John Henry Newman on Papal Infallibility Prior to 1870

John Henry Newman on Papal Infallibility Prior to 1870 January 10, 2016

Classic Anti-Catholic Lies: George Salmon, James White, David T. King et al


[I have edited three quotations books of Cardinal Newman’s words: one / two / three]
* * * * *

The Infallibility of the Church  (available online at Internet Archive and Google Books) is an 1888 work by Irish Anglican controversialist and polemicist George Salmon (1819-1904), that still is widely cited as a supposedly compelling extended argument against Catholic historical and dogmatic claims, despite having been roundly refuted by B.C. Butler’s book, The Church and Infallibility: A Reply to the Abridged “Salmon” (Sheed and Ward, 1954). Another Catholic refutation had been made over fifty years previously, in a series of articles in the Irish Ecclesiastical Record in 1901 (see p. 193 ff., March 1901) and 1902.

Here is a sampling of modern anti-Catholic (mostly Reformed) Protestant polemical citation and high praise of the book:

One will scan his notes in vain for any reference to any classical works on, say, sola scriptura, such as William Whitaker’s late 16th century classic, Disputations on Holy Scripture, or William Goode’s mid 19th century work, Divine Rule of Faith and Practice. You will not find him [Catholic convert Francis Beckwith] interacting with George Salmon’s The Infallibility of the Church,. . . (James White8-18-10)

I would assume I was praphrasing George Salmon, from his book, The Infallibility of the Church, pp 161-162: . . . (James White7-2-09)

(Salmon, The Infallibility of the Church, 334) (That excellent work may be downloaded or read at this link.) (The Anonymous One [TAO], 3-21-10)

George Salmon wrote . . . (Jason Engwer3-7-10; also 3-29-07)

Some of the best answers to the claims of Rome are from Anglicans from times past – Whitaker, Goode, George Salmon, etc.  (Ken Temple10-27-10)

Salmon stated it more clearly than myself . . . (David T. King11-18-10)

Even the great C. S. Lewis recommended Salmon’s book to one Michael Edwards, according to the latter’s report of a conversation, around 1959 (see: The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950 – 1963, edited by Walter Hooper, New York: HarperCollins, 2007, p. 1133, footnote 24).

I read much of it myself in 1990 when I was ferociously resisting the notion of the Catholic Church’s infallibility. It worked for a while, till I read Cardinal Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, which blew Salmon out of the water, about as easily as a bazooka would dispose of a cork floating in the ocean. I was persuaded of the catholic faith before the year was out, largely as a result of that profound book.

As an illustration of the whoppers, distortions, half-truths, and flat-out lies that typify the book, I would like to explore Salmon’s charge that Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman opposed papal infallibility before the First Vatican Council in 1870, and later lied about his earlier position when he stated that he accepted the view after 1870, whereas (according to Salmon’s jaded cynicism) he had not before. Of course, since Salmon characterizes Newman as a liar regarding his own opinions after 1870 (implying that he committed intellectual suicide simply because he was an observant Catholic), we can assume that he would reiterate the charge with regard to Newman’s opinions pre-1870, had he seen many manifestations of them brought together, as I will do shortly. 

If a man can unjustly be called a liar once, then the charge can more easily be made on successive occasions. So Salmon would just as easily dispute Newman’s pre-1870 statements (having been made aware of them), if he is willing to disparage his character and disbelieve his own report of his opinions in the first place. But for fair-minded, non-prejudiced inquirers, a man’s self-report is quite sufficient to end the dispute.

Much of the confusion in Salmon and many others through the years, in relation to Cardinal Newman’s view of papal infallibility and the particular dogmatic definition that was arrived at, lies in failing to distinguish opposition to the dogma and opposition to de fide (highest level) definition of it at a given time (what is called in Catholic circles, inopportunism). The Church usually waits hundreds of years to define a dogma at the very highest levels. Thus, one can legitimately have an opinion whether the present is the “right” time to do so or not. Newman also opposed some of the tactics and methodologies of parties in the Vatican Council and before: the extreme Ultramontane party, who would have made the definition (Pastor aeternus) far more sweeping than it actually was. 

Anti-Catholic Reformed Baptist apologist James White thought very highly of George Salmon’s wrongheaded and unjust polemic against Cardinal Newman, in our first extensive written debate in 1995. Here is our exchange:

James White (6 April 1995): I would also like to ask if you have read Salmon’s refutation of Newman in his work, The Infallibility of the Church?

Dave Armstrong (15 May 1995: completely unanswered by White henceforth): I suppose Newman was dishonest with himself and others, too over the issue of papal infallibility? Not quite, James. He was what is called an “inopportunist” before the definition – one who thought that the time was not right for it. Primarily, he was opposed to the ultramontane faction. The definition was actually a triumph of the center or the moderate viewpoint, so to speak, since it limited infallibility quite a bit and gave it very specific criteria. Newman had full liberty as a Catholic to question the possible future dogma before it was defined, and in so doing, showed great courage, concern for the well-being of the Church, and integrity. In fact, I believe (I’d have to verify this) he questioned only a more sweeping definition, as proposed by the ultramontanes.

He was just as consistent and honest when he submitted (what you call a “collapse” – I used to make the same argument, by the way, after Salmon) to the definition afterwards because this is how Catholicism operates. Those are the rules of the game, and those who can’t abide by them (such as Dollinger and millions of liberals today) ought to get out of the game and play another one where they can avoid being disingenuous, to put it mildly. What Newman did was no different than opposing a proposal for a change in a civil statute but then agreeing to obey it if it becomes law.

Here is George Salmon’s scurrilous, unsubstantiated charge of unscrupulous dishonesty, made against Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman:

I remember then how the news came that the Pope proposed to assemble a council, and how those who had the best right to know predicted that this council was to terminate the long controversy as to the relative superiority of popes and councils, by owning the personal infallibility of the Pope, and so making it unnecessary that any future council should be held. This announcement created the greatest ferment in the Roman Catholic Church; and those who passed for the men of highest learning in that communion, and who had been wont to be most relied on, when learned Protestants were to be combated, opposed with all their might the contemplated definition, as an entire innovation on the traditional teaching of the Church, and as absolutely contradicted by the facts of history. These views were shared by Dr. Newman. . . . When, however, it was proposed to declare the Pope’s personal infallibility, this was a doctrine so directly in the teeth of history, that Newman made no secret, not only of his own disbelief of the doctrine, but also of his persuasion that the authoritative adoption of it would be attended with ruinous consequences to his Church, by placing what seemed an insuperable obstacle to any man of learning entering her fold.

(Lecture II: “The Cardinal Importance of the Question of Infallibility ,” p. 21)

B.C. Butler (chapter 2) replies to this outrageous calumny as follows:

It will be observed that Salmon here states categorically that Newman, as a Catholic, before 1870, shared the view that the doctrine of the Pope’s personal infallibility was “absolutely contradicted by the facts of history,” and the unwary reader will naturally suppose that his opposition to the “aggressive insolent faction” was due to his belief that the doctrine was false. . . .

Now Newman held that such men were trying to commit Catholic theologians to an entirely new view, ascribing infallibility to a Pope’s public utterances which were not definitions of faith or morals.. . .

It thus appears that there were, before the Council’s definition, two opinions about papal infallibility, a moderate one and an extreme one. Newman on the whole held the moderate one while strongly opposing the extreme view, whose more violent upholders he stigmatised as an aggressive insolent faction. The Vatican Council itself came down on the side of the moderate opinion, . . .

It is thus that Salmon has gravely misrepresented Newman’s whole attitude to the papal infallibility question. He has given his readers the impression that the dogma as actually defined was something that Newman had regarded as in absolute contradiction with the facts of history and he has represented an opposition to the dogma’s opportuneness as an opposition to its content.

Butler noted, in fairness to Salmon, that Ward’s biography was not yet available for him to consult; nor were most other resources for Newman’s letters (especially post-1845), as utilized below in abundance. However, he added that Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1875) was indeed available to him (it was a quite famous volume). Newman’s views on papal infallibility were made quite clear in that letter, as seen below, in repeated citations.

Cardinal Newman explained his inopportunism and (above all) detestation of unsavory tactics (over against opposition to the definition itself) in no uncertain terms (all bolding emphases my own):

There is a great attempt by W. G. Ward, Dr. Murray of Maynooth, and Father Schrader, the Jesuit of Rome and Vienna, to bring in a new theory of Papal Infallibility, which would make it a mortal sin, to be visited by damnation, not to hold the Temporal Power necessary to the Papacy. No one answers them and multitudes are being carried away, . . . (Ward ii, 152-153; Letter to James Robert Hope-Scott, 11 April 1867)

If it be God’s will that some definition in favour of the Pope’s infallibility is passed, I then should at once submit—but up to that very moment I shall pray most heartily and earnestly against it. Any how, I cannot bear to think of the tyrannousness and cruelty of its advocates . . . (Ward ii, 289; Letter to Bishop Moriarty of Kerry, 20 March 1870)

For myself, I have at various times in print professed to hold the Pope’s Infallibility; your difficulty is not mine – but still I deeply lament the violence which has been used in this matter. (LD xxv, 216; Letter to Mrs. Wilson, 20 October 1870; also in POL; 185-186)

The Church is the Mother of high and low, of the rulers as well as of the ruled. Securus judicat orbis terrarum. If she declares by her various voices that the Pope is infallible in certain matters, in those matters infallible he is. What Bishops and people say all over the earth, that is the truth, whatever complaint we may have against certain ecclesiastical proceedings. Let us not oppose ourselves to the universal voice. (Ward ii, 376; Letter to Père Hyacinthe, 24 November 1870)

As little as possible was passed at the Council—nothing about the Pope which I have not myself always held. But it is impossible to deny that it was done with an imperiousness and overbearing wilfulness, which has been a great scandal . . . (Ward ii, 380; Letter to Mrs. William Froude, c. Oct. 1871)

I underwent then, no change of mind as regards the truth of the doctrine of the Pope’s infallibility in consequence of the Council. It is true I was deeply, though not personally, pained both by the fact, and by the circumstances of the definition; and when it was in contemplation, I wrote a most confidential letter, which was surreptitiously gained and published, but of which I have not a word to retract. The feelings of surprise and concern expressed in that letter have nothing to do with a screwing one’s conscience to profess what one does not believe, which is Mr. Capes’ pleasant account of me. He ought to know better. (Ward ii, 558-559; Letter to the Guardian, 12 September 1872, in reply to John Moore Capes)

But the explanation of such reports about me is easy. They arise from forgetfulness on the part of those who spread them, that there are two sides of ecclesiastical acts, that right ends are often prosecuted by very unworthy means, and that in consequence those who, like myself, oppose a line of action, are not necessarily opposed to the issue for which it has been adopted. . . . What I felt deeply, and ever shall feel, while life lasts, is the violence and cruelty of journals and other publications, which, taking as they professed to do the Catholic side, employed themselves by their rash language (though, of course, they did not mean it so), in unsettling the weak in faith, throwing back inquirers, and shocking the Protestant mind. . . . So much as to my posture of mind before the Definition . . . (Dif. ii, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, ch. 8, 1875)

. . . it can hardly be doubted that there were those in the Council who were desirous of a stronger definition; and the definition actually made, as being moderate, is so far the victory of those many bishops who considered any definition on the subject inopportune. And it was no slight fruit of their proceedings in the Council, if a definition was to be, to have effected a moderate definition. (Dif. ii, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, Postscript, 1875)

There were circumstances in the mode of conducting the Vatican Council which I could not like, but its definition of the Pope’s Infallibility was nothing short of the upshot of numberless historical facts looking that way, and of the multitudinous mind of theologians acting upon them. (LD xxix, 118; Letter to William Froude, 29 April 1879)

Cardinal Newman made it equally clear that he personally believed in papal infallibility (before it was proclaimed a dogma), and that after it was proclaimed, he accepted the definition as a loyal Catholic, with no cognitive dissonance, and thought it was quite reasonable and moderate, compared to the more extensive definition that had been sought by the extreme ultramontane party (and that God’s hand had brought this about). Thus, no dishonesty whatever was involved either before or after the definition; nor even a change of mind:

In June and July 1839, near four years ago, I read the Monophysite Controversy, and it made a deep impression on me, which I was not able to shake off, that the Pope had a certain gift of infallibility, and that communion with the See of Rome was the divinely intended means of grace and illumination. . . . Since that, all history, particularly that of Arianism, has appeared to me in a new light; confirmatory of the same doctrine. (Keb., 219; Letter to John Keble, 4 May 1843; referring to his views in July 1839)

Here, too, is vividly brought out before you what we mean by Papal infallibility, or rather what we do not mean by it: you see how the Pope was open to any mistake, as others may be, in his own person, true as it is, that whenever he spoke ex cathedrà on subjects of revealed truth, he spoke as its divinely-ordained expounder. . . . Popes, then, though they are infallible in their office, as Prophets and Vicars of the Most High, and though they have generally been men of holy life, and many of them actually saints, have the trials, and incur the risks of other men. Our doctrine of infallibility means something very different from what Protestants think it means. (PPC, Lecture 8, 1851)

. . . “the king can do no wrong” has a sense in constitutional law, though not the sense which the words would suggest to a foreigner who heard them for the first time; and “the Pope is infallible” has its own sense in theology, but not that which the words suggest to a Protestant, who takes the words in their ordinary meaning. And, as it is the way with Protestants to maintain that the Pope’s infallibility is intended by us as a guarantee of his private and personal exemption from theological error, nay, even from moral fault of every kind; so a foreigner, who knew nothing of England, were he equally impatient, prejudiced, and indocile, might at first hearing confound the maxim, “the king can do no wrong,” with the dogma of some Oriental despotism or theocracy. (PPC, Note 1, 1851)

Deeply do I feel, ever will I protest, for I can appeal to the ample testimony of history to bear me out, that in questions of right and wrong, there is nothing really strong in the whole world, nothing decisive and operative, but the voice of Him, to whom have been committed the Keys of the Kingdom, and the oversight of Christ’s flock. That voice is now, as ever it has been, a real authority, infallible when it teaches, prosperous when it commands, ever taking the lead wisely and distinctly in its own province, adding certainty to what is probable, and persuasion to what is certain. (“Discourses on University Education,” delivered in Dublin in 1852, pp. 27-28; cited in Ward ii, 558-559; Letter to the Guardian, 12 September 1872, in reply to John Moore Capes)

As to the Infallibility of the Pope, I see nothing against it, or to dread in it,—for I am confident that it must be so limited practically that it will leave things as they are. (Ward ii, 101; Letter to Edward B. Pusey, 17 November 1865)

As to writing a volume on the Pope’s infallibility, it never so much as entered into my thoughts. . . . And I should have nothing to say about it. I have ever thought it likely to be true, never thought it certain. I think too, its definition inexpedient and unlikely; but I should have no difficulty accepting it, were it made. And I don’t think my reason will ever go forward or backward in the matter. (POL; Letter to William G. Ward, 18 February 1866)

Applying this principle to the Pope’s Infallibility, . . . I think there is a good deal of evidence, on the very surface of history and the Fathers in its favour. On the whole then I hold it; but I should account it no sin if, on the grounds of reason, I doubted it. (Ward ii, 220-221; Letter to Edward B. Pusey, 23 March 1867)

I have only an opinion at best (not faith) that the Pope is infallible . . . if it be true after all and divine, my faith in it is included in the implicita fides which I have in the Church. (Ward ii, 234-235; Letter to Henry Wilberforce, 21 July 1867)

I hold the Pope’s Infallibility, not as a dogma, but as a theological opinion; that is, not as a certainty, but as a probability. . . . To my mind the balance of probabilities is still in favour of it. There are vast difficulties, taking facts as they are, in the way of denying it. . . . Anyhow the doctrine of Papal Infallibility must be fenced round and limited by conditions. (Ward ii, 236; Letter to Peter le Page Renouf, 21 June 1868)

The Pope’s infallibility implies nothing of the kind [i.e., inspiration]. His state of mind is not unlike that of other men. He has no inward gift – but an external assistance or providence such, that, if he is going wrong, he is stopped – and his ultimate decision (ex cathedra, and in revus fidei et morum [“in matters of faith and morals”]) is overruled so as not to swerve from, to be consistent with, to be the oracle of, the Verbum Dei [“Word of God”]. (LD xxxii, 292-293; Letter to an Unknown Correspondent, 12 February 1869)

I saw the new Definition yesterday, and am pleased at its moderation—that is, if the doctrine in question is to be defined at all. The terms are vague and comprehensive; and, personally, I have no difficulty in admitting it. (Dif. ii, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, ch. 8, 1875; Letter to Ambrose Phillipps de Lisle, 24 July 1870)

For myself, ever since I was a Catholic, I have held the Pope’s infallibility as a matter of theological opinion; at least, I see nothing in the Definition which necessarily contradicts Scripture, Tradition, or History; and the “Doctor Ecclesiæ” (as the Pope is styled by the Council of Florence) bids me accept it. In this case, I do not receive it on the word of the Council, but on the Pope’s self-assertion. And I confess, the fact that all along for so many centuries the Head of the Church and Teacher of the faithful and Vicar of Christ has been allowed by God to assert virtually his own infallibility, is a great argument in favour of the validity of his claim. (Dif. ii, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, ch. 8, 1875; Letter of 27 July 1870)

I agree with you that the wording of the Dogma has nothing very difficult in it. It expresses what, as an opinion, I have ever held myself with a host of other Catholics. (Ward ii, 310-311; Letter to O’Neill Daunt, 7 August 1870)

As I have ever believed as much as the definition says, I have a difficulty in putting myself into the position of mind of those who have not. (Ward ii, 308-309; Letter to Mrs. William Froude, 8 August 1870)

I do not thank him for the odious words, which he has made the vehicle of it. I will not dirty my ink by repeating them; but the substance, mildly stated, is this:—that I have all along considered the doctrine of the Pope’s Infallibility to be contradicted by the facts of Church History, and that though convinced of this, I have in consequence of the Vatican Council forced myself to do a thing that I never fancied would befall me when I became a Catholic:—viz.: forced myself by some unintelligible quibble to fancy myself believing what really after all in my heart I could not and did not believe, and that this operation and its result had given me a considerable amount of pain. I could say much, and quote much from what I have written in comment upon this nasty view of me. . . . (Ward ii, 558-559; Letter to the Guardian, 12 September 1872, in reply to John Moore Capes)

Within the last few years I have been obliged to adopt a similar course towards those who said I could not receive the Vatican Decrees. I sent a sharp letter to the Guardian . . . (POL; Letter to Sir William Henry Cope, 13 February 1875)

. . . nor, in accepting as a dogma what I had ever held as a truth, could I be doing violence to any theological view or conclusion of my own; . . . (Dif. ii, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, ch. 1, 1875)

It is abundantly clear by now that Cardinal Newman (far from being disingenuous, or two-faced, or viciously inconsistent, or from abjectly following Rome and throwing away his mind and judgment) was completely consistent in his views, before and after the Council in 1870, and its dogmatic definition of papal infallibility: since his conversion to Catholicism in 1845 and even six years before. It is George Salmon who has lied. Bearing false witness violates one of the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:16), and those who are characterized by perpetual lying, i.e., “liars” (I am not positively asserting this about Salmon) are said in the New Testament to be in danger of hellfire (Rev 21:8). Lying or calumny or slander is a very serious sin.

(alphabetical by abbreviation)

Dif. ii Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching Considered, vol. 2 (contains Letter to Pusey, 1865 and Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, 1875 / 1875; London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1900)

Keb., Correspondence of John Henry Newman with John Keble and Others, 1839-45 (edited at the Birmingham Oratory, London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1917)

LD xxv The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, Vol. XXV: The Vatican Council, January 1870 to December 1871 (edited by Charles Stephen Dessain, Oxford University Press, USA, 1974)

LD xxix The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, Vol. XXIX: The Cardinalate: January 1879 to September 1881 (edited by Charles Stephen Dessain and Thomas Gornall, S. J., London: Oxford University Press, 1976)

LD xxxii The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, Vol. XXXII: Supplement (edited by Francis J. McGrath, Oxford University Press, USA, 2008)

POL A Packet of Letters: A Selection from the Correspondence of John Henry Newman; edited by Joyce Sugg (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983)

PPC Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England (1851; London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1908)

Ward ii [Wilfrid Ward] The Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman (vol. 2 of two volumes: London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1912)

Browse Our Archives