Tuesday, April 19, 2005

On April 19, 1874...
Venerable John Henry Newman, C.O., wrote a letter to one of his nephews, who had written to his famous uncle with a question: If the Catholic Church was the One True Church, why weren't most of its members intellectually and morally superior to other Christians ?

'My dear John,

I have been so busy since I got your letter that I could not help delaying my answer. Moreover, I was puzzled what I could have said, which has so misled you as to my meaning, for certainly I give up the Catholic cause, if I must rest it either on the intellectual powers which it develops in its adherents, or its manifestation in them of a moral excellence undeniably superior to the results of every other form of Christianity.

My view of the drift of revelation is as follows:—the truths in the natural order, which are the basis of the sciences, are few, clear, and have a ready acceptance in the world at large, though they do not admit of demonstration (as that every effect [fact] must have a cause)—but those which point to a system of things beyond this visible world, as the law of conscience, the sense of religion &c., are delicate, subtle, fitful, mysterious, incapable of being grasped, easily put down and trampled underfoot.

The initial truths of science can take care of themselves—but not so those of religion and morals—and therefore, since in fact they often (though accidentally, in the action of life, not that they need) come into collision with each other, the weaker would assuredly go to the wall, had not the great Author of all things interposed to support them by a direct and extraordinary assistance from Himself. Revelation then is the aid and the completion of nature on that side of it on which it is weak .

It follows that to suppose it will teach or defend those natural sciences, which issue in a large organisation of human society is to mistake the final cause of Revelation—or rather, not to start with anticipating that it will (accidentally) oppose or seem to oppose them, is to fail in apprehending duly its aim and outcome. When Our Lord introduces the rich man saying, "This will I do, I will pull down my barns &c. and I will say to my soul, take thine ease &c." and then commenting on his proceeding, says "Thou fool &c." He brings out emphatically the antagonism between the prosecution of the secular sciences and Revelation—not as if the science of farming, not as if the enjoyment of this life, were in themselves wrong, but that, as men are, that science, that enjoyment will inevitably lead to an obliteration in their minds of what is higher than anything here below, unless the sanctions of Revelation, (or, as I should say, the Catholic Church, which is the embodiment of Revelation,) are present to support and enforce those higher considerations.

Coming back then to your two questions, as to "organisation," "reasoning" &c. I consider these to be natural products of the mind, and therefore the authorities and officials of the Church make use of them, because they are men, for the purposes of that Revelation of which they are the guardians and defenders; but in no sense profess to advance them.

As to your other question, the virtues peculiar to Catholics, I think there are various such—but here we enter upon another large question—I do not think they make a show—that is, are such as to constitute what is called a Note of the Church. Our Lord Himself foretold that His net would contain fish of every kind—He speaks of rulers who would be tyrannical and gluttonous—and it was one of the first great controversies of the Christian Church, issuing in the Novatian schism, whether extraordinary means should or should not be taken to keep the Church pure—and it was decided in the negative, as (in fact) a thing impossible. Now when this is once allowed, considering how evil in its own nature flaunts itself and is loud, and how true virtue is both in itself a matter of the heart and in its nature retiring and unostentatious, it is very difficult to manage to make a "Note of the Church" out of the conduct of Catholics viewed as a visible body. Besides it must be recollected that the Church is a militant body, and its work lies quite as much in rescuing souls from the dominion of sin as in leading them on to any height of moral excellence.

Moreover, in the course of 1800 years it has managed to impress its character on society, so that when countries fall away from its communion, the virtues, which it has created in their various people and civil polities, continue on by a kind of inheritance, and thus the contrast between the realm of nature and the realm of grace has not that sharpness which is seen in the juxtaposition of Romans I, 21-32, and Rom. XII.

And, once more, civilisation itself, that is, the cultivation of the intellect, has a tendency to raise the standard of morals, at least in some departments, as we see in the history of philosophy, e.g. in the Stoics, in Juvenal, Persius, Epictetus &c. and as regards the minor virtues of gentlemanlikeness &c. &c., and this again tends to blur the contrast, which really exists between nature and grace, the special characteristic of the latter lying in the motive on which actions are done.

Lastly, if, after these remarks, I am asked in what I conceive in matter of fact consists the superiority of well-conducted Catholics over Protestants, I should answer, in purity of intention, in faith, in humility, in contrition, in chastity, in honesty, in command of the tongue.
Yours affecly

This led to a more extensive correspondence with the same nephew.


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