This essay, which concludes in our next issue, appears as the final chapter of Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua under the title "The Position of My Mind Since 1845." It summarizes Newman's reply to Charles Kingsley's charge of intellectual dishonesty. The last pages of the chapter, which are relevant only to that particular controversy, are omitted here. Newman (1801-1890) was a leader of the Oxford Movement and converted to the Catholic faith in 1845. Kingsley (1819-1875) was a novelist and clergyman. A remark by Kingsley denigrating the Catholic Church resulted in Newman's writing his autobiography, which is a work every Catholic should treasure. Catholic apologists in particular should be grateful that an anti-Catholic induced Newman to draft one of the chief apologetical works composed in English.
From the time that I became a Catholic, of course I have no further history of my religious opinions to narrate. In saying this, I do not mean to say that my mind has been idle, or that I have given up thinking on theological subjects, but that I have had no variations to record and have had no anxiety of heart whatever. I have been in perfect peace and contentment; I never have had one doubt. I was not conscious to myself, on my conversion, of any change, intellectual or moral, wrought in my mind. I was not conscious of firmer faith in the fundamental truths of revelation or of more self-command; I had not more fervor; but it was like coming into port after a rough sea, and my happiness on that score remains to this day without interruption.
Nor had I any trouble about receiving those additional articles which are not found in the Anglican creed. Some of them I believed already, but not any one of them was a trial to me. I made a profession of them upon my reception with the greatest ease, and I have the same ease in believing them now. I am far, of course, from denying that every article of the Christian creed, whether as held by Catholics or by Protestants, is beset with intellectual difficulties, and it is simple fact, that, for myself, I cannot answer those difficulties. Many persons are very sensitive of the difficulties of religion; I am as sensitive of them as anyone, but I have never been able to see a connection between apprehending those difficulties, however keenly, and multiplying them to any extent, and on the other hand doubting the doctrines to which they are attached.
Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt; as I understand the subject, difficulty and doubt are incommensurate. There of course may be difficulties in the evidence, but I am speaking of difficulties intrinsic to the doctrines themselves or to their relations with each other. A man may be annoyed that he cannot work out a mathematical problem, of which the answer is or is not given to him, without doubting that it admits of an answer or that a certain particular answer is the true one. Of all points of faith, the being of a God is, to my own apprehension, encompassed with most difficulty and yet borne in upon our minds with most power.
People say that the doctrine of transubstantiation is difficult to believe; I did not believe the doctrine till I was a Catholic. I had no difficulty in believing it as soon as I believed that the Catholic Roman Church was the oracle of God and that she had declared this doctrine to be part of the original revelation. It is difficult, impossible to imagine, I grant; but how is it difficult to believe? Yet Macaulay thought it so difficult to believe that he had need of a believer in it of talents as eminent as Sir Thomas More before he could bring himself to conceive that the Catholics of an enlightened age could resist "the overwhelming force of the argument against it." "Sir Thomas More," he says, "is one of the choice specimens of wisdom and virtue, and the doctrine of transubstantiation is a kind of proof charge. A faith which stands that test will stand any test."
But for myself, I cannot indeed prove it, I cannot tell how it is, but I say, "Why should it not be? What's to hinder it? What do I know of substance or matter? Just as much as the greatest philosophers, and that is nothing at all" so much is this the case, that there is a rising school of philosophy now which considers phenomena to constitute the whole of our knowledge in physics.
The Catholic doctrine leaves phenomena alone. It does not say that the phenomena go; on the contrary, it says that they remain; nor does it say that the same phenomena are in several places at once. It deals with what no one on earth knows anything about, the material substances themselves. And, in like manner, of that majestic article of the Anglican as well as of the Catholic creed, the doctrine of the Trinity in unity.
What do I know of the essence of the divine Being? I know that my abstract idea of three is simply incompatible with my idea of one, but when I come to the question of concrete fact, I have no means of proving that there is not a sense in which one and three can equally be predicated of the incommunicable God.
But I am going to take upon myself the responsibility of more than the mere creed of the Church, as the parties accusing me are determined I shall do. They say that now, in that I am a Catholic, though I may not have offenses of my own against honesty to answer for, yet, at least, I am answerable for the offenses of others, of my co-religionists, of my brother priests, of the Church herself.
I am quite willing to accept the responsibility, and as I have been able, as I trust, by means of a few words to dissipate, in the minds of all those who do not begin with disbelieving me, the suspicion with which so many Protestants start, in forming their judgment of Catholics, viz. that our creed is actually set up in inevitable superstition and hypocrisy, as the original sin of Catholicism, so now I will proceed, as before, identifying myself with the Church and vindicating it, not of course denying the enormous mass of sin and error which exists of necessity in that world-wide, multiform communion, but going to the proof of this one point, that its system is in no sense dishonest and that therefore the upholders and teachers of that system, as such, have a claim to be acquitted in their own persons of that odious imputation.
Starting then with the being of a God (which, as I have said, is as certain to me as the certainty of my own existence, though when I try to put the grounds of that certainty into logical shape I find a difficulty in doing so in mood and figure to my satisfaction), I look out of myself into the world of men, and there I see a sight which fills me with unspeakable distress.
The world seems simply to give the lie to that great truth of which my whole being is so full, and the effect upon me is, in consequence, as a matter of necessity, as confusing as if it denied that I am in existence myself. If I looked into a mirror and did not see my face, I should have the sort of feeling which actually comes upon me when I look into this living, busy world and see no reflection of its Creator. This is, to me, one of those great difficulties of this absolute, primary truth, to which I referred just now. Were it not for this voice, speaking so clearly in my conscience and my heart, I should be an atheist, or a pantheist, or a polytheist when I looked into the world.
I am speaking for myself only, and I am far from denying the real force of the arguments in proof of a God, drawn from the general facts of human society and the course of history, but these do not warm me or enlighten me; they do not take away the winter of my desolation or make the buds unfold and the leaves grow within me and my moral being rejoice. The sight of the world is nothing else than the prophet's scroll, full of "lamentations, and mourning, and woe."
To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; and then their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship, their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long-standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not toward final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the apostle's words, "having no hope and without God in the world"--all this is a vision to dizzy and appall and inflicts upon the mind the sense of a profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution.
What shall be said to this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact? I can only answer that either there is no Creator or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from his presence. Did I see a boy of good make and mind, with the tokens on him of a refined nature, cast upon the world without provision, unable to say whence he came, his birthplace, or his family connections, I should conclude that there was some mystery connected with his history and that he was one of whom, from one cause or other, his parents were ashamed.
Thus only should I be able to account for the contrast between the promise and the condition of his being. And so I argue about the world: If there be a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, a fact as true as the fact of its existence, and thus the doctrine of what is theologically called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists and as the existence of God.
And now, supposing it were the blessed and loving will of the Creator to interfere in this anarchical condition of things, what are we to suppose would be the methods which might be necessarily or naturally involved in his purpose of mercy? Since the world is in so abnormal a state, surely it would be no surprise to me if the interposition were of necessity equally extraordinary--or what is called miraculous. But that subject does not directly come into the scope of my present remarks. Miracles, as evidence, involve a process of reason or an argument, and of course I am thinking of some mode of inference which does not immediately run into argument. I am rather asking what must be the face-to-face antagonist by which to withstand and baffle the fierce energy of passion and the all-corroding, all-dissolving skepticism of the intellect in religious inquiries?
I have no intention at all of denying that truth is the real object of our reason and that, if it does not attain to truth, either the premise or the process is in fault; but I am not speaking here of right reason, but of reason as it acts in fact and concretely in fallen man. I know that even the unaided reason, when correctly exercised, leads to a belief in God, in the immortality of the soul, and in a future retribution, but I am considering the faculty of reason actually and historically, and, in this point of view, I do not think I am wrong in saying that its tendency is toward a simple unbelief in matters of religion. No truth, however sacred, can stand against it, in the long run, and hence it is that in the pagan world, when our Lord came, the last traces of the religious knowledge of former times were all but disappearing from those portions of the world in which the intellect had been active and had had a career.
And in these latter days, in like manner, outside the Catholic Church things are tending, with far greater rapidity than in that old time, from the circumstance of the age, to atheism in one shape or other. What a scene, what a prospect, does the whole of Europe present at this day! And not only Europe, but every government and every civilization through the world which is under the influence of the European mind! Especially, for it most concerns us, how sorrowful, in the view of religion, even taken in its most elementary, most attenuated form, is the spectacle presented to us by the educated intellect of England, France, and Germany! Lovers of their country and of their race, religious men, external to the Catholic Church, have attempted various expedients to arrest fierce, willful human nature in its onward course and to bring it into subjection.
The necessity of some form of religion for the interests of humanity has been generally acknowledged: But where was the concrete representative of things invisible which would have the force and the toughness necessary to be a breakwater against the deluge? Three centuries ago the establishment of religion, material, legal, and social, was generally adopted as the best expedient for the purpose in those countries which separated from the Catholic Church, and for a long time it was successful; but now the crevices of those establishments are admitting the enemy.
Thirty years ago education was relied upon; ten years ago there was a hope that wars would cease for ever, under the influence of commercial enterprise and the reign of the useful and fine arts; but will any one venture to say that there is anything anywhere on this earth which will afford a fulcrum for us, whereby to keep the earth from moving onward?
The judgment which experience passes, whether on establishments or on education, as a means of maintaining religious truth in this anarchical world must be extended even to Scripture, though Scripture be divine. Experience proves surely that the Bible does not answer a purpose for which it was never intended. It may be accidentally the means of the conversion of individuals, but a book, after all, cannot make a stand against the wild living intellect of man, and in this day it begins to testify, as regards its own structure and contents, to the power of that universal solvent which is so successfully acting upon religious establishments.
Supposing then it to be the will of the Creator to interfere in human affairs, and to make provisions for retaining in the world a knowledge of himself, so definite and distinct as to be proof against the energy of human skepticism in such a case--I am far from saying that there was no other way--but there is nothing to surprise the mind, if he should think fit to introduce a power into the world, invested with the prerogative of infallibility in religious matters.
Such a provision would be a direct, immediate, active, and prompt means of withstanding the difficulty; it would be an instrument suited to the need; and, when I find that this is the very claim of the Catholic Church, not only do I feel no difficulty in admitting the idea, but there is a fitness in it which recommends it to my mind. And thus I am brought to speak of the Church's infallibility, as a provision, adapted by the mercy of the Creator, to preserve religion in the world and to restrain that freedom of thought, which of course in itself is one of the greatest of our natural gifts, and to rescue it from its own suicidal excesses. And let it be observed that neither here nor in what follows shall I have occasion to speak directly of revelation in its subject-matter, but in reference to the sanction which it gives to truths which may be known independently of it, as it bears upon the defense of natural religion.
I say that a power, possessed of infallibility in religious teaching, is happily adapted to be a working instrument in the course of human affairs, for smiting hard and throwing back the immense energy of the aggressive, capricious, untrustworthy intellect, and in saying this, as in the other things that I have to say, it must still be recollected that I am all along bearing in mind my main purpose, which is a defense of myself.
I am defending myself here from a plausible charge brought against Catholics, as will be seen better as I proceed. The charge is this: that I, as a Catholic, not only make profession to hold doctrines which I cannot possibly believe in my heart, but that I also believe in the existence of a power on earth which at its own will imposes upon men any new set of credenda, when it pleases, by a claim to infallibility--in consequence, that my own thoughts are not my own property, that I cannot tell that tomorrow I may not have to give up what I hold today, and that the necessary effect of such a condition of mind must be a degrading bondage or a bitter inward rebellion relieving itself in secret infidelity, or the necessity of ignoring the whole subject of religion in a sort of disgust, and of mechanically saying everything that the Church says and leaving to others the defense of it.
As then I have above spoken of the relation of my mind toward the Catholic creed, so now I shall speak of the attitude which it takes up in the view of the Church's infallibility.
And first, the initial doctrine of the infallible teacher must be an emphatic protest against the existing state of mankind. Man had rebelled against his Maker. It was this that caused the divine interposition, and to proclaim it must be the first act of the divinely-accredited messenger. The Church must denounce rebellion as of all possible evils the greatest. She must have no terms with it; if she would be true to her Master, she must ban and anathematize it.
This is the meaning of a statement of mine, which has furnished matter for one of those special accusations to which I am at present replying: I have, however, no fault at all to confess in regard to it; I have nothing to withdraw, and in consequence I here deliberately repeat it.
I said, "The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one willful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse."
I think the principle here enunciated to be the mere preamble in the formal credentials of the Catholic Church, as an act of Parliament might begin with a "Whereas." It is because of the intensity of the evil which has possession of mankind that a suitable antagonist has been provided against it, and the initial act of that divinely-commissioned power is of course to deliver her challenge and to defy the enemy. Such a preamble then gives a meaning to her position in the world and an interpretation to her whole course of teaching and action.
In like manner she has ever put forth, with most energetic distinctness, those other great elementary truths, which either are an explanation of her mission or give a character to her work. She does not teach that human nature is irreclaimable, else wherefore should she be sent? Not that it is to be shattered and reversed, but to be extricated, purified, and restored; not that it is a mere mass of hopeless evil, but that it has the promise upon it of great things and even now, in its present state of disorder and excess, has a virtue and a praise proper to itself.
But in the next place she knows and she preaches that such a restoration as she aims at effecting in it must be brought about not simply through certain outward provisions of preaching and teaching, even though they be her own, but from an inward spiritual power or grace imparted directly from above and of which she is the channel.
She has it in charge to rescue human nature from its misery, but not simply by restoring it on its own level, but by lifting it up to a higher level than its own. She recognizes in it real moral excellence though degraded, but she cannot set it free from earth except by exalting it toward heaven.
It was for this end that a renovating grace was put into her hands, and therefore from the nature of the gift, as well as from the reasonableness of the case, she goes on, as a further point, to insist that all true conversion must begin with the first springs of thought and to teach that each individual man must be in his own person one whole and perfect temple of God, while he is also one of the living stones which build up a visible religious community. And thus the distinctions between nature and grace, and between outward and inward religion, become two further articles in what I have called the preamble of her divine commission.
Such truths as these she vigorously reiterates and pertinaciously inflicts upon mankind; as to such she observes no half-measures, no economical reserve, no delicacy or prudence. "Ye must be born again" is the simple, direct form of words which she uses after her Divine Master: "Your whole nature must be re-born; your passions, and your affections, and your aims, and your conscience, and your will must all be bathed in a new element, and reconsecrated to your Maker, and, the last not the least, your intellect."
It was for repeating these points of her teaching in my own way that certain passages of one of my volumes have been brought into the general accusation which has been made against my religious opinions. The writer has said that I was demented if I believed and unprincipled if I did not believe in my own statement that a lazy, ragged, filthy, story-telling beggar-woman, if chaste, sober, cheerful, and religious, had a prospect of heaven such as was absolutely closed to an accomplished statesman, or lawyer, or noble, be he ever so just, upright, generous, honorable, and conscientious, unless he had also some portion of the divine Christian graces; yet I should have thought myself defended from criticism by the words which our Lord used to the chief priests, "The publicans and harlots go into the kingdom of God before you."
And I was subjected again to the same alternative of imputations for having ventured to say that consent to an unchaste wish was indefinitely more heinous than any lie viewed apart from its causes, its motives, and its consequences, though a lie, viewed under the limitation of these conditions, is a random utterance, an almost outward act, not directly from the heart, however disgraceful and despicable it may be, however prejudicial to the social contract, however deserving of public reprobation; whereas we have the express words of our Lord to the doctrine that "whoso looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart." On the strength of these texts, I have surely as much right to believe in these doctrines which have caused so much surprise as to believe in original sin, or that there is a supernatural revelation, or that a divine Person suffered, or that punishment is eternal.
Passing now from what I have called the preamble of that grant of power which is made to the Church, to that power itself, infallibility, I premise two brief remarks: (1) On the one hand, I am not here determining anything about the essential seat of that power, because that is a question doctrinal, not historical and practical, (2) nor, on the other hand, am I extending the direct subject matter, over which that power of infallibility has jurisdiction, beyond religious opinion; and now as to the power itself.
This power, viewed in its fullness, is as tremendous as the giant evil which has called for it. It claims, when brought into exercise but in the legitimate manner, for otherwise of course it is but quiescent, to know for certain the very meaning of every portion of that divine message in detail, which was committed by our Lord to his apostles.
It claims to know its own limits and to decide what it can determine absolutely and what it cannot.
It claims, moreover, to have a hold upon statements not directly religious so far as this, to determine whether they indirectly relate to religion and, according to its own definitive judgment, to pronounce whether or not, in a particular case, they are simply consistent with revealed truth.
It claims to decide magisterially, whether as within its own province or not, that such and such statements are or are not prejudicial to the depositum of faith, in their spirit or in their consequences, and to allow them, or condemn and forbid them, accordingly.
It claims to impose silence at will on any matters, or controversies, of doctrine, which on its own ipse dixit it pronounces to be dangerous, or inexpedient, or inopportune.
It claims that, whatever may be the judgment of Catholics upon such acts, these acts should be received by them with those outward marks of reverence, submission, and loyalty, which Englishmen, for instance, pay to the presence of their sovereign, without expressing any criticism on them on the ground that in their matter they are inexpedient or in their manner violent or harsh.
And lastly, it claims to have the right of inflicting spiritual punishment, of cutting off from the ordinary channels of the divine life, and of simply excommunicating those who refuse to submit themselves to its formal declarations.
Such is the infallibility lodged in the Catholic Church, viewed in the concrete, as clothed and surrounded by the appendages of its high sovereignty: it is, to repeat what I said above, a supereminent prodigious power sent upon earth to encounter and master a giant evil.
And now, having thus described it, I profess my own absolute submission to its claim. I believe the whole revealed dogma as taught by the apostles, as committed by the apostles to the Church, and as declared by the Church to me. I receive it as it is infallibly interpreted by the authority to whom it is thus committed and (implicitly) as it shall be, in like manner, further interpreted by that same authority till the end of time.
I submit, moreover, to the universally received traditions of the Church in which lies the matter of those new dogmatic definitions which are from time to time made, and which in all times are the clothing and the illustration of the Catholic dogma as already defined. And I submit myself to those other decisions of the Holy See, theological or not, through the organs which it has itself appointed, which, waiving the question of their infallibility, on the lowest ground come to me with a claim to be accepted and obeyed. Also, I consider that, gradually and in the course of ages, Catholic inquiry has taken certain definite shapes and has thrown itself into the form of a science, with a method and a phraseology of its own, under the intellectual handling of great minds, such as St. Athanasius, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas, and I feel no temptation at all to break in pieces the great legacy of thought thus committed to us for these latter days.
All this being considered as the profession which I make ex animo, as for myself, so also on the part of the Catholic body, as far as I know it, it will at first sight be said that the restless intellect of our common humanity is utterly weighed down, to the repression of all independent effort and action whatever, so that, if this is to be the mode of bringing it into order it is brought into order only to be destroyed.
But this is far from the result, far from what I conceive to be the intention of that high Providence who has provided a great remedy for a great evil, far from borne out by the history of the conflict between infallibility and reason in the past and the prospect of it in the future. The energy of the human intellect "does from opposition grow" it thrives and is joyous, with a tough elastic strength, under the terrible blows of the divinely fashioned weapon and is never so much itself as when it has lately been overthrown.