Holloway on… John Henry Newman and the Church as Communion in God Part I

Holloway on… John Henry Newman and the Church as Communion in God Part I

Edward Holloway


Newman was one of those spirits both blest and cursed, who could tolerate no mediocrity. His piercing intellect, at once analytic but capable of brilliant synthesis, cut through every trace of unconscious humbug—in others but most of all in himself. “England”, said some graffiti scratched on a window of my room at St. Mary’s Hall Stonyhurst when a student, “is the paradise of little men and the purgatory of great ones”. John Henry Newman was not one who could drift contentedly along with the crowd as folk drift up to the Common to view a Fair; perhaps Vanity Fair, life’s own scene. He had more than mind; he was gifted with a sensitive and loving disposition. The first great formative experience of Christian Communion for him was a close and loving family circle. Men like Newman are destined to be cynics or saints; for Newman the compass needle of the Church’s judgement is swinging to the greater and much rarer achievement.
Communion as a quality of loving
At Oxford he developed in the experience of Christian friendship as more than a bond of nature. It became for him and unto others the formative loving of a mutual discipleship in Christ. It is not surprising that after the usual agonizing which marks all the big decisions of his life he offered himself for Holy Order. His Parochial and Plain Sermons need to be read to gauge the intense personality of the man. He was no mere academic, being too warm and too greatly human to stay beached simply on that strand. It has been many times remarked that Newman did not preach so much as deeply and earnestly converse a meditation to himself and with his people. It seems to have been at Littlemore, as Vicar of St. Mary’s, that Newman came to mature both in his profound appreciation of human nature, and also in the need for more, in the concept of the Church as a Communion, than he had taken from his Evangelical days, and the company of deep and earnest companions among such friends. Newman becomes aware, with a certain alarm, of the conscious and unconscious pride of the human mind, and the willfulness of the fallen will. His letters show us that even in his Oxford days Newman recognised the arrogance of the gifted mind, and the power of secularism already threatening the Church of England from the Liberal, rationalist movement at the universities. On the parish, he found in all sorts of conditions of people, especially those who he could recognise as manifestly less spiritually perfect, the same corrosive pride of human opinion set against the word of the Word of God.
Tensions of orthopraxis and orthodoxy
It is in his priestly ministry that he begins to question with some disquiet that priority of orthopraxis, right doing and living, over orthodoxy, right faith and doctrine, which the Evangelical mind unconsciously presumed. He found himself emphasizing the authority of Christ, the divine authority, to inculcate and to defend the fulness of the Christian inheritance, the Christian tradition. He begins to meditate that church order, and church authority, especially episcopal authority, is more than a useful external scaffolding which supports, but from the outside the building up of the Church of the Invisible Kingdom, the communion of holy souls, the chosen known only to God. Newman began to see that the emphasis upon orthopraxis, good will, and the minimalizing 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 fulness of Christian truth.
The church horizontal vs. the church vertical
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, 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.
Structure and Communion in the Church
Newman, so far ahead of his day in his thinking as well as the quality of his loving, came to see and to seek always more earnestly the divine, the higher, the transcendent truth which enobled the Christian intellect and gave truth and beauty to Christian love. Such an authority must go beyond the individual, and so the mind of Newman turned to the role of the churches among themselves as a Communion of teaching, of love, and of the certain formation of the soul. Almost at once he saw the role of the bishop, as the centre of unity—life, witness, truth, and love. The bishop must be, from his office, the centre and guarantor of the truth of Christ. He must be more than that. Newman had never seen office in the church as similar to office in the state or in the military forces. From his very temperament he had learned that Christian care is also a formation in the true and the good. Christian care is to another spirit what the sun is to the earth, a principle of both light and warmth, truth and love. Both must be together. Warmth without light generates growth without form and without fruit. Light that is cold illuminates a landscape, but no seed springs. The bishop to his people must be in a Communion of teaching and loving which holds the community of the diocese together. The authority of a parent is derived from his or her position as source and origin of life. A father teaches and loves, but authority is part of the very fruitfulness of both teaching and loving. A priest teaches and loves, but without an authority derived from his ministry of Order, there is no final, formative power. A bishop teaches and loves, rules and unites; but without an even greater authority of source as Father in the spirit, he is no different from any officer in state, or in commercial management.
How he discovered “The Fathers”
Newman was well aware that it was the life of Christ that lived within the Christian community, in every aspect from the cradle to the summit of the Church. The life and love of Christ moves upon us in mother and father, in priest unto people, bishop unto his priests and his flock, bishop unto bishop in the Communion of the Church “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.” The centre of this relationship must be in the life and love of Jesus Christ. The authority of Jesus the Christ must also reside within this Communion of Christian love, this koinonia of the human family around the Person of God Incarnate. If it were not so, Jesus, and his radiation through men membered to each other and to Him, would have less power to persuade, command and form the mind and heart than did a human father. If the corrosive willfulness of human opinion is not to destroy the very nature of Christ’s revelation and Christ’s communion with men, then the certainty of Christ’s authority must be as native to the Church, as it is to the office of father and mother in the Christian home.
So Newman was now engaged, quite feverishly as his letters and comments show, in the reading of the Fathers of the Church. He had seen for himself, almost as by personal revelation, what it must take in a bishop to hold the wayward heads and hearts of a flock. As he read the Fathers, all that he consciously and unconsciously sought he found in abundance. He found more than authority in the word; he found also the source of that authority in the life of the Christian Communion, around the Liturgies of Baptism and the Eucharist. He found the insistence on the word of the bishop, and the word of the bishops before him, deriving from apostolic continuity with the apostles themselves, and they with Christ, the enfleshing of God in person. He had found the meaning of Sacred Tradition as one with the Book, but the Mother of the Book.
Mystery as Deep and Reverent Communion
He found, as he read the beautiful musings of the Fathers, the sacraments as acts upon men of the Body of Christ, not symbols just or effective signs, but very acts of God Incarnate. Newman had found the meaning, as he says openly in his letters, of Mystery as deep and reverent communion with the Person of Jesus Christ: communion in wisdom and faith, communion in love and obedience, communion in repentance and healing. For Mystery means more than the unfathomable. Mystery is the knowing and loving upon a mother’s breast: the knowing and the loving of a child-mind, which does not comprehend all, but grows in comprehension and in fulness of joy as it grows in wisdom, age, and grace. The psalmist, inspired by the Holy Spirit had said the essential long before John Henry Newman or any great soul before him had struggled to such recognition of Mystery as the Communion with God perceived in love: “O Lord, my heart is not proud nor haughty my eyes. I have not gone after things too great, marvels beyond me. Truly, I have set my soul in silence and in peace. As a weaned child on its mother’s breast, even so my soul. O Israel, hope in the Lord: hope now and for ever!” (Ps. 131).
Mystery and Magisterium
So the bond of Christian Communion was a living link, building up much as the molecules do in the human body, from organ to organ, function to function, but ever integrated, always aspects of one truly bodily and living unity. There were no organic breaks, there was nothing secondary or incidental in the union of this common life. He perceived it and comments on it in the writings of the Fathers concerning the communion of their office with the people, and the communion of all, through the bishop with the Living Lord. Mystery, as Newman now realised, is reflected also in Magisterium. If the Church is a communion of the life and feeding of Christ, if the “feed on Him in your hearts” meant anything as an exhortation before the Holy Communion of the Eucharist, then it must be the divine mind and the divine good that ruled the mind and opinions of man. Newman has discovered, first from the Fathers, and then as he admits from the unique authority and prestige of Rome, the infallibility of the Church as teacher of the meanings of Christ. It certainly was not the infallibility of the Pope which drew Newman into the Church Catholic and Roman: it was the infallibility of the Church as the body, truly living and thinking body, of Christ. Of this body the Holy Spirit was the soul and the guide through the apostolic office. He has some beautiful passages in meditation upon this perception.
Newman on “The Pride of Life”
Newman’s power of synthesis, ability to project forward the consequences of thoughts and acts, allowed him also to project forward the consequences of disintegration, of human breakdown of the unity of the Divine. He had a profound grasp of the consequences of original sin in man as a lesion of nature and placed the heart of concupiscence where it should be, in the pride of life: above all in the willfulness of arrogant opinion, of “I’ll think and do as I like; as my own conscience tells me”. This becomes that which is anti-the Christ (1 John. 1:16-17).
He has a passage in the Difficulties of Anglicans which shows his devastating discernment as a thinker and as a spiritual director. It can be given here only in shortened form. For its full impact it must be read in the original: “The very moment the Church ceases to speak, at the very point that she, that is God who speaks by her, circumscribes her range of teaching, there private judgement starts up; there is nothing to hinder it. The intellect of man is active and independent: he forms opinions about everything; he feels no deference for another’s opinion, except in proportion as he thinks that other more likely than he to be right; and he never absolutely sacrifices his own opinion except when he is sure the other knows for certain. He is sure that God knows, therefore if he is a Catholic, he sacrifices his own opinion to God speaking through His Church . . . But again, human nature likes not only its own opinion, but its own way, and will have it whenever it can, except when hindered by physical or moral restraint. So far then as the Church does not compel her children to do one and the same thing . . . they will do different things; and still more so when she actually allows or commissions them to act for themselves, gives to certain persons or bodies privileges and immunities, and recognizes them as centres of combination, under her authority and within her pale. . . the natural tendency of the children of the Church as men, is to resist her authority. 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. . . 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 opinion, 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.” (Vol.1, pp.301-2)


Abridged from the Editorial in the March/April 1988 issue of Faith magazine. Fr. Holloway was reflecting on The Church … a Communion: In the Preaching and Thought of John Henry Newman (Gracewing, 1988) by Fr. James Tolhurst. Part II will be published in our next issue.

Faith Magazine

July / August 2018