Reflection by Fr. Ed Ondrako, OFM Conv.

Ash Wednesday 2022

Newman as a Volcanic Eruption

“Newman’s Response to the Anglican Bishops’ Charge of Fancifulness and Skepticism”[1]

Follow Newman as he looks back on his decision “to ask for admission (as he describes it) into the one fold of Christ.” “During my course of reading in the summer of 1839, I began to look for some ground to supply a basis for my view of antiquity and catholicity. … The history of St. Leo showed me that the deliberate and eventual consent of the great body of the Church ratified a doctrinal decision as a part of revealed truth…. The Creeds tell us that the Church is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. I could not prove that the Anglican communion was an integral part of the one Church, on the grounds of its teaching being apostolic or catholic. I could not defend our separation from Rome and her faith without using arguments prejudicial to those great doctrines concerning our Lord, which are the very foundation of the Christian religion.  … I deliberately quit the old Anglican ground as untenable; though I did not do so all at once, but as I became more and more convinced of the state of the case. … I had no thought of leaving the Church of England because I felt some of my old objections against Rome as strongly as ever, I had no right, I had no leave, to act against my conscience. That was a higher rule than (writing about the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic) Notes of the Church.”[2]

To the end of his life Newman was satisfied with his argument in Tract 90 (see my 21 February entry). He wrote: “Holiness as the true test of a Church was steadily kept in view in what I wrote in connection with Tract 90. … According to this theory, a religious body is part of the one, catholic and apostolic Church, if it has the succession and the creed of the apostles, with the note of holiness of life; and there is much in such a view to approve itself to the direct commonsense and practical habits of an Englishman. … I sunk my theory to a lower level … when the Bishops and the people of my Church, … actually rejected primitive Catholic doctrine, and tried to eject from their communion all who held it. This was the lower level on which I placed myself, and all who felt with me, at the end of 1841.”[3]

Newman was faithful to the Anglo Catholic part of the Church of England. Rationalists and Evangelicals made up the other parts. “The Anglican theory was very distinctive. I admired it and took it on faith … my only worry … it was a paper system. … The liberals (rationalists) had beaten me in a fair field. …Submission to the Catholic Church could not have been earlier. … I did not possess certitude. In December 1844 I resolved to write on doctrinal development and if my convictions were not weaker, I would enter the Church of Rome. … On 3 April 1845, … (listen to his heart) accept this apology, my dear Church, and forgive me. As I say so, tears come into my eyes;—that arises from the accident of this time, when I am giving up so much I love. … I am this night (8 October 1845) expecting Father Dominic, the Passionist … He does not know my intention; but I mean to ask of him admission into the one fold of Christ…. ”[4]

There you have Newman’s words, his character, his purpose and emphases! Do you find them illuminating? To what extent? Is Newman sufficient? Does he need to do more work? He chose certainty in making judgments which is not on the side of Lockean subjectivism. Newman worried about the process of downplaying the importance of having premises as constitutive to making judgments with certainty. A premise is a statement from which another is inferred or follows as a conclusion. To Newman, a combination of evidence and antecedent probabilities leads to practical judgments.

Can we change our assents, our certainty, our views, our convictions? Newman’s answer is: “yes.” Certitude differs from certainty. Can we change our certitudes? Newman’s answer is “no.” Be careful of the trap. Certitudes are reflective and tightly held. To deny proof from certitudes is to give in to a process that is interminable. The consequences are disastrous. Locke (and Whately) require assents to be “certainty.” The dangerous impracticality is that a person could never be sure about all doctrines that are to be believed which, in effect, was the rationalists’ highjacking of certainty in England. Newman is not indiscriminate in regard to one’s certainties. He respects that one’s assents are one’s own business.

Why is this important for the future and living today in modernity? I separate from anyone or group who attempt to reconstruct the past for the present. Why? Newman is always looking to the future of faith and reason. The work of Christ is always going forward. John Locke turned towards religious epistemology and was brought up to the Aristotelian code of logic by R. Whately, an Oxford rationalist in whose charisma Newman was taken. Soon enough, Newman recognized the mischievous Cartesian-inspired game about proof. He broke from Whately, and his effective reply was a lifelong developing general and religious epistemology which I am attempting to synthesize. The Oxford Dictionary defines epistemology as “the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion.” An easy example: when asking about religion, how often do you hear: I “kind of” believe. “Kind of” is Lockean inspired. “Kind of” is not Newman. Consequences can be unfortunate for faith as every parent, teacher/preacher knows.

By now, it is clear why I am repeating the gravity of the confrontation with Lockean thought by the Anglican Bishop Joseph Butler, Analogy of Religion (1736), for Newman’s originality. Butler rebutted Locke’s epistemology which had become more persuasive and aided a full-blown rationalist approach to knowledge, belief, opinion, prejudice and bigotry. Locke viewed simple faith as something barbarous and leading to violence. Locke was addressing the phenomenon of fanaticism that contributed to religious wars and violence in the 16th and 17th centuries. The problem for Newman at Oxford was that religion was being bled out because Locke’s epistemology amounted to saying that no one can fully believe in the Trinity, the Son of God as Savior and Redeemer, religious conviction and sin.

I return to the metaphor of an active volcano and rationalist rumblings that are amplified today. Newman is a “placeholder” for the future. The 21st century accords reasons for skepticism to creep back into a believer’s certitudes and certainties with social effects that are serious and produce anxiety. The active volcanic rumblings include Lockean epistemology that has no defense for faith or room for atheists. Lockean thought inundates the West and overplays reason while making fervently held conviction impossible. Future entries will unpack Newman’s vocabulary for making judgments or giving assent, including the illative sense.[5] Pivotal is personal recognition of the existence of a Judge as lawgiver within conscience. The compelling authority of his Butler inspired explanation of the voice of God in conscience, which permeates his thought and makes it apposite and indispensable for the future, is freeing.

“After (almost) 30 years waiting, he (Fr. Dominic Barberi) was without his own act sent here.”[6] On 8 October 1845, Newman requested “admission into the one fold of Christ.”

Fr. Edward J. Ondrako, OFM Conv., Univ. of Notre Dame, Remembering Forward #4


[1] Apo., ch 1, M. Svaglic, (Oxford, OUP, 1967), 23. After Tract 90 the Anglican Bishops charged Newman with both.
[2] Apo., ch 4, M. Svaglic (1967), 138-139.
[3] Apo., ch 4, 141-142.
[4] Apo., ch 4, 193, 195, 205, 209.
[5] L. Wittgenstein and B. Lonergan read The Grammar of Assent (1869-1870) and reacted to Newmanian thought.
[6] Apo., ch 4, 211, M. Svaglic, (1967). Newman had written to a number of friends on 8 October 1845.

Fr. Edward J. Ondrako, OFM Conventual
Research Fellow Pontifical Faculty of St. Bonaventure, Rome
Visiting Scholar, McGrath Institute for Church Life
University of Notre Dame
March 2, 2022

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