Newman’s Prophetic Challenge to Clericalism


By Anthony Anderson | June 1989
Anthony Anderson is a seminarian at Holy Apostles Semi­nary in Cromwell, Connecticut.


John Henry Cardinal Newman, the great pre­cursor and prophet of Vatican II, challenged the Catholic Church of his day with his ideas about the laity. He challenged laymen to sanctify both the temporal order and the Church. And he challenged the clergy to co-operate with and utilize the ener­gy, wisdom, and holiness contained in that vast member of the Mystical Body of Christ called the laity. Thanks to Vatican II many are now aware of the layman’s call to sanctity in the world and his duty to transform the world. But Newman’s chal­lenge still stands: There is still widespread misun­derstanding of the role of the lay person in the Church.

Perhaps the greatest misunderstandings in re­cent years have come from the “left.” Vatican II has been used to clericalize the laity and laicize the clergy. But we must also avoid the equally hazardous overreaction of the “right.” For if wild innova­tion can damn, so can that cramped protection of the deposit of faith which keeps it from God’s peo­ple and prevents its implementation and legitimate development. Newman should be our ideal of that authentic orthodoxy which transcends liberalism and conservatism. And to better implement the teachings of Vatican II on the laity we should study Newman’s thought. After all, he has been called the “absent Council Father” and was cited during the Council with greater frequency than any other authority, including Aquinas.

Newman was a visionary. Although he was un­swervingly faithful to the Church, he recognized certain problems with the Church of his day. He realized that the Church must change if it is to re­main at its best. Said he: “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

To fulfill his vision of a dynamic and holy Church, Newman wanted to change the role of the laity. He saw a divided Catholicism: the laity and clergy were detached from one another. According to many Catholics of Newman’s day, only bishops, priests, nuns, and brothers are called to sanctity and to activity in the Church; everyone else is to essentially passive. Monsignor Talbot, an English contemporary of Newman’s, considered laymen only good enough “to hunt, to shoot, to entertain. These matters they understand, but to meddle with ecclesiastical matters they have no business at all.” Happily, Vatican II rejected this clericalism which would keep the layman ignorant servile. But how many real challenges and responsibilities has the layman been given in the Church in the 1980s? Being an extraordinary eucharistic minister at Mass is undoubtedly a privilege, how does it hasten the coming of God’s kingdom? Does it bring people into the Church? Does it stretch one’s mind and soul?

Newman objected to the petty role given to lay people partly because their rights were being obstructed, but mainly because of the loss the Church and the lay people themselves were suffering. He recognized in the laity a great source of spiritual power which could do much to transform the Church and the world, and he was afraid that much of that power was going to waste because the layman was not being given sufficient freedom or responsibility in the Church.

Newman did not advocate change for its own sake. His reason for seeking to activate the laity that they could then better sanctify themselves, the Church, and the world. Nor would Newman advocate change that was other than orthodox.

Here is Newman’s definition of the Church: it is

the congregation of the faithful who pass on the revealed Word of God which they themselves have received and believed. It is neither hierarchy alone, but the whole people of God as a body.

Newman’s handling of this definition caused many to doubt his orthodoxy. None of Newman’s fellow clerics denied that the Church included the laity, and Newman agreed with them that the laity is obliged to be obedient to the hierarchy. But Newman’s teaching diverged from the majority of clercs in the amount of freedom he allowed the laity. In fact, he had such radical ideas about the laity that Monsignor Talbot wrote in a letter to Cardinal Manning: “Newman is the most dangerous man in England, and you will see that he will make use of the laity against your Grace.”

Newman caused particular friction with his article entitled “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine.” Bishop Brown of Newport even contacted the Holy See because he thought Newman’s article heretical. Brown wrote that Newman’s position that the Church could be and sometimes has been “maintained far more by the faithful than by the episcopate” is “totally subversive of the es­sential authority of the Church in matters of faith.”

Cardinal Newman heretical? His thoughts “to­tally subversive”? Newman’s thought was fresh and he was a more speculative thinker than many Cath­olics of his day, but he was no Luther. Once he be­came a Catholic, Newman always strove to be obedient to the Church’s teachings and to his superiors.

Newman was ever obedient, but not merely obedient. He obeyed out of love — out of love for Christ and the truth. He saw both of these embod­ied in the Catholic Church. Pope Paul VI, a self-proclaimed disciple of Newman, confirmed that Newman “was guided solely by love of truth and fidelity to Christ.”

For Newman every vocation in the Church is equal in the sense that they are all equally neces­sary if mankind is to reach that eschatological end for which God created us. The parish priest guides his parishioners, but would be useless without them. No vocation is identical to another, but they are all equally necessary. Furthermore, all vocations should be complementary — “separate but concor­dant…like a concert of musical instruments, each different, but concurring in a sweet harmony.”

But to expect the layman to share in the re­sponsibility of saving souls and perfecting the Church and the world means to recognize his free­dom. Many among the clergy of Newman’s day sought to inhibit this freedom. They wanted to protect the laity from the dangerous intellectual and ideological currents of the day. But Newman believed their efforts were counterproductive. He held that they were turning laymen into helpless babies who could do nothing productive in the Church or the world. “Our theological philoso­phers,” he wrote, “are like old nurses who wrap the unhappy infant in swaddling bands or boards…as if he were not healthy enough to bear wind and water in due measure.” Newman had confidence in the power of humans to recognize truth: “Error may flourish for a time, but truth will prevail in the end. The only effect of error, ultimately, is to promote Truth.”

Of course, a natural result of freedom is diver­sity, but Newman believed that, even with regard to religious themes, a certain amount of diversity is beneficial to the Church and her members, as long as the Church is unified in her essential doctrines and practices. Lay people need freedom in order to grow spiritually, to sharpen their wits, to procure a vital and resilient faith, and to be able to defend their faith intelligently.

This argument for freedom, however, seems to contradict Newman’s opinion about obedience that we find in his writing and exemplified in his life. How can one exercise freedom and still be sub­ject to the Church? Newman’s answer to this ques­tion can be found in his conception of conscience.

In A Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, Newman addressed the paradox of freedom and obedience. He said that there is only one authority we are bound to obey at all times, and that is our conscience, yet the Church alone provides the basis of a truly informed conscience. Newman maintained that the obedience of the laity to the Magisterium must not be blind obedience; we must use the freedom and intelligence God has given us. But on the other hand, he taught that the Church is the Body of Christ on earth, and God is always guiding it. We should, therefore, not make light of any difference we might have with her. Philip Flanagan paraphrased Newman’s thought this way:

If your conscience tells you you may do this act but the Church tells you you must not do it, you must obey the Church. If, however, your conscience tells you you must do this act, then you must do it, though the Church tells you you should not do it. Your conscience is mistaken, but you must obey it. And if you honestly do obey it, then it will eventually lead you on to the truth.

Newman believed that a Christian is obliged to follow his conscience because it is the “aborigi­nal Vicar of Christ.” But conscience does not give one the right to indulge oneself. “Conscience is not a long-sighted selfishness…but it is a messenger from Him, who, in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil.” As in our time, many people in Newman’s day appealed to what they called their “consciences” in order to disregard difficult Church doctrines. For Newman, though, conscience is to be followed even though it might lead one toward painful decisions or unpleasant tasks. Newman fol­lowed his own conscience meticulously, and he of­ten suffered for it. He lost many friends when his conscience led him to join the Catholic Church. Once inside the Church, he continued to suffer for his integrity: his teachings were repeatedly criticiz­ed. But his love of truth forbade him to be silent.

Likewise, his love for the Church forbade him ever to seek autonomy from her. There was but one true Church for Newman — only one that was apostolic and only one universal — and he had com­plete trust in that Church.

Newman held that in the West the Catholic hierarchy represents the only unbroken line of des­cent from the Apostles. In both East and West the Catholic tradition is the most consistent Christian tradition and the one that most directly proceeds from Jesus Christ. It is the Christian tradition.

The second factor which made the Church completely trustworthy for Newman was her uni­versality. Securus judicat orbis terrarium — these words of Augustine troubled Newman when he was still an Anglican and made him think that Anglican­ism was merely an offshoot which ought to submit itself to Augustine’s “secure judgment of the whole world.” Once Newman became a Catholic, he found that universal security.

The apostolicity and universality of the Church meant for Newman that the Church’s authority was perfectly credible. The Church was for him the infallible voice of Christ.

By “Church,” remember that Newman meant the entire body of the faithful. Newman knew that Christ was speaking to the Church as a whole when he promised: “I will be with you always.” The hier­archy has the particular role of expounding doc­trine, but the laity has the responsibility to witness to that doctrine. The beliefs held by the large ma­jority of the Church serve to verify the teachings of the hierarchical minority: “The body of the faithful is one of the witnesses to the fact of the tradition of revealed doctrine, and…their consensus through Christendom is the voice of the infallible Church.”

Newman’s teaching here is truly prophetic of Vatican II. He maintained that the universal con­viction of Catholic lay people should act as a mir­ror held up to the hierarchy: the belief of the laity should reflect pastoral teaching. The hierarchy, moreover, should learn from that reflection.

The Magisterium should even consult the faith­ful in matters of doctrine. Newman quotes Pope Gregory to say: “In controversy about a matter of faith, the consent of all the faithful has such a force in the proof of this side or that, that the Su­preme Pontiff is able and ought to rest upon it as being the judgement or sentiment of the infallible Church.” And popes have indeed consulted the faithful when defining doctrine. For example, Pope Pius IX did so before he defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

However, infallibility does not reside in the consensus fidelium (consensus of the faithfub~ The Church is not a democracy. Instead, said Newman, “that ‘consensus’ is an indicium or instrumentum to us of the judgement of the [whole] Church which is infallible.” However, the role of the laity as indicium (indication or index) is more than a merely passive one. The direction in which the mil­lions of lay Catholics move influences to a great ex­tent the direction in which the Church as a whole moves.

The historical example Newman used to justi­fy much of his argument in “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine” came from the time of the Arian heresy in the fourth century. There was so much division in the hierarchy at that time that, regarding some doctrines, no consistent teaching was being passed along to the people: “At one time the Pope, at other times the patriarchal, metropolitan, and other great sees, at other times general councils said what they should not have said, or did what obscured and compromised the revealed truth.”

As a result, it fell to lay Catholics to uphold the faith: “In that time of immense confusion, the divine dogma of our Lord’s divinity was proclaim­ed, enforced, maintained, and (humanly speaking) preserved far more by the ‘Ecclesia docta‘ [the la­ity] than by the ‘Ecclesia docens‘ [the Magister­ium] .”

In our day, Pope John Paul II has championed what he calls co-responsibility in the Church — co­-operation between laity and clergy in order best to maintain the Church and convert the world. New­man argued the same point:

The Ecclesia docens is more happy when she has…enthusiastic partisans around her…than when she cuts off the faith­ful from the study of her divine doctrines and the sympathy of her divine contem­plations, and requires from them a fides implicita in her word which in the educat­ed classes will terminate in indifference, and in the poorer in superstition.

Newman’s advocacy of a responsible, free, and dig­nified laity was echoed clearly in the documents of Vatican II, especially in Lumen Gentium.

There is now hope that, as in ages past, the la­ity will have a large share in the life of the Church and the propagation of the faith. But we must still denounce that clericalism which builds a wall be­tween clergy and faithful, relegates the latter to mute subservience, and justifies complacence on both sides. Clericalism is dying; let us see to it that it is buried.

Lay people are the hope of the world. Free them. Respect them. Put them to work.



[The progressivists] are always im­patient to adapt the content of faith, Christian ethics, liturgy and the organiza­tion of the Church…to the demands of the world, without sufficiently taking into account not only the common sense of the faithful…but also the essence of the faith…its age-long experience and the standards necessary for its fidelity, its unity and its universality.

The traditionalists are shutting themselves up rigidly in a given period of the history of the Church, and at a given moment of theological formulation or li­turgical expression which they have ab­solutized…fearing new questions with­out admitting, in the long run, that the Holy Spirit is at work today in the Church with its pastors united around the suc­cessor of Peter. — Pope John Paul II

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