Lesson 11: Liberalism as the Enemy

The great enemy against which Newman fought, the chosen enemy of the Oxford Movement, was Liberalism, characterized as the anti-dogmatic principle. One could piece together from the constant references to it in the Apologia what Newman meant by Liberalism. But there is no need to do this. He provided an Appendix in which he explained with consummate clarity what he meant by the term, and what he did not mean.

He begins by noting that merely calling Liberalism the anti-dogmatic principle is insufficient. Moreover, Newman is concerned lest his criticism of Liberalism be understood to be directed against such fellow Catholics as Montalembert and Lacordaire. "If I hesitate to adopt their language about Liberalism, I impute the necessity of such hesitation to some differences between us in the use of words or in the circumstances of country..." Newman had attacked Liberalism while he himself was a Protestant and did not have internal Catholic emphases in mind. He does remark wryly that he was inconsistent as a Protestant to take exception to Liberalism and similarly Lacordaire is inconsistent as a Catholic to call himself a liberal.

These opening paragraphs merely clear away possible misunderstanding. Newman could have little doubt that what he meant by Liberalism is incompatible with Catholicism. And what now beyond its being anti-dogmatic does he mean by Liberalism?

He begins with reminisces of Oxford, the reform of the university and the attitude of the men of Oriel among whom he was numbered. The Oriel Noetics considered themselves the elite of the university and had a tendency to look down on others who did not share their views. This elite formed a party that looked forward to future influence in the country and in the Church. They laid them open to ambition and what seemed to others that spiritual evil, the "pride of reason." "'Nor was this imputation altogether unjust; for, as they were following out the proper idea of a University, of course they suffered more or less from the moral malady incident to such a pursuit. The very object of such great institutions lies in the cultivation of the mind and the spread of knowledge: if his object, as all human objects, has its dangers at all times, much more would these exist in the case of men, who were engaged in a fork of reformation, and had the opportunity of measuring themselves, not only with those who were their equals in intellect, but with many, who were below them. In this select circle or class of men, in various Colleges, the direct instruments and the choice fruit of real University Reform, we see the rudiments of the Liberal Party.'" It is as if Newman is seeking the origins of the churchmen who would later oppose the Oxford Movement and would make it impossible for Newman to continue as a member of the university. Intellectual pride, the sense of not being like the rest of men, members of an elite - it is here that Newman locates the origins of Liberalism. "'Liberty of thought is in itself a good; but it gives an opening to false liberty. Now by Liberalism I mean false liberty of thought, or the exercise of thought upon matters, in which, from the constitution of the human mind, thought cannot be brought to any successful issue, and there is out of place.'" We need only check our own reaction to this passage to sense the continuing influence of what Newman is attacking. Something of which we are not free to question or inquire into, something beyond the capacity of the human mind! Does this not perhaps sound like obscurantism to us? But what exactly does Newman number among the things from which freedom of thought is debarred? "'Among such matters are first principles or whatever kind; and of these the most sacred and momentous are especially to be reckoned the truths of Revelation. Liberalism then is the mistake of subjecting to human judgment those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it, and of claiming to determine on intrinsic grounds the truth and value of propositions which rest for their reception simply on the external authority of the Divine Word.'" Two things, then, or rather a class of things and then the most important instance of it. First principles. That is, self-evident truths, such as the principle of contradiction. Of course Newman does not mean that the mind does not reflect on such starting points. But they are starting points which, reflection reveals, can only be accepted. They cannot be proved. The defense of them is only indirect, which comes to showing that acceptance of them is inescapable. But it is the first principles of faith, revealed truths, that are Newman's main concern and the Liberalism that stirs him to opposition is approaching revealed truth as if it were simply another proposal for reason to appraise and assess. In the time of which he is writing, the years before and after 1820, no one would have accepted the tendency Newman is discerning. "They would have protested against their being supposed to place reason before faith, or knowledge before devotion; yet I do consider that they unconsciously encouraged and successfully introduced into Oxford a license of opinion which went far beyond them."

The tendency was opposed by others, not least by Newman's friend John Keble. In these opening pages on Liberalism, Newman provides us with a portrait of Keble which is meant to be in stark contrast to that of the incipient liberals he has been describing. "'Keble was a man who guided himself and formed his judgments, not by processes of reason, by inquiry or by argument, but, to use the word in a broad sense, by authority. Conscience is an authority; the Bible is an authority; such is the Church; such is Antiquity; such are the words of the wise; such are hereditary lessons; such are ethical truths; such are historical memories; such are legal saws and state maxims; such are proverbs; such are sentiments, presages, and prepossessions. It seemed to me as if he ever felt happier, when he could speak or act under some such primary or external sanction; and could use argument mainly as a means of recommending or explaining what had claims on his reception prior to proof. He even felt a tenderness, I think, in spite of Bacon, for the Idols of the Tribe and the Den, of the Market and the Theater. What he hated instinctively was heresy, insubordination, resistance to things established, claims of independence, disloyalty, innovation, a critical censorious spirit.'" Once more we can test the influence on ourselves of what Newman is opposing. Call this a portrait of a conservative, if you will, but in what has preceded and in the allusion to Francis Bacon, one can see that for Newman the alternative to Keble is the deracinated man, the autonomous individual, the solitary intellect that is a blank slate and must make sense of the world ab ovo, one without a family or antecedents, without an upbringing or a culture, without a tradition in which he lives and in which the world and himself have become familiar to him. All that is to be swept away and the untrammeled to roam freely over what is left of the terrain. The alternative to Keble is the false freedom that ultimately enslaves.

Much of this lay in the future, or course, and Newman is being as prophetic as he is being descriptive. At the same time, he was characterizing those who eventually drove him from Oxford. He had been asked to reconsider that judgment, but says he cannot. "I cannot modify these statements. It is surely a matter of historical fact that I left Oxford upon the University proceedings of 1841." He remarks that not a single Liberal came to his defense.

It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of these pages of Appendix A of the Apologia which lead up to summarizing Liberalism in 18 propositions. They function as Quanta cura to Lamentabili, so to say.

1. No religious tenet is important, unless reason shows it to be so.

2. No one can believe what he does not understand.

3. No theological doctrine is any thing more than an opinion which happens to be held by bodies of men.

4. It is dishonest in a man to make an act of faith in what he has not had brought home to him by actual proof.

5. It is immoral in a man to believe more than he can spontaneously receive as being congenial to his moral and mental nature.

6. No revealed doctrines or precepts may reasonably stand in the way of scientific conclusions.

7. Christianity is necessarily modified by the growth of civilization, and the exigencies of times.

8. There is a system of religion more simply true than Christianity as it has ever been received.

9. There is a right of Private Judgment; that is, there is no existing authority on earth competent to interfere with the liberty of individuals in reasoning and judging for themselves about the Bible and its contents, as they severally please.

10. There are rights of conscience such, that every one may lawfully advance a claim to profess and teach what is false and wrong in matters, religious, social, and moral, provided that to his private conscience it seems absolutely true and right.

These ten (of the eighteen) propositions may be said to sum up what Newman opposed as theological Liberalism. After each of these he might have appended that let him who espouse this anathema sit, in the manner of ecumenical councils prior to Vatican II. Far from fading from the science, many of these remained the cliches of the rationalist opponent of religious belief. And of course there were believers who sought to accommodate the charge, to grant it, in effect, and thereby void religious belief of its substance.

We cited in a previous lesson Newman's remark in the Apologia that in true logic the choice was between Atheism and Catholicism. The context of the remark enables us to see what he had in mind. But he returned to it in December 1880 in a note appended to the Grammar of Assent. His further explanation, read with the condemnation of Liberalism fresh in our minds, is instructive.

Of course some readers were astonished to be told that the only possible alternative to Catholicism is Atheism. Newman at first seems to be about to withdraw the remark. What he does is propose the parallel of Bishop Butler "that there is no consistent standing or logical medium between the acceptance of the Gospel and the denial of a Moral Governor." What Butler means is that, if the arguments brought against Natural Religion are fatal to it, they are equally fatal to Christianity.

What Newman wishes to say is that Theism puts one on a path that leads to Catholicism and that denial of Catholicism puts one on a path that leads to Atheism. "'...there is a certain ethical character, one and the same, a system of first principles, sentiments and tastes, a mode of viewing the question and of arguing, which is formally and normally, naturally and divines, the organum investigandi given us for gaining religious truth, and which would lead the mind by an infallible succession from the rejection of atheism to theism, and from theism to Christianity, and from Christianity to Evangelical Religion, and from these to Catholicity. And again when a Catholic is seriously wanting in this system of thought, we cannot be surprised if he leaves the Catholic Church, and then in due time gives up religion altogether.'"

That is what he meant when he said that he is a Catholic for the reason he is not an atheist.

Suggested Reading

Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. Note II. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979.


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