the Newman Option

Talking Points from Text and Talk

April 28, 2018

 

The Newman Option

The reference is obviously to Rod Dreher’s title The Benedict Option, which recommends as the model for the Church in modernity the Benedictine life, with its notes of single-hearted devotion to God, liturgical solemnity, the nine-fold pattern of prayer, and labor with one’s hands.   Dreher did not suggest that everyone should become a Benedictine, but that this pattern had applications to the life of the laity that were especially appropriate for these spiritually hard times.

            John Henry Newman, on the occasion of his elevation to the Cardinalate in 1878 made a short address that should be read and recommended repeatedly because of its prescience.   Newman saw that the danger to the Church was not the public refutation of its principles but its subtle transformation into a humanitarian project in which the highest virtue was kindness or the desire to avoid pain for oneself and others, the highest concern the goods of this life to which a certain commercial morality was intrinsic, and theology a kind of religious atheism.  He considered this more dangerous than such obviously incarnation-denying heresies as Arianism, because it would seem to be a kind of fulfillment of Christianity for modern times, providing a kind of quasi-religious object for sentiment while ignoring the purpose of the religion of Christ, which is to make us worthy Citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven who now live in Christ and who will live with Him forever.  It cannot be said too often that the only movement that has ever significantly gentled the human condition is the living faith of the Church, which from the beginning defended the human person as the property of God, elevated women from chattel to partners, and taught princes to govern as men themselves under judgement.  But it also cannot be said too often that this was never the project of the Church but an effect of Christianity and that to make such goals the purpose of the church is to commit it ultimately to the service of the prince of this world, the final form being that slavery to matter called in our day Marxism or Communism or comfort-soaked capitalist materialism

              If Newman were alive today, he would, I am certain be anxiously concerned, for something new is happening in Rome.  Forces kept at bay since 1814 are having their moment, in which the moves are designed to come to terms with the world.   This is unlike the failings of previous popes, which for the most part have been the failings of powerful men in every age, lust and greed and the desire for domination.  The ‘new paradigm’ indeed has no place in tradition; it undercuts the teaching of the predecessors, derogates common piety, and ridicules the desire for clear teaching.  This is no place to canvass the details, but to Catholics who go to Mass and go to confession more than once a year it is profoundly disturbing.    Newman might say, “This is the end of the pattern I predicted in 1878.”

But he would also say something else; he would say, “Have a little patience.”   

            And this is why at the end of the Biglietto Speech, so named because it was the occasion on which the newly elected cardinal received the ticket or biglietto admitting him to the conclave, after he had painted in vivid colors the catastrophe that was coming, his advice was, “Do nothing.”   Go on your way in faith and hope and charity.  “Christianity has too often been in deadly peril, that we should fear for it in any new trial now.  So far is certain; on the other hand, what is uncertain, and what is commonly a great surprise, when it is witnessed, is the particular mode by which, in the event, Providence rescues and saves His elect inheritance.”  

Newman then lists four of those surprising ways in which Providence has acted to save the elect inheritance.   An apostrophe here.   Let it be admitted that the elect inheritance is not in the end “the Church” as a visible institution but  is the communion of the elect with Christ in heaven, although the Apostolic mission is indeed present there as the foundation of the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:14).  While the historical corporation has no place as such in the Kingdom of Heaven, let it also be admitted that there would be no elect body of saints without the very incarnate apostolic mission which Jesus sent, which was and is itself the mystical body of Christ, joining the faithful to God is Jesus, teaching and governing, destined to exist while the world lasts, sheltering in its arms the elect saints.   Between the corporate body and the kingdom of Heaven there exists an ambiguity, or an effective mystery, which cannot be readily resolved.  Robert Bellarmine said that the Church was “a perfect society.”   The Second Vatican council said in 1965 that the fulness of the faith subsists in the Catholic Church.   This has been variously interpreted, but it offers this grace, it relieves the faithful from believing that the instructions of the diocesan education department necessarily deserve the assent of faith.   

That said, Newman reflects, first, that sometimes danger is averted because the enemy of the Church is turned into a friend.    Of this the obvious example was the conversion of the empire from its program of persecution under Diocletian in 304 to the de facto Christian empire of Constantine in which Christianity was after 313, increasingly the favored faith.   And in a more general way even eighteenth-century enlightenment empires, at heart often deeply anti-Christian, would befriend Christianity, establishing religion as the common conviction and moral ground apart from which the state could not stand. It should also be noticed with respect to the old enemy Protestantism that conservative Protestantism is the only ally the Roman Church can find in the twenty-first century.

Second, there are those events in which the enemy is despoiled of that special virulence of evil that was so threatening.    The project of Enlightenment European princes for making the Church a department of religion was curtailed by the disappearance of the princes in the revolutionary storms of the early nineteenth century.   The threat of Moslem invasion was forestalled by the siege of Malta, Lepanto, and at five-minutes-to-midnight by John Sobieski.  

            Thirdly, there is the fact that systems opposing the Church are very likely after a time to fall apart.   Gnosticism, which threatened to destroy the Church and of which the great doctors of the second and early-third centuries were mightily afraid, exists not unless in the culturally marginalized precincts of the New age and Christian Science and Unitarianism.   It is very difficult now to find an Albigensian, whose dualistic fanaticism seriously endangered the Church in France in the thirteenth century.  And something can be said of Northern European Protestantism, which, however prosperous and pacific it may now be, came on the scene as, among other things, the dedicated enemy of Roman Catholicism. What Voltaire said of English religion in 1800, that the Tories had little religion, which was more than could be said of the Whigs who had none, could now be said of Catholicism and Protestantism in Germany.  The Catholic Church in Germany is on life support, but it is breathing.   In England the bloody two-centuries long campaign to destroy Roman Catholicism has ended in a situation in which, pitiful as the numbers are, more Catholics than Anglicans go to Church on Sunday, the Church of England having imploded in its homeland.  Stamping out Catholicism has been an unprofitable exercise, usually done most effectively from within.  But still it is striking that there were 9,000  Catholics in Norway in 1971 and 100,000 in 2012, which, even given that many of these may be migrant Poles and Mexicans, is remarkable.  Of course none of this apparent persistence means that any particular soul will see the face of God, but the temporal prospects of the Church falls into the same category with “by their fruits you shall know them,” an observation that is not taken to derogate the deeper truth that only God knows his own.  

            Finally, and fourthly, Newman reflects that God may allow the enemy to do just as much as is beneficial, and no more.    Generally, persecution has that effect but what Newman meant, I think, is a situation like the French revolution, which got rid of church establishment whose relation to the Gospel was decidedly ambiguous.  It is certainly true that the religious rebellion of the 1520 drove the Church into the Council of Trent.    Perhaps Pope Francis will with his common touch do good for many. 

            One may justifiably take comfort ln these facts, but these are secondary historical considerations calculated to reinforce a higher truth.   Since the destiny of the Church is always in the hands of God, since the agency of its effectiveness is in only the most derivative and secondary sense a human work, Newman would write, “Commonly the Church has nothing to do but to go on in her own proper duties in confidence and  peace.”   The patient will inherit the earth, and they will rejoice in the plentitude of peace” (Psalm 37:11). 

Would Newman change his mind if he were here now?   He lived and died in a world on horseback in which the train and telegraph were new, knowing nothing of the abstractive ravages of technology that were on the way.   I think he might say something like this:  “What did you expect?  Did you think that Satan having pretty well damaged its offshoots would leave the apostolic, Roman Church alone?.   Be a little patient.  We do not know how God will save his elect.  And remember, He will return.”