[Cardinal Newman’s words will be in blue. Newman biographer Ian Ker’s words (heavily citing Cardinal Newman) will be in in green. I won’t indent their citations, since they are so lengthy]
Many Protestants particularly offended and scandalized by the Vatican I declaration of papal infallibility in 1870. I thought it would be interesting to note the striking similarity between remarks of Protestant critics today and those of the schismatic, ultimately liberal Old Catholic movement, post-1870, led (as a figurehead with quite ambivalent personal feelings) by the German Church historian Johann Joseph Ignaz von Dollinger (1799-1890), who was eventually excommunicated.
These strains of thought were also picked up by the anti-Catholics (on the principle of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”); notably George Salmon (1819-1904): an Anglican controversialist whose big ax to grind against Catholicism was infallibility (exemplified in his book, Infallibility of the Church, 1888, which takes many wrongheaded, fallacious swipes at Newman).
Current anti-Catholic argumentation (whether those making them are consciously aware of this or not) shows great similarity to both of these men (Dollinger, the so-called “traditionalist” Catholic who opposed the latest ecumenical council, and the anti-Catholic Salmon: both opposing the latest Catholic ex cathedra dogma).
I shall document below what Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman thought about this type of thinking (which might be called, somewhat cynically, “historical positivism”), by chronicling his remarks about Dollinger, the Old Catholics, and the rejection of the decree of Vatican I concerning the infallibility of the pope.
“Historical positivism” is not a merely polemical term, coined by myself or other Catholic apologists. It is a real thing, which is discussed by historians. Political scientist Jonathan B. Isacoff also offers a fascinating article about this approach and methodology, which reads in part:
Positivism views historical inquiry as similar to archeology. While the events of the past can not in any literal sense be replicated or witnessed, we are left with shards of evidence: documents, records, first-hand observations, and so forth from which an objective account of what happened in the past can be reconstructed. Employing the documentary and other materials inherited by historians over time, bits and pieces of evidence can be fitted together to produce a sum total that can be accurately and fairly called a true historical account. This understanding of historical inquiry has come under sustained critique during recent decades . . .
Positivism is the dominant ontology and epistemology of the Anglo-American tradition of historiography and social science, including its contemporary instantiation. Among the key ideas of positivism are that inquiry should be scientific; that there is an a priori scientific method; that the basic scientific method is the same for both the natural and social sciences; and that sciences should be reducible to physics. Among the cornerstones of positivist ontology is that there is a physical and historical world that definitively exists/existed with fully descriptive features. In terms of epistemology, positivists argue that the ontological features of the world are of fundamental importance because it is fully possible to attain “true” knowledge of the world as it really is/was. (“Pragmatism, Historical Inquiry, and International Relations,” 3-27-02; link now defunct)
And now on to Cardinal Newman in response to Dollinger and the Old Catholics, who rejected papal infallibility, as fully defined by the First Vatican Council (1870). Newman biographer Ian Ker recounts some of Newman’s diary entries:
[H]e continued to think Dollinger ‘wrong in making the worst of the definition instead of making the best’. It was simply playing into the hands of the extremists to exaggerate the terms of the definition, which in fact had been a ‘defeat’ for the Ultramontanes. (John Henry Newman: A Biography, Oxford University Press, 1988, 665; citing Letters and Diaries, edited by Charles Stephen Dessain et al, Oxford: 1977, Vol. XXV, 438)
Towards Dollinger, whose quarrel with the Council had become a quarrel with the Church, Newman was still sympathetic, but critical. Characteristically, he diagnosed Dollinger’s crisis as fundamentally a failure of imagination. Dollinger was not a ‘philosophical historian’, in the sense that ‘He does not throw himself into the state of things which he reads about — he does not enter into the position of Honorius, or of the Council 40 years afterwards. He ties you down like Shylock to the letter of the bond, instead of realizing what took place as a scene.’ Newman could not understand how Dollinger could accept the council of Ephesus, for example, which was notorious for intrigue and violence, and not the recent one. Perhaps, he shrewdly guessed, ‘by this time the very force of logic, to say nothing of philosophy, has obliged him to give up Councils altogether’. (Ker, ibid., citing Letters and Diaries, Vol. XXVI, 120)
As regards the relation between history and theology, Newman is unequivocal in his criticism of Dollinger and his followers . . . ‘I think them utterly wrong in what they have done and are doing; and, moreover, I agree as little in their view of history as in their acts.’ It is not a matter of questioning the accuracy of their historical knowledge, but ‘their use of the facts they report’ and ‘that special stand-point from which they view the relations existing between the records of History and the communications of Popes and Councils’. Newman sums up the essence of the problem: ‘They seem to me to expect from History more than History can furnish.’ The opposite was true of the Ultramontanes, who simply found history an embarrassing inconvenience.
As the Church is a sacred and divine creation, so in like manner her history, with its wonderful evolution of events, the throng of great actors who have a part in it, and its multiform literature, stained though its annals are with human sin and error, and recorded on no system, and by uninspired authors, still is a sacred work also; and those who make light of it, or distrust its lessons, incur a grave responsibility.
But he wondered why ‘private judgment’ should ‘be unlawful in interpreting Scripture against the voice of authority, and yet be lawful in the interpretation of history?’ The Church certainly made use of history, as she also used Scripture, tradition, and human reason; but her doctrines could not be ‘proved’ by any of these ‘informants’, individually or in combination. No Catholic doctrine could be fully proved (or, for that matter, disproved) by historical evidence — ‘in all cases there is a margin left for the exercise of faith in the word of the Church.’ Indeed, anyone ‘who believes the dogmas of the Church only because he has reasoned them out of History, is scarcely a Catholic’. (Ker, ibid., 684, citing Difficulties of Anglicans, II [Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, 1875], 309, 311-312)
Cardinal Newman continues in the latter work:
In beginning to speak of the Vatican Council, I am obliged from circumstances to begin by speaking of myself. The most unfounded and erroneous assertions have publicly been made about my sentiments towards it, and as confidently as they are unfounded. Only a few weeks ago it was stated categorically by some anonymous correspondent of a Liverpool paper, with reference to the prospect of my undertaking the task on which I am now employed, that it was, “in fact understood that at one time Dr. Newman was on the point of uniting with Dr. Dollinger and his party, and that it required the earnest persuasion of several members of the Roman Catholic Episcopate to prevent him from taking that step,”—an unmitigated and most ridiculous untruth in every word of it, . . .
On July 24, 1870, I wrote as follows:—
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. The question is, does it come to me with the authority of an Ecumenical Council?
Now the primâ facie argument is in favour of its having that authority. The Council was legitimately called; it was more largely attended than any Council before it; and innumerable prayers from the whole of Christendom, have preceded and attended it, and merited a happy issue of its proceedings.
Were it not then for certain circumstances, under which the Council made the definition, I should receive that definition at once. Even as it is, if I were called upon to profess it, I should be unable, considering it came from the Holy Father and the competent local authorities, at once to refuse to do so. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that there are reasons for a Catholic, till better informed, to suspend his judgment on its validity.
. . . Also I wrote as follows to a friend, who was troubled at the way in which the dogma was passed, in order to place before him in various points of view the duty of receiving it:—
July 27, 1870.
. . . Or again, if nothing definitely sufficient from Scripture or Tradition can be brought to contradict a definition, the fact of a legitimate Superior having defined it, may be an obligation in conscience to receive it with an internal assent. 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.
But it is not every one that can read its pages rightly; and certainly I cannot follow Mr. Gladstone’s reading of it. He is too well informed indeed, too large in his knowledge, too acute and comprehensive in his views, not to have an acquaintance with history, far beyond the run of even highly educated men; still when he accuses us of deficient attention to history, one cannot help asking, whether he does not, as a matter of course, take for granted as true the principles for using it familiar with Protestant divines, and denied by our own, and in consequence whether his impeachment of us does not resolve itself into the fact that he is Protestant and we are Catholics. Nay, has it occurred to him that perhaps it is the fact, that we have views on the relation of History to Dogma different from those which Protestants maintain? And is he so certain of the facts of History in detail, of their relevancy, and of their drift, as to have a right, I do not say to have an opinion of his own, but to publish to the world, on his own warrant, that we have “repudiated ancient history”? He publicly charges us, not merely with having “neglected” it, or “garbled” its evidence, or with having contradicted certain ancient usages or doctrines to which it bears witness, but he says “repudiated.” He could not have used a stronger term, supposing the Vatican Council had, by a formal act, cut itself off from early times, instead of professing, as it does (hypocritically, if you will, but still professing) to speak, “supported by Holy Scripture and the decrees both of preceding Popes and General Councils,” and “faithfully adhering to the aboriginal tradition of the Church.” Ought any one but an oculatus testis, a man whose profession was to acquaint himself with the details of history, to claim to himself the right of bringing, on his own authority, so extreme a charge against so august a power, so inflexible and rooted in its traditions through the long past, as Mr. Gladstone would admit the Roman Church to be?
. . . [referring to the Old Catholics] Extensive as may be their historical knowledge, I have no reason to think that they, more than Mr. Gladstone, would accept the position which History holds among the Loci Theologici as Catholic theologians determine it; and I am denying not their report of facts, but their use of the facts they report, and that, because of that special stand-point from which they view the relations existing between the records of History and the enunciations of Popes and Councils. They seem to me to expect from History more than History can furnish, and to have too little confidence in the Divine Promise and Providence as guiding and determining those enunciations.
Why should Ecclesiastical History, any more than the text of Scripture, contain in it “the whole counsel of God”? Why should private judgment be unlawful in interpreting Scripture against the voice of authority, and yet be lawful in the interpretation of history? There are those who make short work of questions such as these by denying authoritative interpretation altogether; that is their private concern, and no one has a right to inquire into their reason for so doing; but the case would be different were one of them to come forward publicly, and to arraign others, without first confuting their theological præambula, for repudiating history, or for repudiating the Bible.
. . . Historical evidence reaches a certain way, more or less, towards a proof of the Catholic doctrines; often nearly the whole way; sometimes it goes only as far as to point in their direction; sometimes there is only an absence of evidence for a conclusion contrary to them; nay, sometimes there is an apparent leaning of the evidence to a contrary conclusion, which has to be explained;. . . There is nothing of bondage or “renunciation of mental freedom” in this view, any more than in the converts of the Apostles believing what the Apostles might preach to them or teach them out of Scripture.
What has been said of History in relation to the formal Definitions of the Church, applies also to the exercise of Ratiocination. Our logical powers, too, being a gift from God, may claim to have their informations respected; and Protestants sometimes accuse our theologians, for instance, the medieval schoolmen, of having used them in divine matters a little too freely. Still it has ever been our teaching and our protest that, as there are doctrines which lie beyond the direct evidence of history, so there are doctrines which transcend the discoveries of reason; and, after all, whether they are more or less recommended to us by the one informant or the other, in all cases the immediate motive in the mind of a Catholic for his reception of them is, not that they are proved to him by Reason or by History, but because Revelation has declared them by means of that high ecclesiastical Magisterium which is their legitimate exponent.
What has been said applies also to those other truths, with which Ratiocination has more to do than History, which are sometimes called developments of Christian doctrine, truths which are not upon the surface of the Apostolic depositum—that is, the legacy of Revelation,—but which from time to time are brought into form by theologians, and sometimes have been proposed to the faithful by the Church, as direct objects of faith. No Catholic would hold that they ought to be logically deduced in their fulness and exactness from the belief of the first centuries, but only this,—that, on the assumption of the Infallibility of the Church (which will overcome every objection except a contradiction in thought), there is nothing greatly to try the reason in such difficulties as occur in reconciling those evolved doctrines with the teaching of the ancient Fathers; such development being evidently the new form, explanation, transformation, or carrying out of what in substance was held from the first, what the Apostles said, but have not recorded in writing, or would necessarily have said under our circumstances, or if they had been asked, or in view of certain uprisings of error, and in that sense being really portions of the legacy of truth, of which the Church, in all her members, but especially in her hierarchy, is the divinely appointed trustee.
Such an evolution of doctrine has been, as I would maintain, a law of the Church’s teaching from the earliest times, and in nothing is her title of “semper eadem” more remarkably illustrated than in the correspondence of her ancient and modern exhibition of it. As to the ecclesiastical Acts of 1854 and 1870, I think with Mr. Gladstone that the principle of doctrinal development, and that of authority, have never in the proceedings of the Church been so freely and largely used as in the Definitions then promulgated to the faithful; but I deny that at either time the testimony of history was repudiated or perverted. The utmost that can be fairly said by an opponent against the theological decisions of those years is, that antecedently to the event, it might appear that there were no sufficient historical grounds in behalf of either of them—I do not mean for a personal belief in either, but—for the purpose of converting a doctrine long existing in the Church into a dogma, and making it a portion of the Catholic Creed. This adverse anticipation was proved to be a mistake by the fact of the definition being made.
. . . I end with an extract from the Pastoral of the Swiss Bishops, a Pastoral which has received the Pope’s approbation.
It in no way depends upon the caprice of the Pope, or upon his good pleasure, to make such and such a doctrine, the object of a dogmatic definition. He is tied up and limited to the divine revelation, and to the truths which that revelation contains. He is tied up and limited by the Creeds, already in existence, and by the preceding definitions of the Church. He is tied up and limited by the divine law, and by the constitution of the Church. Lastly, he is tied up and limited by that doctrine, divinely revealed, which affirms that alongside religious society there is civil society, that alongside the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy there is the power of temporal Magistrates, invested in their own domain with a full sovereignty, and to whom we owe in conscience obedience and respect in all things morally permitted, and belonging to the domain of civil society.
(A Letter Addressed to the Duke of Norfolk on Occasion of Mr. Gladstone’s Recent Expostulation [Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching] –online; Chapter 8: “The Vatican Council”, [book and chapter both linked to the left], Volume 2, 1874; reprinted by Longmans, Green, and Co., London, 1900, 299, 301-305, 308-315, 339-340; see also Chapter 9, “The Vatican Definition,” for an excellent discussion of many epistemological and ecclesiological aspects of infallibility)
Those who follow this erroneous line of thought start with this false notion (or reasonable facsimile thereof) that historical fact is somehow sufficient in and of itself to constitute orthodoxy or some sort of “norm.” Even if this were true (which it isn’t — since theology is not sociology or anthropology), the papacy far outweighs radical conciliarism as a matter of how things actually operated throughout the history of the Church.
Such proponents have to elaborate upon how they see the relationship of the bald facts of history to orthodoxy, and further, how orthodoxy is determined (historically, and in their theological opinion of how it should be done), and why we should accept their criteria for this rather than some criteria established by councils and popes (or some other authority). So they not only have to provide a sensible, plausible criterion, but also a reason why their opinion carries force (i.e., a plausible argument for authority with regard to their claims).
Whether history substantiates something is a different claim from whether it is orthodox or not. We are also dealing with religion and faith here, not simply brute historical facts. Christianity no more reduces to history than it reduces to philosophy.
Photo credit: Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger (1799–1890): 1874 portrait by Franz von Lenbach (1836-1904) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]