"My Own Bishop Was My Pope..." John Henry Newman On Magisterium

James Tolhurst FAITH Magazine July-August 2010

Fr James Tolhurst roots Cardinal Newman's understanding of ecclesial magisterium in Newman's experiences as a Church of England priest. Fr Tolhurst is the General Editor of the Newman Millennium Edition (Gracewing and Notre Dame).

As Newman is always being quoted as a vindicator of the human conscience, it is instructive to see how he viewed the episcopal authority which was placed over him when he was a member of the Church of England and in particular with reference to the government's role in the question of the Irish episcopacy and the foundation of a bishopric in Jerusalem. It developed into a recognition of the papal magisterium.

The Irish Bishops

The Tractarian movement - which could be said to have begun with Keble's Assize Sermon on July 14,1833 - was prompted by the forthcoming Irish Temporalities Bill going through parliament. This aimed to reduce the Protestant Irish sees by ten, and tax the higher income incumbents to pay for the Churches. The Tractarians regarded this as an assault on the episcopacy and indirectly on the concept of apostolic succession. Keble wrote in Tract 4,

"For many years, we have been much in the habit of resting our claim on the general order of submission to authority, of decency, and order, of respecting precedents long established, instead of appealing to that warrant, which makes us exclusively God's ambassadors."[1]

The Tractarians elected to ignore the fact that the Protestant hierarchy in Ireland was grossly overmanned - at the expense of the indigenous Catholics. They chose to put the emphasis high-mindedly on the Episcopal structure itself and appealed to scriptural foundation. As Newman put it, "I fear that we have neglected the true ground on which our authority is founded, our apostolical succession."[2] This was overlaid increasingly by the support of patristical evidence. A writer in The British Magazine would appeal to the spirit of St Ambrose :

Oh, for the rod of ancient discipline!
Unheeded and unheeding o'er the plain
They wander shepherdless - are caught and slain,
With none to help! Oh for a sacred sign
Of pastoral severity benign!
Spirit of noble Ambrose, wake again![3]

The choice of Ambrose is significant, as he defied the Arian Emperor Valentinian and his second wife Justina when they demanded the surrender of the Portian basilica of St Victor. Ambrose quoted Naboth (I Kings 21) who shed his blood rather than give up his inheritance, "Shall he refuse his own vineyard and we surrender the Church of Christ ...let the Emperor act as an Emperor; he shall rob me of my life sooner than of my fidelity."[4]

Resisting Error

Newman argued for a practical expression of episcopal authority in a revival of the Convocations of York and Canterbury (prorogued since 1717) and of the exercise of excommunication. It was a case that "there should be some

(really working) court of heresy and false doctrine."[5] The civil authority may seem to be in command but "they will kick the Church for a while and exult over it, but the time will come when it will rouse its sleeping strength - the gift of excommunication will not for ever remain unused. If I were a Bishop, the first thing I should do would be excommunicate Lord Grey and half a dozen more"[6] The Tractarians caught up in their enthusiasm seemed always to trust that the Bishop Proudies who occupied the episcopal bench would somehow be transformed into Ambrose or Athanasius.

When Newman began to research the Fathers of the Church for his book on the Arian crisis, he noted how the early Church dealt with heresy, and in particular the role of Rome. He records of Praxeas, an exponent of Patripassianism, "Meeting there with that determined resistance which honourably distinguishes the primitive Roman Church in its dealings with heresy, he (Praxeas) retired into Africa, and there, as founding no sect, he was soon forgotten."[7] Newman would like the local bishops to act in the same way, but he was not holding his breath. He would write to Bowden, "As to the state of the Church, I suppose it was in a far worse condition in Arian times, except in one point you mention, that there was the possibility of true-minded menbecoming Bishops, which is now almost out of the question. If we had one Athanasius or Basil, we could bear with twenty Eusebiuses, though Eusebius was not at all the worst of the bad."[8]

The Jerusalem Bishopric

The problem was brought to a head by the second episcopal crisis in the guise of a Jerusalem Bishopric. This scheme proposed in 1840 by Frederick William IV of Prussia and his minister plenipotentiary in London, Chevalier Bunsen, was for England and Prussia in turn to nominate to the See, with the incumbent subscribing to the Confession of Augsburg. The scheme rapidly gained the support of Palmerston and of Archbishop Howley of Canterbury and Blomfield of London. Gladstone considered that this was an effort on the part of the bishops to counteract the supposed excesses of the Tractarian party by presenting to the public mind a telling idea of catholicity in some other form."[9]

Newman was horrified. He confided to Pusey, "We have leant on the Bishops, and they have broken under us."[10] He reflected, later in the Apologia, "The Anglican Church might have the Apostolical Succession, as had the Monophysistes; but such acts as were in progress led me to the gravest suspicion, not that it would soon cease to be a church, but that, since the sixteenth century it had never been a church all along."[11] This was from a priest who would say, "A Bishop's highest word ex cathedra is heavy."[12] Newman would later comment "My own Bishop was my Pope; I knew no other; the successor of the Apostles, the Vicar ofChrist."[13]

It was a question of having the authority to proclaim the truth and of vigorously resisting liberalism and error. The "shadow" which was the Roman Church began to stretch ever further. At the same time, Newman came across the article in the August 1839 Dublin Review on the "Anglican Claim of Apostolical Succession" by Dr Wiseman which drew the parallel with the Donatists, and the phrase of St Augustine, securus iudicat orbis terrarum [The universal Church is in its judgments secure of truth]. Newman would write to his sister, "I begin to have serious apprehensions lest any religious body is strong enough to withstand the league of evil but the Roman Church. At the end of the first millenary it withstood the fury of Satan, and now the end of the second is drawingon."[14] The inevitable conclusion was that "every sort of heresy is tolerated but there is an instinctive shudder at anything Catholic."[15]

The Place of Rome

When Newman came to write his Essay on the Development of Doctrine, he makes the point that "the absolute need of a spiritual authority is at present the strongest argument in favour of its supply."[16] Thus, Newman's high regard for his own bishop is transmuted into a regard for the real authority exercised by the Catholic episcopate, and for the occupant of the Holy See. In his magisterial account of the history of Christianity, Diarmaid MacCulloch balks at the concept of magisterium which he says "had since the nineteenth century stealthily acquired a technical theological meaning as 'authoritative teaching', peculiarly thanks to Pius Xll's propensity to deploy it." In the case of John Paul II, "The Pope was determined to teachCatholics what Catholicism was about and was also determined to stop anyone else telling them something different."[17]

Behind the argument lies the uncomfortable feeling that there is an authoritative teaching which dares to confront what Newman termed the "wild, living intellect of man" as well as acting against "that universal solvent which is so successfully acting upon religious establishments."[18] When writing to Henry Wilberforce, Newman would say, "There is a great virtue in a Pope - it is something to fall back on. It is a present avenger of the champions of truth. St Athanasius found it so in his day - and lesser and little men have found it ever since. There was I in the English Church with nothing to support me - no basis. I say I can do anything if I have some authority - give me liturgy, or articles, or Bishop or Caroline Divine, or Canons -but all is against me - but here laity may be secularised and ecclesiastics timid, but there is the infallible, keen-sighted, unwearied, undaunted, tribunal in the background, undaunted amid all worldly troubles and reverses, to inspire a salutary awe into the shufflers and to animate Christ's little ones."[19]

Much has been made of Newman's reluctance to an extension of papal infallibility which would exact from all the faithful, "the most unreserved submission to whatever they might decree."[20] However Newman always considered "If the whole of Christendom is to form one Kingdom, one head is essential; at least this is the experience of eighteen hundred years. As the Church grew into form, so did the power of the Pope develop; and wherever the Pope has been renounced, decay and division have been the consequence. We know of no other way of preserving the Sacramentum Unitatis, but a centre of unity."[21]

The papacy is the final guarantee as well as the centre of unity within a believing Church preserved in truth. Newman commented to Arnold in 1876, "I think the people are the matter and the hierarchy the form, and that both together make up the Church. If you object that this virtually throws the initiative and the decision of questions into the hands of the clergy this is but an internal peculiarity of the Catholic religion. The Anglican Church is also made up of a like form and matter; though here in consequence of the genius of Anglicanism, the power of matter predominate."[22]

It is a question of facing facts, "We must take things as they are; to believe in a Church is to believe in the Pope. And thus this belief in the Pope and in his attributes, which seems so monstrous to Protestants, is bound up with our being Catholics at all."[23] As far as conscience was concerned, "Revelation consists in the manifestation of the Invisible Divine Power, or in the substitution of the voice of a Lawgiver for the voice of conscience. The supremacy of conscience is the essence of natural religion; the supremacy of the Apostle, or Pope, or Church, or Bishop is the essence of revealed."[24] Moor and Cross were quite mistaken when they wrote that "one gets the impression that[Newman's] fundamentalism was in fact symptomatic of a deep-seated craving for the support of an absolute external authority, which, from the beginning and despite all his protests, he was dimly conscious of needing for his faith."[25] It was an entirely objective assessment of the state of affairs that drove Newman to seek that episcopal authority where historically it had existed and where in the present, it could be found exercised. Pope Benedict in his address to the English and Welsh bishops said recently, "It is the truth revealed through Scripture and Tradition and articulated by the Church's Magisterium that sets us free. Cardinal Newman realised this and he left us an outstanding example of faithfulness to revealed truthby following that 'kindly light' wherever it led him, even at considerable personal cost."[26]


[1] Tract 4 p. 1.
[2] Tract 1 p. 2 (by Newman).
[3] "Disciplina Externa" British Magazine April 1835 p. 406.
[4] Historical Sketches I pp. 355-6.
[5] To R H Froude 10 January 1835 (Letters & Diaries = LD)LD V p. 10.
[6] To J W Bowden 20 August 1833 LD IV p. 32.
[7] Arians of the Fourth Century p. 117.
[8] To J W Bowden 31 August 1833 LD I p. 33.
[9] Lathbury Letters on Church and Religion of W.E. Gladstone Vol 1 p, 229.
[10] Liddon HP Life of E B Pusey Vol 2 p. 237.
[11] Apologia p. 143.
[12] To Archdeacon Clerke 17 August 1838 LD VI p. 290.
[13] Apologia p. 56.
[14] To Mrs J Mozley 25 February 1840 LD VII p. 325.
[15] To E L Badeley 28 August 1844 LD X pp 318-9.
[16] Essay on The Development of Doctrine (1846 edition) p. 127.
[17] A History of Christianity Allen Lane London 2009 p. 995.
[18] Apologia p. 245.
[19] 1 January 1849 LD XIII pp 4-5.
[20] T F Knox's letter in Dublin Review 11 pp 315-6.
[21] Essay on The Development of Doctrine (1878 edition) pp. 154-5.
[22] 3 January 1876 LD XXVIII p. 6.
[23] Difficulties of Anglicans Vol 2 p. 208.
[24] Essay on The Development of Doctrine (1846 edition) p. 124.
[25]More. P.E and Cross F.L Anglicanism SPCK 1962 p. xxxi.
[26] 1st February 2010 Vatican Press Office.

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