John Henry Newman, Anti-Ecumenist

“Catholics and Protestants, as bodies, hold nothing in common in religion, however they may seem to do so.”

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Image: Newman kneeling before Fr Dominic Barberi, who received him into the Church in Littlemore in 1845. From the parish of Littlemore.

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

Editors’ Notes

What follows is an extract from the fifth of Newman’s series of discourses on university teaching. Nine of these ten discourses were published in his classic 1852 work The Idea of a University – and this fifth discourse was omitted. (As a result, the fifth discourse in the book was in reality the sixth, and so on). 

This omitted discourse is available in My Campaign in Ireland (Part I), a collection of Newman’s papers, posthumously published in 1896 by his former secretary and editor, Fr William Paine Neville.

Paine assembled and published this collection because it was feared that “Newman’s reputation would be attacked unjustly for the lack of success of the Catholic University of Ireland.”[1] The volume was printed and shared privately with those Neville thought would be interested.

Over the years, there have been those who have slandered the faith of Newman. In 1875, the American writer Orestes Brownson claimed the following: 

“… even when his doctrine is orthodox, the animus, the spirit, is at least half-Anglican.

“Dr. Newman is decidedly an Englishman, with most of the characteristics of Englishmen. He seems to us to retain an affection for Anglicanism which we do not share; to believe it true and sound as far as it goes, and to have rejected it as defective rather than as false.

“His Catholicity, which we do not doubt is very genuine, is something added to his Anglicanism, not something diverse or essentially different from it.

“It is something more than Anglicanism, but not something different in kind.”[2] 

Leaving aside the irrelevant and gratuitous comments about Newman’s Englishness, are these claims just? 

– What were Newman’s views on the idea of “general religion” or a “mere Christianity” – namely, that which might be held in common by the Church and the various sects?  

– Did he think that one can say that Anglicanism itself – as opposed to the individual ideas of someone actively progressing towards the true Church and throwing off his false ideas – might be “true and sound as far as it goes”, and “defective rather than false”?  

– Did he think that Catholics and Anglicans, viewed as bodies, to be basically the same, but with the Catholic faith as a mere add-on to Anglicanism? 

Interestingly enough, Newman addressed these very questions in this discourse – and utterly rejected the ideas later attributed to him by Brownson, along with any concept of a “mere Christianity” common to the Catholic Church and the various non-Catholic sects.  

As we shall see below, he not only addresses these points directly, but also provides an analysis of the delicate process by which a person in a non-Catholic sect comes to accept the true faith, and is led from error and into the truth.

[1] Vincent and Rebecca Vaccaro, ‘Newman’s Campaign in Ireland: A Review of Paul Shrimpton’s New Edition’, in Newman Review, July 28 2021, accessed 21 August 2023, at

[2] Brownson’s Quarterly Review, April, 1875, Art. VI, [A review of Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk], pp 231-246. This text, 231-2. Available at

Discourse V
Universal Knowledge Viewed as One Philosophy
My Campaign in Ireland (Part I)
John Henry Newman
Available here.

“Mere Christianity”?  

As there are many persons to be found who maintain that Religion should not be introduced at all into a course of Education, so there are many too, who think a compromise may be effected between such as would and such as would not introduce it, viz., by introducing a certain portion, and nothing beyond it; and by a certain portion they mean just as much as they suppose Catholics and Protestants to hold in common.

In this way they hope, on the one hand to avoid the odium of not teaching religion at all, while on the other they equally avoid any show of contrariety between contrary systems of religion, and any unseemly controversy between parties who, however they may differ, will gain nothing by disputing.

Now I respect the motives of such persons too much not to give my best attention to the expedient which they propose: whether men advocate the introduction of no religion at all in education, or this “general religion,” as they call it, in either case peace and charity, which are the objects they profess, are of too heavenly a nature not to give a sort of dignity even to those who pursue them by impossible roads; still I think it very plain that the same considerations which are decisive against the exclusion of Religion from Education, are decisive also against its generalization or mutilation, for the words have practically the same meaning.

General Religion is in fact no Religion at all. Let not the conclusion be thought harsh, to which I am carried on by the principles I have been laying down in the former part of this Discourse; but thus it stands, I think, beyond dispute, that, those principles being presupposed.

Catholics and Protestants, viewed as bodies, hold nothing in common in religion, however they may seem to do so.

This is the answer I shall give to the proposition of teaching “general religion”. I might indeed challenge any one to set down for me in detail the precise articles of the Catholic Faith held by Protestants “in general”; or I might call attention to the number of Catholic truths which anyhow must be sacrificed, however wide the range of doctrines which Protestantism shall be made to embrace; but I will not go to questions of mere fact and detail: I prefer to rest the question upon the basis of a principle, and I assert that, as all branches of knowledge are one whole, so, much more, is each particular branch a whole in itself; that each is one science, as all are one philosophy, and that to teach half of any whole is really to teach no part of it.

Comparisons with politics

Men understand this in matters of the world, it is only when Religion is in question that they forget it.

Why do not Whigs and Tories form some common politics, and a ministry of coalition upon its basis? Does not common sense, as well as party interest, keep them asunder?

It is quite true that “general” tenets could be produced in which both bodies would agree; both Whigs and Tories are loyal and patriotic, both defend the reasonable prerogatives of the Throne, and the just rights of the people; on paper they agree admirably, but who does not know that loyalty and patriotism have one meaning in the mouth of a Tory, and another in that of a Whig?

Loyalty and patriotism, neither quality is what it is abstractedly, when it is grafted either on Whig or Tory.

The case is the same with Religion; the Establishment [Ed.: the Church of England], for instance, accepts from the Catholic Church the doctrine of the Incarnation; but at the same time denies that Christ is in the Blessed Sacrament and that Mary is the Mother of God; who in consequence will venture to affirm that such of its members as hold the Incarnation, hold it by virtue of their membership?

The Establishment cannot really hold a Catholic doctrine, a portion and a concomitant of which it puts on one side. The Incarnation has not the same meaning to one who holds and to one who denies these two attendant verities.

Hence, whatever he may profess about the Incarnation, the mere Protestant, [he who is a Protestant and nothing more, who limits his Christianity to his Protestantism], has no real hold, no grasp of the doctrine; you cannot be sure of him; any moment he may be found startled and wondering, as at a novelty, at statements implied in it, or uttering sentiments simply inconsistent with its idea.

The integrity of Catholicism

Catholicism is one whole, and Protestantism has no part in it.

In like manner Catholicism and Mahometanism are each individual and distinct from each other; yet they have many points in common on paper, as the unity of God, Providence, the power of prayer, and future judgment, to say nothing of the mission of Moses and Christ.

These common doctrines we may, if we please, call “Natural Religion,” or “General Religion”; and so they are in the abstract; and no one can doubt that, were Mahometans or Jews numerous in these countries, so as to make it expedient, the Government of the day would so absolutely take this view, as to aim at establishing National Colleges on the basis of such common doctrines; yet, in fact, though they are common doctrines, as far as the words go, they are not the same, as living and breathing facts, for the very same words have a different drift and spirit when proceeding respectively from a Jewish, or a Mahometan, or a Catholic mouth. They are grafted on different ideas.

Now this, I fear, will seem a hard doctrine to some of us.

There are those, whom it is impossible not to respect and love, of amiable minds and charitable feelings, who do not like to think unfavourably of any one. And when they find [that a man of another denomination] differ[s] from them in religious matters, they cannot bear the thought that he differs from them in principle, or that he moves on a line, on which did he progress for centuries he would but be carried further from them, instead of catching them up.

Their delight is to think that he holds what they hold, only not enough; and that he is right as far as he goes. Such persons are very slow to believe that a scheme of general education, which puts Religion more or less aside, does ipso facto part company with Religion; but they try to think, as far as they can, that its only fault is the accident that it is not so religious as it might be. 

In short they are of that school of thought, which will not admit that half a truth is an error, and nine-tenths of a truth no better; that the most frightful discord is close upon harmony; and that intellectual principles combine, not by a process of physical accumulation, but in unity of idea.

What is true in such views?

However, there is no misconception perhaps, but has something or other true about it, and has something to say for itself. Perhaps it will reconcile the persons in question to the doctrine I am propounding, if I state how far I can go along with them; for in a certain sense what they say is true and is supported by facts.

It is true that youths can be educated at Mixed Colleges, of the kind I am supposing, nay at Protestant Colleges, and yet may come out of them as good Catholics as they went in. Also it is true, that Protestants are to be found, who, as far as they profess Catholic doctrine, do truly hold it, in the same sense as that in which a Catholic holds it.

I grant all this, but I maintain at the same time, that such cases are exceptional; the case of individuals is one thing, of bodies or institutions another; it is not safe to argue from individuals to institutions.

A few words will explain my meaning.

(Article continues below)

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Inchoate truths

There are then doubtless such phenomena as what may be called inchoate truths, beliefs, and philosophies. It would be both unreasonable and shallow to deny it. 

Men doubtless may grow into an idea by degrees, and then at the end they are moving on the same line, as they were at the beginning, not a different one, though they may during the progress have changed their external profession.

Thus one school or party comes out of another; truth out of error, error out of truth; water, according to the proverb, chokes, and good comes from Nazareth.

Thus, eternally distinct as orthodoxy is from heresy, the most Catholic Fathers and the worst of heresiarchs [have sometimes belonged] to the same teaching, or the same ecclesiastical party.

St. Chrysostom comes of that Syrian theology, which is more properly represented by the heterodox Diodorus and Theodore.

Eutyches, Dioscorus, and their faction, are closely connected in history with St. Cyril of Alexandria. 

The whole history of thought and of genius, is that of one idea being born and growing out of another, though ideas are individual. Some of the greatest names in many various departments of excellence, metaphysical, political, or imaginative, have come out of schools of a very different character from their own.

Thus, Aristotle is a pupil of the Academy, and the Master of the Sentences is a hearer of Peter Abelard.

In like manner, to take a very different science: I have read that the earlier musical compositions of that great master, Beethoven, are written on the type of Haydn, and that not until a certain date did he compose in the style emphatically his own. 

The case is the same with public men; they are called inconsistent, when they are but unlearning their first education. In such circumstances, as in the instance of the lamented Sir Robert Peel, a time must elapse before the mind is able to discriminate for itself between what is really its own and what it has merely inherited.

The process of putting off old beliefs

Now what is its state, whatever be the subject-matter on which it is employed, in the course of this process of change?

For a time perhaps the mind remains contented in the home of its youth, where originally it found itself, till in due season the special idea, however it came by it, which is ultimately to form and rule it, begins to stir; and gradually energizing more and more, and growing and expanding, it suddenly bursts the bonds of that external profession, which, though its first, was never really its proper habitation.

During this interval it uses the language which it has inherited, and thinks it certainly true; yet all the while its own genuine thoughts and modes of thinking are germinating and ramifying and penetrating into the old teaching which only in name belongs to it; till its external manifestations are plainly inconsistent with each other, though sooner in the apprehension of others than in its own, nay perhaps for a season it maintains what it has received by education the more vehemently, by way of keeping in check or guarding the new views, which are opening upon it, and which startle it by their strangeness.

What happens in Science, Philosophy, Politics, or the Arts, may happen, I [grant], in Religion too; there is such a thing as an inchoate faith or incomplete creed, which is not yet fully Catholic, yet is Catholic as far as it goes, tends to Catholicism, and is in the way to reach it, whether in the event it actually is happy enough to reach it or not. And from the beginning such a creed, such a theology was, I grant, the work of a supernatural principle, which, exercising itself first in the rudiments of truth, finished in its perfection.

Man cannot determine in what instances that principle is present and in what not, except by the event; but wherever it is, whether it can be ascertained by man or not, whether it reaches its destination, which is Catholicity, or whether it is ultimately frustrated and fails, still in every case the Church claims that work as her own; because it tends to her, because it is recognized by all men, even enemies, to belong to her, because it comes of that divine power, which is given to her in fulness, and because it anticipates portions of that divine creed which is committed to her infallibility as an everlasting deposit.

And in this sense it is perfectly true that a Protestant may hold and teach one doctrine of Catholicism without holding or teaching another; but then, as I have said, he is in the way to hold others, in the way to profess all, and he is inconsistent if he does not, and till he does. Nay, he is already reaching forward to the whole truth, from the very circumstance of his really grasping any part of it.

So strongly do I feel this, that I account it no paradox to say, that, let a man but master the one doctrine with which I began these Discourses, the Being of a God, let him really and truly, and not in words only, or by inherited profession, or in the conclusions of reason, but by a direct apprehension, be a Monotheist, and he is already three-fourths of the way towards Catholicism.

The difference between individuals and institutions

I allow all this as regards individuals; but I have not to do with individual teachers in this Discourse, but with systems, institutions, bodies of men.

There are doubtless individual Protestants, who, so far from making their Catholic pupils Protestant, lead on their Protestant pupils to Catholicism; but we cannot legislate for exceptions, nor can we tell for certain before the event where those exceptional cases are to be found.

As to bodies of men, political or religious, we may safely say that they are what they profess to be, perhaps worse, certainly not better; and, if we would be safe, we must look to their principles, not to this or that individual, whom they can put forward for an occasion. Half the evil that happens in public affairs arises from the mistake of measuring parties, not by their history and by their position, but by their accidental manifestations of the moment, the place, or the person.   

Who would say, for instance, that the Evangelical Church of Prussia had any real affinities to Catholicism; and yet how many fine words do certain of its supporters use, and how favourably disposed to the Church do they seem, till they are cross-examined and their radical heterodoxy brought to view!   

It is not so many years since, that by means of their “common doctrines,” as they would call them, they persuaded an ecclesiastical body, as different from them, as any Protestant body which could be named, I mean the ruling party in the Establishment, to join with them in the foundation of an episcopal see at Jerusalem, a project, as absurd, as it was odious, when viewed in a religious aspect.

Such too are the persevering attempts, which excellent men in the Anglican Church have made, to bring about a better understanding between the Greeks or Russians and their own communion, as if the Oriental Church were not formed on one type, and the Protestant Establishment on another, or the process of joining them were anything short of the impossible exploit of fusing two individuals into one.

And the case is the same as regards the so-called approaches of heterodox bodies or institutions towards Catholicism.

Men may have glowing imaginations, warm feelings, or benevolent tempers; they may be very little aware themselves how far they are removed from Catholicism; they may even style themselves its friends, and be disappointed it does not recognize them; they may admire its doctrines, they may think it uncharitable in us not to meet them half way.

All the while, they may have nothing whatever of that form, idea, type of Catholicism, even in its inchoate condition, which I have allowed to some individuals among them. Such are the liberal politicians, and liberal philosophers and writers, who are considered by the multitude to be one with us, when, alas! they have neither part nor lot with the Catholic Church. Many a poet, many a brilliant writer, of this or the past generation, has taken upon himself to admire, or has been thought to understand, the Mother of Saints, on no better ground than this superficial survey of some portion of her lineaments. 

Conclusions – a palpable lack of “catholicity”

This is why some persons have been so taken by surprise at the late outburst against us in England, because they fancied men would be better than their systems. This is why we have to lament, in times past and present, the resolute holding off from us of learned men in the Establishment, who seemed or seem to come nearest to us. Pearson, or Bull, almost touches the gates of the Divine City, yet he gropes for them in vain; for such men are formed on a different type from the Catholic, and the most Catholic of their doctrines are not Catholic in them.

In vain are the most ecclesiastical thoughts, the most ample concessions, the most promising aspirations, nay, the most fraternal sentiments, if they are not an integral part of that intellectual and moral form, which is ultimately from divine grace, and of which faith, not carnal wisdom, is the characteristic. 

The event shows this, as in the case of those many, who, as time goes on, after appearing to approach the Church, recede from her. In other cases the event is not necessary for their detection, to Catholics who happen to be near them. These are conscious in them of something or other, different from Catholicism, a bearing, or an aspect, or a tone, which they cannot indeed analyze or account for, but which they cannot mistake. 

They may not be able to put their finger on a single definite error; but, in proportion to the clearness of their spiritual discernment or the exactness of their theology, do they recognize, either the incipient heresiarch within the Church’s pale, or the unhopeful inquirer outside of it. Whichever he be, he has made a wrong start; and however long the road has been, he has to go back and begin again. 

So it is with the bodies, institutions, and systems of which he is the specimen; they may die, they cannot be reformed. 

And now, Gentlemen, I have arrived at the end of my subject. It has come before us so prominently during the course of the discussion, that to sum up is scarcely more than to repeat what has been said many times already. 

The Catholic Creed is one whole, and Philosophy again is one whole; each may be compared to an individual, to which nothing can be added, from which nothing can be taken away. 

They may be professed, they may not be professed, but there is no middle ground between professing and not professing.

A University, so called, which refuses to profess the Catholic Creed, is, from the nature of the case, hostile both to the Church and to Philosophy.

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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One thought on “John Henry Newman, Anti-Ecumenist

  1. Darrell Wright

    Newman — as well as all popes & orthodox clergy before the Vatican II revolution –would rightfully condemn people like the popular fake Bishop Robert Barron, who said that the Catholic religion is just “the privileged way” to salvation. On the contrary, “Bonum ex integra causa, malum ex quocuque defectu.”

    Ecumenism is a subtle but great evil inspired by Freemasonry, which is itself largely a Jewish creation. Even Protestantism is largely a Jewish creation, as has been admitted by Jews themselves, as in this 1936 meeting in Paris: and as is detailed in the scholarly book, The Plot Against the Church:

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