Newman and Liberalism


One must proceed warily in attempting to determine Newman's relationship to liberalism, not because Newman failed to give precision to his own understanding of the term but because "liberalism", if it has virtually no meaning today, meant, during the nineteenth century, a great variety of things.

I often think it's comical
How nature always does contrive
That every boy and every gal
That's born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative

- W. S. Gilbert -

This bit of doggerel from the second act of Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe expresses the homely truth that some categories of thought, once peripheral accretions have been stripped away from them, are reducible to fundamental and intelligible alternatives. Thus it may not be an exaggeration to say that the Western philosophical tradition established a permanent dichotomy as early as the fourth century before Christ, in Athens, where Aristotle, so to speak, confronted Plato, and that ever since that time differing explanations of the causes of things have given evidence, in one way or another, of the perjuring contest between realism and idealism.

Every baby weaned, I wist,
Is an Aristotelian or a Platonist.

Similarly, the terms “liberal” and “conservative” represent an ultimate choice, the kind of rock-bottom difference of view that, W. S. Gilbert seemed to imply in his libretto, divides the human family from infancy onward. Not, of course, “liberal” and “conservative” in any partisan sense. Indeed, the use of these terms as labels for political parties or factions has become so diffuse that all meaning has been drained from them. Thus Mr. Gorbachev and his allies in the Kremlin are dubbed “liberals”, and their opponents “conservatives”. Thus Mr. Peres leads the “liberal” faction within Israel's coalition government, and Mr. Shamir the “conservative”. Thus the “liberals” at this summer's Democratic convention in Atlanta insisted that the health and even the survival of the republic depend upon Senator Bentsen of Texas being a single heartbeat from the presidency. Much the same irrelevance has fallen upon those other warhorses of journalistic jargon, “left” and “right”, which have been relentlessly misapplied ever since the French Revolution-so much so that a recent issue of the London Economist opined, not altogether with tongue in cheek, that the demise of socialism being admitted now, even within the Soviet Union itself, pundits who want to continue to employ the categories “left” and “right” will have to confine themselves to describing various attitudes toward the environment or scientific research.[2]

But despite this chronic carelessness in usage, there remains a sense in which “liberal” and “conservative” can still offer a measure of illumination. The distinction may indeed be too bland and general to satisfy really acute thinkers, but perhaps for us lesser mortals it may serve a turn. A liberal is somebody who wants to change what is wrong. A conservative is somebody who wants to preserve what is right. And since a condition of life in this valley of tears, in this imperfect universe, is that everything displays an admixture of wrong and right, it follows that both the liberal and the conservative positions are radically defensible. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a concrete situation in which the individual human actors did not manifest in their behavior a combination of the two.

Be that as it may, one must proceed warily in attempting to determine Newman's relationship to liberalism, not because Newman failed to give precision to his own understanding of the term but because “liberalism”, if it has virtually no meaning today, meant, during the nineteenth century, a great variety of things. [3] The pious Gladstone was a liberal, and so was the apostate priest Lamermais, and so were Cavour, Garibaldi, and Mazzini. Napoleon III's regime-which was anathema to the liberal Montalembert-was nevertheless called a “liberal” empire. [4] “I die”, said Father Lacordaire, the great preacher of Notre Dame de Paris and the restorer of the Dominican order in France, “I die a penitent Catholic and an impenitent liberal. “Newman held Gladstone's person in high regard, though he disliked the Grand Old Man's politics. [5] Lamennais, whom he never met, seemed to him a tragic figure rather than an intellectually significant one. [6] As for Montalembert and Lacordaire, “I do not believe”, Newman wrote in the Apologia, “that it is possible for me to differ in any important matter from two men whom I so highly admire. In their general line of thought and conduct I enthusiastically concur, and consider them to be before their age.” [7]

There is no doubt that Newman's reluctance to condemn in strong enough terms the brand of liberalism represented by Cavour and Garibaldi moved some of his English coreligionists to suspect him of being a “liberal Catholic”, to brand him, indeed, as one of them did, “the most dangerous man in England”. [8] It is not easy to recapture over this distance of time the sense of outrage among Catholics a hundred years ago at the assault launched against the Holy See by the forces of the Italian risorgimento. Denunciation of the aggressive designs of the King of Piedmont and his minions upon the Papal States became for many Catholics, in England and elsewhere, the litmus test of true religion. Not that Newman harbored any sympathy for those who aimed to despoil the Pope of the dominions he and his predecessors had ruled for a thousand years. “Sacrilegious robbers”, he called them in a sermon preached 1866. [9] But neither was he prepared to overestimate the importance of the Temporal Power or to allow loyalty to the Pope as Vicar of Christ and supreme teacher of the Church to be confused with the position of the Pope as a temporal sovereign, however venerable that sovereignty may have been. Newman recalled from his youth “Lord Palmerston's words that, as Dr. Sumner made an excellent Archbishop [of Canterbury], yet it did not follow that he would succeed as Prime Minister”. Perhaps “the Holy Father had far too much on his hands as Pastor of the Catholic Flock to acquit himself well as the Temporal Ruler of a territory over and above his ecclesiastical training.” [10]

This last remark Newman made in private. In public he expressed himself on the Temporal Power with that precision of language that often led irritated opponents to accuse him of excessive subtlety. As one of them put it in a different context, [Newman] simply twists [people] round his little finger, and bamboozles [them] with his carefully selected words and plays so subtly with his logic that [their] simplicity is taken in.” [11] Zealots are indeed seldom patient with “carefully selected words”, and many Catholic zealots of the 186os and 1870's -including persons in very high places-were determined incredible as it may seem to us-to resist the guns of the Piedmontese by securing a formal definition of the Pope's Temporal Power as an Article of Faith. [12] “What I especially was anxious about”, Newman noted later, “was that there should be no attempt to make the Temporal Power a doctrine defied, and that for two reasons. First, perhaps it was in God's Providence to cease to be. Second, it was not right to frighten, worry, irritate Catholics by forcing on them as defied what was not.” [13]

In the late summer of 1866 Ullathorne, Newman's bishop, decreed that throughout the diocese of Birmingham the feast of the Rosary, October 7, be celebrated with particular solemnity and that “in the Sermon at the Mass of the Festival ... the preacher should instruct the faithful on their obligations to the Holy See, and on the duty especially incumbent on us at this time of praying for the Pope”. No one could fail to understand why Pius IX needed prayer “at this time”, in the Bishop's words: the Piedmontese had already occupied Romagna and the Marches, and only the presence in Rome of a French garrison prevented them from seizing la citta itself. Newman, ever reverential toward episcopal authority, readily complied with the directive and, at the same time, took advantage of the opportunity to draw for his parishioners-and for that larger public, friendly or unfriendly, which, since the publication of the Apologia two years before, listened carefully to his every word-to draw those distinctions so necessary to a genuine appreciation of the spiritual primacy of the Pope. The sermon was an exercise not in subtlety but in clarity.

Indeed, clarity is too weak a word. Newman constructed his argument with the meticulous care of one who realized he spoke not only to those who actually heard him that October day in the Oratory church on the Hagley Road in Birmingham, not only to his legion of admirers all over England, Ireland, and America, but also to those potentates and opinion makers -many of them, like Manning and W. G. Ward, Oxford converts-who had once been his disciples and who now, like the pharisees of old, were anxious to catch him in his speech. He therefore punctiliously followed Bishop Ullathorne's instruction and dealt with his subject in terms of “obligations to the Holy See” and “the duty of praying for the Pope”. The obligation was clear enough, he began, from the very words of Scripture that proclaim the Petrine office as a special mercy of God to his people, an office exercised by the popes, one after another, as years have rolled on, one dying and another coming, down to this day, when we see Pius the Ninth sustaining the weight of the glorious apostolate, and that for twenty years past-a tremendous weight, a ministry involving momentous duties, innumerable anxieties, and immense responsibilities . . . . There are kings of the earth who have despotic authority, which their subjects obey indeed, but disown in their hearts; but we must never murmur at that absolute rule which the Sovereign Pontiff has over us, because it is given to him by Christ, and, in obeying him, we are obeying the Lord .... His yoke is the yoke of Christ; he has the responsibility of his own acts, not we; and to his Lord must he render account, not to us.

And there was obligation also, Newman contended, in another, narrower sense.

We in this country owe our highest blessings to the See of St. Peter-to the succession of Bishops who have filled his Apostolic chair. For first it was a Pope who sent missionaries to this island in the first age of the Church, when the island was as yet in pagan darkness. Then again, when our barbarous ancestors, the Saxons, crossed over from the Continent and overran the country, who but a Pope, St. Gregory the First, sent over St. Augustine and his companions to convert them to Christianity?

As for the present Pontiff, who reestablished the English hierarchy in 1850,

I would have you recollect, my Brethren, that it is he . . . who has redressed a misfortune of nearly three hundred years standing. Twenty years ago we were a mere collection of individuals; but Pope Pius has brought us together, has given us Bishops, and created out of us a body politic, which (please God), as time goes on, will play an important part in Christendom with a character, an intellect, and a power of its own, with schools of its own, with a definite influence in the counsels of the Holy Church Catholic, as England had of old time.

But there were even more personal grounds for gratitude to Pius IX:

His great act towards us here, towards me. One of his first acts after he was Pope was, in his great condescension, to call me to Rome; then, when I got there, he bade me send for my friends to be with me; and he formed us into an Oratory. And thus it came to pass that, on my return to England . . . did we establish our own Oratory here.

Newman may not have measured his loyalty to the Pope as did W. G. Ward, who would have liked a papal bull to read each morning at breakfast along with the Times. But no one entertained a warmer affection than Newman did for the grand, courtly, flamboyant, pious, narrow-minded, sweet-tempered Pius IX:

He is one whom to see is to love, one who overcomes even strangers, even enemies, by his very look and voice; whose presence subdues, whose memory haunts even the sturdy, resolute mind of the English Protestant. . . . Such is he; and, great as he is in office, and in his beneficent acts and virtuous life, as great is he in the severity of his trials, and in the gravity of his perils.

And so, since “the crisis of the long-protracted troubles of [this] pontificate ... seems close at hand”, Newman turned to “the second point to which I have to direct your attention, my Brethren-the duty of praying for the Holy Father”.

We are to pray for Rome as the seat, not only of [the Pope's] spiritual government, but of his temporal. We are to pray that he may continue king of Rome; that his subjects may come to a better mind; that, instead of threatening him and assailing him, or being too cowardly to withstand those who do, they may defend and obey him; that instead of being the heartless tormentors of an old and venerable man, . . . instead of needing to be kept down year after year by troops from afar, they may pay a willing homage to the Apostle of God.

Well enough, then, to pray that the Temporal Power, whatever its political faults-and Newman did not deny them — to pray that the Temporal Power be sustained in some form. [14] But prayer, he reminded his congregation, has its own rules.

We do not absolutely know God's will in this matter; we know indeed it is His will that we should ask. …If we were quite sure what God intended to do, whether to continue the temporal power of the Pope or to end it, we should not pray. ...We hope indeed to gain our prayer if we pray enough; but, since it is ever uncertain what is enough, it is ever uncertain what will be the event.

Of the two possible outcomes, Newman thought the Pope's success to be, humanly speaking, “highly probable. ... It is cheering to begin our prayers with . . . signs of God's providence in our favour.” But in suggesting what those signs might have been, he gave small comfort to those who wanted to lend to a political struggle a romanticized or spiritualized aura. “I think the Romans will not be able to do without [the Pope]-it is only a minority even now which is against him; the majority of his subjects is not wicked, so much as cowardly and incapable.” And, based upon a long historical record, fickle.

Even if they renounce him now for a while, they will change their minds and wish for him again. They will find out that he is their real greatness. Their city is a place of ruins, except so far as it is a place of holy shrines. It is the tomb and charnel-house of pagan impiety, except so far as it is sanctified and quickened by the blood of martyrs and the relics of saints. To inhabit it would be a penance, were it not for the presence of religion. Babylon is gone, Memphis is gone, Persepolis is gone; Rome would go, if the Pope went.
But what if, indeed, the Pope did go?
Let us suppose that the Pope loses his temporal power, and returns to the condition of St. Sylvester, St. Julius, St. Innocent, and other great Popes of early times? Are we therefore to suppose that he and the Church will come to nought? God forbid! To say that the Church can fail, or the See of St. Peter can fail, is to deny the faithfulness of Almighty God to His word. “Thou art Peter and upon this rock will I build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” . . . The Church is not the creature of times and places, of secular politics or popular caprice. Our Lord maintains her by means of this world, but these means are necessary to her only while He gives them; when He takes them away they are no longer necessary. He works by means, but He is not bound to means. He has a thousand ways of maintaining her; He can support her life, not by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of His mouth. If He takes away one defence, He will give another instead. We know nothing of the future: our duty is to direct our course according to our day; not to give up of our own act the means which God has given us to maintain His Church withal, but not lament over their loss, when He has taken them away. Temporal power has been the means of the Church's independence for a very long period; but, as her Bishops have lost it a long while, and are not less Bishops still, so would it be as regards her Head, if he also lost his. The Eternal God is her refuge, and as He has delivered her out of so many perils hitherto, so will He deliver her still. [15]

Sixteen years later, when he was an old man past eighty, Newman wrote a note apropos of this sermon, which, in its published form, he had titled “The Pope and the Revolution”. “What I ... said [then] I hold now. I have no reason to suppose that in so holding I have not the sanction of the Pope's opinion, but,” he added with the refinement so characteristic of him, “being now a Cardinal, whatever might be my personal opinion, I should submit to him and act with him, should the question of the Temporal Power come into discussion.” [16] By that time, of course, the Temporal Power had indeed come to an end, and the Pope was the self-proclaimed “Prisoner of the Vatican”, a status destined to continue until the Lateran Treaties Of 1929. And the very fact that Newman was now a member of the sacred college had put to rest, as he expressed it, “all the stories which have gone about of my being a half Catholic, a Liberal Catholic, [17] not to be trusted”. [18] When the news arrived in Birmingham that Leo XIII had determined to bestow upon him a red hat, Newman said exultantly to his Oratorian brethren, “The cloud is lifted from me forever.” [19]

Il mio cardinale”, Pope Leo called Newman, “my cardinal”. There was much resistance to the appointment. “It was not easy”, the Pope recalled later, “It was not easy. They said he was too liberal.” [20] When he went to Rome for his formal installation into the college, Newman, old and frail but as unshakably principled as ever, took the occasion to answer that unspecified “they” to whom the Pope referred. There is in the famous biglietto speech a reminder of another great English Catholic, St. Thomas More, who chose silence over rebellion, until, the victim of perjury and condemned to death, he spoke his full mind about the transgressions of his King. The analogy is by no means perfect, but Newman, too, had often remained silent in the midst of controversy, lest he be misinterpreted, as he so frequently had been, and thereby scandalize the faithful. But now he was a cardinal, a prince of the Church, and amid the glitter of a crowded Roman salon, he would draw once more those distinctions the Mannings and Wards of this world were so reluctant to hear.

“It must be borne in mind”, he said in the voice that was still music to the ear,

that there is much in the liberalistic theory which is good and true; . . . the precepts of justice, truthfulness, sobriety, self-command, benevolence . . . are among its avowed principles. . . . It is not till we find that this array of principles is intended to supersede, to block out, religion, that we pronounce it to be evil.

Here, in this substitution lies the “one great mischief I have from the first opposed myself. For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of Liberalism in religion. . . . Liberalism in religion is the doctrine” — note the word —

that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another . . . . 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 whatever strikes his fancy. Devotion is not necessarily founded on faith. Men may go to Protestant Churches and to Catholic, may get good from both and belong to neither. They may fraternise together in spiritual thoughts and feelings, without any views at all of doctrines in common, or seeing the need of them. 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. [21]

Here was the mortal enemy thrown up by the modern world, “this great apostasia”, he labeled it, “one and the same everywhere”, compared to which the absorption of the old Papal States into the new kingdom of Italy was merely a species of trivia. Newman might have preferred — as indeed he did-that the Pope retain his civil princedom, just as he would have preferred, a little later, that his friend the Liberal Prime Minister Gladstone should have sent a British army to rescue General Gordon at Khartoum. He was disappointed in both these hopes, but such disappointment seemed to him hardly more threatening than so many other inevitable slings and arrows that bruised the Christian soul on its way toward “the blessed vision of peace”. “Liberalism in religion” was another matter altogether. He battled it, he claimed in the biglietto speech, as Anglican and Catholic, “for thirty, forty, fifty years”, and the evidence amply bears him out. [22] He used whatever weapon came to his fine hand, ridicule among them. In the novel Loss and Gain, written in 1848, Newman introduced to the world Dr. Brownside, Dean of Nottingham, “a little, prim, smirking, bespectacled man, bald in front with curly black hair behind, somewhat pompous in his manner”, for whom revelation,

instead of being the abyss of God's counsels, with its dim outlines and broad shadows, was a flat sunny plain, laid out with straight macadamized roads. . . . He maintained that in Revelation all that was mysterious had been left out, and nothing given us but what was practical and directly concerned us. . . . He said . . . that in fact there was no truth or falsehood in received dogmas of theology; that they were modes, neither good nor bad in themselves, but personal, national, or periodic, in which go the intellect reasoned upon the great truths of religion; that the fault lay, not in holding them, but in insisting on them, which was like insisting on a Hindu dressing like a [Westerner], or a regiment of dragoons using the boomerang.

Then there was Mr. Batts, “a pale-faced man of about thirty-five, who, when he spoke, arched his eyebrows, and had a peculiar smile”. Mr. Batts was the director of the Truth Society, among whose patrons were Abelard, Benjamin Franklin, and Julian the Apostate and whose guiding principles were “first, it is uncertain whether truth exists, and, second, it is certain that it cannot be found”. [23]

But of course Newman never thought that the blight of liberalism-in-religion was at all a laughing matter, and his ordinary mood in talking or writing about it was somber. It may be that a speaker at a conference such as this should try to conclude his remarks upon a high and optimistic note. If so, I am afraid that, in order to be faithful to my subject and to the theme of this conference, I must, for once, defy the conventions. “Newman Today” is what has brought us together, and Newman yesterday-exactly a century and a half ago, in 1838, at the height of the Oxford Movement — left us a melancholy prophecy — much of which, alas, has sadly come true about the deleterious effects of liberalism-in-religion.

The view henceforth is to be, that Christianity does not exist in documents, any more than in institutions; in other words, the Bible will be given up as well as the Church. It will be said that the benefit which Christianity has done to the world, and which its Divine Author meant it should do, was to give an impulse to society, to infuse a spirit, to direct, control, purify, enlighten the mass of human thought and action, but not to be a separate and definite something, whether doctrine or association, existing objectively, integral, and with an identity, and forever, and with a claim upon our homage and obedience. And all this fearfully coincides with the symptoms in other directions of the spread of a Pantheistic spirit, that is, the religion of beauty, imagination, and philosophy, without constraint, moral or intellectual, a religion speculative and self-indulgent. Pantheism, indeed, is the great deceit which awaits the age to come. [24]


  1. “Iolanthe, or, The Peer and the Peri”, in ed. Frederick Hobbs, Authentic Libretti of the Gilbert and Sullivan Operas (New York: Crown, 1939), p. 62. Private Willis, on sentry duty outside Westminster Palace. “Then let's rejoice with loud Fal, lal, la, la! / That Nature always does contrive-Fal, lal, la, la! Etc. till a final Fal, lal, la.” Back to text
  2. The Economist 308, no. 7562 (Aug. 6-12, 1988), pp. 8-9. Back to text
  3. See the standard work Guido de Ruggiero, The History of European Liberalism, trans. R. G. Collingwood (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959), esp. pp. 347-69. Back to text
  4. See Marvin R. O'Connell, “Montalembert at Mechlin: a Reprise of 1830,” Journal of Church and State 26 (1984), p. 533. Back to text
  5. See, for example, Newman to Blachford, Jan. 26, Apr. 23, May 19, May 23, and Dec. 28, 1885, vol. XXXI, pp. 19, 55, 67, 69, and 106. Back to text
  6. “The Fall of de Lamennais”, in Essays Critical and Historical (London: Longman, 1890), vol. 1, pp. 138-72. Originally published as “Affairs of Rome”, British Critic 22 (Oct. 1837), pp. 261-83. Back to text
  7. Apologia pro Vita Sua (London: Longman, 192 1), p. 285. Back to text
  8. albot to Manning, Apr. 25, 1867, quoted in Edmund S. Purcell, Life of Cardinal Manning (London: Macmillan, 1896), vol. II, p. 318. Back to text
  9. “The Pope and the Revolution”, in Sermons Preached on Various Occasions (London: Longman, 1921), p. 307. There is an irony in the fact that the first edition of this volume (1857) was dedicated to Manning, whose extreme views in favor of the Temporal Power Newman opposed as much as he did the machinations of the Piedmontese. This sermon was added to the collection in the third edition (1870), and the dedication remained as before. Back to text
  10. “Memorandum”, May 22, 1882, Letters and Diaries, vol. XIX, pp. 561-62, and vol. XXX, pp. 89-90. Back to text
  11. Ullathorne's account of his last conversation with Manning, quoted in E. C. Butler, The Life and Times of Bishop Ullathorne (London: Longman, 1926), vol. II, p. 159. Back to text
  12. See, for example, the treatment in Purcell, Manning, vol. II, pp. 151-69, on the Temporal Power as an Article of Faith. Back to text
  13. See n. 10 above. Back to text
  14. “I had no thought of making [the Pope] a subject to any secular power. I thought he might have Rome and a slice of territory to the sea, or at least an honorary sovereignty.” See n. 10 above. Back to text
  15. “The Pope and the Revolution”, pp. 282-313. Back to text
  16. See n. 10 above. Back to text
  17. Despite Newman's own repudiation of the term “liberal Catholic” as applied to himself, modern scholars perversely insist upon categorizing him so. See for one among many possible examples James Tunstead Burtchaell, Catholic Theories of Biblical Inspiration since 1810 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. 65. Back to text
  18. Newman to Church, Mar. 11, 1879, Letters and Diaries, vol. XXIX, p. 72. Back to text
  19. Wilfrid Ward, The Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman, 2 Vols. (London: Longman, 1913), vol. II, p. 438. Back to text
  20. See Marvin R. O'Connell, “Newman: the Victorian Intellectual as Pastor”, Theological Studies 46 (1985), pp. 329-33. Back to text
  21. Ward, Newman, vol. II, pp. 460-62. Back to text
  22. Among many possible examples perhaps the most familiar-and a kind of summing up can be found in the Apologia, pp. 14, 203-4, 214, 261-64, 285-97. Back to text
  23. Loss and Gain. The Story of a Convert (London: Longman, 1906), pp. 67-70, 405. Back to text
  24. “Holy Scripture and Its Relation to the Catholic Creed”, in Discussions and Arguments on Various Subjects (London: Longman, 1907), p. 233. Originally published as Tract Eighty-five (Sept. 1838), “Lecture on the Scripture Proof of the Doctrines of the Church”. Back to text


O'Connell, Marvin R. “Newman and Liberalism.” In Newman Today. Papers Presented at a Conference Sponsored by the Wethersfield Institute New York City, October 15, 1988 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, (1989): 79-94.

Reprinted by permission of The Wethersfield Institute.


Marvin R. O'Connell is Professor Emeritus of History at Notre Dame University.

Copyright © 1988 Ignatius Press.

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