Did Cardinal Newman want to “rethink” the papacy?9-min read (inc. footnotes)

“And I submit myself to those other decisions of the Holy See, theological or not.”

Image: El Greco, SS Peter and Paul, Wiki Commons (Source)

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Editor’s Commentary

To celebrate the feast of SS Peter and Paul, we share three extracts from John Henry Cardinal Newman which, taken together, constitute a moving profession of faith in the indefectibility and infallibility of the Roman Church.

These extracts are all taken from the Apologia Pro Vita Sua (and for UK readers), which was written by Newman to defend himself and – more importantly – to defend the Catholic Church, against the scurrilous accusations of an Anglican cleric, Rev. Charles Kingsley.

Today Newman’s reputation is again being undermined by an equally scurrilous party – those who wish to “rethink the papacy” – and who enlist Newman as an ally in the cause of “papal minimalism”, often based (when based on anything at all) on interpretations of isolated remarks contained in his private correspondence.

This is akin to building a theological system based on isolated private text messages. It is a thoroughly unsound as a method, and unfair as a portrayal of a man’s thoughts.

Here at The WM Review we have already posted extensive extracts from Newman’s renowned lectures on the Idea of a University which clearly demonstrate his sublime, orthodox and ultramontane doctrine on the papacy.

Today we share extracts from the Apologia which further manifest Newman’s beliefs on the infallibility of the Church.

The first extract explains a particular problem facing fallen man; the second explains the infallibility of the Church and how it serves as a remedy for this problem. The final extract is Cardinal Newman’s profound profession of faith in what he has just explained.

This profession concerns not only the infallible definitions of the Church, but also in the safety of all the teaching and disciplinary acts of the Holy See “which, waiving the question of their infallibility, on the lowest ground come to me with a claim to be accepted and obeyed.”

As for the “rethinkers” and “minimalists” we can only repeat the words of Pope St Pius X in his Apostolic Letter Tuum Illud:

“[T]those who were accustomed to abusing his name and deceiving the ignorant should henceforth cease doing so.

“Would that they should follow Newman the author faithfully by studying his books without, to be sure, being addicted to their own prejudices, and let them not with wicked cunning conjure anything up from them or declare that their own opinions are confirmed in them; but instead let them understand his pure and whole principles, his lessons and inspiration which they contain.

“They will learn many excellent things from such a great teacher: in the first place, to regard the Magisterium of the Church as sacred, to defend the doctrine handed down inviolately by the Fathers and, what is of highest importance to the safeguarding of Catholic truth, to follow and obey the Successor of St. Peter with the greatest faith.”

(Line breaks and emphases added)

The extracts below are all taken from Chapter V of Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1865). The headings in bold are our own.; some emphases and line breaks have been added.


I. Preamble
The Problems Facing Fallen Man

Man had rebelled against his Maker. It was this that caused the divine interposition: and to proclaim it must be the first act of the divinely-accredited messenger. The Church must denounce rebellion as of all possible evils the greatest. She must have no terms with it; if she would be true to her Master, she must ban and anathematize it. This is the meaning of a statement of mine, which has furnished matter for one of those special accusations to which I am at present replying: I have, however, no fault at all to confess in regard to it; I have nothing to withdraw, and in consequence I here deliberately repeat it.

I said:

“The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.”

It is because of the intensity of the evil which has possession of mankind, that a suitable antagonist has been provided against it; and the initial act of that divinely-commissioned power is of course to deliver her challenge and to defy the enemy. Such a preamble then gives a meaning to her position in the world, and an interpretation to her whole course of teaching and action.

In like manner she has ever put forth, with most energetic distinctness, those other great elementary truths, which either are an explanation of her mission or give a character to her work. She does not teach that human nature is irreclaimable, else wherefore should she be sent? not, that it is to be shattered and reversed, but to be extricated, purified, and restored; not, that it is a mere mass of hopeless evil, but that it has the promise upon it of great things, and even now, in its present state of disorder and excess, has a virtue and a praise proper to itself.

But in the next place she knows and she preaches that such a restoration, as she aims at effecting in it, must be brought about, not simply through certain outward provisions of preaching and teaching, even though they be her own, but from an inward spiritual power or grace imparted directly from above, and of which she is the channel. She has it in charge to rescue human nature from its misery, but not simply by restoring it on its own level, but by lifting it up to a higher level than its own. She recognizes in it real moral excellence though degraded, but she cannot set it free from earth except by exalting it towards heaven.

It was for this end that a renovating grace was put into her hands; and therefore from the nature of the gift, as well as from the reasonableness of the case, she goes on, as a further point, to insist, that all true conversion must begin with the first springs of thought, and to teach that each individual man must be in his own person one whole and perfect temple of God, while he is also one of the living stones which build up a visible religious community. And thus the distinctions between nature and grace, and between outward and inward religion, become two further articles in what I have called the preamble of her divine commission.

Such truths as these she vigorously reiterates, and pertinaciously inflicts upon mankind; as to such she observes no half-measures, no economical reserve, no delicacy or prudence. “Ye must be born again,” is the simple, direct form of words which she uses after her Divine Master; “your whole nature must be re-born, your passions, and your affections, and your aims, and your conscience, and your will, must all be bathed in a new element, and reconsecrated to your Maker,—and, the last not the least, your intellect.”

II. The Infallibility of the Church

This power, viewed in its fulness, is as tremendous as the giant evil which has called for it.

It claims, when brought into exercise but in the legitimate manner, for otherwise of course it is but quiescent, to know for certain the very meaning of every portion of that Divine Message in detail, which was committed by our Lord to His Apostles.

It claims to know its own limits, and to decide what it can determine absolutely and what it cannot.

It claims, moreover, to have a hold upon statements not directly religious, so far as this,—to determine whether they indirectly relate to religion, and, according to its own definitive judgment, to pronounce whether or not, in a particular case, they are simply consistent with revealed truth.

It claims to decide magisterially, whether as within its own province or not, that such and such statements are or are not prejudicial to the Depositum of faith, in their spirit or in their consequences, and to allow them, or condemn and forbid them, accordingly.

It claims to impose silence at will on any matters, or controversies, of doctrine, which on its own ipse dixit, it pronounces to be dangerous, or inexpedient, or inopportune.

It claims that, whatever may be the judgment of Catholics upon such acts, these acts should be received by them with those outward marks of reverence, submission, and loyalty, which Englishmen, for instance, pay to the presence of their sovereign, without expressing any criticism on them on the ground that in their matter they are inexpedient, or in their manner violent or harsh. 

And lastly, it claims to have the right of inflicting spiritual punishment, of cutting off from the ordinary channels of the divine life, and of simply excommunicating, those who refuse to submit themselves to its formal declarations.

Such is the infallibility lodged in the Catholic Church, viewed in the concrete, as clothed and surrounded by the appendages of its high sovereignty: it is, to repeat what I said above, a supereminent prodigious power sent upon earth to encounter and master a giant evil.

And now, having thus described it, I profess my own absolute submission to its claim.

III. Profession of Faith

I believe the whole revealed dogma as taught by the Apostles, as committed by the Apostles to the Church, and as declared by the Church to me.

I receive it, as it is infallibly interpreted by the authority to whom it is thus committed, and (implicitly) as it shall be, in like manner, further interpreted by that same authority till the end of time.

I submit, moreover, to the universally received traditions of the Church, in which lies the matter of those new dogmatic definitions which are from time to time made, and which in all times are the clothing and the illustration of the Catholic dogma as already defined.

And I submit myself to those other decisions of the Holy See, theological or not, through the organs which it has itself appointed, which, waiving the question of their infallibility, on the lowest ground come to me with a claim to be accepted and obeyed.

Also, I consider that, gradually and in the course of ages, Catholic inquiry has taken certain definite shapes, and has thrown itself into the form of a science, with a method and a phraseology of its own, under the intellectual handling of great minds, such as St. Athanasius, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas; and I feel no temptation at all to break in pieces the great legacy of thought thus committed to us for these latter days.


Editors’ Afterword

I feel no temptation at all to break in pieces the great legacy of thought thus committed to us for these latter days.

Is this not very far from “rethinking” traditional theology?

Let us hear once again the words of Pope St Pius X, addressed to the modernists of his day, and the partisans of rethinkery in our own:

“[T]hose who were accustomed to abusing his name and deceiving the ignorant should henceforth cease doing so.

“Would that they should follow Newman the author faithfully by studying his books without, to be sure, being addicted to their own prejudices, and let them not with wicked cunning conjure anything up from them or declare that their own opinions are confirmed in them.”

Ss Peter and Paul: Pray for Us!

Cardinal Newman, Ultramontane

Cathedra Sempiterna – Newman on “The Eternal See”
The Newmanic Credo – Did Cardinal Newman want to “rethink” the papacy?

John Henry Newman, three extracts from “Chapter V: Position of my Mind since 1845”, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1865) (and for UK readers)

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