The last of the Tracts of the Times came out on January 25, 1841 and received a very cold reaction that had nothing to do with the winter weather. The full title of Tract 90 is "Remarks on certain Passages of the Thirty-nine Articles."
In it, Tractarian John Henry Newman examined the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England and argued that they had more in common with Roman Catholicism than with Protestantism: as he noted in the introduction, "while our Prayer Book is acknowledged on all hands to be of Catholic origin, our articles also, the offspring of an uncatholic age, are, through GOD'S good providence, to say the least, not uncatholic, and may be subscribed by those who aim at being catholic in heart and doctrine." Because of Tract 90, the Oxford Movement was effectively shut down; Newman soon retreated to Littlemore. The Tract was condemned and Newman barely escaped censure--it was a good time to leave town!
As he wrote later in the Apologia Pro Vita Sua:
I saw indeed clearly that my place in the Movement was lost; public confidence was at an end; my occupation was gone. It was simply an impossibility that I could say any thing henceforth to good effect, when I had been posted up by the marshal on the buttery-hatch of every College of my University, after the manner of discommoned pastry-cooks, and when in every part of the country and every class of society, through every organ and opportunity of opinion, in newspapers, in periodicals, at meetings, in pulpits, at dinner-tables, in coffee-rooms, in railway carriages, I was denounced as a traitor who had laid his train and was detected in the very act of firing it against the time-honoured Establishment.
When he compiled works from the Tractarian movement in The Via Media of the Anglican Church Illustrated in Lectures, Letters and Tracts Written between 1830 and 1841, then Cardinal Newman explained the background and purpose of the Tract:
THIS Tract was written under the conviction that the Anglican Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, of which it treated, were, when taken in their letter, so loosely worded, so incomplete in statement, and so ambiguous in their meaning, as to need an authoritative interpretation; and that neither those who drew them up, nor those who imposed them were sufficiently agreed among themselves, or clear and consistent in their theological views individually to be able to supply it.
There was but one authority to whom recourse could be had for such interpretation—the Church Catholic. She had been taught the revealed truth by Christ and His Apostles in the beginning, and had in turn taught it in every age to her faithful children, and would teach it on to the end. And what she taught, all her branches taught; and this the Anglican Church did teach, must teach, if it was a branch of the Church Catholic, otherwise it was not a branch; but a branch it certainly was, for, if it was not a branch, what had we to do with it? And it being a branch, it was the duty of all its members, priests and people, ever to profess what the Universal Church had from the beginning professed, and nothing else, and nothing short of it, that is, what had been held semper et ubique et ab omnibus. Accordingly, it was their plain duty to interpret the Thirty-nine Articles in this one distinct Catholic sense, the sense of the Holy Fathers, of Athanasius, Ambrose, Augustine, and of all Doctors and Saints; it being impossible that in any important matters those Articles should diverge from that sense, or resist the interpretation which that sense required, inasmuch as the Divine Lord of the Church watched over all her portions, and would not suffer the Anglican or any portion to commit itself to statements which could not fairly and honestly be made to give forth a Catholic meaning.
And the circumstances under which the Thirty-nine Articles came into existence, favoured this view. Its compilers were not likely knowingly to exclude the possibility of a Catholic interpretation of them. Doubtless they wished to introduce the new doctrine, but it did not follow from that that they wished to exclude those who still held the old. The ambiguity above spoken of, in the instance of men so acute and learned as they were, could only be accounted for by great differences of opinions among themselves, and a wish by means of compromise to include among the subscriptions to their formulary a great variety of the then circulating opinions, of which a moderate quasi-Catholicity was one. This would lead them to the use of words, which in the long-run, as they would consider, would tell in favour of Protestantism, while in the letter and in their first effect they did not enforce it.
It must be added, in corroboration, that, as is well known, the very Convocation which received and passed the Thirty-nine Articles, also enjoined that "preachers should be careful, that they should never teach aught in a sermon, to be religiously held and believed by the people, except that which is agreeable to the doctrine of the Old and New Testaments, and which the Catholic Fathers and ancient Bishops have collected from that very doctrine." Could they mean their Thirty-nine Articles to be inconsistent with that patristical literature, which at the same time they made the rule even for the interpretation of inspired Scripture?
This primâ facie view of the Thirty-nine Articles as not excluding a moderate Catholicism (that is, Roman doctrine, as far as it was Catholic) became more cogent, when it was considered that one of these Articles recognized, approved, and appealed to the two Books of "Homilies," as "containing a godly and wholesome doctrine," and by this appeal determined the animus and drift of the Articles to be Catholic. It was evidence of this in two ways, positively and negatively:—positively, inasmuch as the Homilies, though hitherto claimed by the Evangelical party as one of their special weapons against the High Church . . . were found on a closer inspection to take a view more or less favourable to Rome as regards the number of the Sacraments, the Canon of Scripture, the efficacy of penance, and other points; and negatively, because the Homilies for the most part struck, not at certain Roman doctrines and practices, but at their abuse, and therefore, when, once these Homilies were taken as a legitimate comment on the Articles, they suggested that the repudiations of Roman teaching in the Articles were repudiations of it so far as it was abused, not as it was in itself.
Indeed, it may be further asked, if the Articles were not aimed at the abuses, doctrinal and practical, as drawn out in the Homilies, the abuses of times and places, of particular dioceses, schools, preachers, and people, against what could they be directed? Certainly not against any formal doctrines of Rome, call them Catholic or not, for the Tridentine Decrees were not promulgated till 1564, and the Thirty-nine Articles were agreed on in Convocation in 1562.
For these reasons it appeared likely, that when the Articles were carefully handled, little in them would interfere with the liberty of teaching in the Church of England the semper, ubique, et ab omnibus of the Catholic Religion, the unanimous teaching of the Holy Fathers, the present teaching, as far as concordant, of the East and West.
The all-important question followed, whether the Articles, when examined, actually fulfilled this expectation for which there were several good reasons; whether, one by one, they were (as was said at the time) "patient, though not ambitious, of a Catholic interpretation." The Tract which follows made that experiment.
1. Holy Scripture and the Authority of the Church.
2. Justification by Faith only.
3. Works before and after Justification.
4. The Visible Church.
5. General Councils.
6. Purgatory, Pardons, Images, Relics, Invocation of Saints.
7. The Sacraments.
10. Marriage of Clergy.
11. The Homilies.
12. The Bishop of Rome.