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Newman and True Ecumenism

Fr Peter Bristow

We have just completed thirty years since the Catholic Church officially espoused the ecumenical movement with the decree Unitatis Redintegratio. During this time, there have been obvious abuses of the document, but one of the early forerunners of it is also one of the best examples of its faithful implementation John Henry Newman. At the same time, he was deeply aware of the necessity of ecumenism. A long life during the nineteenth century taught him that not only was it essential to present a united front to the common enemy of secularism, but that the division of Christians was itself a principal cause of secularism. Where religion divides men, they will avoid it and forget it (thereby forgetting God) in the interests of local and national unity and secular goals.

Newman saw a way ahead for union among Christians by laying greater emphasis on the sources of Faith, Tradition and Scripture. His life was a model of dialogue with other faiths, which he was always at pains to represent with fairness and objectivity.[1] He was careful to put over the Catholic Church in a way that was not an obstacle to such dialogue.[2] And yet, once a Catholic, his ecumenical attitude did not stop him recognizing that he now belonged to "the Church of Christ" and consequently he saw no conflict between ecumenism and personal conversion "since they both proceed from the marvellous ways of God" [3].

A Theory of Anglicanism

The cause of mutual understanding was served no end by Newman's attempt to find a coherent theological basis for the Anglican Church. So often the difficulty with Anglicans is to know what they really believe, and the Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church viewed relatively to Romanism and popular Protestantism formed the famous Via Media theory of the Anglican Church. His claim was that Anglicanism was somewhere in between what he called "Romanism" and popular Protestantism. It was based on Scripture and Antiquity and differed from pure Protestantism, which had lost truths of the deposit of faith, while "Romanism had added to Revelation and true Tradition". The whole visible Church had fallen into schism, one part with another, and was now divided into three Roman, Oriental and Anglican and visible unity was gone. In some way the Via Media Church was closer to Antiquity and the Fathers. The weakness of this theory, recognized by the author at the time, was that the Via Media Church existed more on paper than in reality, while Protestantism and Romanism were real religions.

It is one of the great ironies of history that the Oxford Movement, which afterwards gave so many converts to Catholicism, should have originated in the need for Anglicanism to defend itself more vigorously against the newly emancipated Roman Catholic Church.

Nevertheless, within three years of the start of the Movement, he, together with other leaders, notably Froude (an admirer of the medieval Papacy), had come to experience a "change of heart". They accepted that wholesale condemnation of Rome did not serve the Truth. They came to see that even though she might suffer from shortcomings, in their view, Rome was as much a part of Apostolic Christianity as they were. It was time to be fair to Rome, so they would only be selective in their criticism and oppose where they had cause to.[5]

The Lectures, in fact, originated from correspondence with a French priest, the abbe Jaegar. Despite his newfound objectivity, Newman was at pains to show his Oxford contemporaries that the direction the Oxford Movement was taking was not towards Rome and, therefore, in it he is still somewhat anti-Roman. Apart from this, it is worthy of note' how close to the Roman Catholic and dogmatic view of the Church Newman already was some ten years before becoming a convert.

He writes:

"Not only is the Church Catholic bound to teach the Truth, but she is ever divinely guided to teach it . . . She is indefectible in it, and therefore not only has authority to enforce but is of authority in declaring it".[6]

At this time he thought that authority was founded on antiquity, but a decade later he came to see it had to be a living authority and, in fact, subsisted in the Roman Catholic Church. In the 1878 edition of the Lectures he said:

"history and patristical writings do not absolutely decide the truth or falsehood of all important theological propositions, any more than Scripture decides it... They make a doctrine more or less probable, but rarely contain a statement, or suggest a conclusion, which cannot be plausibly evaded. The definition of the Church is commonly needed to supply the defects of logic."[7]

He further added:

"How can history, that is, words and deeds which are dead and gone, act as an effectual living decider of quarrels between living men?"[8]

Justification and Faith

A part of the same enterprise of the via media and with an explicitly eirenical purpose, he tackled the main subject of the Reformation itself in his Lectures on Justification. Nearly a hundred and fifty years later, the ARCIC (Anglican/Roman Catholic International Commission) investigations have come to consider this very point. This represents the second stage of ARCIC, which in its first period has as its intention to establish the common ground between Catholics and Anglicans. Stage two is now pledged to look at the differences, and the subject of faith and justification is the first topic to be dealt with. What chance of any agreement is there in this vital matter? If we consider Newman's earlier efforts, the chances would seem to be good. He, at least, thought fit to publish, as a Catholic, his Lectures without alteration.

In this, I think, Newman was over optimistic in one or two aspects of his theory, but the groundwork for an agreement is there. His belief was that the theory of justification by faith was either a paradox with Luther, or a truism with Melanchthon. The latter believed in the necessity of good works, at least in the sense that good works issue from a good tree. Newman believed Anglicans followed Melanchthon and he accepted the Catholic view that justification was inward and consisted in renewal. This was achieved mainly by God's grace, which also initiated it, thus satisfying the emphasis the Anglicans put on grace: "by faith alone" was meant to underline justification is "by grace alone".

In Catholic teaching it is, of course, cooperation with God's grace which justifies us. Newman wanted to focus his attention not on God's role, but on man's. Here there were two positions: our justification consisted in faith in the Protestant view, or in a "renovating quality in the soul" as Catholics taught. If it were faith, then the question arises as to what gives to faith its acceptableness. What does faith have which unbelief has not? It must be God's grace within us, and if so, this and not faith must be the real token of the justified man's state.

If, on the other hand, if be renewal, then the question must be asked whether this "renovating quality" (created grace) is not itself the fruit of the presence of the Holy Spirit within us (uncreated grace).

"And thus," Newman concludes, "by tracing farther back the lines of thought on which these apparently discordant views are placed, they are made to converge, that is, supposing there to be vouchsafed to us an inward divine presence, of which both faith and spiritual renovation are fruits"[9].

This is the doctrine of Scripture and the Greek Fathers, as well as of such counter-Reformation theologians as Lessius and Petavius.

The ARCIC will no doubt find a basis for a way forward in this view, but the discussions will not be without their difficulties, as I intimated in my remark that Newman was a shade over optimistic. The Lectures were originally written in response to some Anglicans who rejected Baptismal Regeneration and Apostolic Ministry as being based on notions of human merit. Hence Newman does not quite allow room for the eternal value of human merit alone, but the orthodox view is that it is not human merit alone but this latter raised up by grace that gives us righteousness before God. This is the sort of reason why Newman, ever faithful to the Magisterium, submitted his Lectures to the judgement of the Church in the Catholic edition [10].

It has recently been reported that the evangelical view of the inadequacy of human merit must be fully considered by ARCIC. But the Catholic Church has always taught that our works are meritorious de condigno when done in grace, i.e. in Christ, and can therefore acquit us before the tribunal of Divine Justice. To some extent this could be a terminological question because it is not the humanness of the works that makes them worthy but the Christified nature of them.

Promoting True Unity

On his conversion, Newman changed his view of the Anglican Church. He was bound to, really, since the step he took meant he recognized in Catholicism "the Church of Christ", the Church of antiquity. In contrast, the Anglican Church became "a mere national institution", possessing some of the characteristics of the divine institution from which it separated, but in itself a human institution. In these circumstances it had its role to play "Doubtless the National Church has hitherto been a serviceable breakwater against doctrinal errors more fundamental than its own. How long this will last in the years now before us, it is impossible to say, for the nation drags down its Church to its own level" [11]. This has the ring of a prophetic statement when, in 1984, we have seen the Anglican Bishop of Durham question the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, with the intimation that many of his fellow bishops do not disagree with him. Newman himself notes that he learnt the doctrines of baptism, the divinity of Christ, of the visible Church and Tradition from Anglicanism.

He was generous in his view of his former Church and in the circumstances saw a role for it. Speaking of it he says: "my own idea of a Catholic's fitting attitude towards the National Church in this its supreme hour, is that of assisting and sustaining it, if it be in our power in the interests of dogmatic truth" [12]. This is a fair statement of the ecumenical attitude asked for by the Church today, namely, to recognize the de facto existence of other communions (and accepting that the present members are in no way responsible for the divisions), and to establish a dialogue with them with the intention of building rather than destroying, but in total fidelity to the truths and traditions of one's own faith.

In Newman there was no false eirenicism, there was no desire to hide part of the truth or camouflage his motives. He fully realized, as Vatican II pointed out, that there is no conflict between ecumenism and personal conversion: "And next I cannot deny, what must be ever a sore point with Anglicans, that if any Anglican comes to me after careful thought and prayer and says, 'I believe in the Holy Catholic Church, and that your Church and yours alone is it, and I demand admittance into it,' it would be the greatest of sins to reject such a man ..."[13]. Indeed, he himself actively sought personal conversions when he addressed his Difficulties of Anglicans to his former companions in the Oxford Movement, with the intention of persuading them that the true destination of the Movement was the Catholic Church.

Furthermore, later in life he was to oppose explicitly the view that unity could come about through corporate reunion between Rome and Anglicanism. A certain Ambrose de Lisle Phillips founded the Association for the promotion of Christian Unity with this aim and, when he approached Newman for support, the latter explained that in all honesty he thought the possibility of corporate reunion was unrealistic and so could not join the association.

Newman was a great "seeker after truth", which should be the spirit of all ecumenism. His was a long journey, aptly described by his epitaph: Ex umbra's et imaginibus in veritatem ("From shades and images to the truth") The Council stated that "change of heart and holiness of life, along with private and public prayer for the unity of Christians should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement" [14]. Newman proved himself able to change heroically When faced with the Truth, and the progress of his Cause gives ample testimony to the holiness of his life. He is a fitting intercessor for the whole ecumenical movement.


1. Vatican Council II, Unitatis Redintegratio, no.4b;

2. idem no.11;

3. idem no. 4b;

4. Cf Dean Church, The Oxford Movement, p. 142;

5. Cf idem, loc cit;

6. John Henry Newman, Via Media I. p. 190;

7. idem p38;

8. idem p 269;

9. John Henry Newman, Lectures on Justification. pp. 136-7;

10. Cf idem. Advertisement to the third edition;

11. John Henry Newman, Apologia pro vita sua, Appendix Everyman edition. p. 269;

12. idem. loc cit;

13. idem. loc cit;

14. Vatican Council II. op cit no.8a.

Copyright ©; Fr Peter Bristow 2000

This version: 26th December 2004

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