Defend Him Against All Hazards: Newman on the Pope

Defend Him Against All Hazards: Newman on the Pope October 24, 2014

“It is the rule of Christ’s providence, that what His Vicar does in severity or in mercy upon earth, He Himself confirms in heaven,” noted John Henry Newman in The Pope and the Revolution, the last sermon in his Sermons Preached on Various Occasions. Newman’s attitude to the Holy Father contrasts starkly with Pat Buchanan’s and all the people he represents. Preaching at the Birmingham Oratory in 1866 on “our obligations to the Holy See,” he said:

[W]hat need I say more to measure our own duty to it and to him who sits in it, than to say that in his administration of Christ’s kingdom, in his religious acts, we must never oppose his will, or dispute his word, or criticise his policy, or shrink from his side? There are kings of the earth who have despotic authority, which their subjects obey indeed but disown in their hearts; but we must never murmur at that absolute rule which the Sovereign Pontiff has over us, because it is given to him by Christ, and, in obeying him, we are obeying his Lord. We must never suffer ourselves to doubt, that, in his government of the Church, he is guided by an intelligence more than human. His yoke is the yoke of Christ, he has the responsibility of his own acts, not we; and to his Lord must he render account, not to us. Even in secular matters it is ever safe to be on his side, dangerous to be on the side of his enemies.

Our duty is — not indeed to mix up Christ’s Vicar with this or that party of men, because he in his high station is above all parties — but to look at his formal deeds, and to follow him whither he goeth, and never to desert him, however we may be tried, but to defend him at all hazards, and against all comers, as a son would a father, and as a wife a husband, knowing that his cause is the cause of God. And so, as regards his successors, if we live to see them; it is our duty to give them in like manner our dutiful allegiance and our unfeigned service, and to follow them also whithersoever they go, having that same confidence that each in his turn and in his own day will do God’s work and will, which we have felt in their predecessors, now taken away to their eternal reward.

I commend the whole sermon. One might think that the Catholic teaching on the papacy doesn’t require quite so much trust in the pope’s wisdom on so many matters as Newman claims. (The Catechism‘s description doesn’t address this at all. See numbers 881 and 882 in particular.) But surely he is right in his description of the attitude with which the obedient Catholic listens to the pope, even a pope not to his taste, and that is always dangerous to be on the side of his enemies.

My thanks to Mary Schwarz for the lead.

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