Blessed John Henry Newman – like many nuanced and complex thinkers – has the unhappy burden of being misunderstood by just about everybody. He dedicated his life to fighting against liberalism in religion, becoming one of its most formidable enemies. His effectiveness was undoubtedly due, in part, not only to his powers of persuasion, but also to the example he presented as a powerful intellect and evidently liberal (in the classic sense meaning “free”) personality devoting itself to the service of … dogma. Catholic dogma! If Newman is for it, there must be something to it! Nevertheless he was also intellectually satisfying and persuasive, assisting the conversions of multitudes to the eternal Catholic Faith. These days, however, one often finds Newman disingenuously adopted by the very same liberals who Newman would have eaten for breakfast if he had the opportunity. I have long wondered how most of the nation’s heterodox “Newman Centers” on university campuses get away with the name. The only possible explanation is that they know nothing about Newman’s work beyond, perhaps, a rude caricature of his theory of conscience.
At the same time there have always been a number of Catholics who have suspected and even accused Newman of the very liberalism he condemned. And to be honest, his critics aren’t entirely wrong. Newman breathed the cultural air of Oxford liberalism for much of his life: these were the people he was arguing with, these were the minds he had to convince, and it seems clear that he adopted some of their premises for the sake of common ground. We should expect that he shared much of this common ground even without consciously embracing it. But I have to maintain that Newman’s liberalism – yes, the term is fair if used in context – was largely a matter of temperament and process, not religion, and though it did lead to mistakes in my opinion, on balance it did not pose a threat to the integral Catholic faith he professed and defended. On the contrary, Newman’s thought opened the doors to a perfectly legitimate investigative approach to Catholicism that most intellectuals felt was heretofore closed to them. Would that all Catholics were as “liberal” as Newman!
But don’t take my word for it. As the result of a brief discussion with a friend this afternoon, I found online a letter from Pope St. Pius X himself defending Newman against his critics – a rebuke not only to traditionalists who revere Pope St. Pius X and revile Newman, but also to certain liberals for whom Newman is the hero and Pius X the villain. I reproduce the letter here in its entirety.
In which Pope Pius X approves the work of the Bishop of Limerick
on the writings of Cardinal Newman.
To his Venerable Brother
Edward Thomas Bishop of Limerick
Venerable Brother, greetings and Our Apostolic blessing. We hereby inform you that your essay, in which you show that the writings of Cardinal Newman, far from being in disagreement with Our Encyclical Letter Pascendi, are very much in harmony with it, has been emphatically approved by Us: for you could not have better served both the truth and the dignity of man.
It is clear that those people whose errors We have condemned in that Document had decided among themselves to produce something of their own invention with which to seek the commendation of a distinguished person. And so they everywhere assert with confidence that they have taken these things from the very source and summit of authority, and that therefore We cannot censure their teachings, but rather that We had even previously gone so far as to condemn what such a great author had taught.
Incredible though it may appear, although it is not always realised, there are to be found those who are so puffed up with pride that it is enough to overwhelm the mind, and who are convinced that they are Catholics and pass themselves off as such, while in matters concerning the inner discipline of religion they prefer the authority of their own private teaching to the pre-eminent authority of the Magisterium of the Apostolic See. Not only do you fully demonstrate their obstinacy but you also show clearly their deceitfulness.
For, if in the things he had written before his profession of the Catholic faith one can justly detect something which may have a kind of similarity with certain Modernist formulas, you are correct in saying that this is not relevant to his later works. Moreover, as far as that matter is concerned, his way of thinking has been expressed in very different ways, both in the spoken word and in his published writings, and the author himself, on his admission into the Catholic Church, forwarded all his writings to the authority of the same Church so that any corrections might be made, if judged appropriate.
Regarding the large number of books of great importance and influence which he wrote as a Catholic, it is hardly necessary to exonerate them from any connection with this present heresy. And indeed, in the domain of England, it is common knowledge that Henry Newman pleaded the cause of the Catholic faith in his prolific literary output so effectively that his work was both highly beneficial to its citizens and greatly appreciated by Our Predecessors: and so he is held worthy of office whom Leo XIII, undoubtedly a shrewd judge of men and affairs, appointed Cardinal; indeed he was very highly regarded by him at every stage of his career, and deservedly so.
Truly, there is something about such a large quantity of work and his long hours of labour lasting far into the night that seems foreign to the usual way of theologians: nothing can be found to bring any suspicion about his faith. You correctly state that it is entirely to be expected that where no new signs of heresy were apparent he has perhaps used an off-guard manner of speaking to some people in certain places, but that what the Modernists do is to falsely and deceitfully take those words out of the whole context of what he meant to say and twist them to suit their own meaning.
We therefore congratulate you for having, through your knowledge of all his writings, brilliantly vindicated the memory of this eminently upright and wise man from injustice: and also for having, to the best of your ability, brought your influence to bear among your fellow-countrymen, but particularly among the English people, so that those who were accustomed to abusing his name and deceiving the ignorant should henceforth cease doing so.
Would that they should follow Newman the author faithfully by studying his books without, to be sure, being addicted to their own prejudices, and let them not with wicked cunning conjure anything up from them or declare that their own opinions are confirmed in them; but instead let them understand his pure and whole principles, his lessons and inspiration which they contain. They will learn many excellent things from such a great teacher: in the first place, to regard the Magisterium of the Church as sacred, to defend the doctrine handed down inviolately by the Fathers and, what is of highest importance to the safeguarding of Catholic truth, to follow and obey the Successor of St. Peter with the greatest faith.
To you, therefore, Venerable Brother, and to your clergy and people, We give Our heartfelt thanks for having taken the trouble to help Us in Our reduced circumstances by sending your communal gift of financial aid: and in order to gain for you all, but first and foremost for yourself, the gifts of God’s goodness, and as a testimony of Our benevolence, We affectionately bestow Our Apostolic blessing.
Given in Rome at St. Peter’s, on 10 March 1908, in the fifth year of Our Pontificate.
Pius PP. X