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Truth and Conscience with the Church’s Newest Saint

Saint John Henry Newman left the Anglican Church precisely because he wanted certitude in teachings on faith and morals

Tom Nash

His spiritual journey sought to reaffirm and reform the Anglican Church as an authentic branch of the “Holy Catholic Church” Jesus Christ founded. However, John Henry Newman’s odyssey led him to Rome, as he couldn’t help but conclude that Christ’s inerrant saving truth required a visible and infallible Church to safeguard it, and the only Church that could withstand historical scrutiny—including biblical exegesis—was the Catholic Church headed on earth by the Pope, the Vicar of Christ and Successor of St. Peter.

“To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant,” now-Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman succinctly and famously wrote in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, published in 1845, the same year he became a Catholic. And while Anglicans then and now see themselves as having Christian roots more ancient than the Protestant movement which began with Martin Luther in 1517, Newman correctly held they both had their origins in rejecting the teaching and governing authority Jesus first gave to Peter and his apostolic confreres (John 20:21; Matt. 28:18, 2:42).

Today in Rome, along with four holy women, Pope Francis canonized this illustrious convert, an erudite Anglican who couldn’t ignore reason, truth, and his own conscience, even when they kept leading him in a direction he was reluctant to go.

Born in London in 1801, Newman became an Anglican priest and ardent high churchman—believing that the Anglican episcopate, priesthood, and sacraments were rooted in the early Church. From 1833-41, he led the Oxford Movement, which endeavored to demonstrate “the intimate and unbroken connection between the primitive Church and the Church of England, and of the importance of the [early Church] Fathers as guides and teachers.”

Enlightened by the witness of the Fathers, Newman discerned in time that only a visible, God-given teaching authority—i.e., the Church’s Magisterium—could account for how throughout Church history God’s people were able to definitively distinguish doctrinal truth from heretical error, including in the interpretation of sacred Scripture. As Newman writes in On the Inspiration of Scripture (1884), rebellion against Rome had inevitably fostered ecclesiastical anarchy:

[The Bible’s divine] inspiration does but guarantee its truth, not its interpretation. How are private readers satisfactorily to distinguish what is didactic and what is historical, what is fact and what is vision, what is allegorical and what is literal, what is idiomatic and what is grammatical, what is enunciated formally and what occurs obiter [informally presented], what is only of temporary and what is of lasting obligation? Such is our natural anticipation, and it is only too exactly justified in the events of the last three centuries, in the many countries where private judgment on the text of Scripture has prevailed. The gift of inspiration has as its complement the gift of infallibility.

Protestants then and now counter that the Bible is the sole rule of faith, the only standard for apprehending God’s saving truth. They cite 2 Timothy 3:16-17 in particular to buttress their claim: “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

Newman responds in Inspiration that if “this passage proved anything, it would prove too much, viz., that the Scriptures of the New Testament were not necessary for a rule of faith” Why? Because the only Scripture both written and codified at the time of St Paul’s writing to Timothy were the Old Testament books. A good number of the New Testament books had not been written in Timothy’s boyhood (2 Tim. 3:14-15), and none had been placed in the New Testament canon. This further illustrates that the Bible not only requires an infallible Church to interpret it accurately, but the same Church to authoritatively determine which books belong in the Bible as divinely inspired writings and which, whatever edifying counsel they might otherwise provide, do not.

The last hurdle for Newman were the changes in Catholic teaching since the early Church. Were these invalid innovations, as Protestant leaders argue? Newman argues instead that they are authentic doctrinal developments, a deeper apprehension of the saving truths Christ first committed to his apostles, as what begins as an acorn blossoms over time to a full-grown oak.  In his introduction to Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, J.M. Cameron shows the deficiency of the Protestant position:

The argument is directed towards the Protestant critic of Tractarianism [i.e., the Oxford Movement] and in a simplified form goes like this. You criticize the Tractarians for teaching such doctrines as, for example, the Apostolic Succession of bishops or that the Eucharist is a sacrifice, and our criticism rests on the contention that these doctrines are not plainly and unambiguously contained in Scripture and may not indeed be in the Bible at all. I concede, goes the reply, that these doctrines are not to be found in the letter of Scripture or on its surface. But this is just as true of other doctrines you as an orthodox Protestant believe quite firmly; such doctrines as, let us say, the Godhead of the Holy Spirit, or that Holy Scripture contains all that is sufficient for salvation. Neither of these doctrines is contained on the surface of Scripture, and there would even be logical difficulties in supposing that Scripture contained the latter doctrine. It seems to me that you ought in consistency to believe less than you do or more than you do. If you confine yourself to what is what is contained in Scripture then the content of your belief will be thin and even incoherent and you will have not rationale for giving the Bible this supreme position. What you do, inconsistently, believe (for you are not, thank God, a Unitarian) is a warrant for your going further and adopting as your criterion the tradition of the first few centuries and using this tradition, embodied in the formularies of the Church, as that in the light of which Scripture is to be read and understood. You must either move upwards into Catholicism, or downwards into unbelief. There is no midway point of rest.

Despite Newman’s erudite defense of the Church’s Magisterium as the final arbiter regarding the deposit of faith (CCC 84-87), some people, especially in recent years, have attempted to employ Newman to argue that an individual’s conscience can exercise veto power over the primacy of the Magisterium. They cite Newman’s letter to the Duke of Norfolk in December 1874, in which he writes, “I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please—still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.”

However, an isolated and morally relativistic reading of this one letter would basically have Newman repudiate much of which he had labored long to discern and later defend about Catholicism. Indeed, he rejected classic Protestantism and departed the Anglican Church precisely because he wanted certitude in belief on faith and morals, because understanding and living God’s saving truth accurately is of vital importance.

Newman believed each disciple is subject to the law of God “written on their hearts” (Romans 2:15), over which they thus cannot exercise veto power, as the Vatican II Fathers would later affirm in Gaudium et Spes:

In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged (emphases added). (n. 16)

Indeed, in the same letter to the Duke of Norfolk, Newman distilled the Church’s teaching on having a properly formed conscience: “[Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives [i.e., the Magisterium]. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.”

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