All That I Have Written Is Straw. . .

Meanderings of a Catholic Devout

Toasting to conscience first.

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This semester, I have had a great privilege in studying two great minds of the Catholic Church, though I didn’t realize how much at the time I signed up for my course. The first is Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890) and Lord John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, “Lord Acton,” (1834-1902). Newman, of course, recently beatified by the Catholic Church and he is widely read and studied, although I would say that the study of his work is chiefly among clergy and not enough among the laity. Lord Acton was a great historian and devout Catholic layman, although controversial at times. One of the clerical side, one for the lay side, both extremely influential in the Church, but neither of whose ideals would be realized until the twentieth century.

I am by no means an expert on their lives, nor would I be able to fully represent the impact of their thoughts and ideologies on the whole of Church history in my little blog project, but I want to share my own reflections regarding how the study of the lives of these men made me think.

In brief, John Henry Newman began as an Anglican minister, Oxford professor, and controversialist writer. Where he was weak and frail in body, his mind compensated for sevenfold. His great interest in studying the sources of theological doctrine and history, particularly Patristics (Church fathers), lead to his conversion to Roman Catholicism. Before conversion, Newman was a stalwart Anglican who defended the Anglican Church and rejected the Roman Catholic Church and it’s “popery.” Yet while studying the Arianian christological controversy leading to the Council of Nicaea in 325, Newman discovered that the argument of the break-away Arians from the Church amounted to specifically the same argument that the Anglicans used to remain segregated from the Roman Catholic Church in the Anglican doctrine of the Thirty-Nine Articles. After years of a troubling and nervous dilemma, Newman could ultimately not deny his conscience about this matter and finally converted in 1846.

John Henry Newman (Source: WikiMedia Commons)

So esteemed was Newman for his scholarship and faith, his shocking conversion shook the whole of the Anglican Church to its core. It led to an exodus of some of the most brilliant Anglican minds, who also converted to the Roman Catholic Church in Newman’s wake. This exodus was called the Oxford Movement. To appreciate this in modern times, it would be as impacting as the conversion of someone who epitomized an ideology, such as if Nancy Pelosi were to convert to the Republican party suddenly or the Dalai Lama converting to some non-pacifistic government. Newman and others were among those scholars who defined the doctrine of the Church of England. If they saw the need to convert, what did that mean for the people?

All of this because of Newman’s conscience. Newman is reported to have said, “Certainly if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, (which does not seem quite the thing) I shall drink to the Pope, if you please, still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.” This, of course, is a little ironic since Newman abstained from drinking.

Amazingly, I observed, that post-conversion Newman struggled tremendously as a Roman Catholic. He wrote according to conscience, although always obedient to the Church. His ideas were faithful to the doctrines of Church history. While not supporting the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, he nevertheless was obedient to the First Vatican’s promulgation of it (which, later, Lord Acton would lose respect for Newman over).  Newman was a staunch supporter of Catholic education—a huge controversy in nineteenth century England. He attempted to start a Catholic university in Ireland, but was suppressed by superiors in the Church, particularly Cardinal Henry Edward Manning. He believed in ecumenism. He loved writing on doctrines, explicating the history of how the Church believes what she does. He supported the laity. Such were his ideas and their acceptance that the Second Vatican  Council is sometimes referred to as “Newman’s Council.”

What I cherished most about Newman was that, despite all the reverence he is given today, it wasn’t easy for him then. The struggles he faced in Roman Catholicism were much harder than if he had stayed in the Church of England. He wasn’t made a Cardinal until nearly his death, circumventing a bishopric. His work was always respected, but it always seemed to cause such controversy. He persisted morally and he kept his obedience.

On the other hand, there is Lord Acton. This man, to me, epitomized the proper role of laity. He was a renowned English historian and British Member of Parliament, studying under Ignaz von Döllinger in Munich, simply because he was Roman Catholic and denied entry into Cambridge and Oxford on the basis of his faith. His strict adherence to his moral principles, however, got him into trouble.

Although Lord Acton was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he used his faith and his knowledge to lead a life bridging connections and serving the Church in the best way that he could. He served as editor of The Rambler, later Home & Foreign Review, until his opinions on theological history, along with co-editor Richard Simpson, landed him in hot water with the clergy, as the clergy took offense against lay people writing on the subject of theology.

Furthermore, his opinion was very much favored by the prominent William Ewart Gladstone, British Prime Minister and High Church Anglican. Indirectly, Lord Acton influenced British Parliament long after his own run as a Member. He even served as a Lord-in-Waiting for Queen Victoria, until he was offered a professorship at Cambridge near the end of his life.

The biggest controversy that Lord Acton was involved with concerned the (First) Vatican Council. Acton was strongly against any doctrine proclaiming papal infallibility—not because he didn’t believe in the strength of the pope’s message ex cathedra, but rather because of history. Lord Acton, in his moral righteousness, could not bear in his conscience of proclaiming past popes infallible when they themselves had often been guilty of grievous sins, particularly murder, even when in the name of religion, particularly Pope Pius V and St. Charles Borromeo. He helped organize and support a minority of clergymen present at the Vatican Council, almost enough to conquer the proposed doctrine. And he felt utterly betrayed by bishops and other prominent clergymen, including John Henry Newman, when they chose to stand by the wayside.

John Acton, 1st Baron Acton, by Franz Seraph von Lenbach (died 1904). (Source: WikiMedia Commons)

After the passage of the doctrine of Papal Infallibilty, Lord Acton also felt betrayed by those who “gave in” by conceding to the Pope in lieu of excommunication. Among these were his mentor, Döllinger, who himself was excommunicated. It ruptured their relationship, although they maintained a civil friendship until Döllinger’s death. Lord Acton’s archbishop, Cardinal Manning, tried to excommunicate Acton, but to no avail.

At first, I was a little put off by Acton’s mannerisms. He was brilliant but it seemed his was too moral for his own good. However, after reading his arguments against Papal Infallibility, I can’t say that he was wrong. He made me think about the result of exulting past figures in the Church who were indeed guilty of murder and executions. It brough forth, once again, the ultimate question about how dark events in the Church’s past (e.g., the Spanish Inquisition and St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre) shape how I understand my Church today.

It takes a lot of faith to love the Church, sins and all. When I was going through my conversion into the Roman Catholic Church, these events often barred me. In the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults classes, a fellow convert once remarked, “This is a church of sinners; that’s why I’m here.” I’ve held her words to heart for a long time in persisting through doubt. Lord Acton had intellectually sound arguments, but he, too, remained faithful to the Church for the love of the sacraments. That is why he’s commendable as a lay Catholic.

To sum up my own feelings about the Church’s shady moments of the past, I am in unison with the Catholic comedian, Stephen Colbert, who recently joked to students at Fordham University and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, “I love my Church—warts and all.”

I think Acton and Newman would humorously agree.


Written by Written Straw

November 20, 2012 at 4:07 pm

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  1. […] should know who he is and why he was so important to the Roman Catholic cause.  So much so, I wrote a previous blog about him and Lord Acton. It really demonstrates that one person can cause such a conversion in so many others (Oxford […]

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