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Newman bust

In a letter written on  August 1870, Newman wrote:

if the Church is the work and ordinance of God, we must have a little faith in Him, and be assured that He will provide …

The letter was occasioned by the anxiety felt by himself, and many other Catholics, by the declaration of Papal Infallibility at the Vatican Council. Newman himself could not see the need for such a declaration. He thought it probable that some Papal pronouncements were infallible, and that when it came to dogma and faith, it must be the case, but he saw no need to hold a Council and no need to make the ‘hearts of the faithful’ sad with much discussion. He was perfectly well aware that there were many Catholics, among them his fellow convert, Henry Manning – the then Archbishop pf Westminster -who wanted a definition and a declaration as part of their fight-back against the spirit of the age. He was equally well aware that the whole notion made many Catholics uneasy. He feared, rightly, that there would be trouble, and that some Catholics would split from communion with Rome; he also thought, again correctly, that the effect of a definition would be deterimental for relations with other churches. But now that it had happened, Newman’s advice was that his fellow Catholics should trust in God.

That was not a cop-out. Few men thought more deeply about their faith than Newman. But his Patristic studies told him that there was nothing new in the politicking and the intrigues which surrounded the Council (for some reason I almost write ‘Synod’ then), and that it would be an act of naivete to assume that skilled ecclesiastical politicians would not succeed in getting the result they wanted. But his studies also told him something else, which is that it generally took a century for the results of any Council to become clear, and that when they did, what emerged from the smoke of battle was not what the manipulators thought they were getting. God really did ‘provide, and the results conformed with what was good for the Church, and not what the politicos thought would be good for it.

Thus, although he deplored the results of the Council, he regretted even more the way in which the ‘old Catholics’ went into schism over it. He thought it wrong to press for a definition of infallibility, but even more so not to accept the verdict of the Council Fathers. He suspected that there would, in practice, be very few infallible definitions (in which he was, of course, right), and that far from the declaration attaching infallibility to the slightest think the Pope said, it would, in practice, limit its area of operation – another correct prediction.

Newman had faith that the Catholic Church would be preserved from teaching doctrinal error. That was not the same as thinking that it could – or should – be preserved from looking like a bear pit, or giving scandal to the faithful by the way some of its prelates pursued their objectives: the Church was indefectible, not impeccable. None of that made it any easier for Newman, or other Catholics, to deal with the aftermath of the Council and the unrest it caused – but if one wanted a quiet life, being a Catholic in an age of change was not the way to go about it in the first place.