Monday, March 16, 2020

This Morning: Private Judgment and "Dangers to the Penitent"

As promised, this morning Matt Swaim and I will examine St. John Henry Newman's "Dangers to the Penitent" from his Anglican Sermons on Issues of the Day on the Son Rise Morning Show at about 6:50 a.m. Central Daylight Savings Time / 7:50 a.m. Eastern Daylight Savings Time.

Please listen live here; the podcast will be archived here.

On Friday, I left off before Newman began his discussion of private judgment and penitential practices:

What was said just now naturally leads to one other remark, viz. that when men are in the first fervour of penitence, they should be careful not to act on their own private judgment, and without proper advice. Not only in forming lasting engagements, but in all they do, they need a calmer guidance than their own. They cannot manage themselves; they must be guided by others; the neglect of this simple and natural rule leads to very evil consequences. We should all of us be saved a great deal of suffering of various kinds, if we could but persuade ourselves, that we are not the best judges, whether of our own condition, or of God's will towards us. What sensible person undertakes to be his own physician? yet are the diseases of the mind less numerous, less intricate, less subtle than those of the body? is experience of no avail in things spiritual as well as in things material? does induction lose its office, and science its supremacy, when the soul is concerned? What an inconsistent age is this! every department of things that are, is pronounced to be capable of science, to rest upon principles, to require teaching, to exercise the reason, except self-discipline. 

Newman warns against private judgment often in his works, Anglican and Catholic: private judgment is one aspect of the misuse and misunderstanding of how to form our consciences. Our consciences should not lead us to be consistent with ourselves, but with God's law. Private judgment is also an aspect of the spirit of liberalism he so descried in religious matters: the view that there was no objective truth about God and what He desires from us, so that each person could privately judge for herself what true religion is.

In this sermon, he calls for the penitent to seek spiritual counsel before deciding his own course of action, noting that all too often the penitent thinks he is on his own:

Self-discipline is to take its chance; it is not to be learned, but it can be performed by each man for himself by a sort of natural instinct. And what is more preposterous still, a person is thus to be his own guide and instructor at the very time, when by the nature of the case he is in error and difficulty. How can a person show himself the way, when by the very hypothesis he has lost it? how can he at once guide and be guided? The very seasons I am speaking of are those, when a man is agitated, excited, harassed, depressed, desponding; the very time when of course his judgment is not clear, when he is likely to be led away with fancies, when he is likely to be swayed by inclination, when the light that is in him becomes, if not darkness, yet a meteor leading him the wrong way. But if the blind lead the blind, shall not both reason and passion, shall not the whole man, fall into the ditch?

So Newman urges the penitent to be willing to take counsel from the Church, from human intermediaries, another very Catholic idea:

Nor is it to the purpose to say, that we cannot be guided without the grace of God, and that the grace of God will guide us; and that the grace of God is gained by private prayer. For still God makes use of means; we must do our part; we must act, and God will guide us while we act; and the question is, whether taking the advice of others is not God's way, through which He blesses and enlightens us, and without which our souls will not prosper.

I state my deep conviction when I say, that nothing healthy can be expected in the religion of the community, till we learn that we cannot by our private judgment manage ourselves; that management of the heart is a science which it needs to learn; and that even though we have paid attention to it, we are least able to exercise it in our own case, that is, then when we most need it. We must use in religious matters that common sense, which does not desert us in matters of this world, because we take a real interest in them; and as no one would ever dream of being his own lawyer or his own physician, however great exposures, whatever sacrifice of feeling may be the consequence, so we must take it for granted, if we would serve God comfortably, that we cannot be our own divines, and our own casuists.

When Newman uses the word "casuists" he does not mean in the pejorative sense of people who use false reasoning in moral issues, but those who apply general rules of morality to help decide what one should do when faced by a moral issue.

Newman even alludes to the Communion of Saints:

To conclude, let us excite each other to seek that good part which shall not be taken away from us. Let us labour to be really in earnest, and to view things in the way in which God views them. Then it will be but a little thing to give up the world; only an easy thing to reconcile the mind to what at first it shrinks from. Let us turn our mind heavenward; let us set our thoughts on things above, and in His own time God will set our affections there also. All will in time become natural to us, which at present we do but own to be good and true. We shall covet what at present we do but admire. Let the time past suffice us to have followed our own will; let us desire to form part of that glorious company of Apostles and Prophets, of whom we read in Scripture. Let us cast in our lot with them, and desire to be gathered together under their feet. Let us beg of God to employ us; let us try to obtain a spirit of perfect self-surrender to Him, and an indifference to one thing above another in this world, so that we may be ready to follow His call whenever it comes to us. Thus shall we best employ ourselves till His voice is heard, patiently preparing for it by meditation, and looking for Him to perfect what we trust His own grace has begun in us.

And he concludes with an image from the Gospel of St. Matthew (13:1-23), the Parable of the Sower and the Seed:

There are many persons who proceed a little way in religion, and then stop short. God keep us from choking the good seed, which else would come to perfection! Let us exercise ourselves in those good works, which both reverse the evil that is past, and lay up a good foundation for us in the world to come.


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