John Henry Newman, Anti-Modernist – Part III

“Nothing is easier than to use the word, and mean nothing by it.”

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Image: Bust of Newman at Trinity College, Oxford where he was an undergraduate, and where one of our editors lived for a term. Wiki Commons, Public Domain

John Henry Newman, Anti-Modernist
Part I
Part II
Part III
John Henry Newman, Anti-Ecumenist

Editors’ Notes

This is the third 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’. Few discuss how Newman’s analysis and condemnation of this matrix of ideas are strikingly similar to that given in the encyclical Pascendi Dominic Gregis.

In this section, Newman discusses further the modernist conception of “the religious sense” as a mere sentiment. As discussed in the previous part, 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.”

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

In this, and in his judgment, we find an alignment of terms between Newman, Pope St Pius X’s encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis and the Oath against Modernism.

The latter of which states:

“Fifthly, I hold with certainty and sincerely confess that faith is not a blind sentiment of religion welling up from the depths of the subconscious under the impulse of the heart and the motion of a will trained to morality; but faith is a genuine assent of the intellect to truth received by hearing from an external source. By this assent, because of the authority of the supremely truthful God, we believe to be true that which has been revealed and attested to by a personal God, our creator and lord.”

This fifth term of the Oath against Modernism – which gets to the very heart of the cancer of modernism, namely its assault on revelation and faith – is the veritable theme of Discourse II as a whole.

Interestingly, in this piece Newman quotes and critiques the lengthy prayer of a certain proto-modernist, which addresses God as the “Grand Architect” – suggesting a link between the ideas of modernism and the ideology of freemasonry.

In 1951, Pietro Parente defined modernism as follows:  

“A heresy, or rather a group of heresies, which have arisen in very bosom of the Church at the beginning of [the twentieth century] under the influence of modern philosophy and criticism, with the pretense of elevating and saving the Christian religion and the Catholic Church by means of a radical renovation. […]

“In brief outline, the encyclical [Pascendi] declares modernism to be a hybrid amalgamation of verbal Catholicism with real naturalistic rationalism, based on [agnosticism, immanentism and “radical evolutionism”].”[1] (Emphasis added)

In other words – as Newman discusses here – the modernists used (and still use) Catholic language as a veneer for modern, naturalist philosophy, purportedly to save the Catholic faith’s credibility in the modern world. To a greater or lesser extent, their aims are hidden beneath such Catholic language. But as they empty dogma of its meaning, their heresies become manifest.

In this part of Discourse II, Newman exposes this tendency amongst the proto-modernists of his day, who (as Parente discusses) were using the same terms and words as Catholics, but mean something very different by them.

Needless to say, Newman rejects this tendency completely.

He ends this discourse by showing how these tendencies lead to indifferentism, secularism and materialism – and the abandonment of monotheism itself.

It is sometimes suggested that Newman was himself a proto-modernist. One piece of evidence which we are offered for this is that a proposition condemned by St Pius X’s Lamentabili Sane appears several times in Newman’s writings.

But it is not fair to take phrases such as this, especially out their context, and to ignore the actual content of the man’s work.

We should not interpret what is already clear in light of what is less clear. But note that I am not making a vague appeal to “context”, which can sometimes be a way of evading the point at hand. Rather, I am talking about the specific content of Newman’s work, which we have already seen is both precise and prescient in its condemnation of what later became known as modernism.

This point is taken up in St Pius X’s letter to Bishop O’Dwyer about his pamphlet on Newman and the Encyclical Pascendi – which itself addresses the statement supposedly condemned by Lamentabili Sane:

“Of course, in such a great number of works, something may be found which seems foreign to the traditional method of the theologians; but there is nothing which might serve to case suspicion on his faith.

“You rightly affirm that it is not to be wondered at if, at a time when there were no apparent signs of the new heresy, Newman’s manner of expression in certain passages did not display a special caution: but that the Modernists, in twisting these words to their own sense, contrary to the whole context, are guilty of falsity and deceit.”[2]

If St Pius X condemns the modernists for claiming Newman for their own – saying that in so doing, they “are guilty of falsity and deceit” – then what would he say to those who fall for this deceit, and concede our great English convert to them?

Rather than repeating this “falsity and deceit” of the modernists, let us look at “the whole context of what he meant to say” – and consider how remarkable it is that someone who exposed and condemned the incipient modernist errors 50 years before Pascendi Dominici Gregis is today accused of being a liberal.

[1] Pietro Parente, “Modernism”, 190-1, in Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology, Bruce Publishing Company, Milwaukee 1951.

[2] 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.

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

What do they mean by “God”?  

Here, however, it may be objected to me that this representation [that nothing may be known about God and his attributes] is certainly extreme, for the school in question does, in fact, lay great stress on the evidence afforded by the creation, to the Being and Attributes of the Creator.

I may be referred, for instance, to the words of one of the speakers on a memorable occasion. At the very time of laying the first stone of the University of London, I confess it, a learned person, since elevated to the Protestant See of Durham, which he still fills, opened the proceedings with prayer.

He addressed the Deity, as the authoritative Report informs us, “the whole surrounding assembly standing uncovered in solemn silence.”

“Thou,” he said, in the name of all present, “thou hast constructed the vast fabric of the universe in so wonderful a manner, so arranged its motions, and so formed its productions, that the contemplation and study of thy works exercise at once the mind in the pursuit of human science, and lead it onwards to Divine Truth.”

Here is apparently a distinct recognition that there is such a thing as Truth in the province of Religion; and, did the passage stand by itself, and were it the only means we possessed of ascertaining the sentiments of the powerful body whom this distinguished person there represented, it would, as far as it goes, be satisfactory.

I admit it; and I admit also the recognition of the Being and certain Attributes of the Deity, contained in the writings of the gifted person whom I have already quoted, whose genius, versatile and multiform as it is, in nothing has been so constant, as in its devotion to the advancement of knowledge, scientific and literary. He then certainly, in his “Discourse of the objects, advantages, and pleasures of science,” after variously illustrating what he terms its “gratifying treats,” crowns the catalogue with mention of “the highest of all our gratifications in the contemplation of science,” which he proceeds to explain thus:

“We are raised by them,” says he, “to an understanding of the infinite wisdom and goodness which the Creator has displayed in all His works.

“Not a step can be taken in any direction,” he continues, “without perceiving the most extraordinary traces of design; and the skill, every where conspicuous, is calculated in so vast a proportion of instances to promote the happiness of living creatures, and especially of ourselves, that we can feel no hesitation in concluding, that, if we knew the whole scheme of Providence, every part would be in harmony with a plan of absolute benevolence.

“Independent, however, of this most consoling inference, the delight is inexpressible, of being able to follow, as it were, with our eyes, the marvellous works of the Great Architect of Nature, to trace the unbounded power and exquisite skill which are exhibited in the most minute, as well as the mightiest parts of His system.

The pleasure derived from this study is unceasing, and so various, that it never tires the appetite. But it is unlike the low gratifications of sense in another respect: it elevates and refines our nature, while those hurt the health, debase the understanding, and corrupt the feelings; it teaches us to look upon all earthly objects as insignificant and below our notice, except the pursuit of knowledge and the cultivation of virtue, that is to say, the strict performance of our duty in every relation of society; and it gives a dignity and importance to the enjoyment of life, which the frivolous and the grovelling cannot even comprehend.”

Such are the words of this prominent champion of Mixed Education. If logical inference be, as it undoubtedly is, an instrument of truth, surely, it may be answered to me, in admitting the possibility of inferring the Divine Being and Attributes from the phenomena of nature, he distinctly admits a basis of truth for the doctrines of Religion.

The creation of novel meanings of words

I wish, Gentlemen, to give these representations their full weight, both from the gravity of the question, and the consideration due to the persons whom I am arraigning; but, before I can feel sure I understand them, I must ask an abrupt question.

When I am told, then, by the partisans of Universities without Theological teaching, that human science leads to belief in a Supreme Being, without denying the fact, nay, as a Catholic, with full conviction of it, nevertheless I am obliged to ask what the statement means in their mouths, what they, the speakers, understand by the word “God.”

Let me not be thought offensive, if I question, whether it means the same thing on the two sides of the controversy.

The true “concept of God”

With us Catholics, as with the first race of Protestants, as with Mahometans, and all Theists, the word contains, as I have already said, a theology in itself.

At the risk of anticipating what I shall have occasion to insist upon in my next Discourse, let me say that, according to the teaching of Monotheism, God is an Individual, Self-dependent, All-perfect, Unchangeable Being; intelligent, living, personal, and present; almighty, all-seeing, all-remembering; between whom and His creatures there is an infinite gulf; who has no origin, who is all-sufficient for Himself; who created and upholds the universe; who will judge every one of us, sooner or later, according to that Law of right and wrong which He has written on our hearts.

He is One who is sovereign over, operative amidst, independent of, the appointments which He has made; One in whose hands are all things, who has a purpose in every event, and a standard for every deed, and thus has relations of His own towards the subject-matter of each particular science which the book of knowledge unfolds; who has with an adorable, never-ceasing energy implicated Himself in all the history of creation, the constitution of nature, the course of the world, the origin of society, the fortunes of nations, the action of the human mind; and who thereby necessarily becomes the subject-matter of a science, far wider and more noble than any of those which are included in the circle of secular Education.

This is the doctrine which belief in a God implies in the mind of a Catholic: if it means anything, it means all this, and cannot keep from meaning all this, and a great deal more; and, even though there were nothing in the religious tenets of the last three centuries to disparage dogmatic truth, still, even then, I should have difficulty in believing that a doctrine so mysterious, so peremptory, approved itself as a matter of course to educated men of this day, who gave their minds attentively to consider it.

The danger of taking modernists’ use of words at face value

Rather, in a state of society such as ours, in which authority, prescription, tradition, habit, moral instinct, and the divine influences go for nothing, in which patience of thought, and depth and consistency of view, are scorned as subtle and scholastic, in which free discussion and fallible judgment are prized as the birth right of each individual, I must be excused if I exercise towards this age, as regards its belief in this doctrine, some portion of that scepticism which it exercises itself towards every received but unscrutinized assertion whatever.

I cannot take it for granted, I must have it brought home to me by tangible evidence, that the spirit of the age means by the Supreme Being what Catholics mean.

Nay, it would be a relief to my mind to gain some ground of assurance, that the parties influenced by that spirit had, I will not say, a true apprehension of God, but even so much as the idea of what a true apprehension is.

Nothing is easier than to use the word, and mean nothing by it.

The heathens used to say, “God wills,” when they meant “Fate;” “God provides,” when they meant “Chance;” “God acts,” when they meant “Instinct” or “Sense;” and “God is every where,” when they meant “the Soul of Nature.”

The Almighty is something infinitely different from a principle, or a centre of action, or a quality, or a generalization of phenomena. If, then, by the word, you do but mean a Being who keeps the world in order, who acts in it, but only in the way of general Providence, who acts towards us but only through what are called laws of Nature, who is more certain not to act at all than to act independent of those laws, who is known and approached indeed, but only through the medium of those laws; such a God it is not difficult for any one to conceive, not difficult for any one to endure.

If, I say, as you would revolutionize society, so you would revolutionize heaven, if you have changed the divine sovereignty into a sort of constitutional monarchy, in which the Throne has honour and ceremonial enough, but cannot issue the most ordinary command except through legal forms and precedents, and with the counter-signature of a minister, then belief in a God is no more than an acknowledgment of existing, sensible powers and phenomena, which none but an idiot can deny.

If the Supreme Being is powerful or skilful, just so far forth as the telescope shows power, and the microscope shows skill, if His moral law is to be ascertained simply by the physical processes of the animal frame, or His will gathered from the immediate issues of human affairs, if His Essence is just as high and deep and broad and long as the universe, and no more; if this be the fact, then will I confess that there is no specific science about God, that theology is but a name, and a protest in its behalf an hypocrisy.

Then is He but coincident with the laws of the universe; then is He but a function, or correlative, or subjective reflection and mental impression, of each phenomenon of the material or moral world, as it flits before us.

Then, pious as it is to think of Him, while the pageant of experiment or abstract reasoning passes by, still, such piety is nothing more than a poetry of thought or an ornament of language, and has not even an infinitesimal influence upon philosophy or science, of which it is rather the parasitical production.

Modernism as the sufficient explanation of indifferentism, secularism and materialism

I understand, in that case, why Theology should require no specific teaching, for there is nothing to mistake about; why it is powerless against scientific anticipations, for it merely is one of them; why it is simply absurd in its denunciations of heresy, for heresy does not lie in the region of fact and experiment.

I understand, in that case, how it is that the religious sense is but a “sentiment,” and its exercise a “gratifying treat,” for it is like the sense of the beautiful or the sublime.

I understand how the contemplation of the universe “leads onwards to divine truth,” for divine truth is not something separate from Nature, but it is Nature with a divine glow upon it.

I understand the zeal expressed for Physical Theology, for this study is but a mode of looking at Physical Nature, a certain view taken of Nature, private and personal, which one man has, and another has not, which gifted minds strike out, which others see to be admirable and ingenious, and which all would be the better for adopting.

It is but the theology of Nature, just as we talk of the philosophy or the romance of history, or the poetry of childhood, or the picturesque, or the sentimental, or the humorous, or any other abstract quality, which the genius or the caprice of the individual, or the fashion of the day, or the consent of the world, recognizes in any set of objects which are subjected to its contemplation.

Newman’s judgment on these ideas

Such ideas of religion seem to me short of Monotheism; I do not impute them to this or that individual who belongs to the school which gives them currency; but what I read about the “gratification” of keeping pace in our scientific researches with “the Architect of Nature;” about the said gratification “giving a dignity and importance to the enjoyment of life,” and teaching us that knowledge and our duties to society are the only earthly objects worth our notice, all this, I own it, Gentlemen, frightens me; nor is Dr. Maltby’s address to the Deity sufficient to reassure me.

I do not see much difference between avowing that there is no God, and implying that nothing definite can for certain be known about Him; and when I find Religious Education treated as the cultivation of sentiment, and Religious Belief as the accidental hue or posture of the mind, I am reluctantly but forcibly reminded of a very unpleasant page of Metaphysics, viz., of the relations between God and Nature insinuated by such philosophers as Hume.  

Hume and Epicurus

This acute, though most low-minded of speculators, in his inquiry concerning the Human Understanding, introduces, as is well known, Epicurus, that is, a teacher of atheism, delivering an harangue to the Athenian people, not indeed in defence, but in extenuation of that opinion.

His object is to show that, whereas the atheistic view is nothing else than the repudiation of theory, and an accurate representation of phenomenon and fact, it cannot be dangerous, unless phenomenon and fact be dangerous.

Epicurus is made to say, that the paralogism of philosophy has ever been that of arguing from Nature in behalf of something beyond Nature, greater than Nature; whereas, God, as he maintains, being known only through the visible world, our knowledge of Him is absolutely commensurate with our knowledge of it, – is nothing distinct from it, – is but a mode of viewing it.

Hence it follows that, provided we admit, as we cannot help admitting, the phenomena of Nature and the world, it is only a question of words whether or not we go on to the hypothesis of a second Being, not visible but immaterial, parallel and coincident with Nature, to whom we give the name of God.

“Allowing,” he says, “the gods to be the authors of the existence or order of the universe, it follows that they possess that precise degree of power, intelligence, and benevolence, which appears in their workmanship; but nothing farther can be proved, except we call in the assistance of exaggeration and flattery to supply the defects of argument and reasoning. So far as the traces of any attributes, at present, appear, so far may we conclude these attributes to exist. The supposition of farther attributes is mere hypothesis; much more the supposition that, in distant periods of place and time, there has been, or will be, a more magnificent display of these attributes, and a scheme of administration more suitable to such imaginary virtues.”

Here is a reasoner, who would not hesitate to deny that there is any distinct science or philosophy possible concerning the Supreme Being; since every single thing we know of Him is this or that or the other phenomenon, material or moral, which already falls under this or that natural science. In him then it would be only consistent to drop Theology in a course of University Education: but how is it consistent in any one who shrinks from his companionship?

I am glad to see that the author (Brougham), several times mentioned, is in opposition to Hume, in one sentence of the quotation I have made from his Discourse upon Science, deciding, as he does, that the phenomena of the material world are insufficient for the full exhibition of the Divine Attributes, and implying that they require a supplemental process to complete and harmonize their evidence.

But is not this supplemental process a science? and if so, why not acknowledge its existence?

If God is more than Nature, Theology claims a place among the sciences: but, on the other hand, if you are not sure of as much as this, how do you differ from Hume or Epicurus?

The only conclusion: modernism is false

I end then as I began: religious doctrine is knowledge.

This is the important truth, little entered into at this day, which I wish that all who have honoured me with their presence here would allow me to beg them to take away with them.

I am not catching at sharp arguments, but laying down grave principles.

Religious doctrine is knowledge, in as full a sense as Newton’s doctrine is knowledge.

University Teaching without Theology is simply unphilosophical.

Theology has at least as good a right to claim a place there as Astronomy.

In my next Discourse it will be my object to show that its omission from the list of recognised sciences is not only indefensible in itself, but prejudicial to all the rest.

Further Reading

John Henry Newman, Anti-Modernist
Part I
Part II
Part III
John Henry Newman, Anti-Ecumenist

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

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


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