Lectures and Essays on University Subjects (by John H. Newman, 1859)
It is a very useful exercise for Protestants to read occasionally the works of English Roman Catholics. Perhaps the task is not very pleasant, for our natural indolence makes us indifferent to the expression of views from which we know we shall dissent; and our prejudices are continually ruffled by the air of superiority which Roman Catholic authors are so fond of affecting. But unless we are determined to lose the rich store of instruction which is contained in the writings of those who think in a manner strange and paradoxical according to our judgment, we must overcome both indolence and prejudice, and read what the best and cleverest of our Roman Catholic countrymen offer for our perusal. In very different ways Cardinal Wiseman and Dr. Newman supply us with highly suggestive material for thought. Cardinal Wiseman represents the great standing Roman Catholic traditions, feelings, and opinions. He belongs to the Continent as well as to this country. He brings before us the Romish Church as it is at Rome, and as from Rome it radiates through nearly a half of the civilized world; and we learn from his writings to appreciate that peculiar caste of character which is brought to perfection at the focus of this great system. That sincere, gentle, unctuous, wily, elaborate piety which grows to such a surprising perfection under the shadow of the Vatican—which is so unfamiliar to Englishmen, and yet which draws its sources from so early a period of the Christian Church, and is tinged with the accumulated peculiarities of century after century—is reproduced in Cardinal Wiseman's works, not certainly in an intense degree but in a degree and a form that are telling to English readers, because they have come through the mind of an Englishman. Dr. Newman is the Englishman of the ordinary English training and the ordinary English methods of reasoning and feeling, who differs from us scarcely in anything, except that he has, as he believes, attained a certainty in dogmatic theology which we have not. Considering that the influence of religion is the subject of so much interest and discussion in England, it cannot be immaterial that we should know what is the result when a mind of competent ability introduces the one new element of dogmatic certainty, as understood by Roman Catholics, into the composition of English thought. Dr. Newman's University Lectures show us the result with very tolerable accuracy and fairness, and they are therefore well worth reading by all educated Protestants. Unfortunately, they are rather too strongly marked with that petty air of triumph over the Church he has left, and that attempt to harden himself into a state of theological comfort by sneering at opponents, which have been the chief defects in all his recent writings.
There is very little to criticize, or even to notice, in the greater part of these Lectures. Dr. Newman had to tell a new audience what a new University should be; and his Oxford reminiscences are so strong that in a great part of these Lectures he does but say what might have been said in either of the great English Universities. He explains why literature should be cultivated, why the classics are worth the most careful study, why elementary examinations should be simple and yet searching, why the progress of science should not be interfered with by the alarms of timid religionists. All this is put with the clearness, dexterity, and caustic sprightliness which Dr. Newman can always command. There is no objection to be made to lectures where the lecturer is really stating why the system adopted in English Protestant Universities is so good that Irish Roman Catholics cannot help adopting it. But Dr. Newman contemplates one difference as always remaining. The Irish students will be in possession of an infallible certainty in religious belief. They are not to be troubled with the conflicts of doubt—they are for ever to feel that they and their Church are absolutely right and the rest of mankind absolutely wrong. This is Dr. Newman's Utopia–Oxford plus religious tranquillity, and a consciousness of that tranquillity which shall be active enough to keep alive a sense of complacent superiority over all persons who have not attained to it.
We do not doubt that the scheme might be realized with tolerable completeness. There will always be a great many minds to which such a scheme is congenial. Roman Catholicism will always be attractive to a certain proportion of those who think on religious matters; and in England it will be attractive as putting an end to religious uncertainty, much oftener than as a great ecclesiastical system. Dr. Newman quotes with triumph the well-known passage in which Lord Macaulay justifies the opinion that the area of Roman Catholicism is not likely to decrease. The reasoning of Lord Macaulay omits, perhaps, to give sufficient importance to the political considerations which so largely affect the professed creeds of mankind. But certainly the main point may be taken as clearly established, that there will always be a very large number of human minds that will prefer a system like that of Rome to any form of Protestantism. Where, therefore, there is the most perfect liberty of conscience, there will always be Roman Catholics. But what it is important for Protestants to observe, and what they may observe with some of the self-gratulation which Dr. Newman so constantly betrays, is that the particular kind of Catholicism advocated by Dr. Newman is entirely indebted to Protestantism for its existence. It is Protestantism that enables a liberal Roman Catholic to exist. There are no liberal Roman Catholics at Rome. There is nothing there said about the duty of allowing science to have its own way—about the invigorating influence of classical studies —about the gain that Catholicism receives from perfect toleration and unlimited discussion. Protestantism has forced the notice of these things on Rome. Protestantism has created an atmosphere of free thought from which Roman Catholics cannot escape. It is by the influence of Protestant countries—not only as great counterbalancing States in the European system, but still more as centres of free thought — that the liberal Catholic party is a possibility in Catholic countries. As long as freedom is secured by English institutions, it is easy for Irish Roman Catholics to reap the intellectual comfort of the Papal system, and avoid its social and political evils. But where Romanism has its way entirely there can be no liberty. For Romanism, as we know from the history of Italy and Austria, assumes necessarily the form of a paternal direction of the whole of the life of men, on the principles of spiritual expediency. It is only in the Catholic countries of Western Europe that this scheme of government, has been controlled by the presence of that spirit of inquiry which prevails in adjacent Protestant countries, and which has been forced into the more hostile shape of a general disbelief where persecution has succeeded in repressing the outward appearance of Protestantism.
The very same cause that will always give the Romish Church a certain success in free countries will always make that success limited. For, although there are many minds which desire theological certainty, the great majority of minds are indifferent about it. The objections of Englishmen to the Church of Rome are not principally theological—they are far more political, social, and moral. The dilemmas, the comparisons of methods, the forms of reductio ad absurdum which Romish theologians shoot forth to confound their enemies, fall dead on the obtuse British public. That public wants a religion that shall be consistent with political freedom, sanctify material prosperity, and protect the purity of families. The religion of the Church of Rome does not seem to Englishmen such a religion, and therefore they will not have anything to do with it. But, as Dr. Newman is so fond of crowing on logical grounds over the Church of England, we may go on to remark that the religion of the Church of England is exactly such a religion. The moral atmosphere which a creed tends to produce is the real test of its probable suitableness to a nation; and the moral atmosphere of the Church of England is so exactly suited to the majority of Englishmen, that the more religion advances in England the stronger the Church becomes. The success of the Church of Rome in making converts among the upper classes of late years has been loudly trumpeted, and is great enough to make its causes worth considering. But a success of infinitely more importance is that thorough adhesion of the great bulk of the educated classes which has been gained by the Church of England. We do not see why we should be prevented by modesty from speaking of this success, but still it is not as a matter of triumph that we are now concerned with it. It is of its causes that we are speaking; and very little reflection will convince any one that the recent success of the Church of England has been mainly due to the establishment of a habit of thought which makes the moral and social tendency of a belief one of the principal criteria of its truth. A person, once impressed with this way of thinking is not attracted by the ecclesiastical system represented by Cardinal Wiseman, nor by the dogmatic certainty offered by Dr. Newman.
Saturday Review, May 28, 1859.