It was, of course, the declaration of the dogma of Papal Infallibility, which was at the heart of Gladstone’s alarm; like many at the time – and since – he placed his own interpretation of those words based on his prejudices. If one believes that Catholics are mindless zombies under the sway of the Pope, then it is easy enough to see the word ‘Infallibility’ and assume the worst. In fact, the Council had agreed to a fairly circumscribed definition of that concept, and it was one in line with the practice of the Church.
In defending the claim to Infallibility, Newman skilfully trod a line between the boundaries staked out on one side, by the Protestants, and on the other by Manning and the Ultramontanes. A forensic exercise in Patristics showed up the Protestant claim that the Bishop of Rome’s pre-eminence was something unknown to the early Church. An examination of the history of the Faith showed that the State had always sought to exercise authority over the Church – and that Rome alone had resisted this – unlike Canterbury, Constantinople or Moscow. Thus, far from ‘repudiating ancient history’, as Gladstone claimed, ‘it is our fidelity to the history of our forefathers’, which was the real object of his attacks. Newman’s own personal consistency could be seen clearly: one of the basic tenets of Tractarianism had been its anti-Erastianism (Erastianism being the technical term for State control of the Church), and it had been, in large part, the undeniable signs of the submission of the Church of England to the State, which had pushed Newman (and Manning) along the road to Rome. The Catholic Church was what it had always been; Christ alone was its head.
Newman then took the fight to Gladstone, asserting that the Pope was the rightful heir ‘of the Ecumenical Hierarchy of the fourth century. Was it possible, he asked, to ‘consider the Patriarch of Moscow or of Constantinople, heir to the historical pretensions of St. Ambrose or St. Martin? Does any Anglican Bishop for the last 300 years recall to our minds the image of St, Basil?’[i] All the arguments from antiquity led to the same conclusion which was that: ‘We must either give up the belief in the Church as a divine institution altogether, or we must recognize in it that communion of which the Pope is the head.’ This being so, belief in ‘the Pope and his attributes’ was a natural part of being a Christian; there was, he asserted ‘nothing then of wanton opposition to the powers that be … [and] no pernicious servility to the Pope in our admission of his pretensions.’[ii] Then, in a clever thrust to the heart of his message, Newman disowned any evangelical purpose in his argument: ‘I do not call upon another to believe all that I believe on the subject myself. I declare it as my own judgement’; [iii] and there was the rub. Newman’s belief was founded not on docility or servility, but on a personal judgement based on historical and patristic foundations; others were welcome to come to different conclusions – but none could claim that personal conscience was not an attribute of Catholicism.
[i] John Henry Newman, A Letter Addressed to His Grace the Duke of Norfolk on occasion of Mr. Gladstone’s recent expostulation (1875), p. 26.