John Henry Newman, Anti-Modernist – Part II

“Faith is an intellectual act, its object truth, and its result knowledge.”

Supporting The WM Review through book purchases
As Amazon Associates, we earn from qualifying purchases through our Amazon links. See also The WM Review Reading List (with direct links for US and UK readers).

Image: Wiki Commons, Public Domain

Editors’ Notes

This is the second part of Discourse II (‘Theology a Branch of Knowledge’) of John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, in which he considers the arguments of those who would exclude the teaching of theology from the university – as was common at the time – and draws out the implications of these arguments.

These ideas – and the philosophy behind them – were later treated by Pope St Pius X under the label of ‘modernism’. But what few discuss is that Newman’s analysis and condemnation of this matrix of ideas are strikingly similar to that given in the encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis.

Having prepared the ground in the earlier part of his discourse, this part exposes the ideas that later became known as modernism, and shows the deleterious consequences that flow from them.

Newman describes the approach of the “religious world” outside the Catholic Church in these words:

“The religious world, as it is styled, holds, generally speaking, that religion consists, not in knowledge, but in feeling or sentiment.”

This error he contrasts with the Catholic doctrine that faith is “an intellectual act, its object truth, and its result knowledge. ” 

Newman’s diagnosis is made in words very similar to those used in the Anti-Modernist Oath which rejected the error that faith is “a blind sentiment of religion welling up from the depths of the subconscious” rather than “a genuine assent of the intellect to truth received by hearing from an external source”.

This classic work of Newman deals with the nature of university education, and so this discourse is naturally not as systematic an exposition as St Pius X’s Encyclical. Nonetheless, it remains a perceptive analysis of early modernism – and an insight into Newman’s own thoughts on the matter.

Perhaps this sort of perceptiveness is why Pope St Pius X wrote the following to Bishop O’Dwyer following the publication of his pamphlet Cardinal Newman and the Encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis:  

‘We wish to assure you that your pamphlet, in which you show that the writings of Cardinal Newman, far from differing with Our Encyclical Letter Pascendi, are in reality in closest accord with it, has our heartiest approval.  

‘You could not better have served both truth and the merit of the man.’

A.S.S., XLI, 1908, 200-2. Translation taken from E.D. Benard, A Preface to Newman’s Theology pp 155-6, B. Herder Book Co., London, 1945.

As this discourse is quite lengthy, we will be publishing it in parts. All headings have been added by The WM Review, and we have also added some line breaks and edited some punctuation for ease of reading.

Discourse II – Theology a Branch of Knowledge
Part II
The Idea of a University
John Henry Newman
This edition taken from
Longmans, Green & Co., London 1907

In the previous part:

“If, then, in an Institution which professes all knowledge, nothing is professed, nothing is taught about the Supreme Being, it is fair to infer that every individual in the number of those who advocate that Institution, supposing him consistent, distinctly holds that nothing is known for certain about the Supreme Being; nothing such, as to have any claim to be regarded as a material addition to the stock of general knowledge existing in the world.  

“If on the other hand it turns out that something considerable is known about the Supreme Being, whether from Reason or Revelation, then the Institution in question professes every science, and yet leaves out the foremost of them.  

“In a word, strong as may appear the assertion, I do not see how I can avoid making it, and bear with me, Gentlemen, while I do so, viz., such an Institution cannot be what it professes, if there be a God.   I do not wish to declaim; but, by the very force of the terms, it is very plain, that a Divine Being and a University so circumstanced cannot co-exist.”

“But aren’t there different kinds of knowledge?” (3)  

Still, however, this may seem to many an abrupt conclusion, and will not be acquiesced in: what answer, Gentlemen, will be made to it? Perhaps this:  

It will be said, that there are different kinds or spheres of Knowledge, human, divine, sensible, intellectual, and the like; and that a University certainly takes in all varieties of Knowledge in its own line, but still that it has a line of its own. It contemplates, it occupies a certain order, a certain platform, of Knowledge.  

I understand the remark; but I own to you, I do not understand how it can be made to apply to the matter in hand.  

I cannot so construct my definition of the subject-matter of University Knowledge, and so draw my boundary lines around it, as to include therein the other sciences commonly studied at Universities, and to exclude the science of Religion.  

For instance, are we to limit our idea of University Knowledge by the evidence of our senses? then we exclude ethics –  

By intuition? we exclude history –  

By testimony? we exclude metaphysics –  

By abstract reasoning? we exclude physics.  

Is not the being of a God reported to us by testimony, handed down by history, inferred by an inductive process, brought home to us by metaphysical necessity, urged on us by the suggestions of our conscience? It is a truth in the natural order, as well as in the supernatural.  

So much for its origin; and, when obtained, what is it worth? Is it a great truth or a small one? Is it a comprehensive truth?  

Say that no other religious idea whatever were given but it, and you have enough to fill the mind; you have at once a whole dogmatic system.

The word “God” is a Theology in itself, indivisibly one, inexhaustibly various, from the vastness and the simplicity of its meaning. Admit a God, and you introduce among the subjects of your knowledge, a fact encompassing, closing in upon, absorbing, every other fact conceivable. How can we investigate any part of any order of Knowledge, and stop short of that which enters into every order? All true principles run over with it, all phenomena converge to it; it is truly the First and the Last.  

In word indeed, and in idea, it is easy enough to divide Knowledge into human and divine, secular and religious, and to lay down that we will address ourselves to the one without interfering with the other; but it is impossible in fact. Granting that divine truth differs in kind from human, so do human truths differ in kind one from another. If the knowledge of the Creator is in a different order from knowledge of the creature, so, in like manner, metaphysical science is in a different order from physical, physics from history, history from ethics.  

You will soon break up into fragments the whole circle of secular knowledge, if you begin the mutilation with divine.  

Subscribe to stay in touch:

Revealed theology  

I have been speaking simply of Natural Theology; my argument of course is stronger when I go on to Revelation. Let the doctrine of the Incarnation be true: is it not at once of the nature of an historical fact, and of a metaphysical?  

Let it be true that there are Angels: how is not this a point of knowledge in the same sense as the naturalist’s asseveration, that myriads of living things might co-exist on the point of a needle?  

That the Earth is to be burned by fire, is, if true, as large a fact as that huge monsters once played amid its depths; that Antichrist is to come, is as categorical a heading to a chapter of history, as that Nero or Julian was Emperor of Rome; that a divine influence moves the will, is a subject of thought not more mysterious than the result of volition on our muscles, which we admit as a fact in metaphysics.  

I do not see how it is possible for a philosophical mind, first, to believe these religious facts to be true; next, to consent to ignore them; and thirdly, in spite of this, to go on to profess to be teaching all the while de omni scibili.  

No; if a man thinks in his heart that these religious facts are short of truth, that they are not true in the sense in which the general fact and the law of the fall of a stone to the earth is true, I understand his excluding Religion from his University, though he professes other reasons for its exclusion.  

In that case the varieties of religious opinion under which he shelters his conduct, are not only his apology for publicly disowning Religion, but a cause of his privately disbelieving it. He does not think that any thing is known or can be known for certain, about the origin of the world or the end of man.  

A false notion of faith as the basis of modernism – implicit in the Protestant revolt (n. 4)  

This, I fear, is the conclusion to which intellects, clear, logical, and consistent, have come, or are coming, from the nature of the case; and, alas! in addition to this primâ-facie suspicion, there are actual tendencies in the same direction in Protestantism, viewed whether in its original idea, or again in the so-called Evangelical movement in these islands during the last century.  

The religious world, as it is styled, holds, generally speaking, that religion consists, not in knowledge, but in feeling or sentiment.  

The old Catholic notion, which still lingers in the Established [Anglican] Church, was, that Faith was an intellectual act, its object truth, and its result knowledge.  

Thus if you look into the Anglican Prayer Book, you will find definite credenda, as well as definite agenda; but in proportion as the Lutheran leaven spread, it became fashionable to say that Faith was, not an acceptance of revealed doctrine, not an act of the intellect, but a feeling, an emotion, an affection, an appetency; and, as this view of Faith obtained, so was the connexion of Faith with Truth and Knowledge more and more either forgotten or denied.  

At length the identity of this (so-called) spirituality of heart and the virtue of Faith was acknowledged on all hands. Some men indeed disapproved the pietism in question, others admired it; but whether they admired or disapproved, both the one party and the other found themselves in agreement on the main point, viz.—in considering that this really was in substance Religion, and nothing else; that Religion was based, not on argument, but on taste and sentiment, that nothing was objective, every thing subjective, in doctrine.  

I say, even those who saw through the affectation in which the religious school of which I am speaking clad itself, still came to think that Religion, as such, consisted in something short of intellectual exercises, viz., in the affections, in the imagination, in inward persuasions and consolations, in pleasurable sensations, sudden changes, and sublime fancies.  

They learned to believe and to take it for granted, that Religion was nothing beyond a supply of the wants of human nature, not an external fact and a work of God. There was, it appeared, a demand for Religion, and therefore there was a supply; human nature could not do without Religion, any more than it could do without bread; a supply was absolutely necessary, good or bad, and, as in the case of the articles of daily sustenance, an article which was really inferior was better than none at all.  

Thus Religion was useful, venerable, beautiful, the sanction of order, the stay of government, the curb of self-will and self-indulgence, which the laws cannot reach: but, after all, on what was it based?  

Why, that was a question delicate to ask, and imprudent to answer; but, if the truth must be spoken, however reluctantly, the long and the short of the matter was this, that Religion was based on custom, on prejudice, on law, on education, on habit, on loyalty, on feudalism, on enlightened expedience, on many, many things, but not at all on reason; reason was neither its warrant, nor its instrument, and science had as little connexion with it as with the fashions of the season, or the state of the weather.  

You see, Gentlemen, how a theory or philosophy, which began with the religious changes of the sixteenth century, has led to conclusions, which the authors of those changes would be the first to denounce, and has been taken up by that large and influential body which goes by the name of Liberal or Latitudinarian; and how, where it prevails, it is as unreasonable of course to demand for Religion a chair in a University, as to demand one for fine feeling, sense of honour, patriotism, gratitude, maternal affection, or good companionship, proposals which would be simply unmeaning.  

(Article continues below)

Sorry to interrupt! We would like to keep providing our articles free for everyone. If you have benefitted from our content, then please do consider supporting us financially.

A monthly donation helps ensure we can keep writing and sharing at no cost to readers. Thank you!

Concrete examples of proto-modernism at the time (n. 5)  

Now, in illustration of what I have been saying, I will appeal, in the first place, to a statesman, but not merely so, to no mere politician, no trader in places, or in votes, or in the stock market, but to a philosopher, to an orator, to one whose profession, whose aim, has ever been to cultivate the fair, the noble, and the generous.  

I cannot forget the celebrated discourse of the celebrated man to whom I am referring; a man who is first in his peculiar walk; and who, moreover (which is much to my purpose), has had a share, as much as any one alive, in effecting the public recognition in these Islands of the principle of separating secular and religious knowledge.  

This brilliant thinker, during the years in which he was exerting himself in behalf of this principle, made a speech or discourse, on occasion of a public solemnity; and in reference to the bearing of general knowledge upon religious belief, he spoke as follows:  

“As men,” he said, “will no longer suffer themselves to be led blindfold in ignorance, so will they no more yield to the vile principle of judging and treating their fellow-creatures, not according to the intrinsic merit of their actions, but according to the accidental and involuntary coincidence of their opinions. The great truth has finally gone forth to all the ends of the earth,”  

… And he prints it in capital letters…  

“that man shall no more render account to man for his belief, over which he has himself no control. Henceforward, nothing shall prevail upon us to praise or to blame any one for that which he can no more change, than he can the hue of his skin or the height of his stature.”  

You see, Gentlemen, if this philosopher is to decide the matter, religious ideas are just as far from being real, or representing anything beyond themselves, are as truly peculiarities, idiosyncracies, accidents of the individual, as his having the stature of a Patagonian, or the features of a Negro.  

But perhaps this was the rhetoric of an excited moment. Far from it, Gentlemen, or I should not have fastened on the words of a fertile mind, uttered so long ago.

The progress of modernism into national life  

What Mr. Brougham laid down as a principle in 1825, resounds on all sides of us, with ever-growing confidence and success, in 1852.  

I open the Minutes of the Committee of Council on Education for the years 1848-50, presented to both Houses of Parliament by command of Her Majesty, and I find one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools, at p. 467 of the second volume, dividing “the topics usually embraced in the better class of primary schools” into four:  

  1. The knowledge of signs, as reading and writing
  2. Of facts, as geography and astronomy
  3. Of relations and laws, as mathematics
  4. And lastly sentiment, such as poetry and music.  

Now, on first catching sight of this division, it occurred to me to ask myself, before ascertaining the writer’s own resolution of the matter, under which of these four heads would fall Religion, or whether it fell under any of them.  

Did he put it aside as a thing too delicate and sacred to be enumerated with earthly studies? or did he distinctly contemplate it when he made his division?  

Anyhow, I could really find a place for it under the first head, or the second, or the third;—for it has to do with facts, since it tells of the Self-subsisting; it has to do with relations, for it tells of the Creator; it has to do with signs, for it tells of the due manner of speaking of Him.  

There was just one head of the division to which I could not refer it, viz., to sentiment; for, I suppose, music and poetry, which are the writer’s own examples of sentiment, have not much to do with Truth, which is the main object of Religion.  

Judge then my surprise, Gentlemen, when I found the fourth was the very head selected by the writer of the Report in question, as the special receptacle of religious topics. “The inculcation of sentiment,” he says, “embraces reading in its higher sense, poetry, music, together with moral and religious Education.”  

I am far from introducing this writer for his own sake, because I have no wish to hurt the feelings of a gentleman, who is but exerting himself zealously in the discharge of anxious duties; but, taking him as an illustration of the wide-spreading school of thought to which he belongs, I ask what can more clearly prove than a candid avowal like this, that, in the view of his school, Religion is not knowledge, has nothing whatever to do with knowledge, and is excluded from a University course of instruction, not simply because the exclusion cannot be helped, from political or social obstacles, but because it has no business there at all, because it is to be considered a taste, sentiment, opinion, and nothing more?  

Modernism’s disastrous conceptions of faith and intellect  

The writer avows this conclusion himself, in the explanation into which he presently enters, in which he says:  

“According to the classification proposed, the essential idea of all religious Education will consist in the direct cultivation of the feelings.”  

What we contemplate, then, what we aim at, when we give a religious Education, is, it seems, not to impart any knowledge whatever, but to satisfy anyhow desires after the Unseen which will arise in our minds in spite of ourselves, to provide the mind with a means of self-command, to impress on it the beautiful ideas which saints and sages have struck out, to embellish it with the bright hues of a celestial piety, to teach it the poetry of devotion, the music of well-ordered affections, and the luxury of doing good.  

As for the intellect, its exercise happens to be unavoidable, whenever moral impressions are made, from the constitution of the human mind, but it varies in the results of that exercise, in the conclusions which it draws from our impression, according to the peculiarities of the individual.  

Something like this seems to be the writer’s meaning, but we need not pry into its finer issues in order to gain a distinct view of its general bearing; and taking it, as I think we fairly may take it, as a specimen of the philosophy of the day, as adopted by those who are not conscious unbelievers, or open scoffers, I consider it amply explains how it comes to pass that this day’s philosophy sets up a system of universal knowledge, and teaches of plants, and earths, and creeping things, and beasts, and gases, about the crust of the earth and the changes of the atmosphere, about sun, moon, and stars, about man and his doings, about the history of the world, about sensation, memory, and the passions, about duty, about cause and effect, about all things imaginable, except one—and that is, about Him that made all these things, about God.  

I say the reason is plain because they consider knowledge, as regards the creature, is illimitable, but impossible or hopeless as regards the being and attributes and works of the Creator.  

In the next part, Newman considers how proto-modernists conceived of God as “the Great Architect of Nature”, and draws out further implications of their theories.

Further Reading

John Henry Cardinal Newman – The Idea of a University

Bishop E.T. O’Dwyer – Cardinal Newman and the Encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis

E.D. Benard – A Preface to Newman’s Theology

John Henry Newman, Anti-Modernist – Part I

Newman on “The Eternal See”

Did Cardinal Newman want to “rethink” the papacy?

Bishop Ullathorne’s vindication of Newman’s writings on Our Lady

Should converts set themselves up as teachers? Newman’s answer


As we expand The WM Review we would like to keep providing our articles free for everyone. If you have benefitted from our content please do consider supporting us financially.

A small monthly donation, or a one-time donation, helps ensure we can keep writing and sharing at no cost to readers. Thank you!

Monthly Gifts

Subscribe to stay in touch:

Follow on Twitter and Telegram:

Also on Gab!

Leave a Reply