Anyone who has spent any time at the intersection of various Christian traditions on Church History will likely have encountered Newman’s “To be deep into history is to cease to be Protestant.” and I’m adding nothing new really by reminding the reader that Newman’s own position here was actually quite innovative for the time. Despite being held up as a favourite of some traditionalist Catholics today his beliefs can be argued as a concession towards the Enlightenment and Romanticism by Roman Catholicism. The Doctrine of Development being not dissimilar to the Whig view of history, the inevitable progression of mankind towards greater liberty and enlightenment being replicated in the church as it tends continually towards what it would call the fullness of divine truth.

That Newman was an innovator and enlightenment romanticist in this regard I think is further stressed when he is contrasted against the views of his contemporary, Cardinal Manning, on a similar subject. Manning is an English Cardinal of the period who seems to embody a genuine traditionalist and reactionary expression of Roman Catholicism. He held the line when he articulated his own mantra “The appeal to antiquity is both a treason and a heresy” (The Temporal Mission of the Holy Ghost: The Relation of the Holy Ghost To the Divine Tradition of the Faith. p.226) which emerged in his attempt to combat “the charge of the Reformers that the Catholic doctrines were not primitive, and their pretension was to revert to antiquity” (ibid. p.226) … which is true. We can summarise this more concisely by saying Manning believed ‘To be deep into history is to cease to be Roman Catholic.’

If anyone has spent time persistently reading the works of Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, Bucer, Melancthon, Vermigli et al or even Wycliffe and Huss will see that this is the case based on who they reference outside of Scripture itself. In my own background if one reads Jeremy Taylor, James Ussher, or Richard Hooker and the like they make great pains to show their continuity with the earliest centuries. The position of the Reformers, to Manning, was heresy precisely because “it rejects the Divine voice of the church, at this hour” (ibid. p.226, emphasis mine). This view, a sort of fideism, was the view the Reformer’s reacted against in their own century and I think it fair to say this difference is one predominantly of epistemology. A difference which was, it can be argued, accommodated within the united Western Church up until the Council of Trent. 

The Reformers believed that the text was accessible, that God’s grace was intimately conjoined to the hearing the gospel proclaimed and its embodiment in the sacraments. This is one of the priors that Sola/Prima Scriptura rests upon. Newman’s quote is so persuasive today, however, precisely because it starts from an action that emerges from Protestant epistemology ‘to be deep into history…’ and then leads into the Doctrine of Development. A doctrine which was designed to act as an onboarding process to transubstantiate one form of epistemology into another. To translate a belief in the intelligibility of the divine author through divine revelation in the scriptures revealed once and for all into one which renders it dependent upon mediation by a particular organ, the Magisterium of the current moment. It doesn’t help that in the years since Newman much of Protestant Christianity has been so buffeted by Modernity that it has largely abandoned any appeal to it’s historic epistemology. Forsaking it in favour of variations of rationalism or fideism regarding it’s approach to Scripture. This makes Newman’s claims more salient as the appeals to history amongst Protestants grow fainter and fainter with every passing generation, allowing its critics progressively freer reign in this area. The battle belonged to the Protestants but they’ve been convinced to abandon the field.

To be honest, I prefer Manning’s approach over Newmans as having the more internal coherency to it (if not external). Yet I do not see the overall difference between his position and Newman’s being so extreme, they arguably end in a similar position. Manning rejects out of hand any treatment of the past and any engagement with antiquity independent of the Magisterium whilst Newman believes it simply needs the necessary reinterpretation, also by the Magisterium. In either case the faithful are bound to the Magisterium of the present day. What makes Newman rhetorically effective is his epistemological approach is amphibious, making the migration from the land associated with historical Protestant epistemology to the waters of the Roman Catholic Magisterium at the present moment. Manning, by contrast, is the fish at home in those chaotic depths who to countenance going on land in the first place is a death sentence. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Manning’s approach tends to flounder as an apologia in the face of Protestantism compared to Newman’s. Manning’s polemic is ‘inside-inside’ and Newman is ‘outside-inside’. Yet the difference with the two is that Newman arguably brings more of his old epistemology with him and the adoption of his views introduces the viability of progressivism more clearly within Roman Catholicism as time goes on, being subject to the right framing. Particularly within the English speaking sections of the Roman Catholic tradition it is, in light of this, unsurprising that large swathes of it seem indistinguishable from that of liberal mainline in America and the state Churches of Europe. It’s ironic then that Newman, superficially associated with conservatism within Roman Catholicism, laid the foundation for it’s progressive liberalisation.

It can be argued that belonging is more important than believing with the Roman Catholic Church, even if it’s glib to articulate it like that. That it’s up to the Magisterium proper to determine what should be believed and for the masses to be faithful to it. Yet I think some of the pressures you see within that tradition between liberal and traditionalist factions only serve to emphasise the tensions this approach creates. Pope Francis’s pronouncement on Amoris laetitia or Fratelli Tutti is a good example of this, all within the tradition of Newman. The fact that a majority of Roman Catholic laity do not hold to the Church’s position on birth control or even the eucharist are further examples of this entropy. Is this exponential? Probably, and that’ll erode confidence in the Magisterium over time. Without the Magisterium reverting to the position of someone like Cardinal Manning regarding its approach to history and revelation it’s hard not see how these issues will cease to compound. Yet this might just exchanging one set of problems for another.

3 thoughts on “The Impact of How Newman and Manning Read the Past on Their Tradition

  1. It’s interesting to see certain conservatives Catholics also adopt a full-on cheerleader stance for Francis (bordering on ultramontanism). Guys like Sohrab Ahmari and Adrian Vermeule articulate a kind of edgy illiberal (really faux-liberal) take on world politics, seeing in Francis a vision for a neo-integralist catholic social teaching. This gels well with certain left-wing Catholic takes (in magazines like Commonweal, and in figures like Eugene McCarraher) who advocated for candidates like Bernie Sanders as effectively carrying out their vision (even if without explicit Catholicism). Anti-Francis Catholics are in a state of shock, torn between loyalty and radical opposition (becoming sedevacantists), usually opting for the incoherent SSPX option. But they have no ground to stand. Most were converts during the JPII era, which only ever was superficially traditional, and there’s no going back. They depend upon the turning wheels of chance to win back institutional power.

    Newman’s theology allows this slick adaptation. The institution can continue and evolve, along with its own self-understanding (which Newman himself believed, as a puppy grows into a dog). Of course, one must take a certain uncritical faith commitment that the papal magisterium will direct these changes rightly, providing the norming norm through history. Newman himself was in some shock after Vatican I, being an opponent to ex cathedral papal infallibility (he wrote to Acton, I believe, that he still drinks first to conscience, then to the pope). At the very least, this institutional stability can operate as God’s presence in the world wherever it goes. Of course, you have to keep up with where it’s going. And shut one’s eyes to the fact that the magisterium develops in response to, and along with, global forces. Francis’ agenda is very similar to the Green economy focus in the “Build Back Better” sloganeering, part of a North Atlantic attempt to retool its economy. You end up as a pawn on someone else’s chessboard. Thank God, at the very least most Catholics don’t care and often do whatever they want (either good or evil).

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    1. I think people often don’t appreciate how novel Newman’s thinking was. We’re still very early on, historically, from seeing the impact of it but the fact that the Magisterium increasingly lags in global trends doesn’t bode well for any indications of it stemming the drift over time. What’s left is will increasingly be a confidence trick built largely on rhetoric, something hard to sustain when they can’t frame the discussion anymore in the public sphere.


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