When John Henry Newman was given his red hat by Leo XIII in 1879, the new cardinal made a point in his “Biglietto Speech” to say two things about his long career, both as a Catholic and as an Anglican. First, he meant his audience to know that he had never ceased opposing liberalism. “For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism,” he declared. 

Since some in the liberal academy have an interest in misrepresenting what Newman meant by liberalism, we should let him say for himself what he meant.

“Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion.

Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy. Devotion is not necessarily founded on faith. …Since, then, religion is so personal a peculiarity and so private a possession, we must of necessity ignore it in the intercourse of man with man.

If a man puts on a new religion every morning, what is that to you? It is as impertinent to think about a man’s religion as about his sources of income or his management of his family. Religion is in no sense the bond of society.”

Secondly, Newman wished his auditors to appreciate that he had waged this campaign against liberalism against a definite historical backdrop.

Hitherto the civil Power has been Christian. Even in countries separated from the Church, as in my own, the dictum was in force, when I was young, that: “Christianity was the law of the land.” Now, everywhere that goodly framework of society, which is the creation of Christianity, is throwing off Christianity. The dictum to which I have referred, with a hundred others which followed upon it, is gone, or is going everywhere; and, by the end of the century, unless the Almighty interferes, it will be forgotten…

As to Religion, it is a private luxury, which a man may have if he will; but which of course he must pay for, and which he must not obtrude upon others, or indulge in to their annoyance. The general character of this great apostasia is one and the same everywhere.

Newman saw in liberalism not only skepticism or what he called “the aggressive, capricious, untrustworthy intellect” but apostasy. He also saw liberalism as inseparable from the rise of unbelief, which was more insidious than the repudiation of Catholicism exacted by more formal apostasy because it was so much more prevalent in a society suffused with No Popery.

Moreover, such unbelief posed formidable problems for the newly reconstituted English Catholic Church. If three hundred years of Protestant Christianity had left the English radically hostile to Catholic Christianity, any attempt at reviving the Church in England would have its work cut out for it. This is why Newman devoted so much of his life to Catholic education.

Another ancillary problem, as Newman saw it, was that the English had apostatized twice. If their first apostasy had been from their traditional Catholic faith to the Protestant faith of the Tudors, their second caused them to abandon the Bible Christianity of the Established Church for the rationalism of the Enlightenment, which Newman saw as interchangeable with the liberalism that he had spent his life combatting. (One can see this in his excoriating criticism of the Enlightenment historian, Edward Gibbon.)

Again, in his “Bigiletto Speech,” there was nothing happenstance about his speaking of his fight against liberalism in the context of what he called “the great apostasia.” They went hand-in-hand.

The apostasy bred of liberalism – what he called “the all-corroding, all-dissolving scepticism of the intellect” — faced Newman at every turn of his long life. Indeed, it sent his two brothers away from the Christian faith, one to utopian socialism and the other to Unitarianism, not to mention many of his dearest friends. Towards the end of his life, when he peered into the future, he saw with prophetic clarity the unprecedented scale of the general irreligion to come.

I am speaking of evils, which in their intensity and breadth are peculiar to these times. But I have not yet spoken of the root of all these falsehoods… The elementary proposition of this new philosophy which is now so threatening is this—that in all things we must go by reason, in nothing by faith, that things are known and are to be received so far as they can be proved. Its advocates say, all other knowledge has proof—why should religion be an exception?

One of the reasons why Newman held such abiding sway over his contemporaries was precisely because he spoke of the character of this new faithless rationalism with such terrible accuracy. Matthew Arnold’s younger brother, Thomas, who would later teach English literature in Newman’s Catholic University in Dublin, after converting to the Church not once but twice, to the chagrin of his wife, certainly acknowledged his debt to Newman on this score. In his very first letter to the great convert in 1855, he wrote from New Zealand:

My excuse for writing to you and seeking counsel from you, is that your writings have exercised the greatest influence over my mind. I will try to make this intelligible in as few words as possible. My Protestantism which was always of the liberal sort and disavowed the principle of authority, developed itself during my residence at Oxford into a state of absolute doubt and uncertainty about the very facts of Christianity. After leaving Oxford I went up to London, and there, to my deep shame be it spoken, finding a state of doubt intolerable, I plunged into the abyss of unbelief.

You know the nature of the illusions which lead a man to this fearful state far better than I can tell you; — there is a page in your lectures on the University system where you describe the fancied illumination and enlargement of mind which a man experiences after abandoning himself to unbelief, which when I read, it seemed as if you had looked into my very heart, and given in clear outline feelings and thoughts which I had had in my mind, but never thoroughly mastered.

The passage to which Arnold refers, from Newman’s Discourses on the Scope and Nature of University Education (1852), which would later be expanded into his classic The Idea of a University (1873), describes the seeming “illumination” the mind undergoes when it first “comes across the arguments and speculations of unbelievers, and feels what a novel light they cast upon what he has hitherto accounted sacred; and still more, if it gives in to them and embraces them, and throws off as so much prejudice what it has hitherto held, and, as if waking from a dream, begins to realize to its imagination that there is now no such thing as law and the transgression of law, that sin is a phantom, and punishment a bugbear, that it is free to sin, free to enjoy the world and the flesh…”

For Newman’s part, in the midst of such factitious “illumination,” such antinomian licentiousness, he never lost sight of the fact that:

Religion has its own enlargement, and an enlargement, not of tumult, but of peace. It is often remarked of uneducated persons, who have hitherto thought little of the unseen world, that, on their turning to God, looking into themselves, regulating their hearts, reforming their conduct, and meditating on death and judgment, heaven and hell, they seem to become, in point of intellect, different beings from what they were.

Before, they took things as they came, and thought no more of one thing than another. But now every event has a meaning; they have their own estimate of whatever happens to them; they are mindful of times and seasons, and compare the present with the past; and the world, no longer dull, monotonous, unprofitable, and hopeless, is a various and complicated drama, with parts and an object, and an awful moral.

What made Newman’s descriptions of the life of faith so captivating to so many of his contemporaries was that they were honest about the absence of faith amongst the Victorian English. Certainly, Newman saw a kind of travesty of Christian faith in what he called, in one of his best Anglican sermons, “The Religion of the Day” (1839), in which there is

an existing teaching… built upon worldly principle, yet pretending to be the Gospel, dropping one whole side of the Gospel, its austere character, and considering it enough to be benevolent, courteous, candid, correct in conduct, delicate,—though it includes no true fear of God, no fervent zeal for His honour, no deep hatred of sin, no horror at the sight of sinners, no indignation… at the blasphemies of heretics, no jealous adherence to doctrinal truth, no especial sensitiveness about the particular means of gaining ends, provided the ends be good, no loyalty to the Holy Apostolic Church, of which the Creed speaks, no sense of the authority of religion as external to the mind: in a word, no seriousness…

Newman, in other words, recognized that the Church could promote a rationalism of her own, which, in some respects, could be even more destructive than the world’s rationalism.

Certainly, rationalism of both the ecclesiastical and the worldly variety is still with us, though our rationalism is infinitely more ruinous than the sort adopted by the Victorians. Victorian rationalists, after all, did not set about trying to redefine something as fundamental to the “goodly framework of human society” as marriage. What makes Newman such a lively contemporary of ours is the perspicuity with which he saw the import of this God-defying reliance on the human intellect. No one saw the battle-lines forming between Roman Catholicism and its liberal enemies as clearly as Newman.

Certainly, throughout his long life, he took up the evils posed by liberalism with commanding acuity. “I look out, then, into the enemy’s camp, and I try to trace the outlines of the hostile movements and the preparations for assault which are there in agitation against us,” Newman wrote in 1858. “The arming and the manoeuvring, the earth-works and the mines, go on incessantly; and one cannot of course tell, without the gift of prophecy, which of his projects will be carried into effect and attain its purpose, and which will eventually fail or be abandoned.” (The fact that Newman chose an analogy to trench warfare here is striking in light of the fate that awaited the Victorians’ belief in progress in the fields of Flanders.)

Newman delineated clearly enough the main lines of the liberal philosophy that would seek to discredit and dislodge the teachings of the one holy catholic and apostolic Faith from the minds and hearts of men. “You may have opinions in religion, you may have theories, you may have arguments, you may have probabilities,” Newman portrayed his rationalist liberal arguing, “you may have anything but demonstration, and therefore you cannot have science. In mechanics you advance from sure premises to sure conclusions; in optics you form your undeniable facts into system, arrive at general principles, and then again infallibly apply them: here you have Science.” But for the liberal rationalists, “it is absurd for men in our present state to teach anything positively about the next world, that there is a heaven, or a hell, or a last judgment, or that the soul is immortal, or that there is a God.”

Here, one can see the analytical genius with which Newman entered into the liberal prejudices of his opponents, and it is this clairvoyance that makes him such an incomparable guide to the rationalism at the heart of liberalism. At the same time, if in meeting his opponents he could play the witty barrister, putting their arguments better than they could put them themselves, he was also a redoubtable advocate for the Truth against which liberalism has always warred.

Robert Pattison, in his brilliant book, The Great Dissent: John Henry Newman and the Liberal Heresy (1991) nicely encapsulates the upshot of his advocacy. “The great virtue of Newman’s critique of liberalism is that it should exist at all,” Pattison writes.

That there should be one consistent view of the world opposed to liberalism, root and branch, sharing none of its premises and despising all of its works is an inestimable benefit, for no one more than the liberal himself. Without some honest and unforgiving voice such as Newman’s, the liberal would be lost in the labyrinth of his own ideology. He would smugly assume that the paradoxical tenets of his creed are what Jefferson assured them they were: self-evident truths… The poverty of feeling without belief, the politics that is expediency, and the humanism that denies truth all fall within the scope of Newman’s invective and receive from him no quarter. He treats the ugliest manifestations of liberalism with the contempt they deserve but rarely provoke. Newman is the master of those who dissent.

One can readily corroborate Pattison’s point by looking at Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, which some contemporary theologians misrepresent. There, Newman cannot have been more categorical about what he refers to as “the dogmatic principle,” his abiding riposte to the clever falsehoods of liberalism.

That there is a truth then; that there is one truth; that religious error is in itself of an immoral nature; that its maintainers, unless involuntarily such, are guilty in maintaining it; that it is to be dreaded; that the search for truth is not the gratification of curiosity; that its attainment has nothing of the excitement of a discovery; that the mind is below truth, not above it, and is bound, not to descant upon it, but to venerate it; that truth and falsehood are set before us for the trial of our hearts; that our choice is an awful giving forth of lots on which salvation or rejection is inscribed; that “before all things it is necessary to hold the Catholic faith;” that “he that would be saved must thus think,” and not otherwise; that, “if thou criest after knowledge, and liftest up thy voice for understanding, if thou seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasure, then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God,”—this is the dogmatical principle, which is strength.

In contrast to the dogmatical principle, Newman described the objections to dogma that animates liberals, and here we have no problem understanding what Newman is describing because we encounter such convictions daily in our own lives.

That truth and falsehood in religion are but matter of opinion; that one doctrine is as good as another; that the Governor of the world does not intend that we should gain the truth; that there is no truth; that we are not more acceptable to God by believing this than by believing that; that no one is answerable for his opinions; that they are a matter of necessity or accident; that it is enough if we sincerely hold what we profess; that our merit lies in seeking, not in possessing; that it is a duty to follow what seems to us true, without a fear lest it should not be true; that it may be a gain to succeed, and can be no harm to fail; that we may take up and lay down opinions at pleasure; that belief belongs to the mere intellect, not to the heart also; that we may safely trust to ourselves in matters of Faith, and need no other guide,—this is the principle of philosophies and heresies, which is very weakness.

In thus giving such arresting expression to the stark divide between the Truth espoused by the infallible teachings of the Church and the shibboleths of liberalism, Newman was not simply framing an abstract war of ideas. An inveterately practical man, he was deeply concerned about what the issue of doctrinaire anti-Catholicism would be. “Where men really are persuaded of all this, however unreasonable,” he asks, “what will follow?”

For Newman, liberal relativism would not be inconsequential, and the accuracy of his predictions can be verified by our own increasingly tragic experience: it would issue in “A feeling, not merely of contempt, but of absolute hatred, towards the Catholic theologian and the dogmatic teacher.” If anyone doubts this, let him ask why Cardinal Pell languishes in jail.

In conclusion, if Newman devoted his life to anatomizing and combating the evils of liberalism, he was sensible enough to recognize that such evils would not be either easily or speedily dispelled. The work he initiated would have to be carried forward by others as committed to true liberty as he was, the liberty which only the devout life makes possible, and it is precisely because of the necessity for this continuing charge that we should all welcome his imminent canonization.

In Newman, in a world devastated by the evils of liberalism, we have been given the saint we need most.

Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries, Newman and his Family, and Newman and History. He lives in New York with his wife and two young children.