Newman the prophet

It is widely expected that when Pope Benedict comes to England this year he will preside at a ceremony to mark the beatification of John Henry Newman. Apart from any notions of sanctity, Newman deserves the highest accolade – because he was quite simply the finest theologian and prose stylist of the nineteenth century.

But perhaps Newman’s most outstanding contribution was as a prophet. He saw clearly the way things were going in the Europe of the nineteenth century: that the great intellectual, spiritual battle was ‘between liberalism and Catholicism’. The fact that this confrontation continues to define our age is what makes Newman so pertinent to us. He said, ‘The tendency of the age is towards liberalism. But truly religion must be based on authority of some kind – not upon sentimentality. It is the church which is the only legitimate guarantor of religious truth. The liberals know this and are in every possible manner trying to break it up.’

What makes Newman such an inspired prophet is that he identified the root causes of secularization and saw how it would proceed. He said, ‘The Church’s highest praise is only that it admits a variety of opinions… But why should God speak unless he meant to say something? If there has been a revelation, then there must be some essential doctrine proposed by it. To suppose that all beliefs are equally true in the eyes of God, provided they are all sincerely held, is simply unreal and a mere dream of reason. A system of doctrine has arisen in which faith or spiritual-mindedness is contemplated and rested on as the end of religion and not Christ. And in this way religion is made to consist in contemplating ourselves instead of Christ. Faith and spiritual-mindedness are dwelt on as ends and obstruct the view of Christ. Poor miserable captives to whom such doctrine is preached as the Gospel!’

Of course when religion becomes like that, there is no religion and this is our tragedy today. Newman expressed in an exact paragraph what he calls ‘the Principle of Liberalism’: ‘That truth and falsehood in religion are but matters of opinion; that one doctrine is as good as another; that the Governor of the world does not intend that we should gain the truth; that there is no truth; that we are not more acceptable to God by believing this man than by believing that one; that no one is answerable for his opinions; that they are a matter of necessity or accident; that it is enough if we sincerely hold what we profess; that our merit lies in seeking, not in possessing; that it is a duty to follow what seems to us true; that it may be a gain to succeed, but can be no harm to fail; that we may take up and lay down opinions at pleasure; that we may safely trust to ourselves in matters of Faith and need no other guide.’

Peter Mullen

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