Budding Hopes and Sudden Storms:Newman’s Beatification and Rage Against the Church

Editorial FAITH Magazine July-August 2010

Why this tumult among nations, among peoples this useless murmuring? They arise, the kings of the earth, princes plot against the Lord and his Anointed. 'Come, let us break their fetters, come, let us cast off their yoke'. (Psalm 2)

The Papal Visit and Newman's Prophetic Insight

On 19 September Pope Benedict will beatify John Henry Cardinal Newman during a Mass planned to take place in Birmingham. It will be a unique and significant moment for Catholicism in these islands as the authority of the Apostolic office is invoked on English soil to proclaim the heroic virtue of a truly great Englishman and the fruitfulness of devotion to him.

Over 150 years ago in the chapel at Oscott where the Pope will, God-willing, have his parting colloquium with the Bishops of England and Wales, Newman celebrated the re-establishment of the Catholic hierarchy in this country. It was on that occasion that he preached his famous "Second Spring" sermon. It is easy to forget that this image was not just of joyful return, but also a premonition that it might be an

"... English Spring, an uncertain, anxious time of hope and fear, of joy and suffering, - of bright promise and budding hopes, yet withal, of keen blasts, and cold showers, and sudden storms."

He warned that

"... in proportion to God's grace is the fury of His enemies ... [but] the more the enemy rages against us, so much the more will the Saints in Heaven plead for us."

He would have understood from his deep knowledge of history that the most painful persecutions of the Church come from failures and betrayals within, as Pope Benedict pointedly observed in Fatima recently. Newman would also have understood how eagerly the enemies of truth seize on the sins of Christians and use them as a stick to beat the poor Body of Christ. The precise form of attack is different in every generation however, so we are ever unprepared for the dismay and heartache caused. Yet the grace given to meet each crisis is equally unexpected and even more powerful.

Anger at The Church and Rage Against God

The media reporting about the scandals afflicting many parts of the Church is not just fuelled by rightful anger at clerical scandals and abuses, but has been "metastasised into a full-scale assault on Catholicism itself" as George Weigel puts it. This is not just a Catholic viewpoint. In April Peter Hitchens spoke of an "ill-informed frenzy of rage against the Roman Catholic Church (to which I don't belong)". Ed Koch, the Mayor of New York argued in The Jerusalem Times that "the procession of articles on the same events are, in my opinion, no longer intended to inform, but simply to castigate". And the humanist blogger Brendan O'Neill drew attention to the real motivation of some of his fellow atheists:

"Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, unwittingly reveals what draws the new atheists towards the Catholic-abuse story: ... 'Odious as the physical abuse of children by priests undoubtedly is, I suspect that it may do them less lasting damage than the mental abuse of bringing them up Catholic in the first place',[http://richarddawkins.net/articles/118?page=2]. ... They exaggerate the extent of Catholic sexual abuse in order to strengthen their prejudicial arguments." www.spiked-online.com

In a subsequent post he delved a little deeper into the new secularist mindset:

"The contemporary pope-hunting springs from a secularist movement which feels incapable of asserting a sense of purpose or meaning in any positive, human-centred way - as the great atheists of old such as Marx or Darwin might have done - and which instead can only assert itself negatively, in contrast to the 'evil' of religion, by posturing against the alleged wickedness of institutionalised faith. It is the inner emptiness, directionless and soullessness of contemporary secularism ... which has given birth to the bizarre clamour for the pope's head."

Revelation and Faith at the Heart of Being Human

Edward Holloway commented that "Newman could see where the road would end before others had divined what was around the first corner" {Faith editorial March 1988). This came from his grasp of the impact of philosophical scepticism in society and the anti-dogmatic spirit in religion. These insights were in turn based on two key convictions which he held respectively about the nature of man and his fallen state.

First: human nature is constituted in need of revelation as our proper mode of illumination and inner growth to fulfilment.

In August 1816, at the age of 15, Newman fell ill and his father lost his job, which also threatened his own education. A kindly adult lent him some Calvinist books which he read looking for consolation in the midst of that personal crisis. It was then that he began to take his Christian faith seriously, experiencing an inner conviction which allowed him, as he put it at the beginning of his Apologia, "to rest in the thought of two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator." In 1817 he was to describe "the reality of conversion; cutting at the root of doubt, providing a link between God and the soul. I know I am right. How do I know? I know I know."

He "had attained to the certitude he was to analyse one day in the Grammar of Assent" as Ian Ker remarks in his biography. In this latter work (1870) he developed his conviction that all certitude rests upon personal and moral evidences, not just the links in a logical chain of reasoning. Faith is not the negation of reason, therefore, but its fulfilment. Revelation does not oppress the human intellect but illuminates it so as to be able to lay hold of transcendent Truth, which it naturally seeks but can only supernaturally attain. The most personal and most fulfilling knowledge for man comes not from philosophical deduction, always the preserve of the few, but from "obedience to the laws of his nature".

For Newman, all practical reasoning involves a kind of faith.

"... to act you must assume, and that assumption is faith ... [Religion] has ever been synonymous with revelation. It never has been a deduction from what we know; it has ever been an assertion of what we are to believe. It has never lived in a conclusion; it has ever been a message, a history, or a vision." {Grammar of Assent c.4)

"The Wild, Living Intellect of Man"

The second conviction that informs Newman's prophetic insight is that since the Fall we have an inveterate tendency to rebel against dogmatic authority. Revelation appears at times as a corrective pedagogy, checking our freedom and limiting our self determination. By 1850 he had noticed this tendency even among Catholic acquaintances of his day, albeit subdued by grace:

"Each mind naturally is self-willed, self-dependent, self-satisfied; and except so far as grace has subdued it, its first impulse is to rebel. Now this tendency, through the influence of grace, is not often exhibited in matters of faith; for it would be incipient heresy, and would be contrary, if knowingly indulged, to the first element of Catholic duty; but in matters of conduct, of ritual, of discipline, of politics, of social life, in the ten thousand questions which the Church has not formally answered, even though she may have intimated her judgment, there is a constant rising of the human mind against the authority of the Church, and of superiors, and that, in proportion as each individual is removed from perfection. ... the human mind ... with every question, and wanders overheaven and earth, except so far as the authority of the Divine Word, as a superincumbent weight, presses it down, and restrains it within limits." {Difficulties of Anglicans)

Newman's journey into Catholicism (see James Tolhurst's article later in this issue) involved a deepening recognition of man's need for God's Word of authority, not least to arrest the "wild, living intellect of man ... that universal solvent which is so successfully acting upon religious establishments."

In 1879 he began his speech on receiving the Cardinal's hat by saying,

"For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of Liberalism in religion. Never did Holy

Church need champions against it more sorely than now, when alas it is an error overspreading, as a snare, the whole earth."

In this Biglietto oration he argued that this erroneous

"... spirit [is] sweeping into its own ranks great numbers of able, earnest, virtuous men ... the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that 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 ... In my own country ... it threatens to have a formidable success; though it is not easy to see what will be its ultimate issue."

In 1873 at the opening of St Bernard's seminary in Warwickshire, he had warned that this same "spirit of infidelity" would undermine that luminous relationship between the individual and God which he had grasped as a teenager. He saw a society slowly taking shape in which the majority did not give assent to God's existence "absolutely, but as a probability" and he noted ominously that "Christianity has never yet had experience of a world simply irreligious". Although he could not intuit its details, Newman called it a "great apostasy".

The Great Apostasy

That simply irreligious society is all around us now. As Newman predicted, it is one in which "the Philosophers and Politicians are bent on [maintaining law and order] without the aid of Christianity". Although he did acknowledge that

"... there is much in the liberalistic theory which is good and true; for example, not to say more, the precepts of justice, truthfulness, sobriety, self-command, benevolence, which, as I have already noted, are among its avowed principles ... It is not till we find that this array of principles is intended to supersede, to block out, religion, that we pronounce it to be evil. There never was a device of the Enemy so cleverly framed and with such promise of success." {Biglietto speech)

The 'liberal' stance can have a certain appeal, claiming to allow everyone to live as they please so long as no group imposes their will on others. In this light a religion founded on revealed truth and absolute moral values can seem narrow minded and disruptive of the liberal settlement. But this is where relativism begins to contradict itself. In order to be consistent the proposition that 'there is no absolute truth' must itself be held to be absolutely true, and social authority must be invoked to enforce the rule of liberalism. Opinions are increasingly monitored, language is policed, books are banned, thought crimes are prosecuted, movements outlawed - and so 'liberalism' itself becomes authoritarian and proscriptive, only without any transcendent authority to restrain, reform orcall it to ultimate judgment.

What Is Man? The Need for Revelation

We cannot escape the need for Truth. Yet how do we access objective and trustworthy truths adequate to answer the question that is man?

Last May Pope Benedict called for an answer to this and our culture's "scepticism and relativism - or, in simpler, clearer words, the exclusion of the two sources that orient the human journey; ... namely nature and revelation." In a reverberation of the Grammar of Assent themes outlined above he argued that we need

"to recover a true concept of Nature as the Creation of God that speaks to us ... and also ... that the book of Creation, in which God gives us our fundamental orientation, is deciphered in Revelation, which is endorsed in cultural and religious history ..." (to the Italian Bishops, see our Road from Regensburg column).

We cannot escape the need for authoritative revelation which speaks clearly across the ages. We can show this even more coherently than in Newman's time, and we need to.

Through trial and error, and much thought, the natural universe has revealed itself to us as an ordered cosmos of interrelated energies and entities. We find it to be woven from top to bottom with truth and purpose. Every material thing finds its identity and its law of life in a relationship of dependence with the environment that is proper to it. Yet we do not find the complete answer to ourselves by reading the book of Nature.

What of our own meaning, identity and destiny? What is the environment that is proper to the restless spirit of man? We must look for and expect the answer to that question to come from the one Absolute to which every relativity is relative.

"Since man requires his proper nurture and determination unto fulfilment as much as lesser beings, the control and direction of man by God is a necessity that is of the nature of created being. It must also be the expectation of Science, for everything in the universe is held within the Unity-Law of Control and Direction ... The being of man comes just as rigidly under the Law of relativity unto finality, but man is not relative only to matter, man is relative to God. ... That is why in man, and through man, the Law of Control and Direction ... passes into a new order in which God in Person is the principle of the Law, the centre of the determination to fulfilment. God takes up the Law into Himself, becoming to man the environment, or better the Environer." (Edward Holloway,Catholicism p.107)

The relationship in which God reveals himself to humanity in and through all that is human comes to perfection in the Incarnation. So the truth revealed and the law given is actually not an alien imposition but a Word and a Law that perfects and liberates our own nature. "I have come that you may have life and have it to the full" (John 10,1-10 ); "My yoke is easy, my burden is light" (Matthew 11,30).

Yet due to the disaster and enduring wound of sin, the impact of God upon man will also be an urgent call to choose life not death; it will include stern correction, medicinal grace and redemptive drama. All these aspects of the Divine Environing and Authority must be present in the Church that flows from the Incarnation of God among men and they must make their claim upon the consciences of men in every age, including our own. This is the choice, this is the crisis, this is the root cause of the rage and tumult among the nations concerning revealed religion.

"The Church ... extends his [Christ's] personality and his salvific work through time ... If the plenitude of the work of Christ passes over to the apostles ... then the communication to men from the Church of Christ is the fullness and certainty of the intellect of God in Jesus Christ, which is to say the fullness and certainty of infallible truth."

Magisterium: The Impact of the Divine

This last quote is from Edward Holloway's editorial article in Faith for March 1988 in which he also reviewed Newman's prophetic warning about the spread of intellectual liberalism within the Church. Newman saw that

"... the emphasis upon orthopraxis - good will - and the minimalising of orthodoxy - the rule of faith - was in fact the philosophy of the priority of the will over the intellect and that such a path, without the corrective of an authority and an intellect superior to the will of man, would slowly but surely disintegrate the unity and the fullness of Christian truth. Today we are at the very end of that road of personal opinion and personal interpretation of the Mind of God. It has passed beyond the reliance upon one's own opinion of the meaning and worth of the Bible, whether as book or as a tradition. The very being and Divinity of Christ is now subject to a Christian's own evaluation of who He was, what He was and what is the content of the 'divine' itself.

"Today, in all Christian Communions, the emphasis in pastoral life and equally in the liturgical prayers is upon 'love'; upon love, courage, service and very rarely upon truth as the Light of God. This was not the emphasis of Jesus Christ. It was the Word - the Personal term of the divine Self Knowledge - who was made flesh and was the Light of the world. Before Pilate too, our Lord's answer to 'So you are a King then?' was 'Yes: I am a King, for this was I born, for this I came into the world that I should give witness to the truth; everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice' (John 18.37).

"It is not only in the non-Catholic Churches that this emphasis upon the truth has been deliberately laid aside.  In the pastoral life of the Catholic Church too, there is a weary emphasis upon 'love' without any clear identity of the nature and characteristics of Christian loving. It is the 'Church Horizontal' without any corrective of the 'Church Vertical'. A desert is a horizontal landscape and so is the soul of man without the clear delineation of the truths which alone give form, vigour and beauty to Christian love."


The immediate and very necessary concern to purify and reform the Church on the moral, spiritual, juridical and pastoral levels ought not to distract us from the wider battle with the forces of secularism that seek to do away with claims of revelation and divine authority altogether.

The very idea of revelation is seen as offensive because it entails the thought of a transcendent order of good and evil. A society that chooses its own, ultimately arbitrary, standard of good and evil, easily abandons any notion of truth in favour of expediency and intellectual fashion. Such a culture is inevitably alarmed, even threatened, by the thought of a transcendent God, especially of a God who has entered into the most profound personal communion with our world so as to take our very nature to himself.

The Pope is the ultimate and often the most lonely witness to the truth of God Incarnate, our only true Teacher. The Pope and what he represents is a sign of contradiction to a self-sufficient, secularist vision of Man, but the truth to which he witnesses is also our consolation and our source of hope. For that Truth is the very Wisdom of God who is the Light of the World, and, as the Word made Flesh, also the template of our own nature.

We expect the voices of rage and anti-Catholic fury to rise to a new crescendo as the Papal visit approaches, but we should not be afraid to use the occasion to explain to our own people and to a sceptical world the need for Divine Revelation and the meaning of Magisterium as it flows from the mystery of the Incarnation.

Especially in the light of failures among the brethren and of our own sins we will have to explain all this to the world with great humility and with no triumphalism. For it is not our own truth that we proclaim. We are servants and messengers, inadequate vessels of an amazing grace that has been entrusted to us for the sake of others. Yet to fail to proclaim that truth would be an even greater dereliction of duty.

Late on in his life Newman asked, "Are her ministers by their silence to bring upon themselves the Prophet's anathema, 'Cursed is he that doth the work of the Lord deceitfully'?" [Grammar 5.2]

Faith Magazine

July - August 2010