Newman and Theological Liberalism

By Merrigan, Terrence | Theological Studies, September 2005 | Go to article overview
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Newman and Theological Liberalism

Merrigan, Terrence, Theological Studies

ONE OF THE MOST TELLTALE signs of John Henry Newman's complexity is the fact that he can be appealed to by men and women of nearly every shade of theological opinion. So-called conservative no less than so-called progressive Catholics can find in Newman's writings remarks that appear to serve their particular theological agendas. (1) This is not a new phenomenon. Already during Newman's lifetime, there was confusion about precisely where he belonged on the theological spectrum. And this confusion was perhaps, unintentionally, aggravated by Newman himself, particularly in view of his insistence, in 1879, that his whole life had been dedicated to resisting "the spirit of liberalism in religion." (2)

In our day, the word "liberal" is more or less synonymous with "progressive" and its opposite is undoubtedly "conservative" (or perhaps even "reactionary"). Of course, we cannot simply equate our use of the term liberal with Newman's. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that there would have been such a shift in the meaning of the term that its usage in the 19th century would be wholly unrelated to its usage in the 20th or the 21st century. If then, Newman was, by his own admission, anti-liberal, how did it come about that he was regarded as "the symbol of the hope of English Liberal Catholics" around the time of Vatican Council I, (3) and as the "the veritable father of the more liberalizing developments of the 20th-century Catholic Church," (4) particularly as these came to expression in Vatican Council II? Assuming that the word liberal did not indeed undergo a total metamorphosis of meaning, the most likely conclusion is that Newman did in fact display sympathy for at least some aspect(s) of what passes for liberalism. If this is the case, then it might be fair to say, as one commentator has done, that while Newman was "an anti-liberal in his terms [he was] a liberal in ours." (5)

In what follows, I attempt to clarify Newman's position with respect to liberalism and to reflect on the lessons he has to teach us about our response to it, especially as regards the practice of theology.


In a much-neglected article, Adrian Hastings provides a careful analysis of the evolution of Newman's attitude toward liberalism, an analysis supported by some interesting reflections on the appearance of the term throughout Newman's career. (6) In his Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864), Newman acknowledged that the content and program of liberalism varied, depending on the time and circumstances. (7)

It is important to bear this in mind when one reflects on Newman's attitude toward liberalism and on his understanding of the implications of liberalism for the discipline of theology. For Newman, liberalism was not, in the first place, a party or a movement within the Church, if by movement we mean a well-organized group with a well-defined program. (Perhaps the closest Catholic parallel is Modernism, which also was not a movement in the proper sense of that term.) (8) Liberalism, it seems fair to say, is perhaps best understood as a state of mind, a fundamental attitude that may exist without an individual even being aware of it. It would, therefore, be dangerous to begin to define it in terms of the adherence to specific doctrines, though it is the case that this attitude--if consistently unfolded--will issue in the denial of many doctrines. (9) However, as Newman pointed out, men and women are not consistent in their reasoning and are often not aware of the inherent contradictions in their own thinking. (10) Liberalism, for Newman, is essentially a form of solipsism, a conviction that truth, especially in matters of religion, is ultimately a private affair. (11) This means concretely that so-called conservatives may in fact be as liberal at heart as avowed liberals. More importantly, however, it means that if one is to address the challenge posed by liberalism to contemporary Christianity, one should not begin by insisting on submission to particular articles of faith.

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