Orestes Brownson is not a credible critic of John Henry Newman – here’s why

“We are supposed to conclude that anyone so attacked by such an apparent pillar of orthodoxy must have been in the wrong.”

Image: Orestes Brownson, Wiki Commons. With all quotes below, line breaks have been liberally added for readability.

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In a previous article, I quoted American convert Orestes Brownson critiquing the writing and person of John Henry Newman.

Brownson is one of the many pillars of the anti-Newman myth. We are told that Brownson extensively attacked and critiqued Newman’s supposed deviations from Catholic doctrine in his journal, Brownson’s Quarterly Review.

We are told that the index to Brownson’s collected works contains a nearly a page of references to Newman, numbering around a hundred entries.

The implications are as follows:

  1. Brownson was a pillar of orthodoxy, and those whom he attacked must have been in the wrong
  2. The entries in the index mentioned are all criticisms
  3. These criticisms are serious and credible
  4. Newman’s work is worthy of such extensive criticism.

These implications are very misleading. 

Is Brownson a credible critic?

The use of Brownson in the anti-Newman myth depends on an exaggerated lionisation of the man himself, who was a more complex and conflicted character than some propagators of the myth might let on. 

Brownson was born in 1803. He progressed through a series of conversions: he was raised as a Congregationalist, baptised as a Presbyterian in 1822, and a few years later became a “Universalist”. He became a “Transcendentalist” in 1832, before finally becoming a Catholic in 1844 – a year before Newman. He remained a Catholic until his death in 1876.

As is common amongst a certain type of convert, Brownson very quickly began publishing his opinions on controversial matters (and on those who disagreed with him) with an incongruous degree of certainty.

However, Brownson’s own orthodoxy as a Catholic is far from consistent.

For example, in July 1864 – having been a Catholic for 20 years – Brownson himself wrote an astonishing article, in which he not only condemns those who “restrict Catholicity to their own external communion”,[1] but also writes the following:

“The state itself has no right to use force, except to repress or redress external violence, to maintain and vindicate the rights either of individuals or of society against aggressive external acts.”[2]

He states that advance of so-called liberty and progress are the work of the Holy Ghost, and condemns those, even in the Church, who resist it:

“[The Holy Ghost] is in the new phase assumed by civilization, no less than he was in the old, and, rightly understood, the new developments, which frighten so many of our friends, and make them think the world is about to end, are only a step forward in the great work of consummation.

“The feebleness of character so marked in our modern conservatives, whether in Church or state, is owing to the fact that they do really, without knowing or intending it, resist the Holy Ghost, and force him to work against them, not with them.

“The living, beating, aspiring heart of Christendom is not with them, is against them, and on the side of the men who represent the progressive spirit of the age.”[3]

He then asserts that religious liberty is a right, and its progress an inevitability, even in the face of the Church’s resistance:

“… [N]either the friends nor the enemies of religion have anything to fear from adopting the great principle of civil and religious liberty, and asserting a free Church in a free state. 

“We now add, that this regimen of liberty, however it may be resisted and delayed, is inevitable. The struggle may be protracted through long years; there may be still, for more than a generation, a state of war, in which alternative successes and defeats may await each party; but victory is sure at last to crown the party of liberty and progress, for on its side are humanity, and what is more than humanity, humanity’s God. Why, then, war against it?

“… But we cannot accept as a concession what we demand as a right.”[4]

This article – which appears to endorse more than one of the propositions condemned in the Syllabus of Errors, published only a few months later – continues at length in a similar vein. I have quoted it at length in the footnote.[5]

My point here is not to attack Brownson himself, nor to suggest the above quotes are representative of his work, nor to suggest that other aspects of his work might not have merit – even amongst his criticisms of Newman. 

Rather, my intention is to expose and dismiss the unspoken implication that Brownson’s critiques of Newman have any extrinsic interest due to the supposedly great orthodoxy of their author.

However, before moving on from these appalling texts, let’s note Newman’s simple profession of the true doctrine here, taken from the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, defending Pius IX’s Quanta Cura, itself quoting Gregory XVI’s Mirari Vos:

“It seems a light epithet for the Pope to use, when he calls such a doctrine of [liberty of] conscience deliramentum: of all conceivable absurdities it is the wildest and most stupid.”[6]

Brownson’s own clarifications

The anti-Newman myth misrepresents Brownson’s own treatment of Newman. 

For example, it is claimed that Brownson believed Newman’s explanation of the “development of doctrine” was contrary to de fide Catholic teaching. 

It is true that in 1846 – having been a Catholic for less than two years himself – Brownson claimed that Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine was “essentially anticatholic and Protestant”, as well as “utterly repugnant to her claims to be the authoritative and infallible Church of God.”[7]

But let’s get some facts in order. 

First, Newman wrote this unfinished work as an Anglican. It is hardly surprising that it contains non-Catholic passages. It was published not as a work of theology, but as an historical account of the process that led to Newman’s conversion. It was published as such a text with the permission of ecclesiastical authority, in the hope that it would lead others to follow Newman to Rome. It did indeed have this effect, and even played something of a role in Henry Edward Manning’s own conversion.[8]

Given all this, and given that it was well known that Newman was not a Catholic at the time of writing, pointing to Brownson’s observation, that “[h]is essay on development was not written by a Catholic and its doctrine is not Catholic”, is hardly a helpful contribution. Some modern Newman enthusiasts may need reminding of this fact, but it is frivolous as a criticism of the man himself. 

However, there is more. Not only is Brownson’s opinion on Newman’s book of little weight – he also himself clarified his critique in 1846.

The proponents of the anti-Newman myth rarely acknowledge this retraction, in which Brownson not only expresses agreement with some of ideas in the book, but also notes that he had not even understood parts of what Newman had meant, nor the problems with which Newman was grappling.

Even without a retraction, is it necessary to ask how much value criticism has, when it comes from one who understands neither the questions at stake, nor the answers proposed?

In any case, here is Brownson’s commendably honest clarification:

“It may be doubted, indeed, whether we rightly understood Dr. Newman’s Theory, or whether he ever meant to advocate development in the sense in which we opposed it, and we are inclined to think that he did not…

“Faith, objectively considered, is infallible, and the Church is infallible, by the assistance of the Holy Ghost, in teaching and defining it. But the faith is to us practically as if it were not, save in so far as it is actively received and appropriated by our own minds. 

“This, we presume, is what Dr. Newman meant when he said: Christianity came into the world a naked idea, which the mind develops or realizes by its own action. Now in realizing, in actively receiving and appropriating the Christian dogma, or the faith, our minds are not infallible. We never conceive it adequately, or take in explicitly all that is in it; and we may, and often do, under various aspects, even misconceive it. 

“Here is, if we understand it, the basis of Dr. Newman’s Essay, and if so, our objections to it were irrelevant, and though well founded, as against the argument we deduced from it, they are not as against that which the author held, and intended to set forth, and perhaps did set forth to the minds of all who admired his book. 

“We have long suspected that we did him injustice, though we have not changed our own views of the soundness of the theology we opposed to him, or thought we were opposing to him. 

“The fact is, his book was profounder than we supposed, and was designed to solve theological difficulties which we had not then encountered in our own intellectual life and experience. 

“This acknowledgment, spontaneously made, we hope will be accepted by the illustrious convert and his friends, as some slight atonement for any injustice we may have done him or them, since whatever injustice we may have done was done unwittingly and unintentionally.”

He then notes some points of disagreement, before adding:

“In other respects, we fully accept what was probably Dr. Newman’s doctrine.”[9]

So much for believing Newman’s doctrine to be contrary to de fide Catholic teaching.

Again, we must commend Brownson for honesty in this retraction, but it does show that one cannot simply take a text from his voluminous corpus and present it as “Brownson’s opinion”, when he may have later rejected a given criticism or point as false.

It might be objected that the above text is not a retraction of his critique of Newman’s book as a whole – but that is not the point here. My subject is not directly Newman’s Development itself, but rather the methodology of the proponents of the anti-Newman myth. In particular, it shows the one-sided way in which they present Brownson’s treatment of Newman, as if he was always universally negative about him. 

As another example of his mixed treatment, in the April 1875 edition of Brownson’s Quarterly Review (cited in the previous article), he praised Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk on the papacy, calling it:

  • “Able and exhaustive”
  • “In the main satisfactory to Catholics”
  • “Bold, manly, independent, and unreserved in the expression of his honest convictions”
  • “[U]pon the whole, an able defence of Catholicity on the points assailed by Mr. Gladstone, and scatters the charges preferred in his Expostulation to the four quarters of the globe.”
  • “He triumphantly refutes not only the main charge, which we ourselves refuted, but one after another all his minor charges.”
  • “[F]ull and satisfactory in regard to Protestants.”[10]

This review is by far from being wholly positive. However, these comments show again that the picture cannot be described in a simplistic way, as “Good Brownson” attacking “Bad Newman” for his “Bad Ideas.” 

(Article continues below)

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Vexatious and hypocritical criticisms

As suggested above, I do not wish to suggest that Cardinal Newman is above all criticism – nor indeed that Brownson’s criticisms were universally without merit. 

But it is clear that at least some of Brownson’s criticisms were foolish and even embarrassing.

In the previous piece, I cited Brownson’s personal criticisms from the 1875 article mentioned above:

“… 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.”[11]

We have already published the text in which Newman directly deals with these points and shows such criticisms to be frivolous.

The foolishness of this criticism – and its hypocrisy – is further apparent given his comments promoting a kind of religious perennialism, made in the July 1864 article already mentioned. Again, bear in mind that these words were written by a man who had been a Catholic for 20 years, and who is held up against Newman as an erudite theologian:

“[U]nderlying this modern civilization and pervading it as its informing and moving spirit, is the principle that this world has its place in the Christian order, and civilization its work in the economy of salvation, or that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

“Taking what is substantive in each element, and rejecting in each its exclusiveness, or rejecting in each its exclusiveness, or rejecting what is sophistical and accidental in each, and brining both into dialectic union, we have the truly catholic order, and a really catholic civilization, together with the principle and conditions of unity and peace of Christendom.

“We, in this way, secure unity of faith, unity of charity, unity of the sacraments, unity of discipline, unity of communion, without requiring any one to give up any thing positive that he really holds and desires to retain, or to accept any thing to which he is or ever has been really opposed. 

“There is no compromise of principle or surrender of any positive condition required. All parties are right in what they affirm, and none err except in what they deny. Their affirmations are catholic, for none other are possible; only their denials are exclusive, sectarian, sophistical. The word catholic asserts unity as well as universality, for nothing lacking unity can be universal…

“It is not without a profound meaning, therefore, that the true religion, or the Church of Christ, is called Catholic. It is so called because it is catholic in itself, in its principles, and because what is not catholic is not true, is not of the Church of God, and can be no part of the true religion.

“What are called false religions, are religions only in so far as they are one and catholic, for there is and can be but one religion. […]

“… not all who are called Catholics are really Catholics; for many of them restrict Catholicity to their own external communion, and recognize no Catholic truth outside of it, and consider it their duty to condemn the world outside as all wrong, to convict it of error, instead of recognizing the truth it really has, and seeking to enlighten it and to supply its defects, by presenting it the truth in its unity and integrity, or the truth it has not in dialectic union with the truth it has.”[12] (Emphases added)

This goes far, far beyond that for which he vexatiously criticised Newman. A man who could write such a thing after 20 years as a Catholic is in no position to be falsely condemning Newman for supposedly believing the very same thing. Still less can he be credibly presented as a staunch, orthodox Catholic against a “suspect” Newman.

Silly Anti-Englishisms

Finally – and perhaps as a minor point – let’s return to the April 1875 review of the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk. This review contains other comments which are both utterly outrageous, and very damaging to Brownson’s credibility as a serious writer worthy of attention. 

This review is littered with gratuitous and hopelessly subjective anti-Englishisms, which are variously silly, superficial, juvenile, absurd, and catastrophically ignorant. They do not bear repeating here.

Brownson is quite entitled to dislike us Englishmen and to attempt to criticise our constitution, heritage, customs and people – even if his dislikes and criticisms are evidently based on falsehoods and nonsense.

But that which he gains in freedom of expression, he loses in credibility. It is not credible to use one’s own private tastes and preferences (as if anyone else should be interested in these) as the basis for public theological criticism.

Given that the foolishness of these anti-Englishisms is apparent to anyone with a modicum of knowledge of England and its history, they make it difficult to take their author seriously.

After all, once we realise that someone can write nonsense on topics with which we are familiar (like our nation’s constitution), it is difficult to trust anything he writes about topics with which we are not familiar.

Final thoughts

I acknowledge that, in this piece, I have been quite harsh towards Brownson – and I would like to make two comments about this harshness.

First, Brownson criticised Newman for what he saw as the excessive English reserve, to the “English dread of overdoing” and “appearing too demonstrative.” He went on:

“We have never liked his English reserve, and apparent want of frankness and fulness in acknowledging his errors and mistakes.”[13]

Any offended admirers of Brownson should consider that the man himself might have appreciated such “demonstrative” criticism as this, coming from an Englishman, as well as such “frankness and fulness”, in the place of “English reserve”.

Second, I would like to recognise that Newman himself was not as harsh towards Brownson as I have been. Indeed, he was kind to and about him, in ways which he does not seem to have deserved. 

For instance, in 1874 Newman wrote, in a private letter to someone who had not quite known what to make Brownson:

“… [H]e began, on my conversion, by writing fiercely against me, because I had not been converted just in the same way in which he had been converted, a year or two before me, himself.

“Many years afterwards he confessed he had made a mistake – and therefore I respect and like him, because he is an honest man. He has been in trouble himself from over-orthodox men since [his attacks] – and I fear that he is now writing for a livelihood, in advanced years.

“He has always been clever, always something of the bear in him – you must not mind him.”[14]

I have been harsh, not from animosity towards Brownson, but in protest at the use to which he is put in the anti-Newman myth.

It is regrettable to have to be harsh in this way, so let’s take Newman’s advice, and forgive Brownson for carrying on as he did.

But more importantly, let the proponents of the anti-Newman myth desist from using Brownson as a stick to beat the greater and better man – and instead follow the instructions that Pope St Pius X gave to the modernists (our common adversaries) in his letter to Bishop O’Dwyer:

“… those who were accustomed to abusing [Newman’s] 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.”[15]

Further Reading:

Newman – Letter to the Duke of Norfolk

Newman – An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine

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

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


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[1] ‘Civil and Religious Freedom’, in Brownson’s Quarterly Review, July 1864, in within Brownson’s Quarterly ReviewNational Series, Volume 1, 286. Richardson & Son, London, 1864, pp 257-291. Available at https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=v33_HBHG0qgC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

[2] Ibid., 270

[3] Ibid., 287

[4] Ibid. 288.

[5] Brownson on Religious Liberty:

La Civiltà Cattolica, which might better be called La Civiltà Acattolica, apparently resists, only because it wishes to preserve the old system in Rome and Italy, where the introduction of the new would destroy much old machinery, and break up many old habits. But we are aware of no part of Christendom where the retention of the old regime does so much harm as in Rome and Italy. Leave the old there, and La Civiltà Cattolica and its party would permit us the regimen of liberty everywhere else, as a concession to our weakness, our intractableness, or to a local and temporary necessity. 

“But we cannot accept as a concession what we demand as a right. 

“Say what we will, Rome is the centre and capital of Christendom, and while the ecclesiastical authorities there maintain the old order and resist the new, or even refuse indignantly to accept it as a deliverance, it is impossible to give the necessary assurance to the friends of civil and religious liberty elsewhere that the Church is not herself really opposed to them, and that she will not, the moment she feels herself strong enough to do it, revoke her concessions, and insist on the re-establishment of the old system everywhere.”

“We belong to the Catholic Church; we love her as our mother, and we mean to conduct ourselves towards her as an obedient son. But we distinguish at Rome, as elsewhere, between what is divine and what is human; between what God has established and what men have invented. The Pontificate is divine, and it speaks with divine authority. It, and all that immediately pertains to it, we accept as infallible, to be by us believed, obeyed, loved, and neither judged nor disputed. 

“But the men at Rome are human, and the human at Rome is neither more nor less respectable than at Paris, London, Vienna, Or Washington. 

“If we have the right to defend civil and religious liberty, so far asserted in the Divine Government of men, and as not forbidden by any dogma of faith or law promulgated by Divine Authority, at Washington, Baltimore, New York, London, Mechlin, Vienna, the Hague, St Petersburg, or Paris, we have the right to defend it and insist on it at Rome, providing we do not do it, as we are not at liberty to do it anywhere, in a disorderly manner, or in a turbulent and seditious spirit. As long as Rome repels the regimen the world now demands, it can be looked upon as only provisional and temporary elsewhere.

“Here we differ from our friends the illustrious Count de Montalembert, and the learned, intrepid and venerable Bishop of Orleans, who are apparently satisfied with the practical concessions La Civiltà Cattolica says may be made. We know no reason why Rome and Italy should be excepted, unless they put in the plea of infancy, the only ground on which the old system, in our judgment, is defensible.”

Ibid. 288-9

[6] John Henry Newman, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, in Certain Difficulties felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching Considered, Vol. II, 275. Longmans, Green, and Co., London, 1900.

[7] Brownson’s Quarterly Review, III, 1846, 346. Quoted in E.D. Benard, A Preface to Newman’s Theology, 97. B. Herder Book Co., London, 1945. 

[8] In 1847, Manning wrote in a private letter on how Newman’s Development had given him significant pause as to claims of the Anglican church:

“When Newman’s book was published, Gladstone urged me to answer it. I declined pledging myself ; but it forced me again into the two same subjects [namely, unity and infallibility]. To which I have continued to give all the thought and reading I can.”

Gladstone had urged Manning to answer Newman’s book due to the unrest and the numerous conversions it has prompted, as is clear from his letters, contained in Purcell pp 313-318.

In 1851, Manning wrote in another private letter of the role played by Newman’s book:

“In 1837-8, I was working on the subject of the Rule of Faith; and was convinced, with a depth which has never changed, except to grow deeper, that Universal Tradition is the Divine Witness of Truth on Earth.

“On this I rested until 1845, but with increasing difficulty in bringing the Church of England within the sphere of that witness.

“In 1845, I read Newman’s book on Development. It did not satisfy me; but it opened my eyes to one fact, namely, that I had laid dawn only half the subject.

“I had found the Rule, but not the Judge. It was evident that to put Scripture and Antiquity into the hands of the individual is as much private judgment as to put Scripture alone.

“It was only to put a word more into Chillingworth’s cry about the Bible.

“Lastly, that this consciousness of the Universal Church is something more than the common reason of Christendom. It is also the living and lineal illumination of the Divine Spirit, for “consensus Sanctorum est sensus Spiritus Sancti.”

“I remember saying this to you in St. James’s Square about 1846: that the perpetuity of the Faith must have a higher basis than the individual or collective intellect of the Church.

“The book which drove this conviction home to me was Melchior Cano’s Loci Theologici.

“From that day to this every line of inquiry has run up into the same conclusion.”

Newman’s book was not the final catalyst of Manning’s conversion, and he did not find in it the final expression of Catholic doctrine. As mentioned above, this is hardly surprising, Wiseman and others did not give their approval to it as an apologetic or theological work, but rather an account of the thought processes that led in the end to Newman’s conversion. As is evident from all the data, the idea that the arguments in this unfinished Anglican work represented Newman’s motive for faith after his conversion is unfounded.  

Letters included in Life of Cardinal Manning, Archbishop of Westminster, Edmund S. Purcell, pp 470, 600-1. Macmillan and co., London, 1895.

[9] Brownson, ‘Explanations to Catholics’, Oct. 1846, in Brownson’s Quarterly ReviewNational Series, Volume 1, 480-1. Richardson & Son, London, 1864, pp 470-489.

[10] Brownson’s Quarterly Review, April, 1875, Art. VI, [A review of Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk], in Brownson’s Quarterly Review, Vol. III (Last Series). Fr. Pustet, New York, 1875, pp 231-246. Available at https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/Brownson_s_Quarterly_Review/FRTZAAAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&pg=PA231&printsec=frontcover

[11] Ibid., 231-2.

[12] Brownson, July 1864, 286-7

[13] Brownson, April 1875, 233.

[14] Letter to Edward Serjeant Bellassis, John Henry Newman, Oct. 1874. Available at National Institute for Newman Studies, Digital Collections, B092-A002-D017, available at https://digitalcollections.newmanstudies.org/document/b092-a002-d017/newman_john_henry_cardinal_1801-1890_to_bellasis_edward_serjeant/1874-10-07

[15] Acta Sanctae Sedis,  vol. 41, 1908, included in Michael Davies’ Lead Kindly Light: The Life of John Henry Newman, Neumann Press, 2001. Available at https://newmanreader.org/canonization/popes/acta10mar08.html

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