffer because not enough leaders spoke out.

  7. The assault of Christianity was way before those we call the Church Fathers.
    ACTS 20: 28-31 ” 28Take heed to yourselves, and to the whole flock, wherein the Holy Ghost hath placed you bishops, to rule the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. 29I know that, after my departure, ravening wolves will enter in among you, not sparing the flock. 30And of your own selves shall arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. 31Therefore watch, keeping in memory, that for three years I ceased not, with tears to admonish every one of you night and day.” God bless, C-Marir

  8. Appreciate this so much. Way back in 1963, my wonderful late husband Bill would speak about John Henry Newman. He had read him through and through and I know all the points in your article were why my husband thought so much of him and he would talk about his analysis of liberalism.

  9. a wise man once said, ‘the dead and the stupid have this in common: neither have knowledge of their status,’ seems to describe our present time!

  10. I have recently completed reading 2 important books from the mid-1970s that deal directly with Newman’s critique of “liberalism” as it affects scripture interpretation.

    (1) Cardinal Kasper’s 1974 “Jesus the Christ” – in which he concludes that “form criticism” has established that the Gospel accounts of miracles are all “legends,” because form criticism theorists from Germany, England etc asserted that most Gospels and New Testament epistles (barring some from St. Paul) were produced btw 70 – 150 AD.

    (2) “Redating the New Testament” (1975) by Anglican Bishop and New Testament scholar John A. T. Robinson, who concluded by persuasive investigation of “internal and external evidence” that all of the NT books were written btw 40-70 AD, before the destruction of Jerusalem (26 Sep 70).

    Robinson’s conclusion was that just as mid-20th century scholarship pushing NT works to 100 AD cancelled out the radical skepticism of early form criticism, his own conclusions served to confirm the previously held “traditional” teaching that prevailed before the rise (and fall) if form criticism (1880s – 1970s).

    Cardinal Kasper, educated at Tubingen University, the epicenter of form critic theory, joins Harnack etc in rejecting the miracle accounts, the resurrection as an event in history, and yet firmly insists on the merits of the Gospels etc for their “kerygmatic” value.

    Ironically, it was the Anglican Bishop Robinson writing at the same time about the same topic whose path intersected with Kasper’s, but going in the opposite direction, back to the authenticity of the NT, and undermining the conclusions of “progressive Catholic scholars” like Kasper…and concluding with Newman etc that indeed, the Gospels and epistles are authentic history.

  11. Nice expose by Dr. Gregg, but lacks counterpoint as to why liberal religion is wrong. Thus, he ought to write a follow-up article on the why, and the what Newman said was actually wrong with such liberalism. In the meantime, we will have to just watch and wait for saints and martyrs.

  12. What is liberalism?

    Eric von Kuehelt-Leddihn (aristocratic and multi-lingual intellectual home-based in the Tyrol and frequent lecturer in the United States, d. 1999) identified a sequence of four different versions of “liberalism”:

    First, the Pelegian “PRE-LIBERALS” like Adam Smith;
    Second, the “EARLY LIBERALS”, all Catholic, like de Tocqueville, Montalembert and Lord Acton;
    Third, the “OLD LIBERALS”, basically the relativists of Cardinal Newman’s time, who wanted Rome to fall in line with unrestrained modernity (something that Pope Pius IX resisted in his “Syllabus of [particular] Errors,” in 1864, e.g., diktat #80 held that “the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization”—today might we say “the new paradigm”?); and
    Fourth, the “NEO-LIBERALS” like von Mises, Hayek, Roepke (mostly economists), and even von Kuehnelt-Leddihn himself.

    Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn celebrated the freedom provided by the Catholic synthesis of Faith and Reason (Pope St. John Paul II’s “freedom toward the truth”) and even had this now very timely cross-cultural comment:

    “There is something decidedly Islamic [!] is original Protestantism, with its idea of an all-controlling hidden God and His infallible Prophet, its secularization of marriage, its Puritanism and messianism. Even today some of the survivals of original (i.e., pre-liberal) Protestantism in remote parts of Scandinavia, Holland, Scotland and the United States have, at least culturally, more affinity with the Wahhabis than with Catholics from which they stem. It must be borne in mind that not so much the authoritarian organization but the liberal theology of Catholicism was the target of the reformers” (Liberty or Equality, 1952).

    The intolerant and anti-liberal (!) “liberalism” of today comes in the form of our ostensibly multi-cultural and court-enforced MONOCULTURE of politically-correct identity politics today, and the inevitable monotony of globalism of tomorrow.

  13. “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.””

    I wonder if he would think so, in quite the same way, if he were alive today.

    • Richard:

      I certainly agree with the implication in your question.

      Obviously, the Pontiff Francis and his cohorts are hard at work trying to establish the principle that everything in the Church, even the Word of God, is their personal property and they can do what they please. Case in point the Pontiff’s personal initiative to edit Jesus himself, and erase “the very words” of Jesus in the Our Father, because in his own self-estimation, he can say any prayer better than anyone, even Jesus.

      Which goes a long way toward understanding why the Pontiff Francis orchestrated public idolatry in 2019.

      The Pontiff Francis election and reign has of course harmed the Church, as his ordination as Bishop in Argentina harmed the Church there.

      A profound essay on the harm done to the Church was penned by Father Imbelli, published in Nova et Vetera, entitled “No Decapitated Body.” I have put the link below.

      The whole crux of the matter was concisely stated by the David Warren (Essays in Idleness), some 3 or so years ago: “The choice is between Jesus or Bergoglio.”

  14. I own a couple of books of Newman’s short essays/ meditations. His stuff is GREAT, insightful, and I enjoy reading it.That he was a convert is most certainly the Catholic Church’s gain. We could use some with his intellect and his willingness to fearlessly speak the truth.

    So, the statistic is now that since covid, the church lost 1/3 of former Sunday church goers. Beating a dead horse to say I blame the clergy for caving to the shut-down, especially the pressure by the Pope. Interestingly, I have observed NO EFFORT AT ALL to draw these people back. No pointed letters home to parishioners,no newspaper or social media ads, no billboards, no slick TV commercials on Catholic Networks. Ideally of course these folks should have just returned when the churches opened after covid,but that is not how humans work. Sometimes they need to be prodded a bit.

12 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. John Henry Newman’s long war on liberalism - Catholic Daily
  2. John Henry Newman’s long war on liberalism - Catholic Crossing
  3. John Henry Newman’s long war on liberalism -
  4. A Former Anglican Becomes a Saint | The American Conservative
  5. A Former Anglican Becomes a Saint • Just Conservative Views
  6. A Former Anglican Becomes a Saint – Cafe880-Infocenter
  7. John Henry Newman’s long war on liberalism – Via Nova Media
  8. John Henry Newman’s long war on liberalism – Catholic World Report – The Old Roman
  9. CatholicSaints.Info » Blog Archive » Saint John Henry Newman
  10. John Henry Newman’s long war on liberalism | Passionists Missionaries Kenya, Vice Province of St. Charles Lwanga, Fathers & Brothers
  11. The holy rosary, a spiritual weapon that lights hearts on fire – Catholic World Report – Spiritality, Metaphysics & Religion
  12. John Henry Newman's long war on liberalism – Catholic World Report – Catholic World Report – Spiritality, Metaphysics & Religion

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.