26 October 2009

Newman and Liberalism

When Newman received the biglietto signifying his elevation to the rank of Cardinal, he made a speech which has often been quoted; and I am going to quote it yet again and not least because it beautifully enunciates the essential continuity of his life as a Catholic with his years as an Anglican. But, at the end, I wish to draw attention to a very important realisation of Newman's which is not so often quoted.

For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion. ... the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are a matter of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentimemt and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy. ... As to Religion, it is a private luxury which a man may have if he will; but which of course he must pay for, and which he must not intrude upon others, or indulge in to their annoyance.

Note the deft, almost imperceptible skill - so characteristic - with which Newman points to us the paradox that this 'liberalism' is itself a doctrine. But it is his next observation which, I feel, gives us material for thought.

He adds that there is much in the liberalistic theory which is good and true ... justice, truthfulness, sobriety, self-command, benevolence .... Ah, we incautiously surmise, it isn't too bad after all; he allows it an Extenuating Circumstance. But no. Newman is playing quite the opposite game. In his early years he had been preoccupied with the concept of Antichrist. At the heart of this, there is the perception that the greater an evil and the closer it comes to Ultimate Evil, the more it is adorned with the good and the true and the noble. It is so dangerous precisely because it looks so good. Who was ever deceived by the self-evidently monstrous? So Newman goes on There never was a device of the Enemy, so cleverly framed, and with such promise of success.

Exactly.

I wonder if the Vatican and the SSPX negotiators - due to begin their deliberations today - will think to consider together Newman's life-long polemic against Liberalism. Despite its relevance to their dialogue, I doubt it. There is a risk that his beatification will mean the veneration of a sort of mummified Newman, rather than an excited and lively investigation of what he can contribute to the theological problems of our day. Our only hope is a papal document hauling the beatus out of devotional cobwebs and into the centre of today's vibrant debates. I think there's a good chance that the nice old Bavarian gent might do just that. Orandum.

9 comments:

Independent said...

I hope they also consider his "Letter to the Duke of Norfolk".

Fr John Hunwicke SSC, said...

As long as they consider the whole letter and not just a soundbyte or two.

rev'd up said...

""There never was a device of the Enemy, so cleverly framed, and with such promise of success.""

I don't know Presbyterianism was a pretty darned effective counterfeit. Unfortunately, Newman will most likely be regaled as a Novus Ordo divine, which seems horribly unfair.

Woody said...

From the PCED's communique concerning the first session:

"In a cordial, respectful and constructive climate, the main doctrinal questions were identified. These will be studied in the course of discussions to be held over coming months, probably twice a month. In particular, the questions due to be examined concern the concept of Tradition, the Missal of Paul VI, the interpretation of Vatican Council II in continuity with Catholic doctrinal Tradition, the themes of the unity of the Church and the Catholic principles of ecumenism, the relationship between Christianity and non-Christian religions, and religious freedom. The meeting also served to specify the method and organisation of the work."

One may indeed entertain the hope that Liberalism is within the scope of the topics. One of the famous courses taught by Archbishop Lefebvre at Econe was called "Acts of the Magisterium" and, as Inunderstand it, the subsequent text was published as "Against the Heresies", with this line in the teaser: "Against the heresies and the heretics, especially the Freemasons and the Liberals." Available at http://www.angeluspress.org/oscatalog/item/6710/against-the-heresies.

I presume that his sons will be discussing these with their interlocutors.

Woody said...

It would also be interesting to know what the "method and organization of the work" is. I.e. who bears the burden of proof?

Independent said...

Indeed Fr Hunwicke they should read the whole pamphlet and they should also consider at whom it was principally aimed, who had so aroused the opposition of and "alienated from them so religious a mind" as Gladstone. It made it clear to the British people the limits of the First Vatican Council but it also put in its place "that aggressive insolent faction" led by Manning.

The Flying Dutchman said...

I rather like this "nice old Bavarian gent." May he continue to reign for many years: ad multos annos, beatissime Pater.

Independent said...

Flying Dutchman - have you seen the wonderful picture of him when younger drinking a very large stein of beer?

Independent said...

Yet Newman's conception of liberalism did not condemn independent scholarship of which he himself was a prime example, it did not condemn the political liberalism of Gladstone, nor the liberalism of such as TH Green. Newman had abandoned the idea of the confessional state to which he and Gladstone had adhered in their youth, he appears not to have accepted the Syllabus of Errors, and in practical politics accepted the pluralism of late Victorian Britain.

He is not against liberalism, he is against a carefully defined and limited doctrine which he calls LIBERALISM IN RELIGION. Would he be against Pope Benedict's statement made yesterday to the new ambassador from Iran to the Holy See that "religious libery and freedom of conscience are fundamental human rights as they are the source of all other liberties"? I doubt it. He appears to me to have been lamenting lack of belief in God and concern for religious truth not flirting with incipient totalitarianism.