Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Consequences of Newman's Warnings about Liberalism

John Nicholas Blaha writes for Touchstone Magazine, noting Blessed John Henry Newman's warnings about the influence of Liberalism on religion from his days as an Anglican in Oxford to his biglietto speech in Rome when he was named a Cardinal in the Catholic Church:

From his years at Oxford in the 1830s till the end of his life in 1890, Newman saw that to indulge in this "false liberty of thought" was to depart in a fundamental way from the heart of Christianity. For Christianity is grounded upon the claim of a divine revelation, however much its adherents may reflect upon and parse that revelation through rational discourse. A disclosure by the deity such as one claimed by Christians must be understood on its own terms rather than trimmed to fit comfortably into the Procrustean bed of human rationality.

Newman's diagnosis was that religious liberalism did just that, with the consequence that religious doctrine soon unraveled into either complete subjectivism on the one hand or, on the other, a denial of any real content to revelation at all. As to the former, Newman protested strenuously against the tendency to direct attention only to the heart at the expense of anything external, as inevitably productive of a narrow and egoistic temper of mind that culminates in placing trust in man rather than God. As to the latter, many in Newman's day claimed that divine revelation was unable to be captured in human language, and therefore could admit of wide, even contradictory interpretations that were of equal value so long as they were sincerely held. Newman's insistent rejoinder to this latitudinarian stance was to inquire, "Why should God speak, unless He meant to say something? Why should He say it, unless He meant us to hear?"

In a letter to his brother Francis that forcefully rebuked liberal views, Newman insisted that "if the fact of a revelation be granted, it is most extravagant and revolting to our reason to suppose that after all its message is not ascertainable and that the divine interposition reveals nothing." Here, Newman echoes St. Paul himself, who squares off against a similar antagonist: "Mere man with his natural gifts cannot take in the thoughts of God's Spirit; they seem mere folly to him, and he cannot grasp them, because they demand a scrutiny which is spiritual" (1 Cor. 2:14).

Please read the rest there. The consequence, however, of following Newman's argument to its completeness is that there is One Truth and at some point, diversity can't be tolerated. Gasp! For Newman to have said that in the nineteenth century, was already inconvenient. To say that again in the twenty-first century is tantamount to hate speech!

Of course, if man-made Global Warming/Climate Change is the One Truth, it must be accepted and no dissent is allowed.

But if one says, with Newman, that Jesus founded One Church and that He gave that Church infallible authority to teach the Gospel with all that means for how we worship, think, pray, and live--that's unacceptable.

When I gave a presentation at the Eighth Day Institute Symposium in January this year, discussing Newman's insistence that Theology must be included as a subject in a university curriculum, one attendee asked me if Newman meant any Theology, including Buddhist or Hindu Theology. Of course not: Newman meant Christian Theology: Newman meant Catholic Theology because Catholic Theology teaches about Revelation based upon Catholic dogma and doctrine because Catholic dogma and doctrine is True because God guarantees its infallibility. Once you start following Newman's arguments against Liberalism in Religion, you realize that he leads you to the Catholic Church, just as his own "great dissent" to use the title of Robert Pattison's 1991 study of  "John Henry Newman and the Liberal Heresy", led Newman to what he called the "one, true fold of Christ".


  1. What are your recommendations for a first book to read by Newman? I'm trying to get into his writing but don't know where to start.

  2. I'd recommend you start with a book of his sermons. The Classics of Western Spirituality has a good volume, selected and with an introduction by one of his greatest biographers, Father Ian Ker: