Close after midday on May 12, 1878, an aged John Henry Newman received formal notice of Pope Leo XIII’s intention to elevate him to the cardinalate. The news prompted Newman to give his famous biglietto speech, in which he reflected on his life and service to the church. Though turbulent, Newman’s life was, in his view, unified by opposition to a single principle. “For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion,” he said. He went on to explain that liberalism in religion insisted “that there [was] no positive truth in religion” and that therefore “all [religions were] to be tolerated, as all are matters of opinion.” Since religion was a “private luxury,” a “sentiment and a taste,” not a “bond” or “framework” of society, a “universal and thoroughly secular education” was to take religion’s place should religious liberalism be universally accepted.

Newman had organized his life against this innovation in thought and society. Anti-liberalism united the two major periods in Newman’s public career: the Anglican Oxford Movement and his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church. Apparent discontinuities like the Anglican Newman’s preference for establishment and the Catholic Newman’s support of disestablishment were both motivated by a consistent principle, that is, a deeper unity was found in a common resistance to the liberal reduction of religion to a private taste that could make no claims to truth or corporate (political) reality.

Newman’s religious anti-liberalism did not prevent him from often discovering political liberals as his allies. The most common scholarly resolution to this unusual situation has been to see Newman as a Catholic liberal and forerunner of men like Jacques Maritain and John Courtney Murray, who grounded their support for the liberal political project in Christian anthropological and ontological antecedents. Catholic political thought in the twentieth century preferred to protect the rights of conscience rather than attempt a reassertion of the confessional character of Christian states; Newman’s identification of the political problem of conscience and his equanimous acceptance of de-confessionalization look like Catholic liberalism avant la lettre.

Christian liberalism is a defensible position (Pope Benedict XVI was an august proponent). But one risks flattening Newman’s political insights by moving him too quickly into the liberal camp. This was a man, after all, who detested “the democratic principle” all his life; who regarded what he considered the proper union of throne and altar as “a realization of the gospel in its highest perfection;” and who saw “the rights of man” as “liberties of self-will” that destroyed the societies that adopted them. Those who seriously regard Newman’s claims to consistency will have to reconcile these opinions.

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Newman was an occasional and unsystematic writer who never authored a formal treatise on political philosophy. Nor did he often weigh in on the political issues of the day—in fact, the only time he addressed a contemporary issue was when he wrote a series of pseudonymous letters on the Crimean War to chastise an intemperate British public for expecting too much from political life. However, one can find the key to Newman’s political insights in his treatment of the political status of the church.

One can find the key to Newman’s political insights in his treatment of the political status of the church.


Newman and the Illusory Liberty of Liberalism

Newman’s real political concern was the independence and vitality of the church, as viewed through the eyes of the Alexandrian Fathers. As an Anglican, Newman saw the independence of the church most immediately in its relation to the English state. As a Catholic, the same fundamental concerns remained, but they were inflected in a new valence. If Anglican Newman worried about the oppression of the church by the state, Catholic Newman was concerned about the oppression of the church by the predominating philosophy of the day. Liberalism promised an illusory liberty by positing a new mode of human organization, anthropology, and history. Newman’s political project, as both an Anglican and a Catholic, was to reassert a biblical and ecclesial reality that the age was forgetting how to see: the church itself as “an object of veneration and loyalty.”

Newman’s political writings were animated by the desire to check a new hegemonic discourse and to reassert an older understanding of political or corporate life on the verge of being forgotten. His concerns were the corporate status of the church, the political principle of loyalty, and the relevance of “typological” interpretations of events. His sometime support of liberal political positions resulted from the prudential application of nonliberal premises.

Anglican Newman

John Henry Newman was thrust into political and public life by the actions of the reforming Whig government of the 1820s and 1830s. When Parliament moved to suppress corrupt Church of England bishoprics in Ireland, it drew the ire of some young Oxford clergymen, Newman foremost among them. Neither Newman nor his allies (known as “Tractarians”) denied that the bishoprics were corrupt, but they objected to Parliament’s taking it upon itself to make or unmake portions of the Anglican Church. The governance of the Church of England was a matter for her bishops, and Newman and others founded the “Oxford Movement” to reassert an apostolic and independent church.

For Anglican Newman, independence did not mean separation. In his view, the proper union of church and state “has been a wonderful and most gracious phenomenon in Christian history.” As he said, “It is a realization of the gospel in its highest perfection, when both Caesar and St. Peter know and fulfill their office.” In Newman’s view, the problem of the nineteenth century was that Caesar had forgotten and failed his office. The church was “prior in existence to the civil institutions with which it is surrounded.” It was not subordinate to political authorities or even coequal. Kings ought not consider themselves “heads and spiritual fathers” of the church; instead they should “become her sons and servants,” “reverenc[ing] her and sav[ing] her as the Spouse of Christ.” For Anglican Newman, an independent church was one whom the state respected and obeyed.

In the church’s contemporary senescence, the Tractarians saw it “‘united’ to the state as Israel to Egypt.” Again and again, in asserting the church’s rights and prerogatives, Newman moved to a scriptural and allegorical typology that he learned from the Alexandrian Fathers. The church’s independence could not be sufficiently communicated by pointing to legal prerogatives or Hooker’s Laws of the Ecclesiastical Polity. The church, he claimed, was the “true vine,” the “Ark of the Covenant,” and the “Bride of Christ.” Her true analogues were scriptural allegories and her own ecclesial history.

For Newman, the locus classicus was the fourth-century debate over Arianism. This combination of scriptural and historical allegory sometimes produced quasi-liberal results. In his 1834 Letters on the Church of the Fathers, Newman contemplated the distinctively political question of the Church of England’s possible disestablishment by drawing a comparison to the popular election of Ambrose in the fourth century. If Ambrose could throw himself on the people, so, too, could the nineteenth-century church. “Under such sad circumstances, the spouse of Christ ‘fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God.’” The church flew into the wild in analogy with the woman pursued by the serpent in Revelation 12:6. Newman even emphasized the analogy by describing the “noxious Arian ‘flood’ which ‘the serpent cast out after the woman,’” with the text of Revelation 12:15 being applied to the Arian heresies of the fourth century. Just as Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt (as retold in Revelation), so could patristic defenders of the faith flee Arian bishops and depend on the people, and so, too, could a nineteenth-century church imitate their example.

Contemporary issues became clearer in light of ecclesial history understood on a pattern provided by scripture. Newman’s 1837 The Fall of De La Mennais found him criticizing Félicité de la Lamennais not for throwing himself on the people (Ambrose had done no different), but for substituting a modern democratic understanding of “people” for a scriptural account. While the Anglican Newman rejoiced at properly ordered relations between throne and altar, the relevant issue was the church’s independence. If she risked slavery through her alliance to the state, political disestablishment was preferable. But a proper liberty gained its meaning through a typological reading of history and scripture, not secular political reflection.

What was most important to Anglican Newman was to “to prepare the public mind for a restoration of the old Apostolic System.” The apostolic church was not a “department of government, or a function or operation of the State—without a substance—a mere collection of officials.” It had a “personality” of its own. As a corporate person, it presented a “pattern of Christ”; as Newman wrote, it was “that Blessed Spirit in bodily shape.” More substantial than a bowling club or a government committee, the church’s robust social ontology (animated by the Holy Spirit) allowed it to become an object of “loyalty and veneration.”

The political principle of loyalty grounded much of the Anglican Newman’s reflection. He denied that subjects had a right to depose their princes and he viewed the church as an organic whole governed by mutual loyalties (with proto-subsidiarian arguments against centralization and bureaucratization). Loyalty was identical to a proper reception of one’s political inheritance. Thus he generously explained Lamennais’s heterodox liberalism by saying that he was a good conservative and loyal Frenchman: Lamennais had been born into a France where the revolution was his inheritance, and he had done all that was possible to receive with Christian loyalty the inheritance of his fathers.

This loyalty or duty of obedience was the political articulation of Newman’s reflections on faith and reason. The “implicit reasoning” or “reasoning upon antecedent considerations” of Newman’s Oxford University Sermons manifested itself politically as a loyalty to Church and Queen.

The political principle of loyalty grounded much of the Anglican Newman’s reflection.


Catholic Newman

When Newman converted in 1845, this principle of loyalty explained to some degree his reticence to speak to political matters. As a British subject, he appreciated the mild nature of the British constitution and preferred to be a Catholic there rather than elsewhere. But since his England was Protestant, little hope of a Catholic monarchy existed. Newman turned his vision elsewhere, though the same concerns with loyalty, typology, and a corporate church remained.

As a Catholic, Newman trained his focus on the ways in which secular civilization posed a risk to the independence of the church. Rather than directing political repression, the church was confronted with a kind of civilizational forgetting. In place of the old scriptural-and-ecclesial typology, a new understanding of “history” was proposed as a replacement. With deep roots in medieval and early modern thought, filtered through German high criticism and continental philosophers, an idea of history as a new and predictive science lodged itself in the English mind in the 1840s and ’50s. Prominent was the vision of history as a progressive process of three ages. The contemporary third age had overcome earlier ages and traditions, emancipating itself in a new period of freedom. This was the age of the struggle between authority and liberty, where individual liberty overcame customary authority. Progress in man’s “speculative faculties” was the key to understanding progress in history. In this new age, old superstitions and undemocratic churches would be left behind.

In the 1840s and ’50s, Newman was engaged in related but distinct researches. The 1840s saw Newman’s study of historical development, a process of “germination and maturation of some truth or apparent truth on a large mental field.” Development could appear similar to historical progress, but it differed in its “preservation of type” and “conservative action on its past.” Underneath apparent historical change was real unity. A later, more fully articulated development was not better per se than the initial “implicit” understanding; nor did it leave the initial insight behind. In development, nothing was “overcome” or “left behind.”

Newman spent the 1850s meditating on the pre-political grounds of belief and indirect strategies for making the modern mind receptive to the church’s claims. This decade saw some of Newman’s most penetrating reflections on education, culture, and civilization. His writings returned to the idea that the enormously persuasive positivist or progressive history was built on sand. The foundations themselves were faulty—but once granted, were difficult to resist. The principles had been stated rather than proved, and Newman’s goal was to make England aware of the strangeness of what the English public was taking for granted.

For example, Newman’s 1852 sermon “The Second Spring” commemorated the re-establishment of the Catholic hierarchy in England after a three-century hiatus. Newman reflected on the “political phenomenon” of the church’s re-establishment, an event incomprehensible to men whose minds saw history moving from customary and religious authority toward individual liberty. The proper key for understanding the church’s rebirth could not be found in the philosophies of history; one had to look instead to that one other instance when the stone had been rolled back, the grave opened, and what was thought to be dead was found alive.

In 1854’s Who’s to Blame? where he praised the British constitution’s mild nature, Newman saw fit to remind Britons that constitutions are mostly unwritten things, embodiments of old usages and special ideas unique to a people. “Protestant liberalism,” he explained, could not be imposed on every people of the earth, and foreign adventures to attempt it could easily deform Britain’s own constitution at home. Against social-contract constitutionalism, Newman (like Burke before him) brought back to a forgetful people a fuller account of their own past. The British constitution was an old thing that needed to be inherited, not a new thing to be spread.

In other texts from the 1850s, Newman again flipped the positivist philosophy on its head. In “The Mission of St. Benedict,” he granted the plausibility of “a somewhat popular notion of the day . . . [that] the life, whether of a race or of an individual of the great human family, is divided into three stages, each of which has its own ruling principle and characteristic.” But while the contemporary secular discovered the three historic periods to be governed by Imagination, Reason, and Sense, Newman alternatively saw them as the ages of Benedict, Dominic, and Ignatius. Each age called for a different human type with distinct gifts, but St. Dominic, for instance, did not surpass or overcome St. Benedict. Moreover, Newman argued that (for the church at least) one age did not overcome the previous one but incorporated it. The church was like the vast treasure house of Matthew 13, bringing out things new and old in turn.

As various seasons demanded, the church brought forth what was needed. And in the sermons on the “Mission of St. Philip Neri,” Philip “came under the teaching of all three,” though his “Dominican” stage came first, followed by the “Benedictine” and finally the “Ignatian.” St. Philip’s incorporation of the three teachings out of historical or logical order contributed to the same claim that one habit of mind did not destroy or usurp another.

As a Catholic, Newman trained his focus on the ways in which secular civilization posed a risk to the independence of the church.


Catholic Newman and the False Virtue of Tolerance

In his essay “A Form of Infidelity of the Day,” part of the Idea of a University, Newman investigated the presuppositions and policies of toleration. The “principle of toleration” “[was] conceived in the spirit of unbelief, in order to the destruction of Catholicity.” Toleration presupposed and took as self-evident the first principle that “religion is just one of those subjects about which we can know nothing.” Under the guise of principles like freedom, benevolence, and true self-interest (which were true in their place) proponents of liberalism announced that these were the only true principles; matters of religion ought not interfere with them. Positing that religion was not a matter for knowledge, the proponents of liberalism did not argue for their position so much as put it forward as a first principle from which (rather than to which) their arguments proceeded. Its contest with orthodox faith was not on the level of argument, but on first principles—in which case, by entering too fiercely into arguments with proponents of liberalism, defenders of orthodoxy risked the implicit assumption of liberal principles, so that victory in argument would be pyrrhic.

Liberalism in religion, then, tended not only toward the effacement of religion but also toward a duplicity about its own intentions–what Newman called a “cleverly framed” “device of the Enemy.” In its unassuming character, it was sweeping up several earnest proponents who would disclaim, but could not see, its ultimate consequences, its undoing of faith and the dissolution of traditional social bonds. Here, once again, was the need to reassert the church’s corporate reality.

The Idea of a University also elaborated the mode by which the liberal “religion of civilization” reduced the promptings of a theonomic” conscience. “Conscience indeed is implanted in the breast by nature,” but “when the mind is simply angry with itself and nothing more, a false philosophy has misinterpreted emotions which ought to lead to God.” Newman explained: “Fear implies the transgression of a law, and a law implies a lawgiver and a judge,” which is the true, religious intimation of conscience. Intellectual culture, however, replaces fear with shame or self-reproach, which is “limited to our mere sense of what is fitting and becoming.” In other words, “fear carries us out of ourselves, whereas shame may act upon us only within the round of our own thoughts.” Whereas conscience recognizes “the command of duty” and sin as “an offence against God,” the intellectual reduction of conscience to “the moral sense” turns duty into “a sort of taste” and offense as something merely “against human nature.” The most important consequence of this change was not the reduction in force, but the forgetting of a relationship. Whereas religious conscience preserved the interaction between God and man, the reduced moral sense turned ethical activity into the intensely personal judgment of whether a person has been “consistent.” Newman writes: “Their conscience has become mere self-respect,” and they become “engrossed in notions of what is due to themselves, to their own dignity and their own consistency.”

In all these works from the 1850s, Newman’s Anglican concerns were reformulated into a new but consistent criticism. The risk was no longer a state that usurped its just bounds. Now the concern was with a philosophy of the day that under the guise of a broad-minded “tolerance” made the church a stranger to itself. One historical typology had been replaced with another, but the new “progressive” history cut man off from his past. If man was progressive and prior ages overcome, if the Gospels did not communicate truth but only the opinions of their historically bound authors, what possible analogy could be drawn between a nineteenth-century church, Ambrose’s fourth-century election, and the woman who fled the serpent?  

A Letter Addressed to the Duke of Norfolk

Newman’s political meditations culminated in A Letter Addressed to the Duke of Norfolk, an 1875 tract that replied to events at least fifteen years in the making. In 1860, Pope Pius IX had lost the papal states. The papacy had held these states for a thousand years, and the political power they afforded the pope was considered a key feature of the pope’s (and the church’s) independence.

Pius IX responded in two ways. First, in 1864, he published the Syllabus of Errors, which condemned the proposition that “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.” Pius had seemingly made it clear that he would not adjust to the new civilization. Second, in 1868, he convened the first Vatican Council (1869–1870). The council is most famous for the document Pastor Aeternus, which defined the doctrine of papal infallibility.

The international press had ridiculed Pius at the time of the publication of the Syllabus, and they treated the definition of papal infallibility in a similar manner, wildly overstating and misrepresenting the actions of the Council. Surveying this situation, the English Liberal statesman William Gladstone published two pamphlets in 1874 and 1875. In them, he attacked papal infallibility and accused English Catholics of having “forfeited their moral and mental freedom.” The “Absolute Obedience” owed to the pope made it impossible for Catholics to be loyal British subjects, Gladstone maintained. In other words, Catholicism and modern civilization were irreconcilable.

In 1875, Newman published A Letter Addressed to the Duke of Norfolk as a direct answer to Gladstone’s charges. Newman marshaled his attack under the banner of “Conscience,” and much of the Letter was an explanation of what conscience was and how it worked. Gladstone erroneously accused Catholics of mental slavery, Newman argued, because Gladstone himself had forgotten or misunderstood how his own conscience operated. The question only arose the way it did for Gladstone because the concept of conscience had been impoverished and delegitimized by modern political philosophy. True conscience had been replaced by its “counterfeit,” the “right of self-will.” Both “philosophers” and “the public mind” were guilty of reducing conscience in their own way, and Newman saw it as his duty to restore the traditional understanding.

By silencing the first and most natural authority within themselves, Newman’s opponents misinterpreted much of everyday and political life. They abhorred the authority of the pope and the obedience he demanded, but they failed to notice the manifold authorities they obeyed every day: the law, various experts, the doctor, public opinion. In redescribing natural loyalties as self-chosen liberties, they had lost sight of themselves.

Conscience was an “authority” and a “law,” and insofar as it was the “echo of the voice of God,” it was never in a neutral or original position. One either obeyed or ignored it. Attempting to escape its constraints was only a more sophisticated disobedience, in which one cultivated “that mean, ungenerous selfish, vulgar spirit of [man’s] nature, which, at the very first rumor of a command, places itself in opposition to the Superior who gives it.” But because the natural religious sense of man was so weak, he would need to cultivate his conscience before he could properly assert it.

While Newman was willing to speak about “rights” of conscience, this point was crucial: for Newman, a right of conscience was not universal, inalienable, or self-evident (as the language of a document like the Declaration of Independence has it). Rather, it was the product of reflection, education, and moral cultivation. The “right of conscience” Newman advocated in the Letter was a selective and restricted right, not a foundational or universal guarantee. Central to Newman’s political analysis of conscience was a battle between obedience and self-will. Newman invoked it only to ridicule an unbounded “freedom” or “liberty” of conscience.

For Newman, a right of conscience was not universal, inalienable, or self-evident. Rather, it was the product of reflection, education, and moral cultivation.


Newman’s Controversial Defense of the Syllabus of Errors

Newman’s sharpest indictment of his liberal opponents came through a defense of Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors. He began with an analysis of the British constitution prior to “the new civilization.” It embodied the idea of “Toryism.” By this Newman meant not a political party or program, but rather the principle of “loyalty to persons.” But with the arrival of “the new civilization,” this principle of the British constitution was “now superseded,” nor could it have been maintained. The new civilization was animated by a new and antagonistic principle, the cultivation of the intellect. “When the intellect is cultivated, it is as certain that it will develop into a thousand various shapes.” Though the state should have a conscience, “what if it happened to have half-a-dozen, or a score, or a hundred, in religious matters, each different from each.” “No government could be formed, if religious unanimity was a sine qua non.” What then? “The whole theory of Toryism, hitherto acted upon, came to pieces and went the way of all flesh. This was in the nature of things.” Newman saw a kind of inevitability to the dissolution of Toryism and its replacement with liberty of intellect.

The intellectual history Newman described saw two competing principles: loyalty to persons and liberty of the intellect. Liberty of intellect obtained first in religious affairs, then the wider cultivation of the intellect led to a change in “the governing order.” Where once there was a kind of customary authority, it was at a certain point succeeded by a liberty of intellect. Liberal philosophies of history would have argued for much the same. But Newman concluded in the following manner:

The Pope has denounced the sentiment that he ought to come to terms with “progress, liberalism, and the new civilization.” I have no thought at all of disputing his words. I leave the great problem to the future. God will guide other Popes to act when Pius goes, as He has guided him. . . . All I know is, that Toryism, that is, loyalty to persons, “springs immortal in the human breast;” that religion is a spiritual loyalty; and that Catholicity is the only divine form of religion. And thus, in centuries to come, there may be found out some way of uniting what is free in the new structure of society with what is authoritative in the old, without any base compromise with “Progress” and “Liberalism.”

First, Newman asserted a re-emergence of the principle of loyalty. It was not part of an older age that has been decisively overcome: loyalty and authority were permanently part of the human political condition.  This assertion formed the first part of an argument concerning the continued relevance of the Catholic Church. Whereas the liberal historian would argue that the church belonged to an earlier stage in history, and that if it was to survive it would need to adapt itself to “progress, liberalism, and the new civilization,” Newman argued that the church, by being founded on a constitutive element of human nature, will ever have a support. The question of a more stable arrangement was left to the future, not because of the expectation of further “progress,” but because the future would bring not progress but return.

Liberal philosophies of history were turned on their heads. While there may be two forces at work in history—authority and liberty—the occlusion of one by the other was only an apparent progress. What looked like progress was actually a partial forgetting of what counted as relevant political phenomena. History did not have a direction so much as human nature had diverse elements that must be acknowledged in a governing order.

Unstable political situations resulted from a forgetfulness of these multiple elements of human nature, from the desire to found upon self-assertion or self-will. Such a project could never succeed, so the result was that the natural and necessary obediences of political and social life were either ignored or ideologically redescribed as liberties (one’s slavish devotion to public opinion praised as “the rights of the individual”).  The necessary dependence of a rights regime on a prior authoritative order, understood as “British common sense,” was untheorizable from within the abstract rights regime. Therefore, modern assertions of rights tended to undermine the principles that made their application possible. From this perspective, the new modern “toleration” was simply the modern face of unbelief, the modern opposition to the church, ingeniously formulated. Toleration or “liberty of conscience” was not a progressive advance over past ages: it was a forgetting or distortion of human experience. If “the new civilization” was premised on a faulty understanding of political and spiritual life, then the pope ought not come to terms with it.

Newman’s final conclusion was an inversion of Gladstone’s original claim: it was not Catholics who could not be loyal subjects of the Queen, but liberals themselves. Having suppressed their own nature, they lost sight of the realities of corporate political life and risked undermining the very polity they claimed to defend.

What then was to be done? The church was not a private association constructed merely by the consent of its members; rather it was “a visible polity,” with “one and the same structure of laws, rites, rules of government, independency, everywhere.” She was an object of veneration and loyalty, so that when one made political judgments about the church’s relation to the political authorities, one did not (in the final analysis) judge according to the “free exercise” of an individual private right to religious liberty; rather one determined whether the church was able to preserve its form of polity, its life, and its personality. The independence of the church could not be forgotten for the independence of her members, and the very terms of her independence depended on the loyalty of her members formed along a scriptural-and-ecclesial typology, not via contemporary philosophies of freedom.

Newman’s final conclusion was an inversion of Gladstone’s original claim: it was not Catholics who could not be loyal subjects of the Queen, but liberals themselves.


The Theologico-Political Problem

Would Newman have agreed with Maritain that the “historical sky” of the Middle Ages was gone, and now the “concrete historical ideal” was a “juridical state” that secured liberties and protected freedoms? Newman admitted even as an Anglican that he “did not expect anything so blessed again” as the time when “Charles is King, Laud the prelate.” As a Catholic, he did not wish for the return of the Middle Ages. But each age presented its own threats to the independence of the church. If someone like Maritain would look to ground liberal principles more firmly, Newman would re-emphasize the realities that liberal principles often elided. Newman could prudently support liberal positions, but never as a result of (even more firmly grounded) liberal principles.

No particular political settlement could present a final resolution of the Christian problem. The reality of apostolic power, eventually concentrated in the papacy, put an end to the classical and pagan political unity. Pierre Manent has argued that the revelation of the Catholic Church, “a human association of a completely new kind,” firmly excluded a return to pre-Christian polity: the Christian separation of political and spiritual authority opened up “the theologico-political problem.” Any settlement was only provisional, and the long history of the church showed that she could both convert the political sovereign and be persecuted by him.

For Newman, the discovery of any reasonable political settlement would first require what both the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk and the Oxford Movement had hoped to do: prepare the public imagination for an apostolic church, an institution in which obedience without mental slavery was married to liberty without self-will.

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