Ecclesiastical Perfection

A second element also leading toward skepticism that marked Newman's religious thought from the 1830s onward was a tendency toward ecclesiastical perfectionism. Newman was deeply troubled as to where the true church existed in this life. By the late 1820s he eschewed the evangelical concept of an invisible church of the saved saints, but he also found difficulty in locating the true church in any contemporary visible ecclesiastical institution. During the 1830s he began developing his own image of a Church Catholic that had made its way through the ages—a church that he distinguished from Protestantism and from contemporary Roman Catholicism. During his last fifteen years in the Church of England, Newman firmly rejected Protestantism as a legitimate mode of Christianity. As he would write in 1845, "Whatever be historical Christianity, it is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this."17

His Anglican outlook toward Roman Catholicism was more complicated. As he pursued his own vision of the Church Catholic, Newman, still determined to remain in the Church of England, found it necessary to distinguish his position from that of contemporary Roman Catholicism. To that end he made numerous anti-Roman Catholic statements that he later repudiated. The most important and extensive of these occurred in Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church (183 7). Although the preponderance of this book attacked evangelical Protestantism, Newman also included a broad discussion of the religious inadequacy of the Roman Catholic Church that served to delegitimize Roman Catholicism in order to make his via media of his own Church Catholic plausible.

According to Newman the relation of Roman Catholicism to true Catholicism was not "the absence of right principle" or the presence of errors but rather "perversions, distortions, or excesses" of truth that implied "misdirection and abuse."18 Denouncing the Roman Church more in grief than in anger, Newman wrote,

We must deal with her as we would towards a friend who is visited by derangement; in great affliction, with all affectionate tender thoughts, with tearful regret and a broken heart, but still with a steady eye and a firm hand. For in truth she is a Church beside herself, abounding in noble gifts and rightful titles, but unable to use them religiously; crafty, obstinate, wilful, malicious, cruel, unnatural, as madmen are. Or rather, she may be said to resemble a demoniac; possessed with principles, thoughts, and tendencies, not her own, in outward form and in outward powers what God made her, but ruled within by an inexorable spirit, who is sovereign in his management over her, and most subtle and most successful in the use of her gifts. Thus she is her real self only in name, and, till God vouchsafe to restore her, we must treat her as if she were that evil one which governs her.19

Through this language of regret and sadness over one lost to disease, madness, or demonic possession, Newman distanced himself from the contemporary Roman Catholic Church while embracing a hidden, undistorted ancient Catholic essence somehow residing under the external excrescence of popish corrup-tion.20 At moments over the next several years, Newman and his closest associates entertained the fantasy that through their own pursuit of the Catholic they might liberate a true Catholicism within the confines of the Roman Church while restoring it in the Church of England.

Although Tractarians gave Newman's Prophetical Office the title Against Romanism, what struck most contemporaries about Newman's Catholic religious experiment was not his occasional, fierce anti-Roman statements, but his drive toward an expansive, experimental devotional life through his articulation of what he termed a "prophetical tradition" that extended beyond the formal Episcopal tradition grounded in the Bible and the creeds and handed down over the centuries from bishop to bishop. This largely indeterminate prophetical tradition constituted a vast system, not to be comprised in a few sentences, not to be embodied in one code or treatise, but consisting of a certain body of Truth, permeating the Church like an atmosphere, irregular in its shape from its very profusion and exuberance; at times separable only in idea from Episcopal Tradition, yet at times melting away into legend and fable; partly written, partly unwritten, partly the interpretation, partly the supplement of Scripture, partly preserved in intellectual expressions, partly latent in the spirit and temper of Christians; poured to and fro in closets and upon the housetops, in liturgies, in controversial works, in obscure fragments, in sermons.21

Preserved in the writings of the Church Fathers and other documents, legends, and stories of the Christian Church, this eclectic, ill-defined, and non-dogmatic tradition constituted for Newman and other Tractarians a vast storehouse of Christian practices that might enliven and enrich the faith, devotion, and liturgy of the early nineteenth-century Church of England. The Prophetical Tradition offended evangelicals because of its lack of a scriptural foundation and high churchmen because of its extending beyond their boundaries of antiquity, which ended around the fourth century.

The immediate ecclesiastical problem for Newman was the anxiety among his clerical followers that they could not honestly subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England without at the same time rejecting their newly emerging Catholic convictions. To assuage their concerns, Newman in early 1841 published Tract 90, entitled Remarks on Certain Passages in the Thirty-Nine Articles. In this momentous pamphlet that marked the turning point in his career in the Church of England, Newman, as he later stated in the Apologia, sought "to ascertain what was the limit of that elasticity [of the Articles] in the direction of Roman dogma," "to institute an inquiry how far, in critical fairness, the text could be opened," and to ascertain "what a man who subscribed it might hold than what he must"22 (80).

This essay cannot survey the vast controversy that Tract 90 generated.23 The Oxford Heads of Houses condemned it. The Archbishop of Canterbury demanded the cessation of Tracts for the Times. During the next two years Newman's argument and personal honesty stood condemned by almost all the English and many of the Irish bishops as well as by commentators in both the religious and secular press. Despite this vast criticism, Newman clung to the position that technically Tract 90 had not received condemnation by any formal ecclesiastical authority and, most important, not by his own diocesan bishop. Newman contended that what had not been formally condemned remained permissible. By the summer of 1845, through a complicated series of events in Oxford and the Court of Arches in London, which the author has described in detail elsewhere, Newman's principles in Tract 90 didreceive formal condemnation. At that point, his Littlemore followers recognized they could not remain in the Church of England, refused to entertain the notion of constituting their own church, and began to be received in the Roman Catholic Church. (Littlemore was the monastic retreat house he had organized outside Oxford.) Newman followed them on October 9, 1845, without ever having received any formal instruction in Roman Catholicism.

Between the publication of Tract 90 and his reception into the Roman Catholic Church, Newman had undertaken what may be termed a prophetic Catholic ministry. In sermons and letters of the time as well as in the Apologia, he described his religious role at Littlemore as resembling that of the prophet Elijah, who, having overturned the idols, still did not worship in the Temple in Jerusalem. Newman and his followers regarded themselves as an enclave or gathered conventicle of the Church Catholic waiting for either the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church to undertake a program of reform.

During these months Newman understood that if he were to establish his own Catholic position within the Church of England, he must convince high churchmen that Christian doctrine and devotion had changed after the fourth century and that those changes did not constitute "Romanish" corruptions but legitimate developments of the faith.24 To that end, Newman undertook the composition of An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. This remarkable book occupies a key place in Victorian discussions of changing religious belief and displays the lack of secure cultural boundaries so characteristic of that considerable literature. In 1841 Newman had described to Richard Church certain people who if the Church of England "committed herself to heresy, sooner than think that there was no Church any where, would believe the Roman to be the Church - and therefore would on faith accept what they could not otherwise acquiesce in."25 That was why Newman had to interpret as legitimate developments those changes in Christian faith and practice that Protestants (including high churchmen) regarded as illicit corruptions. He employed the concept of development to provide a reason for himself to acquiesce in such faith and practice and thus to avoid the ecclesiastically skeptical conclusion "that there was no Church any where." In this respect, the problem for Newman and others of the 1840s was not skepticism about existential religious truth or the historical and scientific accuracy of the Bible associated with late Victorian agnosticism, but rather skepticism about the spiritual and theological adequacy of ecclesiastical institutions. The latter doubt could prove just as corrosive to a person's religious life and commitment as the former.

Newman wrote the essay on development, which had been largely composed before his reception into the Roman Catholic Church, but published in late 1845 subsequent to that event, to explain to high churchmen how new devotional practices and doctrines subsequent to the fourth century had legitimately arisen and might be incorporated into the devotional life and practice of the English Church. But because of the date of publication and late additions Newman made to the text, the book was received as an explanation of Newman's move to Rome. Roman Catholics generally ignored the book and high church Anglicans found its arguments wanting. Both Anglican and Roman Catholic reviewers clearly grasped that the book had been conceived with a purpose quite different from that ascribed to it upon publication. They also saw the book as permeated by a skeptical turn of mind.

Throughout his writings, commencing with The Arians of the Fourth Century (1833), Newman had presented Christianity as a historical entity changing or evolving rather indeterminately over time. The concept of "Prophetic Tradition" formalized this view, which Newman also voiced in both journal articles and sermons. Refusing to privilege Scripture or antiquity as sources of information about Christianity, Newman in 1845 declared instead that "the history of eighteen hundred years" itself constituted "our most natural informant concerning the doctrine and worship of Christianity."26 Christianity was what Christians -or, more precisely, what those Christians calling themselves Catholics - had done in a religiously progressive march through the ages. The process of the development of Christian faith and practice throughout human history displaced an original deposit of faith articulated among the Apostles and Fathers as the source of knowledge about the content and character of the Christian religion. There existed no original deposit of faith to be corrupted, but rather a religion originating with the apostles to be fulfilled and realized. Because the human mind could achieve "the full comprehension and perfection of great ideas" only over time and because human beings could not comprehend all at once the "highest and most wonderful truths, though communicated to the world once for all by inspired teachers," those ideas had "required only the longer time and deeper thought for their full elucidation," thus resulting in a progressive development of doctrine over time.27 Christianity for Newman was an idea, but not an idea of the disembodied Platonic sort to be grasped through refined intellection. Rather, Christianity understood historically resembled more nearly an Aristotelian form that must realize itself only through a material embodiment, in this case in the embodied material life of human beings in human society. Christianity was what Christianity had become and presumably was becoming.

From the Anglican standpoint, Newman's argument rejected both the fundamental Protestant position that the original Christian faith resided in Scripture and the high church position that it resided in Scripture as interpreted in antiquity. Reviewers associated with both parties as well as Roman Catholic and English Nonconformist reviewers saw Newman's position as inherently skeptical, presenting a vision of Christianity that had no certain beginning or final end but rather a religion in an eternal process or flux. As a writer in the high-church English Review observed, while composing the book Newman "was living and acting neither under the authority of his own Church, nor under that of Rome, but under an authority within his own heart; which after all was a self-indulged bias, working to realize a self-invented and ideal model."28 Orestes Brownson, the recent American convert to Roman Catholicism, saw Newman at one with New England

Unitarians in assuming the idea of Christianity to have been "thrown upon the great concourse of men, to be developed and embodied by the action of their minds, stimulated and directed by it," and then believing they might use such knowledge abstracted from that history of development to organize "a new institution, a new church, in advance of the old by all the developments which these eighteen hundred years have effected."29 Brownson also thought the book suggested that Newman had sought to organize his own church. Although admitting that Newman stopped just short of the infidel conclusion that "the [Christian] Religion itself has no fixed Eternal Reality at all," W. J. Irons, another Anglican reviewer, nonetheless argued, "This system of development, in attempting to enlarge, really invades and destroys Objective Truth."30

Newman saved his vision of a Christian faith in the process of development from utter skepticism in 1845 only by his appeal to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Contemporary reviewers, however, saw those passages as late interpolations that served Newman well upon entering his new communion. They were not seen as core to his fundamental argument. None of Newman's Anglican books republished in his Roman Catholic years underwent so extensive revision as his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Also no other work throughout his life was so associated with actual or implicit skepticism.31

Newman's envisioning an indeterminate trajectory for the development and espousal of Christian doctrine came to the fore within his later Roman Catholic context, producing results equally disastrous as those following Tract 90. Toward the close of the 1850s, Newman became deeply involved with a group of liberal Roman Catholics. In 1859 their major journal the Rambler, which he himself briefly edited, published his article "On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine." In that highly controversial article, Newman reverted to an expansive understanding of doctrinal development occurring beyond the boundaries of established ecclesiastical authority that very much resembled his previous view of a Prophetic Tradition. In this Rambler essay he stated,

I think I am right in saying that the tradition of the Apostles, committed to the whole Church in its various constituents and functions per modum unius, manifests itself variously at various times: sometimes by the mouth of the episcopacy, sometimes by the doctors, sometimes by the people, sometimes by liturgies, rites, ceremonies, and customs, by events, disputes, movements, and all those other phenomena which are comprised under the name of history. It follows that one of these channels of tradition may be treated with disrespect; granting at the same time fully, that the gift of discerning, discriminating, defining, promulgating, and enforcing any portion of that tradition resides solely in the Ecclesia docens.32

Just as in Tract 90, where Newman had claimed his own right to interpret Anglican doctrine differently than the episcopate, he here attempted to create space for liberal Roman Catholics to pursue their intellectual and theological lives beyond the range of existing ecclesiastical authorities.

As John Coulson commented, Newman's publication of "On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine" constituted "an act of political suicide from which his career within the Church was never fully to recover; at one stroke, he, whose reputation as the one honest broker between the extremes of English catholic opinion had hitherto stood untarnished, gained the Pope's personal displeasure, the reputation at Rome of being the most dangerous man in England, and a formal accusation of heresy preferred against him by the Bishop of Newport."33 After much tension and misunderstandings between Newman and various Roman Catholic authorities, he agreed not to reprint the article in his lifetime. Although Newman would repeatedly indicate his compliance with the authority of the papacy, ultramontanes, especially in England, were never certain of him.

In 1864 Newman brilliantly seized upon the occasions of Charles Kingsley's attack on his integrity to defend his honesty and that of English Roman Catholics in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua. There as well as in other of his subsequent publications, Newman made a powerful case for the necessity of an authoritative church, which he identified with the Roman Catholic Church, but he was very careful not to set that authority directly in the papacy or in the papacy of a particular moment. Newman would in subsequent years move closer to acknowledging papal authority, but it was at best a grudging or, as Cardinal Avery Dulles has noted, a minimal acknowledgment and one open to various interpretations.34 As an Anglican in the months after the publication of Tract 90, he had hoped to be left alone with his friends at Littlemore under the authority of a friendly bishop of Oxford; to pursue his Catholic experiment; and as a Roman Catholic he hoped to be left alone at the Birmingham Oratory under the authority of a friendly bishop of Birmingham to pursue his own understanding of Roman Catholicism. As both an Anglican and Roman Catholic, Newman wrote of an authoritative church, but within that church he could not locate the actual point of unchanging authority. The ecclesiastical skepticism inherent in his position continued across the decades.

H. D. Weidner has brought all these evolving positions from Newman's Anglican years through to the close of his Roman Catholic authorship under the umbrella of a "Search for a Reformed Catholicism."35 Weidner may have written even more wisely than he realized. At some point in the late 1820s, Newman became fascinated with the idea of a Catholic Church whose origins predated the Reformation and that had developed since the age of the Apostles. By the end of the 1830s he imagined that he might have such a vision at hand and one to which he and his followers might beckon both the English Church and the Roman Church, if only these great institutions would reform themselves by his lights. In late 1840 Newman admitted to his brother Francis that he had been accused of making "a church half visible, half invisible" and confessed that despite "whatever ridicule attaches to it, that it is like a building seen through a mist." That mist was the haze of the historical experience of the emergence of Christian doctrine. Through external and internal causes, the doctrines of "Apostolic Christianity" that stood clearly delineated only by the fourth century had, according to Newman, undergone further development entailing "the more accurate statement and the varied application of ideas from the action of the reason upon them according to new circumstances." Although vast areas of dispute existed over specifically what had occurred to doctrine between the Apostolic age and the present, Newman broadly asserted to his brother, "No one seems to deny that from the first the mass of Christianity tended straight to what is afterwards known as Catholicism, and was such, as far as it went." He then explained, "Here then we have one religion in all ages; I profess it. I sacrifice my private judgment to it whenever it speaks; I use my private judgment only in accidental details, where it does not speak, or to determine what it speaks."36 In 1840 Newman simply could not locate the concrete contemporary manifestation of that church.

Even as Newman moved toward Roman Catholicism, the uncertainly of his vision continued. On December 29, 1844, he declared to John Keble, "No one can have a more unfavorable view than I of the present state of the Roman Catholics - so much so, that any who join them would be like the Cistercians of Fountains, living under trees till their house was built."37 Keble, himself deeply sensitive to Newman's ecclesiastical skepticism, had asked him earlier that same year, "Do you not think it possible ... that the whole Church may be so lowered by sin as to hinder one's finding on earth anything which seems really to answer to the Church of the Saints? and will it not be well to prepare yourself for disappointment, lest you fall into something like scepticism?"38 Within a year Newman did join the Roman Catholic Church, but there always existed a restlessness in his relationship to that institution, especially as it changed so rapidly during his years therein and as he confronted one difficulty after another with its bishops and other ecclesiastical authorities. Newman's perfectionist ecclesiology haunted him all his days as he continued to wait for the Roman Catholic Church to live up to his expectations and highest aspirations, never certain that it would or perhaps even could. His true church always remained a vision in the mist.

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