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Friday 21 August 2015


Following are excerpts from the Note on Liberalism written for the 1865 edition of Apologia Pro Vita Sua by John Henry Newman (JHN).

In light of current developments in the Catholic Church and in the Anglican Communion as well as the election campaigns in Canada, Greece, the UK, the USA and elsewhere in 2015-16, it serves all of us to consider the thoughts of JHN on the underlying basis of what we today call “Liberalism.” 

Newman has at times been thought of, or referred to, as a 'Liberal' in the Catholic Church.  

The question JHN addresses is how Liberalism relates to the Catholic Faith and its true development. Understanding the principles he identifies has profound meaning for articulating the principles upon which the New Evangelization must be based.

The comments in square brackets are meant to clarify, for our day, some of JHN's terms and to connect these to current idioms and situations. The bolding is mine. 

Here are some of JHN's own words about Liberalism.  

I HAVE been asked to explain more fully what it is I mean by "Liberalism," because merely to call it the Anti-dogmatic Principle is to tell very little about it. 

[JHN contended from his early days as an Anglican that dogma: specific doctrinal teaching was essential to any religion which sought to hold together faith with reason and he often referred to the dogmatic principle. The term 'dogma' today is largely used derogatorily as an epithet.]

. . . . Speaking then in my own way, I proceed to explain what I meant as a Protestant by Liberalism [JHN was an Anglican from 1801-1845], and to do so in connexion with the circumstances under which that system of opinion came before me at Oxford [JHN was at Oxford University as a student and teacher from 1818-1841].

When, in the beginning of the present century, not very long before my own time, after many years of moral and intellectual declension, the University of Oxford woke up to a sense of its duties, and began to reform itself, the first instruments of this change, to whose zeal and courage we all owe so much, were naturally thrown together for mutual support, against the numerous obstacles which lay in their path, and soon stood out in relief from the body of residents, who, though many of them men of talent themselves, cared little for the object which the others had at heart. These Reformers, as they may be called, were for some years members of scarcely more than three or four Colleges; and their own Colleges, as being under their direct influence, of course had the benefit of those stricter views of discipline and teaching, which they themselves were urging on the University.

. . . . Whenever men are able to act at all, there is the chance of extreme and intemperate action; and therefore, when there is exercise of mind, there is the chance of wayward or mistaken exercise. Liberty of thought is in itself a good; but it gives an opening to false liberty. Now by Liberalism I mean false liberty of thought, or the exercise of thought upon matters, in which, from the constitution of the human mind, thought cannot be brought to any successful issue, and therefore is out of place. Among such matters are first principles of whatever kind; and of these the most sacred and momentous are especially to be reckoned the truths of Revelation. Liberalism then is the mistake of subjecting to human judgment those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it, and of claiming to determine on intrinsic grounds the truth and value of propositions which rest for their reception simply on the external authority of the Divine Word.

. . . . Liberalism might easily grow up, as in fact it did; certainly they breathed around an influence which made men of religious seriousness shrink into themselves. But, while I say as much as this, I have no intention whatever of implying that the talent of the University, in the years before and after 1820, was liberal in its theology, in the sense in which the bulk of the educated classes through the country are liberal now. I would not for the world be supposed to detract from the Christian earnestness, and the activity in religious works, above the average of men, of many of the persons in question. They would have protested against their being supposed to place reason before faith, or knowledge before devotion; yet I do consider that they unconsciously encouraged and successfully introduced into Oxford a licence of opinion which went far beyond them.

. . . . as far as I know, he who turned the tide, and brought the talent of the University round to the side of the old theology, and against what was familiarly called "march-of-mind," was Mr. [John] Keble. In and from Keble the mental activity of Oxford took that contrary direction which issued in what was called Tractarianism.

. . . . Keble was a man who guided himself and formed his judgments, not by processes of reason, by inquiry or by argument, but, to use the word in a broad sense, by authority. Conscience is an authority; the Bible is an authority; such is the Church; such is Antiquity; such are the words of the wise; such are hereditary lessens; such are ethical truths; such are historical memories, such are legal saws and state maxims; such are proverbs; such are sentiments, presages, and prepossessions. It seemed to me as if he ever felt happier, when he could speak or act under some such primary or external sanction; and could use argument mainly as a means of recommending or explaining what had claims on his reception prior to proof.

. . . What he [Keble] hated instinctively was heresy, insubordination, resistance to things established, claims of independence, disloyalty, innovation, a critical, censorious spirit. And such was the main principle of the school which in the course of years was formed around him; nor is it easy to set limits to its influence in its day; for multitudes of men, who did not profess its teaching, or accept its peculiar doctrines, were willing nevertheless, or found it to their purpose, to act in company with it.

Indeed for a time it was practically the champion and advocate of the political doctrines of the great clerical interest through the country, who found in Mr. Keble and his friends an intellectual, as well as moral support to their cause, which they looked for in vain elsewhere. His weak point, in their eyes, was his consistency; for he carried his love of authority and old times so far, as to be more than gentle towards the Catholic Religion, with which the Toryism of Oxford and of the Church of England had no sympathy.

Accordingly, if my memory be correct, he never could get himself to throw his heart into the opposition made to Catholic Emancipation [1829], strongly as he revolted from the politics and the instruments by means of which that Emancipation was won. I fancy he would have had no difficulty in accepting Dr. [Samuel] Johnson's saying about "the first Whig;" [i.e. 'the first Whig was the Devil'] and it grieved and offended him that the "Via prima salutis" [primary way to salvation] should be opened to the Catholic body from the Whig [Liberal] quarter.

The Old Tory or Conservative party in Oxford had in it no principle or power of development. [The principle of development is referred to here by Newman; a reference to the importance of the development of doctrine, the understanding of which had brought JHN to the Catholic Church],

. . .  [Liberalism] represented a new idea, which was but gradually learning to recognize itself, to ascertain its characteristics and external relations, and to exert an influence upon the University.

[Newman goes on to consider, in 1865, what he had previously written.] 
"The men who had driven me from Oxford were distinctly the Liberals, it was they who had opened the attack upon Tract 90."  

[Tract 90 was Newman’s Catholic interpretation of the 39 Articles of the C of E.]

. . . It is surely a matter of historical fact that I left Oxford upon the University proceedings of 1841; and in those proceedings, whether we look to the Heads of Houses or the resident Masters, the leaders, if intellect and influence make men such, were members of the Liberal party. Those who did not lead, concurred or acquiesced in them,—I may say, felt a satisfaction. I do not recollect any Liberal who was on my side on that occasion. Excepting the Liberal, no other party, as a party, acted against me. I am not complaining of them; I deserved nothing else at their hands.

. . . . However, besides the historical fact, I can bear witness to my own feeling at the time, and my feeling was this:—that those who in 1841 had considered it to be a duty to act against me, had then done their worst .

. . . .  I felt myself dead as regarded my relations to the Anglican Church. My leaving it was all but a matter of time. I believe I did not even thank my real friends, the two Proctors, who in Convocation stopped by their Veto the condemnation of Tract 90.

I conclude this notice of Liberalism in Oxford, and the party which was antagonistic to it, with some propositions in detail, which, as a member of the latter, and together with the High Church, I earnestly denounced and abjured.

1. No religious tenet is important, unless reason shows it to be so.
Therefore, e.g. the doctrine of the Athanasian Creed is not to be insisted on, unless it tends to convert the soul; and the doctrine of the Atonement is to be insisted on, if it does convert the soul.

2. No one can believe what he does not understand.
Therefore, e.g. there are no mysteries in true religion.

3. No theological doctrine is any thing more than an opinion which happens to be held by bodies of men.
Therefore, e.g. no creed, as such, is necessary for salvation.

4. It is dishonest in a man to make an act of faith in what he has not had brought home to him by actual proof.
Therefore, e.g. the mass of men ought not absolutely to believe in the divine authority of the Bible.

5. It is immoral in a man to believe more than he can spontaneously receive as being congenial to his moral and mental nature.
Therefore, e.g. a given individual is not bound to believe in eternal punishment.

6. No revealed doctrines or precepts may reasonably stand in the way of scientific conclusions.
Therefore, e.g. Political Economy may reverse our Lord's declarations about poverty and riches, or a system of Ethics may teach that the highest condition of body is ordinarily essential to the highest state of mind.

7. Christianity is necessarily modified by the growth of civilization, and the exigencies of times.
Therefore, e.g. the Catholic priesthood, though necessary in the Middle Ages, may be superseded now.

8. There is a system of religion more simply true than Christianity as it has ever been received.
Therefore, e.g. we may advance that Christianity is the "corn of wheat " which has been dead for 1800 years, but at length will bear fruit; and that Mahometanism is the manly religion, and existing Christianity the womanish. {500}

9. There is a right of Private Judgment: that is, there is no existing authority on earth competent to interfere with the liberty of individuals in reasoning and judging for themselves about the Bible and its contents, as they severally please.
Therefore, e.g. religious establishments requiring subscription are Anti-christian.

10. There are rights of conscience such, that every one may lawfully advance a claim to profess and teach what is false and wrong in matters, religious, social, and moral, provided that to his private conscience it seems absolutely true and right.
Therefore, e.g. individuals have a right to preach and practise fornication and polygamy.

11. There is no such thing as a national or state conscience.
Therefore, e.g. no judgments can fall upon a sinful or infidel nation.

12. The civil power has no positive duty, in a normal state of things, to maintain religious truth.
Therefore, e.g. blasphemy and sabbath-breaking are not rightly punishable by law.

13. Utility and expedience are the measure of political duty.
Therefore, e.g. no punishment may be enacted, on the ground that God commands it: e.g. on the text, "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed."

14. The Civil Power may dispose of Church property without sacrilege.
Therefore, e.g. Henry VIII. committed no sin in his spoliations.

15. The Civil Power has the right of ecclesiastical jurisdiction and administration.
Therefore, e.g. Parliament may impose articles of faith on the Church or suppress Dioceses. {501}

16. It is lawful to rise in arms against legitimate princes.
Therefore, e.g. the Puritans in the 17th century, and the French in the 18th, were justifiable in their Rebellion and Revolution respectively.

17. The people are the legitimate source of power.
Therefore, e.g. Universal Suffrage is among the natural rights of man.

18. Virtue is the child of knowledge, and vice of ignorance.
Therefore, e.g. education, periodical literature, railroad travelling, ventilation, drainage, and the arts of life, when fully carried out, serve to make a population moral and happy.

All of these propositions, and many others too, were familiar to me thirty years ago, as in the number of the tenets of Liberalism, and, while I gave into none of them except No. 12, and perhaps No. 11, and partly No. 1, before I begun to publish, so afterwards I wrote against most of them in some part or other of my Anglican works.

[Newman refers to his poem LIBERALISM, written during his journey to Sicily before the founding of the Oxford Movement]

. . . There is one poem on “Liberalism” beginning "Ye cannot halve the Gospel of God's grace;" which bears out the account of Liberalism as above given. Another upon "the Age to come," defining from its own point of view the position and prospects of Liberalism, shall be quoted in extenso.

When I would search the truths that in me burn,
And mould them into rule and argument,

A hundred reasoners cried,—"Hast thou to learn
Those dreams are scattered now, those fires are spent?"
And, did I mount to simpler thoughts, and try
Some theme of peace, 'twas still the same reply.
Perplexed, I hoped my heart was pure of guile,
But judged me weak in wit, to disagree;

But now I see, that men are mad awhile,
And joy the Age to come will think of me;

'Tis the old history:—Truth without a home,
Despised and slain; then, rising from the tomb.

[Here is the first poem JHN referred to, in its entirety.  This poem was also written on his Italian journey around the time he wrote "Lead Kindly Light." JHN was 32.]


"Jehu destroyed Baal out of Israel. Howbeit from
 the sins of Jeroboam Jehu departed not from after
 them, to wit, the golden calves that were in Bethel,
 and that were in Dan."

YE cannot halve the Gospel of God's grace;
     Men of presumptuous heart! I know you well.
     Ye are of those who plan that we should dwell,
Each in his tranquil home and holy place;
Seeing the Word refines all natures rude,
And tames the stirrings of the multitude.

And ye have caught some echoes of its lore,
     As heralded amid the joyous choirs;
     Ye mark'd it spoke of peace, chastised desires,
Good-will and mercy,—and ye heard no more;
But, as for zeal and quick-eyed sanctity,
And the dread depths of grace, ye pass'd them by.

And so ye halve the Truth; for ye in heart,
     At best, are doubters whether it be true,
     The theme discarding, as unmeet for you,
Statesmen or Sages. O new-compass'd art
Of the ancient Foe!—but what, if it extends
O'er our own camp, and rules amid our friends?


June 5, 1833.

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