Commentary : Newman and the Liberal English Society

Source: FSSPX News

By coming in person to Great Britain to beatify Cardinal Newman, Benedict XVI wished to manifest his attachment to the English prelate's way of thinking and spirituality.  His declarations throughout the journey show us what elements of his teaching he retains, but also those from which he distances himself.  To see this clearly, it is good to read the acceptance speech that Newman gave on the occasion of his nomination as cardinal on May 12, 1879, in which he vigorously denounces religious liberty.

The entire discourse is published in the latest edition of the Courrier de Rome (# 336, Sept., 2010).  Here is a large extract that reveals the essential of Cardinal Newman's thoughts on what he calls “a great evil” and to which he claims to have “resisted with all (his) strength for thirty, forty, fifty years”.  The passages in bold print are only in DICI’s edition.

(...)Liberalism in religion is the doctrine according to which there is no absolute truth in religion, but any credo is as good as any other, and such is the teaching that gains daily in consistency and strength.  It does not admit that any religion whatsoever can be considered as true.  It teaches that all religions must be tolerated, because they are all matters of opinion, that the revealed religion is not a truth, but a question of feeling and taste, that it is neither an objective fact, nor miraculous, and that every person has the right to be told only what pleases his imagination.  Devotion is not necessarily founded on faith.  One can frequent Protestant and Catholic churches, and draw benefits from both the one and the other, without belonging to either.  One can fraternally exchange thoughts and spiritual sentiments, without having the least intention of obtaining a common doctrine, and without even seeing a need for one.  Consequently, since religion is such a personal and private affair, we must absolutely not take it into account in human relations.  If a man wears a different religion every morning, what does it matter?  It is just as insolent to meddle in someone else's religion as in his income or in the way he runs his family.  In no case is religion the bond of society.

Up until now, the civil power has been Christian. Even in countries separated from the Church, like mine, when I was young, the saying according to which “Christianity is the law of the land” applied.  Today, everywhere, the beautiful edifice of society, although it comes from Christianity, rejects Christianity.  The saying that I just quoted, and a hundred others along the same lines, have disappeared or are in the process of disappearing everywhere, and by the end of the century, unless the Almighty intervene, we will have forgotten them.  Up until now, it was thought that only religion, with its supernatural commandments, was strong enough to ensure the submission of the popular masses to law and order; today, philosophers and politicians are determined to resolve this problem without the help of Christianity.  In the place of the authority and teachings of the Church, they wish to substitute above all a universal and completely secular education, destined make each individual understand that it his personal interest is to be disciplined, hard-working and sober.  Then, under the guise of great principles that are the driving force in replacing religion and in the hands of the masses thus carefully educated, this education furnishes the great fundamental ethical truths of justice, benevolence, sincerity and others of the same sort, like true-life experience, and the natural laws that exist and act spontaneously in society and social affairs, be they physical or psychological, for example, government, commerce, finance, experiences in the domain of health, and international relations.  As for religion, it is a private luxury that one may have if one wishes, but that must be paid for, and that one must not impose on others, nor practice if it bothers them.

The general character of this great apostasy is everywhere the same; but in its details and its method, it varies with the different countries.  For me, I prefer to speak of that which is in my country, that which I know.  There, I believe it threatens to carry away a formidable success, although it is not easy to see what will be its ultimate outcome.  At a first glance, one might think that the English are too religious for a movement that, on the continent, seems founded upon infidelity; but the misfortune for us is that although it ends in infidelity like elsewhere, it does not necessarily come from infidelity.  One must recall that the religious sects that were born in England three hundred years ago, and that are still powerful today, have always been fiercely opposed to the union of Church and State, and would support the dechristianization of the monarchy and of all that is a part of it, with the idea that such a catastrophe would render Christianity much purer and much more powerful.  The liberal principle is then imposed upon us as evident.  Consider the result of the very fact that there are these multiple sects.  They constitute, it is believed, the religion of half the population; now remember that our form of government is by the people.  Take a dozen men at random, in the street, they all participate in the political power: when you ask them their belief, they represent perhaps up to seven different religions.  How can they act together in municipal or national affairs, if each insists upon the recognition of his religious denomination?  Every action would be neutral, unless the religious question was ignored.  We can do nothing.  And thirdly, we must not forget that there is much good and truth in the liberal theory; for example, not to say more, the precepts of justice, loyalty, sobriety, self-mastery, benevolence (1), which, as I already mentioned, are counted among its avowed principles, along with the natural laws of society.

It is only when we discover that this apparatus of principles is destined to replace, and suppress religion, that we declare it to be evil.  Never has the enemy had a plan more skillfully twisted, or with a greater chance of success.  And it has already answered the hopes set upon it.  Liberalism is in the process of dragging into its ranks a great number of virtuous, serious and capable men, mature men with praiseworthy pasts and young men of the future.  Such is the situation in England, and we had best be aware of it. (…)

Challenge and dilemma

Like Newman before him, Pope Benedict XVI fights the doctrinal relativism introduced into modern society by liberalism, and strongly insists, in his address to British Catholics, on the necessity of a public profession of Faith, but he needs to conciliate this necessity with the principle of religious freedom put forward by Vatican II, and which Newman did not know. Therefore -and the Holy Father made this clear in his first address to the Queen- the United Kingdom must try to be “ a modern and multicultural society”, while keeping its “respect for traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate”. This attempt at conciliation is a real “challenge”, as one knows full well that modern society is multicultural, that it tolerates all religions and accepts none as true. The only way to meet this “challenge” would be to promote a moderate or “positive” secularism that would enable the Church to coexist in peace, or simply to subsist.

Conciliation is even harder when it comes to ecumenism. When talking to the Archbishop of Canterbury the Pope no longer mentions a “challenge”, but a “dilemna”: the Church must be “understanding”, but “never at the expense of truth”. In other words, she must be ecumenical and catholic.
At the end of the 19th century, Newman gave, in three sentences, a rather more direct analysis of liberal society:
-“Today, everywhere, the beautiful edifice of society, despite its roots in Christianity, is rejecting Christianity.”
-“They [philosophers and politicians] want to substitute, for the authority and teaching of the Church, a universal and completely secular education.”
- “As to religion, it is a private luxury, that one can have if one wants, but for which one must pay, and which one must not impose on others, or even practice if it inconveniences them.”

(DICI n°222 - 02/10/10)

(1) Here Newman lists the principles that inspire what in France is called secular morals.  But as he mentions in the following paragraph, these secular virtues were destined “to replace, and to suppress religion”.  And now that religion has disappeared from public life, these secular virtues – today known as “civic virtues” - can scarcely stand their ground and “incivilities” multiply.

About the Benedict XVI visit in the United Kingdom, you can also read :

Benedict XVI in the United Kingdom : The scandal of pedophile priests
Benedict XVI in the United Kingdom : The role of Catholics in a secularized society
Benedict XVI in the United Kingdom : The particular mission of the bishops
Benedict XVI in the United Kingdom : Ecumenism and interreligious dialogue
Benedict XVI in the United Kingdom : Benedict XVI and Cardinal Newman
Solution to the crisis, according to Cardinal Newman