Page 6, 2nd October 1970

2nd October 1970
Page 6
Page 6, 2nd October 1970 — NEWMAN AND NON-CATHOLIC THOUGHT

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Newman and the Common Tradition by John Coulson (Oxford University Press 40s.) DR. COULSON's learning both on Newman in par ticular and on English nineteenth century literature in general is immense. and the present volume is well worthy even of his high standards. His concern here is to inquire how far Newman within the Catholic Church was speaking the language of 'a common tradition' outside it which was represented in particular first by Coleridge and then by F. D. Maurice.

It had been Bentham's contention that we only learnt through sensation and that we only believe that the billiard ball when struck by the cue will roll along the table the hundredth time because we have already seen that happen ninety-nine times before. But it is clear that experience of the past could teach us nothing about the future unless we knew already that the universe was a place of law. Experience may teach us what the particular law is but only if we already know that there is a law.

"Everything that can be thought at all can he thought clearly," said the earlier Wittgenstein in Tractatus, but greater wisdom taught him to modify his view and recognise the fundamental mystery. All poetry which is an attempt to express the inexpressible is a comment on the insufficiency of the Benthamite view. Against Bentham. Coleridge proclaimed the creative function of language.

We come to understand what duty or love are by practising them. If without practising them we merely set out to analyse them we destroy them. So, ar&ued Coleridge, the purely individualistic man is not fully a man. Only as a member of an institution beyond himself—of a Church and obeying its laws and partaking in its sacraments. can he be fully himself. One may understand for a purely personal hedonism. but why should anyone. to whom the idea does not happen to appeal. bother about "the greatest happiness of the greatest number?"

The gap in ' Coleridge's theory was that he showed why it was necessary for Man for his full development to belong to a Church, or something of the nature of a Church. but he did not show why the claims of Christ to be the founder Of that Church were valid. "Whatever finds me." he said, "hears witness for itself that it has proceeded from a Holy Spirit." It was not a very compelling argument. The early nineteenth century was well acquainted with the debate whether there was a God but tended too easily to take it for granted

that. if there was a God, then Christ was that God.

Dr. Coulson traces the influence on Newman of Coleridge, among others. in bringing him to see the need for a Church. The sincerity of Newman's belief in Christ in his early Anglican days is, of course, beyond question and proved by numerous quotations from his Sermons. He had inherited that faith from his early evangelical days, but his writings in these days— Tract 90, the debates on the Apostolic Succession, the Essay on Development—are all concerned with the argument Where is the Church of Christ to he found?

They contain little to answer the sceptic who mietht say, "It may be that there is a God, but what does it mean to say that Christ was God, begotten of the Father? What can such a phrase mean? Obviously the Athanasian claim cannot be literal, biological truth. The Father cannot have begotten the Son before time was in the

exact sense in which normal fathers beget their sons."

As Newman wrote to Meynell in words which Dr. Coulson pertinently quotes, transcendent truths may admit of but partial communication to us and that under the images of earthly things . . . not true representations in the fullness of their meaning. "And, if Christ was less than God," the sceptiC may continue. "what can it matter what existing institution is most nearly obedient to his plans? What can it matter whether bishops have the Apostolic Succession or not?"

Concerned only to offer Man a full life, both Coleridge and Maurice were content to say that the Church of England was the Church to which Englishmen should belong the ecclesia within the enclena —and not to bother very much about what foreigners ought to do. But Newman was never content with the belief that a Church was a comfortable thing to belong to. He demanded the assurance that its claims were true. and indeed in the latter half of his life Newman. far from recommending Christianity as the 'national' life. came to see a too close identification of the Church with the nation as a weakness — saw the danger, even in a Catholic country. of the Church's perversion into the dbfence of merely national ambitions, and he even came to think that the Church did better when the Catholics were a minority in a pluralist society, neither claiming nor receiving any secular privileges. than in a professedly Catholic country. Yet why should we believe that Christ was God or the Catholic Church the special Church of Christ? The simplisie Catholic might be able to believe that Popes and bishops ruled the Church on all occasions with perfect wisdom and that the only virtue required of the faithful was loyal obedience. Newman's experiences of dealings with ecclesiastics, which it is here beyond Dr. Coulson's brief, to recount in detail, quite prevented him from any such belief. Rule from Rome meant to him in practise, rule by "the Pope's lackeys who butler the Pope." The Church was not as Monsignor Talbot thought the clergy dominating the laity.

The Church consisted of the whole people of God. The laity were full members of it. They must be allowed, encouraged, even compelled to play their full part in it, and Dr. Coulson is able to show how in this belief Newman was more than any other man of the last century the precursor of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council in Lumen Gentium and elsewhere. All this is true and brilliantly demonstrated.

But what exactly is the laity? Christ died for all men. As Maurice put it, "Christ came into the world to regenerate all human society." But of that society the greater number never heard of Him or His Church. A very large number in what Newman called this "simply irreligious" age reject his claims with no very careful inquiry. No one can pretend that either of these have a right to instruct the Church. But even the obedient laity are of two sorts.

There are the thoughtful, well instructed and devout. Newman was, of course, right in fighting their battle against the absurdities of Monsignor Talbot and insisting that they had a right to full education and a right and duty to make a full use of their talents. But beyond them there was a vast body of the laity which is obedient and virtuous, which values its religion and is anxious to practise it but whose abilities lie in other directions than the speculative, which makes no claim to the understanding of theological conundra and is only anxious to be told what to do and to do it—Newman's "lazy. ragged, filthy, storytelling beggar

woman," if you will. Where do they stand? Do they belong. to what Coleridge called the "elerisy"?

Are they among those faithful who are to be "consulted" in matters of doctrine? "Are we doing them any kindness or bringing any benefit to the Church if we invite—almost compel, them to give their opinions on matters on which they claim no competence? Encourage everyone to write to the papers about everything, and 'the ignorant armies clash by night,' and who is the better for their clashing? Newman, it is true, when he made his claim specifically limited it to "the enthusiastic laity." But is there not a danger in that— a danger that we substitute for the cleavage of the Church between clergy and laity a hardly less dangerous cleavage between well-educated and illeducated? And can we really say that the opinion of the "enthusiastic" is always the same thing as the "common tradition"? Those who are most insistent that their own opinions be always expressed are sometimes also those who are most contemptuous of the opinions of any who differ from them.

it is not to be believed that even in his early days Newman, when wrestling in his own soul with the mystery of things, did not ask himself, among other questions. whether the amazing claim for Christ of the Athanasian creed could be true. He would be a very clodden sou! who did not ask such a question. Yet in his printed word he advanced from an assumption. If Christ was God then He was Prophet, Priest and King. But the major was still an assumption. By Newman's later years the world had changed. In France, in Germany and to some extent in England ingenious men were attempting to work out alternative explanations of Christ which depicted Him as something less than God.

Then in his final great work —the Grammar of Assent— Newman gave us. among other things, the reasons why we might accept the Christian claims—why Christ was in his nature different from other men and the Church of Christ different from other institutions. it would have been interesting if Dr. Coulson had been able to find space for that argument in a little more detail. For it contains really the answer to Maurice — the reason why with all his attractive virtues Maurice's reasoning is insufficient.

As Dr. Coulson says in his own terse and just summary of Newman's teaching, the question that Newman asked was "If Christianity fails to convince mankind that it is true. what is gained by showing that it works?" It is on that field that the final battle must be fought.

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