Newman Hits the Bull’s Eye

I love this quotation from Cardinal Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine;

If Christianity is both social and dogmatic, and intended for all ages, it must, humanly speaking, have an infallible expounder, else you will secure unity of form at the loss of unity of doctrine, or unity of doctrine at the loss of unity of form; you will have to choose between a comprehension of opinons and a resolution into parties; between latitudinarian and sectarian error…you must accept the whole or reject the whole…it is trifling to receive all but something which is as intergral as any other portion. Thus it would be trifling tinded to accept everythign Catholic except the head of Christ’s body on earth.

As usual, with Newman, the style is dense, yet somehow terse. He nails it.

Here’s my paraphrase: If the faith is to be applied now and in all ages, then it needs to be adaptable, and for it to be adaptable you have to have someone (or some institution) who decides when and how far the adaptions can be made. This interpreter needs to be infallible. If you don’t have this infallible authority you will argue and disagree and eventually fall into one of two errors. Latitudinarian error preserves unity of form, but sacrifices unity of doctrine. The Anglicans and other mainstream Protestant Churches are an example of this. You can believe anything as long as you don’t break down into schism.

The other error is sectarian. Those who move into a sect maintain unity of doctrine, but lose unity of form. The multitude of Evangelical, independent denominations are an example of this error.

These are the only choices for non-Catholic Christians, and every individual or group falls into one camp of the other. The non-Catholic individual or group is either sectarian (and there are more and more sects as more and more divisions take place) or they are latitudinarian, and these groups (in their attempts to include everyone and allow everything) are now so far from historic Christianity that they will soon need to take a new name.

The only other option is the Catholic Church, and this is where Newman’s last few lines hit home. He speaks to all Christians who want to be ‘Catholic’ without coming into the Catholic church.

How can you wish to be Catholic and yet reject the very thing that defines Catholicism?
"Catholicism has always defined the ideal but there are no limits on God's mercy and ..."

Tony Palmer: Is There Salvation Outside ..."
"With all due respect, Shaun, are you relegating the actual Faith to whatever the local ..."

Notes on Tony Palmer’s Funeral
"There are good parking valets and bad parking valets. There are good housesitters and bad ..."

The Case for Conversion to Catholicism
"did you vote for Bush Fr Longenecker? would you have?"

Understanding Iraq

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Father Dwight — I am fond of Newman, but he often makes my poor little brain ache. This is as fine an explanation of this passage as I`ve seen and I thank you for it.

  • Father Dwight,Where do the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox fall in Newman’s scheme?

  • Excellent — and ditto Brad.

  • Brian, following Newman’s logic, the Eastern churches not in full communion with the Holy See must fall into the sectarian error–they have maintained unity of doctrine, but sacrificed unity of form.

  • ‘Brian, following Newman’s logic, the Eastern churches not in full communion with the Holy See must fall into the sectarian error–they have maintained unity of doctrine, but sacrificed unity of form.’Not if you look at the picture from the Orthodox perspective which holds (not without some merit, I think) that the Church of Rome was in error in the events leading up to 1054.And this surely illustrates the moral and intellectual absurdity of holding on to the defensive ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ school of argument. Sooner or later,if matters are to be resolved,people have to get off their high horses and engage in discourse withone another in a spirit of Christian humility.And interestingly this is indeed what seems to be happening between (some)Catholics and (some) Orthodox, the starting point of whose dialogue is that both wings of ‘the Church’ made mistakes before the schism occurred and,among many errors, both were transparently guilty of the collective sin of pride.Our Lord established ‘the Church’ on earth and left it in the hands of the all too fallible apostles (and by implication their successors.) From the outset theysquabbled about jusidiction and doctrine and have gone on doing so ever since. Of course that’s not the complete picture and there’s no doubt the Holy Spirit has guided ‘the Church’ but all too often such guidance has been in the face of the abject stupidity of His human instruments. (One can’t help feeling sorry for the Holy Spirit: so often invoked, so rarely listened to.)One has to look no further than the Holy Land to see this happening on an hourly basis. For a start one can see in action in one place the amazing and rich diversity of Christian practice. In Jerusalem alone there are eight, nine, ten (possibly more)institutionally-established ecclesial groupings which can reasonably claim apostolic origins going back to the first or second centuries AD. Their relations with one another cover the complete spectrum of full communion to mutual (even sometimes physical) antagonism. All claim that they either constitute or are at leastpart of ‘the Church’ established by Our Lord.In a recent posting, Fr Dwight, you said ‘size matters’. I beg to disagree. The Holy Land is nothing if not a great leveller. Alongside numerous examples of behaviour that I can only describe as fully justifying the contempt in which the Christian Church is held by much of the non-Christian world, there were little beacons of hope which amply fulfill Our Lord’s promise ‘that where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’ I am posting little stories about these on my site every few days for those interested.If you want to be impressed by size, I commend standing almost anywhere in the Old City of Jerusalem at about 1pm on Friday – any Friday, I suspect – to see wave upon wave of Muslim Palestinian men and women returning to their homes and to their work after Friday prayers. That was impressive.

  • Thank you for a perceptive comment Stephen. Size matters, but I take your point that it’s not the sole criteria. Quality matters too.My response about the Eastern Orthodox was not to condemn them, but to follow the logic that without an infallible authority structure they must inevitably fall into the ‘sectarian’ category.I realize the Eastern Orthodox enjoy a special level of unity with the Cathocic Church not enjoyed by the churches of the Reformation. There is still division, but I believe this can be, and soon will be resolved.

  • I truly hope you are correct (about the resolution of the remaining most serious problems between Eastern and Western Christianity). It would be a wonderful sign of hope for the world at large (but also, I suspect, the cause of terrible dissent in more conservative Orthodox circles.)

  • Father Longenecker,It is true as a matter of logic that if Newman is correct, then the Eastern Orthodox Church is sectarian. But no evidence has been brought forward that Orthodoxy is “sectarian”. Why should we not believe that it is Orthodoxy which is truly Catholic, and the Roman Catholic Church merely a conventicle that happens to be large and of long standing?Of course, that last question is rhetorical. Many volumes have been written over many centuries debating this point, and we shall not settle it in this comments thread. But the substantial point that I wish to make is that, while Newman’s arguments in favour of Rome vis-a-vis Anglicanism and other forms of Protestantism are eloquent and of great force, he nowhere (to my knowledge) deals substantively with the claims of Eastern Orthodoxy. This is, it seems to me, the Achilles heel of Newman’s whole enterprise.In brief: if a singular infallible institutional authority is necessary to guarantee the orthodoxy of the Church through time, how can we account for the substantial orthodoxy of the Eastern Church, which has been deprived of that institutional authority lo these thousand years? Apparently this “absolute necessity” is not absolutely necessary.Of course, there are other arguments in favour of the Papal claims. But this is Newman’s principal argument, and it is specious.

  • Chris, ‘no evidence that Orthodoxy is sectarian?’ It’s self evident isn’t it? Which Orthodoxy are you talking about–Russian, Russian in exile, the other Russians in Exile, Ukranian, Rumanian, Antiochan, Antiochean, Greek, Turkish, Copts, etc. etc.To say that Eastern Orthodoxy is sectarian is not to say that it is heretical. Schism and heresy are two different matters.What seems obvious is that Orthodoxy proves Newman’s point that those who are in sectarian error maintain unity of doctrine at the expense of unity of form, while the Anglicans prove the latitudinarian position where unity of form is preserved at the expense of unity of doctrine.You also miss an essential point of Newman’s. He doesn’t say simply that the infallible authority is necssary to ensure the continuation of doctrinal orthodoxy. We admit that the EO have done this. He says that for Christianity to be applicable at all times and also to be immutable, it needs to adapt, and for it to adapt successfully it needs the infallible authority. This is what the EO have been unable to do.

  • Father,It’s self evident isn’t it?Not at all.Which Orthodoxy are you talking about?About canonical Orthodoxy: the ancient Patriarchates and the autocephalous Churches in communion with them. Churches which are not in communion with these canonical Churches may call themselves “Orthodox”, but that does not make it so.Trotting out all manner of splinter groups who call themselves Orthodox does not prove that the Eastern Orthodoxy Church is “sectarian”, any more than the existence of the SSPX and various sedevacantist groups proves that Catholicism is sectarian. Those groups are not authentically Catholic, and groups which are not in communion with Constantinople, Alexandria, Moscow, etc. are not authentically Orthodox.For heaven’s sake, you include the Copts in your laundry list of Orthodox “sects”! Is the dyophysite Orthodox Church’s lack of a Papacy to be held responsible for the Copts’ embrace of Monophysitism? That would be a major category error.

  • Newman probably didn’t deal with EO at all because it didn’t really exist in mid 19th century England. It’s spread with migrating populations, but really it is nation and culture bound. There is no English Orthodox church, although I suppose some Anglicans might like to think so.Orthodox sects–now that’s an interesting phenomenon. It’s OK for us to go into schism but not them!? We’re authentic but they’re not?!