Newman and the LaityPAUL CHAVASSE
The emergence of the Catholic Church in England from the shadows that had engulfed it at the time of the Reformation was a process both long and difficult.
The emergence of the Catholic Church in England from the shadows that had engulfed it at the time of the Reformation was a process both long and difficult. Gathering speed as the end of the eighteenth century approached and continuing to accelerate in the first half of the nineteenth century, the movement for the emancipation of Catholics meant that many and varied attempts resulted as the quiet and retiring followers of the “old religion” reaccustomed themselves to long-forgotten privileges in society at large. What concerns us here is the part played by John Henry Newman in the process of “reemergence” and in a particular way the contribution his thought and writings made to the establishment of the place or role of the laity in the newly emancipated English Church.
Architecture is often as good a guide as any to the state of a civilization and its cultural life, and the Church cannot be an exception to that rule. After Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and the impetus this gave to an ordered growth of ecclesiastical architecture, a hotly disputed argument arose between, on the one hand, the supporters of Augustus W. N. Pugin and the Gothic Revival and, on the other, those, like Newman and the Oratorians, who adopted another, more classical, style, which was condemned by Pugin as “pagan and non-Christian”. For the supporters of the Gothic their churches, with dark and mysterious interiors, with the rood screen separating the sanctuary from the rest of the building, were an eloquent witness to the way they wished to perceive the Church as a living reality: the rood screen was as much a real as a symbolic separation of the laity from that holier province occupied by the clergy. For Newman, with his preference for open, classical buildings, where all could see and more effectively share in what was happening at the altar, this, too, reflected a view of the Church, one that has more of an idea of “totality”, of clergy and laity together, all part and parcel, so to speak, of that one overarching reality of the Catholic Church, the Mystical Body of Christ.
When the name of John Henry Newman is linked to the laity, more often than not it is “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine”, his famous article in the Rambler, that springs to mind. One needs to remember, however, that this justly important article is but one item in a much larger corpus of writings on the laity and their vocation within the Church. In order to perceive the significance of the laity for Newman, one needs to examine much more of his output.
Throughout his long life, from its beginnings in the Church of England and the influence he exerted there, particularly in Oxford, to its close as a cardinal of the Roman Church, it is possible to see in Newman’s thought on the laity a continuing, harmonious pattern. In Newman, wherever we look, we see a concern to create of the laity an active force that would be at work both in the Church and in the world at large. For this task the laity needed to be properly educated and equipped, and Newman saw this work of education as one to which he was particularly called: “From first to last education, in the large sense of the word, has been my line.”  After 1845, when Newman became a Catholic, this call to educate the laity inspired a whole host of his undertakings; more than ever he felt called to take up arms in order to awaken in the Catholic Church the slumbering significance of the laity. An educated laity could capture and transform the public mind and in so doing make it that much more receptive to Catholic truth. As Newman said in 1851:
What I desiderate in Catholics is the gift of bringing out what their religion is — I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it. I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity — I wish you to enlarge your knowledge, to cultivate your reason, to get an insight into the relation of truth to truth, to learn to view things as they are, to understand how faith and reason stand to each other, what are the bases and principles of Catholicism and where lies the main inconsistencies and absurdities of the Protestant theory. I have no apprehension you will be the worse Catholics for familiarity with these subjects, provided you cherish a vivid sense of God above and keep in mind that you have souls to be judged and saved. In all times the laity have been the measure of the Catholic spirit; they saved the Irish Church three centuries ago and they betrayed the Church in England. You ought to be able to bring out what you feel and what you mean, as well as to feel and mean it; to expose to the comprehension of others the fictions and fallacies of your opponents; to explain the charges brought against the Church, to the satisfaction, not, indeed, of bigots, but of men of sense, of whatever cast of opinion. 
This most justifiably famous address to the Brothers of the Little Oratory in Birmingham  is important as a focus for many of the ideas, hopes, and aspirations that Newman held on the laity, their education, and their irreplaceable contribution to the Church’s apostolic activity. That Newman’s hopes were realized in his own day only in part and even in our own not in any way completely only serves to underscore the magnificence of his vision that address reveals and the depths of the tragedy its lack of implementation has caused.
Newman was always deeply conscious, as the above address shows, of the importance of history in the Church and of how it was ever a determining factor for both its present and its future. Looking back over the centuries, Newman noted the importance the laity had had in either furthering or halting the work of the Reformation, and his earlier studies of the Arian crisis and St. Athanasius had already planted firmly in his mind the indisputable fact that the laity not only might be but actually had been the champions and preservers of the orthodox Faith in the dark days of the fourth century when Arianism was apparently set to triumph. As he wrote:
In the earliest age it was simply the living spirit of the myriads of the faithful, none of them known to fame, who received from the disciples of the Lord, and husbanded so well and circulated so widely and transmitted so faithfully, generation after generation, the once-delivered apostolic faith; who held it with such sharpness of outline and explicitness of detail, as enabled even the unlearned instinctively to discriminate between truth and error, spontaneously to reject the very shadow of heresy and to be proof against the fascination of the most brilliant intellects, when they would lead them out of the narrow way. 
If in the fourth, why not in the nineteenth century? An educated laity and a faithful laity — these above all Newman desired; as he put it in “On Consulting the Faithful”, a laity “well-catechised and faithful to their baptismal promises”.  Education is something taught and assimilated according to a man’s intelligence and capabilities; faith is a gift that all, of whatever quality and degree, are capable of receiving as bestowed by God and “transmitted” through Baptism. The linking of the laity, education, and Baptism in one train of thought brings us to the very core and origin of the place the laity occupy as a right, a right Newman had ascertained early in his life as an Anglican minister. The importance of the laity and their inherent capability to be defenders of the Faith are rooted in the principle of sacramentality and acquired through the Divine Indwelling received at Baptism, which makes of the baptized visible “signs and instruments” of the Holy Spirit. This fact of the Divine Indwelling and what it implied for each member of the Church in terms of both rights and responsibilities is something that exercised Newman very much from his first experience of apostolic work, and this can be seen clearly from the plentiful references found in his Anglican sermons and in his Lectures on Justification.  The presence of the Holy Spirit within the hearts and minds of believers means that “the laity receive certain truths of revelation directly from God”  and that they therefore possess a definite charism of their own that cannot be neglected and that enables them to bear witness to the Faith that is in them by their word and example — as they did to such a high degree in the Arian crisis.
These ideas were developed by Newman in Sermons Bearing on Subjects of the Day, where he reflects on the idea of the Christian’s vocation: “Raise the level of religion in your own heart and it will automatically rise in the world. The Christian, then, who prays and is devout is in contact both with Christ and all other Christians.”  Again, in the sermon entitled “The Apostolical Christian”, preached in February 1843, Newman deduces his famous portrait outlining the characteristics of the devout Christian: that he lives according to the Bible, that he looks to Christ and not for the trappings of this world, that he is a man of prayer, that he lacks worldly ties and has a true eschatological attitude, and that joy fills his heart because he knows he lives in the presence of Christ.  This picture of the lay Christian in, but not of, the world must have touched and inspired many of Newman’s audience and influenced them for good for many years to come.
The Divine Indwelling meant, for Newman, even more than the fact that the faithful rejoice in Christ’s presence; it meant that the faithful reproduce him in their lives, and in particular in his threefold office of King, Priest, and Prophet. That is, they reproduce Christ as King in their working and in their endurance, because for the Christian the true royalty is that produced by work that gives dominion over the earth; as priest through the practice of prayer and striving after true sanctity; and as prophet (important for this consideration) by witnessing to the teaching of Christ and similarly teaching to others that witness, passing on from “generation to generation” the truths they have received. “Thus the heart of every Christian ought to represent in miniature the Catholic Church, since the Spirit makes both the whole Church and every member of it to be His Temple.” 
The meditation and reflection upon divine truth that this doctrine implies help the laity to make explicit their faith and similarly should help to establish that inner sense of what is true and what is false, and from this we can perceive how Newman thought the laity could actually participate in the development of doctrine through the quality of their faith and its lived expression. The discerning between the true and the false is one of the ways in which the “illative sense” is at work in the faithful, both as individuals and as a body. That illative sense is that moral conscience, that striving for conformity between the moral order and the light of revelation, that is felt in some way by all men and that assists the faithful in believing with assurance that which is not clearly seen. This is particularly the case in the areas of worship and devotion, which Newman saw as peculiarly the province of the laity. 
A further development in Newman’s thought regarding the laity as participators in the prophetical office of Christ and all that that meant for their place in the Church arose when Newman, still an Anglican, had his attention drawn to the many popular devotions held in such esteem by Catholicism. He found it difficult to discern in any sure way what was revealed doctrine and what was only an opinion or a tolerated exercise of piety or ultimately a pious legend. Newman had striven to find a middle way whereby faith was not limited solely to the Scriptures, on the one hand, while on the other it was not extended to include all the things he then regarded as the corruptions of devotion. Newman came to the conclusion that it was necessary to distinguish a twofold Tradition. One can be termed the “episcopal Tradition”, comprising the Creed and the Church’s solemn rites and ceremonies, all handed down from bishop to bishop, witnessing to belief in the objects of which they are the signs. The second can be called the “prophetic Tradition”, which is at work in those who “interpret” revelation. They develop and define its mysteries, clarify its documents, harmonize its content, and apply its promises. The teaching of the prophetic Tradition cannot be easily summarized because of its profusion. The prophetic Tradition is (as Newman wrote in Via Media), “the thought and principle that breathes in the Church, her accustomed and unconscious way of viewing things, the body of her received notions and practices, rather than any definite and systematic collection of dogmas elaborated by the intellect”. Sometimes it will coincide with the episcopal Tradition; at other times it dissolves in “fable and legend”. It is partly written, partly oral, partly a supplement to Scripture; sometimes expressed, sometimes hidden, contained in liturgies, controversies, prejudices, and customs. It is the “thought of the Spirit” or “the breath of the Church”. It pertains par excellence to the laity because it is lived, not formulated, and is susceptible to corruption if the Church is not vigilant of it.  But it is a rich source of witness to the Faith and what it implies both implicitly and explicitly. Newman, in recognizing this particular way in which the laity share in the prophetic Tradition of the Church, was also led to see how good and how appropriate it is to “consult” those who hold such a richness in their spiritual lives.
These two strains of Tradition never exist in isolation of each other, but they serve to illuminate the fact that the laity’s experience of Christianity, lived out in the world as well as in the Church, is indeed for them something unique, which gives a particular insight or preserves a particular truth in a different fashion. It is a reflection of how Newman saw the Church at work: as a totality of both hierarchy and laity together, differing, complementary expressions of the same truth. 
The ideas that Newman had pondered and developed for over twenty years (aided, it must be said, by others, such as the Roman theologian Perrone)  reached a synthesis — and a controversial one at that — in 1859, when he came to write his renowned article for the magazine Rambler. The significance of the Rambler came from the fact that it was carried on by laymen; its articles were of a high standard, equal to those in the great reviews; and it presented a Catholic interpretation of the questions of the day that was appreciated by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The object of the magazine was much in line with Newman’s own, for it wished above all to create a body of thought against the false intellectualism of the age and to give to Catholicism suitable defenders and defenses, much in the same way as Lacordaire or Montalembert on the Continent. Unfortunately, the magazine had managed to offend the bishops because of its often daring theology and seeming disrespect to Cardinal Wiseman and the system of seminary education. Its articles were seen as increasingly carping and provocative, and matters came to a head in January 1859, when an article (unsigned, but written by Scott Nasmyth Stokes, a leading Catholic lay authority) criticized the English bishops for their handling of the current question of state support for Catholic schools. Stokes was accused of disloyalty, and at a meeting in London the bishops decided that unless the editor, Richard Simpson, retired and the spirit of the magazine changed, they would be forced to censure it. To avoid a public scandal Newman was approached, as acceptable to both sides, to convince Simpson to go and, as it turned out, to succeed him as editor. Unwillingly, and after much prayer, Newman agreed and became editor, seeing in his new task a means of serving the educated laity and helping to preserve a magazine that was vital to that particular work of education in the Church.
In May 1859 the first issue with Newman as editor was published. The magazine’s attitude was changed, and Newman published an apology for the previous criticism of the bishops but suggested that “their Lordships really desire to know the opinion of the laity on subjects in which the laity are especially concerned”. He added that if even in the preparation of a dogmatic definition, such as recently on that of the Immaculate Conception, the laity were consulted, how much more they should be in a practical matter that concerned them closely, such as education. A row developed, as some theologians, principally John Gillow of Ushaw College, Durham, thought Newman’s language had implied too much to the role of the laity; and Dr. Ullathorne, Newman’s bishop in Birmingham, asked him to give up the newly acquired editorship. Newman had one issue still in hand, that of July 1859, and he regarded it as his last remaining opportunity to explain both himself and the true place of the laity within the Church. He worked hard, his letters almost ceased, and in July there duly appeared “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine”. What Newman taught in that article was to be taught in a more solemn manner some one hundred years later in the decrees of the Second Vatican Council. But in the Church of 1859 the reception to his words was very different, and eventually he was secretly delated to Rome for heresy by Bishop Brown of Newport. Early in 1860 Dr. Ullathorne informed Newman of this, and he at once offered to explain his writings in a Catholic sense. Due to a series of misunderstandings between Newman, Wiseman, and Manning, Rome gained the impression that Newman had refused to comply with the request. Much whispering against Newman in both Rome and London for years to come meant that his influence was both suspect and curtailed heavily. As John Coulson put it:
His publication of this essay was an act of political suicide from which his career in the Church was never fully to recover; at one stroke he, whose reputation as the one honest broker between the extremes of English Catholic opinion had hitherto stood untarnished, gained the Pope’s personal displeasure, the reputation in Rome of being the most dangerous man in England, and a formal accusation of heresy proffered against him. 
The source of this terrible tragedy lay in a deep-rooted misunderstanding of what Newman meant by the word “consult”. In order to grasp Newman’s entire thought on the laity, it is essential to be clear on this vital point. We have seen how Newman had come to regard the laity as one of the places in which the Holy Spirit dwelt, how he was active in preserving and stimulating the Faith, and that the richness contained in the lay “prophetical Tradition” and the consensus it gave to Catholic truth enabled it to be seen as one of the areas where the infallible voice of the Church could be heard, as Tradition manifested itself sometimes through bishops and doctors, people, liturgies, rites, and history, any one of them being able to make up for a deficiency in another.  However, Newman’s eager critics could and did interpret his words as saying that this consultation of the laity was a right they possessed that enabled them, along with the successors of the Apostles, to make the law, as if the laity were also the foundation of the Church. It looked as if they could demand to be consulted, as if there was an obligation on the part of the bishops to seek the laity’s point of view. Of course this democratic view of Church life and procedure is not at all what Newman meant. We have already noted that Newman was concerned with seeing the Church as a whole, as a totality, and did not wish any division to exist between the rulers of the Church and the laity. Instead a “conspiratio” (literally, a “breathing together”) should exist: “The two, the Church teaching and the Church taught, are put together as one twofold testimony, illustrating each other, and never to be divided.”  In his article Newman explains quite clearly: first, what he means by “consult”: that it is to establish the fact of the laity’s belief, just as one might consult a barometer about the weather or a watch about the time of day, not so as to solicit an opinion but to establish a fact. Similarly, in the preparation of a dogmatic definition the faithful are consulted: “Doubtless their advice, their opinion, their judgement on the question of definition is not asked; but the matter of fact, viz. their belief, is sought for, as a testimony to that apostolical tradition, on which alone any doctrine whatsoever can be defined.” 
That Newman’s clarity remained obscurity for some became painfully evident very soon after the article’s publication, and even ten years after the Rambler crisis, Newman had to pen a brief but authoritative interpretation of what he had meant by “consult” and, therefore, what the status of the laity was in the infallible Church. Just two weeks after the First Vatican Council had defined papal infallibility, Newman referred in a letter (concerned with the acceptance of the dogma) to what is known as the consensus of the Universal Church (using the phrase “securus judicat orbis terrarum”) “as the ultimate guarantee of revealed truth”, but he hastened to add that, according to my recollection, my paper in the Rambler is not in point. I think the paper was on the sensus, not the consensus fidelium — their voice was considered as a witness, not as an authority or a judgement — I compared consulting it to consulting a barometer viz. for a fact. Thus it was a fact that the fideles in Arian times were for Our Lord’s divinity against their Bishops — but in the article, I think, I expressly reserved the “Magisterium” for the authorities of the Church.
It was the Magisterium alone that had the ultimate judging, discerning voice.  Newman’s critics had quite misunderstood the point at issue.
The second major point of the article in the Rambler sees Newman address the question of why the laity are consulted.
And the answer is plain, viz. because the body of the faithful is one of the witnesses to the fact of the tradition of revealed doctrine, and because their consensus through Christendom is the voice of the Catholic Church.
I think I am right in saying that the tradition of the Apostles, committed to the whole Church in its various constituents and functions per modem unius, manifests itself variously at various times: sometimes by the mouth of the episcopacy, sometimes by the doctors, sometimes by the people, sometimes by liturgies, rites and ceremonies and customs, by events, disputes, movements, and all those other phenomena which are comprised under the name of history. It follows that none of these channels of tradition may be treated with disrespect; granting at the same time fully, that the gift of discerning, discriminating, defining, promulgating and enforcing any portion of that tradition resides solely in the Ecclesia docens. 
And this also covers the doubts Newman had had years before about deficiencies in the Patristical testimony in behalf of various points of Catholic dogma: the consensus fidelium supplied such deficiencies, because it too operated as a work of the Holy Spirit — it is “distinct (not separate) from the teaching of their pastors”.
In the third major section of the article Newman goes on to show the different ways in which the consent of the faithful is to be regarded: “(1) As a testimony of the fact of apostolical dogma; (2) as a sort of instinct deep in the bosom of the Mystical Body of Christ; (3) as a direction of the Holy Ghost; (4) as an answer to its prayer; (5) as a jealousy of error, which it at once feels as a scandal”.  As a practical example of what he means, Newman returned to that era of Church history that had been his special study for his first book, The Arians of the Fourth Century, and he shows by a very large number of examples from that era that in that time of immense confusion the divine dogma of Our Lord’s divinity was proclaimed, enforced, maintained and (humanly speaking) preserved, far more by the Ecclesia docta than by the Ecclesia docens; that the body of the episcopate was unfaithful to its commission, while the body of the laity was faithful to its baptism. 
Newman quoted at great length the various ancient authorities to show that what he maintained was in fact the case — that during the greater part of the fourth century the dogma of Nicaea was preserved “(1) not by the unswerving firmness of the Holy See, Councils or Bishops, but (2) by the consensus fidelium”.  Of course Newman was all too well aware that there were enormous differences between the fourth and the nineteenth centuries and that there was not much likelihood that the bishops or the Holy See of his own day would fail in their defense of the orthodox Faith, but nevertheless “each constituent portion of the Church has its proper functions, and no portion can safely be neglected. Though the laity be but the reflection or echo of the clergy in matters of faith, yet there is something in the `pastorum et fidelium conspiratio’ which is not in the pastors alone.”  This point about the importance of each section of the Church in relation to the whole is emphasized by the remark Newman made that “a person may consult his glass and in that way know things about himself which he can learn in no other way”.  It is possible, therefore, that the faithful laity can give a greater and more eloquent witness to their Faith, can have an apprehension of it or give an account of it that can serve to illumine it in a way hitherto unattainable. Once again Newman is at pains to emphasize what he sees as the fullness, the totality of Catholic life and practice — that Catholic idea that forms the “secret life of millions of faithful souls”  which includes clergy and laity together, possessed of a resiliency and durability in matters of faith that enabled them to survive the great crisis of Arianism.
It was fitting that those mixed, unlettered multitudes, who for three centuries had suffered and triumphed by virtue of the inward vision of their Divine Lord, should be selected, as we know they were, in the fourth, to be the special champions of His Divinity and the victorious foes of its impugners, at a time when the civil power, which had found them too strong for its arms, attempted, by means of a portentous heresy in the high places of the Church, to rob them of that Truth which had all along been the principle of their strength. 
That this grasp of the essentials of the Faith was not something confined to ages long past, but that it continued in his own day, Newman recounted in a letter that also appeared in the Rambler for July 1859.  This letter is a reply to his own letter that had appeared in the May issue, entitled “Tradition of History in the Schools”, and is concerned with “Lay Students in Theology”.  Newman writes:
I recollect some twenty-five years ago three friends of my own, as they then were, clergymen of the Establishment, making a tour through Ireland. In the West or South they had occasion to become pedestrians for the day; and they took a boy of thirteen to be their guide. They amused themselves with putting questions to him on the subject of his religion; and one of them confessed to me on his return that that poor child put them all to silence. How? Not of course by any train of argument or refined theological disquisition, but merely by knowing and understanding the answers in his catechism. 
That example surely illustrates the basic, bottom-line defense that Newman hoped all the laity could provide — all of them well catechized and faithful to the promises of their Baptism. That letter, and so very much else with which Newman concerned himself on the laity’s behalf, was to do with building up a well-catechized laity and turning some of it into a well educated laity that could take its place in the world and in that world be able to debate intelligently with, and answer accurately the questions of, the Protestant majority. It would not be enough for the layman to say, “I leave it to theologians”, or, “I will ask my priest” — he must, as Newman put it, be able there and then to lay down the law. The need Newman perceived for the laity to have clear convictions about revealed doctrines as well as expertise in worldly affairs and intellectual disciplines led Newman to see that the Church had a definite obligation to support superior higher education for its laity, and this education, he saw, must be suited to the lay life as such; it was not enough for it to be a watered-down type of seminary. All his hard work and many labors at the Catholic University in Dublin were concerned with setting up precisely this sort of establishment and atmosphere in which the Catholic layman could learn and develop. The many intense frustrations of the Dublin years, caused by a deep-rooted mistrust and misunderstanding on the part of the Irish bishops, caused Newman much personal anguish because he realized what was at stake and the supreme folly of throwing over the opportunities provided. He saw in Ireland that the ecclesiastical powers were in fact jealous of the laity and, what is more, fearful of them, if their knowledge and education grew too great.  For the bishops their control had to be absolute, and Newman could not tolerate this. Again, in England the failure to allow English Catholics to attend the universities of Oxford and Cambridge filled him with foreboding. If university life were to be prohibited and nothing provided in its place, then Catholicism would never exert an influential voice in secular affairs because there would be no one who held Catholicism dear capable of rising in society. “Are Catholics to be worse educated than all other gentlemen in the country?” Newman asked.  “I am inclined to think that the Archbishop considers only an ignorant laity to be manageable.”  Newman could not understand this attitude of mind:
On both sides of the Channel the deep difficulty is the jealousy and fear which is entertained in high quarters of the laity . . . nothing great or living can be done except where men are self-governed and independent: this is quite consistent with a full maintenance of ecclesiastical supremacy. 
But Newman could and did understand the grave dangers the attitude brought in its train. Newman wrote to George Fottrell:
As far as I can see there are ecclesiastics all over Europe whose policy is to keep the laity at arms-length; and hence the laity have been disgusted and become infidel and only two parties exist, both ultras in opposite directions. I came away from Ireland with the distressing fear that in that Catholic country, in like manner, there was to be an antagonism, as time went on, between the hierarchy and the educated classes. You will be doing the greatest possible benefit to the Catholic cause all over the world, if you succeed in making the University a middle station at which clergy and laity can meet, so as to learn to understand and to yield to each other — and from which, as from a common ground, they may act in unison upon an age which is running headlong into infidelity. 
A thwarted laity would turn anticlerical, if not worse. However, with education they would be transformed into the mainstay of the Church: “I am sure they may be made in this day the strength of the Church”  — giving and receiving responsibility, support, and trust. Without this degree of involvement, which education would stimulate, the Church would be greatly impoverished and many people would turn from her in frustration, or, if they stayed, they would be reduced to having only an “implicit faith” in the Church’s teachings, “which in the educated classes will terminate in indifference and in the poorer in superstition”.  The mere imposition of doctrines on the faithful without any attempt at education in the reasons why, or their being asked to deal with subjects that seem far removed from what is apprehended by them as their “real” belief, runs the danger of a growing sense of alienation setting in among the laity — on the one hand indifference, if not outright rejection; on the other hand the growth of a quasi-magical or superstitious religiosity, having no root in the fundamental tenets of the Christian Faith. A wise approach to the teaching and handing on of the Faith, and that alone, was the safest way in which to build up a faithful, intelligent body of believers. Thwarted in Ireland and in his hopes at Oxford, Newman had greater success nearer home, in the establishment of a school for boys at the Birmingham Oratory, in which his principles could be put to work, and, of course, in the Oratory itself as a community of priests working in a city in order to serve the laity there, after the example of the Oratory’s founder, St. Philip Neri himself. Many were the works the Fathers undertook in often difficult circumstances in Birmingham in order to raise the level of Catholicism there and influence, in that winning, personal way, so favored by St. Philip, the non-Catholic world around them.
He [Philip] preferred to yield to the stream and direct the current, which he could not stop, of science, literature, art and fashion, and to sweeten and sanctify what God had made very good and man had spoilt . . . . Whether or not I can do anything at all in St. Philip’s way, at least I can do nothing in any other. 
All of these many works and enterprises find an echo in a famous sermon that Newman preached in Dublin:
Some persons will say that I am thinking of confining, distorting, and stunting the growth of the intellect by ecclesiastical supervision. I have no such thought. Nor have I any thought of a compromise, as if religion must give up something and science something. I wish the intellect to range with the utmost freedom, and religion to enjoy an equal freedom; but what I am stipulating for is this, that they should be found in one and the same place and exemplified in the same persons . . . . Devotion is not a sort of finish given to the sciences, nor is science a sort of feather in the cap, if I may so express myself, an ornament and set-off to devotion. I want the intellectual layman to be religious, and the devout ecclesiastic to be intellectual. 
The amount of time and energy Newman put into his educational affairs, the intensity with which he felt the need for the laity’s baptismal prerogatives to be respected, acted upon and developed for the greater good of the whole Church, lead us on to ask the simple question “Why?” What was the underlying concern that gave rise to all this activity? Was it solely that the Church might be seen in all its glorious fullness, or was there something further, perhaps more immediate? The answer is, of course, that there was an immediate reason for Newman’s concern for the preparedness of the laity, and what has already been said has given some insight into the reasons why.
Newman had early on recognized the prophetical Tradition at work in the Church and had learned the value of that Tradition in preserving the Faith in a time of crisis. Newman, to use “prophetical” in a more everyday sense, was much concerned with, and worried about, the future of the Church and the preparations that had to be made in order to meet the challenge of the future in an appropriate fashion. From his earliest days in Oxford, Newman had perceived that an intellectual movement was growing up that would sap the foundations of revealed religion. As a result of this movement, and as its ideas percolated through society and became part of society’s received and accepted wisdom, Newman could see that the future Church would enter a period in which she would be confronted by an atheism both learned and cultured and in which she would need competent and trained defenders, who would have to come in large part from the laity. Newman could see so clearly a future world, gathered around “two conflicting poles”, that of the conscious atheists and that of the convinced Catholics, with the intermediary positions having ceased to exercise any worthwhile influence. The philosophy of Newman’s day, as well as much of its literature, and the growing power and influence of science and technology were all in the process of destroying or abandoning their Christian roots and were therefore destined to clash, sooner or later, with religion. It was the role of the educated, committed laity to evangelize this nascent secularist society and witness in the best way they could to their living Faith and its power. The layman was now being called to become the “apostle of the latter times”, and he must be equipped for his task.
One of Newman’s most famous analyses of the forces at work in his day and what they portended for the future is found in the biglietto speech of May 1879, given in Rome when Newman was there to receive his cardinal’s “red hat” from pope Leo XIII. During the course of his speech, Newman said:
And I rejoice to say, to 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. Never did Holy Church need champions against it more sorely than now, when, alas! it is an error overspreading, as a snare, the whole earth. Liberalism in religion is the doctrine 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 . . . 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.
He regretted the fact that the old dictum that “Christianity is the law of the land” had been replaced, “nearly forgotten”, and that “instead of the Church’s authority and teaching, they would substitute, first of all, a universal and a thoroughly secular education”. He was saddened by it all “because I see that it may be the ruin of many souls”. 
Some six years before this speech, in 1873, Newman had preached at the opening of St. Bernard’s Seminary, Olton, and having entitled his sermon “The Infidelity of the Future”, he told his hearers:
I think that the trials which lie before us are such as would appall and make dizzy even such courageous hearts as St. Athanasius, St. Gregory I or St. Gregory VII. And they would confess that, dark as the prospect of their own day was to them severally, ours has a darkness different in kind from any that has been before it . . . . Christianity has never yet had experience of a world simply irreligious. The ancient world of Greece and Rome was full of superstition but not of infidelity, for they believed in the moral governance of the world and their first principles were the same as ours. Similarly the northern barbarians . . . believed in an unknown providence and in the moral law. But we are now coming to a time when the world does not acknowledge our first principles. 
If that is how Newman could look back over his long life and see in his opposition to liberalism and the defense of dogma and revealed religion the thread that linked his work together, and if looking to the future he could see the emergence of an age darker than any hitherto experienced because for all practical purposes without God and his Law, we can perhaps the better understand the urgency and concern that marked his work for the laity. It was a matter of survival that dictated his ultimate agenda, not a desire to foment rebellion in the ranks or to unsettle the bishops, which is how many evaluated him; always the need to train and equip the troops necessary to be a defense against the new world and its secularist heresy — that was what counted above all else. That so much of what Newman tried to do for the laity was misunderstood and quite deliberately thwarted can now be seen, in the light of his prophetic remarks, as the terrible tragedy it was for the future of the Church. “Here was the one man who could perhaps have stemmed the tide of unbelief, and his ecclesiastical superiors sedulously kept him from the intellectual centre of England.” 
Some one hundred years after Newman’s death, what can we say about his thoughts on the laity and their vital role in the life of the Church? Seen positively, many of Newman’s deepest insights have been taken up and have become an accepted part of modem ecclesiological thinking. This is undoubtedly because Newman’s research and thought were so soundly based on Scripture and the Fathers; his own “methodology” sprang from a true understanding of the Church’s Tradition. Any true renewal has to begin in this manner: a true growth based on what has gone before, seen in the needs that the present and future make apparent. The breadth of vision and understanding that Newman presents in his writings was such as to make him the “unseen guide” in so many of the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council and in its teachings on the laity in the Church. It will be profitable to see this in practice, by quoting one or two passages from the conciliar documents. For instance, the constitution Lumen Gentium contains the following reflection on how the faithful share in Christ’s prophetic message:
The holy People of God shares also in Christ’s prophetic office: it spreads abroad a living witness to him, especially by a life of faith and love and by offering to God a sacrifice of praise, the fruit of lips praising his name (cf. Heb 13:15). The whole body of the faithful who have an anointing that comes from the holy one (cf. 1 Jn 2:20 and 27) cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of the faith (sensus fidei) of the whole people, when, “from the bishops to the last of the faithful” they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals. By this appreciation of the faith, aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, the People of God, guided by the sacred teaching authority (magisterium) and obeying it, receives not the mere word of men, but truly the word of God (cf.1Th 2:13),the faith once for all delivered to the saints (cf. Jude 3). The People unfailingly adheres to this faith, penetrates it more deeply with right judgment, and applies it more fully in daily life. 
This paragraph had originally been intended to form part of Chapter IV, on the laity, but was brought forward into the chapter on the People of God in order to mark the unity that exists between the laity and the hierarchy, which together form the People of God, who cannot err in matters of belief when they show that “universalis consensus” in matters of faith and morals. Objections and amendments to the text, which had wanted to highlight the role of the hierarchy more prominently, were not admitted, because the Council Fathers wanted to show that the sensus fidei was not to be considered as a particular prerogative of the hierarchy but as a power of the whole Church. There is a unity in bearing witness to the Faith that belongs to the totality of the Body of Christ. This concern of the Council Fathers is a most eloquent echo of the “pastorum et fidelium conspiratio” that Newman believed in and advocated so strongly.
Newman’s explanation of the importance of the consensus of the faithful and how that assists the Church is also to be found in the Council documents. Some of the bishops wished to say that the faithful are infallible because they reflect the teaching of the infallible Magisterium, but this was objected to as being an inadequate notion. Investigating Tradition, as Newman had done, it was obvious that the process of doctrinal development sometimes begins with the people: their consensus activates the infallible teaching authority of the Magisterium, which must discern and judge what has happened. The laity do not just reflect the teaching of the Magisterium, but they possess an active exercise of their prerogative that comes from their being constituted as the people of God. This is so made up of all the baptized because, irrespective of their hierarchical status or lack of it, they are the recipients of those motions or inspirations of the Holy Spirit that form the “dynamic element” in the Church, over against the “static element”, which is the hierarchy as such.
It is not only through the sacraments and the ministrations of the Church that the Holy Spirit makes holy the People, leads them and enriches them with his virtues. Allotting his gifts according as he wills (cf. 1 Cor 12:11), he also distributes special graces among the faithful of every rank. By these gifts he makes them fit and ready to undertake various tasks and offices for the renewal and building up of the Church, as it is written, “the manifestation of the Spirit is given to everyone for profit” (1 Cor 12:7). Whether these charisms be very remarkable or more simple and widely diffused, they are to be received with thanksgiving and consolation since they are fitting and useful for the needs of the Church. 
This teaching on the gifts of the Holy Spirit being given to and for the good of the whole Church is also identical to that which Newman believed and proclaimed to be the case. His own criterion, which established the fact that the laity ought to be consulted, is precisely that they are open to and led by the workings of the Holy Spirit — the Divine Indwelling. This enables them, as devout believers, to appreciate ever more readily the Church’s Traditions and beliefs and, as we have already noted, guided by the same Holy Spirit, the laity has the gift of knowing the meaning of the Creed and the Deposit of Faith and in such a way that they can resist heresy and cling unswervingly to the truth.
Newman’s analysis of the role of the laity was, of course, intended to provide a theological foundation for a greater degree of cooperation between the laity and the hierarchy of the Church. Similarly, in the Second Vatican Council we find manifested a like desire. The laity are urged to respond to the injunction that they should “disclose their needs and desires with that liberty and confidence which befit children of God and brothers of Christ”.  Again, “an individual layman, by reason of the knowledge, competence, or outstanding ability which he may enjoy, is permitted and sometimes even obliged to express his opinion on things which concern the good of the Church”,  which is complemented by words in the constitution Gaudium et Spes on the Church in the modern world, “All the faithful, clerical and lay, possess a lawful freedom of enquiry and of thought, and the freedom to express their minds humbly and courageously about those matters in which they enjoy competence.”  These ideas reach their fullest formation in the decree Apostolicam Actuositatem, on the apostolate of the laity, which complements the other decrees and highlights once again that cooperation, conspiratio, so much desired by Newman. Apostolicam Actuositatem sees the laity as having a “special and indispensable” position in the Church’s mission. Especially important in view of what Newman taught is the following passage:
For the exercise of the apostolate [the Holy Spirit] gives the faithful special gifts . . . so that each and all, putting at the service of others the grace received, may be “as good stewards of God’s varied gifts” (1 Pet 4:10) . . . . From the reception of these charisms, even the most ordinary ones, there arise for each of the faithful the right and duty of exercising them in the Church and in the world for the good of men and the development of the Church. 
That “right and duty” Newman had perceived at work when the laity helped save the Church from the Arian heresy. In a later age, he hoped it would be developed and used again to defend the Church from outside attacks, and, within, to prevent the Church from becoming too clericalized and turned in upon itself, and he hoped that a well-deployed, educated, and faithful laity would be able to do more good in those many areas of secular life where even an army of priests could not penetrate so effectively.
These decrees of the Second Vatican Council represent, in a wonderful way, that restoration of a balanced ecclesiological outlook, a return to that view of the totality of the Church that inspired Newman. However, even though so many of Newman’s fondest hopes found their realization in the Council,
they did so at the same time as some of his worst fears for the future Church were also in the process of becoming realities. That the final acceptance of so much of Newman’s thought on the laity should have coincided with a crisis of authority, of faith, and of morals within the Church has led to a degree of confusion almost without parallel, which has affected those very laymen Newman wished to help. Very many have been the comments and analyses of the present crisis, some more accurate than others.  The present Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, offered this reflection:
[We] must not forget that there are difficulties in living the Faith. They are not only due to constraints by men, laws, or regimes. They can also come from customs and ways of thinking which are contrary to evangelical principles and which have a powerful influence on society. Again it could be the influence of materialism and of religious indifference which kills spiritual aspirations; or the false and individualistic notion of freedom which confuses the possibility of choosing whatever gratifies one’s passions with the concern for fully developing one’s human callings, spiritual destiny, and the common good. It is not this kind of freedom which forms the basis of human dignity and encourages Christian faith. Believers who are surrounded by such influences need great courage to remain sane and faithful and to exercise their freedom properly. 
In many quarters now there is great confusion about what the laity might or might not be able to do, even in the highest sacramental activities, time and again debates or agreements hinge on the question of whether the Church has truly advanced in the light of the Council or whether the freedoms and new impetus of the 1960s have already been dissipated and lost. In the years immediately after the close of the Second Vatican Council, the conciliar texts quoted above, all of them unimpeachable when seen as according to the mind of the Church, were eagerly seized upon to justify what was falsely announced as “the age of the laity”, which had now dawned upon the Church. In truth, what the Council had tried to make clear was not that the laity were now to be the guiding lights of the Church but rather the exact point that Newman had tried to make in 1859 — that they have an indispensable role in the life and mission of the Church; in short, that they cannot be ignored. What the Council hoped for was not “the age of the laity” but a truly renewed Church, drawing new life from her sources, from Scripture, Tradition, and the Fathers. The concept of the “infallible laity”, as so often encountered in these days, is not one that would have sat easily on the shoulders of Newman, for so often, as was pointed out in a recent issue of Faith and Reason,  behind the desire to boost the laity is lurking “the glorification of private judgment”, which, as we have seen, was part of that liberalism that Newman resisted so strongly. He would have no patience with that judgment even when presented as the sacredness of conscience. Nothing was more sacred to him than that inner voice about morally good and morally evil which, in his most considered judgment, is the most direct evidence of God. But he had no use for the culturally sanctioned meaning of conscience which he branded publicly as a “miserable counterfeit” in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk:
[It is] the right of thinking, speaking, writing and acting, according to their judgement or their humour, without any thought of God at all. They do not even pretend to go by any moral rule, but they demand, what they think is an Englishman’s prerogative, to be his own master in all things, and to profess what he pleases, asking no-one’s leave, and accounting priest or preacher, speaker or writer, unutterably impertinent, who dares to say a word against his going to perdition, if he like it, in his own way. Conscience has rights because it has duties; but in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations. It becomes a license to take up any or no religion, to take up this or that and let it go again, to go to Church, to go to Chapel, to boast of being above all religions and to be impartial critic of each of them. Conscience is astern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the eighteen centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had. It is the right of self-will.
He had respect only for a conscience which was the very opposite to a “longsided selfishness” and a “desire to be consistent with oneself”. 
Those who seek to use Newman as the apostle of the age of the laity would do well to pay close attention to his words before they hold him up as someone who, for example, would maintain that Humanae vitae is a dead letter because it has failed to receive that “ecclesial reception” from the laity, which would surely have marked it if it had been an authentic exercise of the teaching authority of the Church.  The man who held that sort of a view could not have written, for example: “Everyone in the Church, ignorant or learned, must absolutely submit his mind with an inward assent to the Church as the teacher of the whole Faith.”  Or again: “It is no trouble to believe, when the Church has spoken; the real trouble is when a number of little popes start up, laymen often, and preach against Bishops and priests, and make their own opinions the faith, and frighten simple-minded devout people and drive back inquirers.” 
Newman nowadays is often held up as the theologian of evolution, and many things are claimed for him that he would have repudiated in his lifetime. His ideas on the laity in the Church surely reveal him to have been much rather the upholder of identity, searching always to discover that “unity of type”, that fundamental and abiding identity that adheres to the Church of Christ in all its totality that when found is a sure sign that the searcher is on the right path. On Newman’s memorial in the cloisters of the Oratory in Birmingham are carved the words he himself chose with such care: “Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem” and “Cor ad cor loquitur” — these can be taken as summing up what he himself regarded as the meaning of his long life and many labors for the Church of Christ and for Christ’s Truth, his own brief summary of a life lived for others in that Church, a life lived in union with God. His work was surely that of striving to bring not just a part but the whole Church, clergy and laity, into the Truth of Christ, in a fuller, more explicit fashion; establishing that conspiratio that should exist between all the members of the one Mystical Body.
Newman’s work for the laity was undertaken so that the graces they had received in Baptism might develop and flower — so that they might grow in holiness through a deeper love of prayer, Scripture, and the sacraments; so that through their education, although not on the level of theologians, nevertheless, they might still live out to a high degree their faith and in so doing raise the level of religion in both themselves and the world; so that through the quality of their faith they might be signposts, pointing out the true meaning of Christianity in the modern world and doing it with a sense of freedom and responsibility in loyal and loving union with the Magisterium and all that that implies.
It was Newman’s desire that the whole Church “might go on in her own proper duties in confidence and peace” and in so doing, “to stand still and see the salvation of God”. 
Where this “confidence and peace”, stemming from the unity of priests and people around Christ their Head, have been established (and they can be found in the Church today), they are at their best, “that realization of the insights into the nature and membership of the Church [which were] made clear by the Council [and] which owe[s] much to the vision and courage of John Henry Newman”. 
Chavasse, Paul. “Newman and the Laity.” In Newman Today. Papers Presented at a Conference Sponsored by the Wethersfield Institute New York City, October 14-15, 1988, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, (1989): 49-78.
Reprinted by permission of The Wethersfield Institute.
Copyright © 1989 IgnatiusPress
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