Newman On The Papacy

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By Dr Andrew Nash

As an Anglican clergyman, John Henry Newman started reading the early Church Fathers, those Christian writers in the centuries immediately following the Apostles. In them he discovered the richness of Catholic doctrines which started his journey towards the Catholic Church. So, was Catholic belief about the Pope part of the authentic teaching handed down from the Apostles?

Newman knew that not everything every pope had ever done or said had been right. In the fourth century, many bishops went over to the teaching of the priest Arius that Jesus wasn’t truly God but was only a divine being like God, and even a pope of the time, Liberius, had once given in under pressure and signed an ambiguous statement on the question.

Newman finally found his way into the Catholic Church in 1845 after writing his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Here Newman showed how in the early centuries the local churches recognised the right of the Bishop of Rome to decide disputed questions. Amongst much other evidence, he cited the dramatic intervention of Pope Leo the Great in 449 after a General Council had been pressurised by the Emperor of the day to vote in favour of the Monophysite heresy.

In 1852 Newman was appointed Rector of the newly-founded Catholic University in Dublin. Pope Pius IX had forbidden Irish Catholics to attend new ‘mixed’, i.e. secular, colleges which the British government were setting up. Instead, a Catholic university should be founded. Newman knew that it would be a tough job to get the new university off the ground, as nearly half the Irish Catholic bishops didn’t support it. In public lectures he answered those who doubted its practicality by saying it would succeed because the Pope had decreed it and the papacy had a perpetual wisdom down the ages. It was a brave argument to make, but in the ensuing years, Newman came to realise that he himself actually knew more about the situation in Ireland than the Pope did. When he later published his lectures as The Idea of a University he revised the passages in which he had lauded the papacy’s perpetual wisdom.

During the 1860’s there was a growing pressure by the ‘Ultramontane’ party within the Church to have the doctrine of Papal Infallibility officially declared. Newman believed in the doctrine - he had demonstrated it in action in early church history - but it was now being pushed in an extreme form to cover everything that a pope said. A leading Ultramontane proclaimed that he wanted an infallible statement with his copy of the Times at breakfast every morning. In this atmosphere, Newman thought it would be inopportune for a definition to be made.

The Vatican Council of 1870 did define the doctrine but in very precise terms. Administrative or political decisions were not covered. Nevertheless, the Ultramontane party claimed that they were. Many ordinary Catholics were troubled, especially when the British Prime Minister of the day, William Gladstone, said that this meant Catholics could no longer be considered loyal citizens.

Newman answered Gladstone in an open Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (the leading lay Catholic in England). In this he explained the exact terms of papal infallibility: a pope

speaks ex cathedrâ, or infallibly, when he speaks, first, as the Universal Teacher; secondly, in the name and with the authority of the Apostles; thirdly, on a point of faith or morals; fourthly, with the purpose of binding every member of the Church to accept and believe his decision.

On moral questions, he explained that:

As a definition of faith must be drawn from the Apostolic depositum of doctrine, in order that it may be considered an exercise of infallibility … so too a precept of morals, if it is to be accepted as from an infallible voice, must be drawn from the Moral law, that primary revelation to us from God.

Newman could not foresee the controversies that would erupt in 1968 about Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae on contraception. But we can deduce that he would have supported the view that its moral teaching is based on principles which the Church has inherited from Our Lord and the Apostles. And it certainly looks like a pope intervening to give formal judgement to the whole Church on a disputed moral matter just as Pope Leo had done on a doctrinal one in the Monophysite crisis.

Newman also stressed that a pope’s instructions on practical matters to particular churches are not covered by the Council’s definition and so answers his earlier self about the Pope’s support for the Catholic University:

orders which issue from him for the observance of particular countries, or political or religious classes, have no claim to be the utterances of his infallibility. If he enjoins upon the hierarchy of Ireland to withstand mixed education, this is no exercise of his infallibility.

And he said that if a pope ordered Catholics not to fight in a particular war, an individual Catholic had the right to do so if he judged in conscience that that particular war was a just one.

Newman concluded by saying that if he were asked to propose a toast to the Pope at a dinner he would be happy to do so but would drink ‘to conscience first’. The Letter contains a detailed account of conscience – what it is and what it isn’t. Conscience, Newman says,

is not a judgment upon any speculative truth, any abstract doctrine, but bears immediately on conduct, on something to be done or not done … Hence conscience cannot come into direct collision with the Church’s or the Pope’s infallibility; which is engaged in general propositions, and in the condemnation of particular and given errors.

Newman’s journey to a balanced understanding of papal authority remains helpful for Catholics today. His canonisation gives us a good opportunity to explain this much misunderstood doctrine to others.

Dr Andrew Nash is the editor of the critical editions of Newman’s Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England and Newman’s Essays Critical and Historical, Vol.I, published by Gracewing.

Isaac Withers