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It was well-known that Newman had lively doubts about the wisdom of pronouncing on Papal Infallibility, so there was some surprise when, in his response to Gladstone’s critique, he did just that.

Newman’s defence of Infallibility deserves to be read in full, as it remains one of the best I know. That those who were making extreme claims for the dogma were as dissatisfied with it as those who disliked it; but as time has shown, Newman had it about right.

Gladstone had claimed that since the Pope was infallible in matters concerning faith and morals, and since there was no area of life which did not involve at least one of these, he was, in practice, able to command the civic and public allegiance of his subjects: ‘therefore Catholics are moral and metal slaves, and every convert and member of the Pope’s Church places his loyalty and civic duty at the mercy of another.’[iv] Far from shying away from the duty of obedience to those set in ecclesiastical authority, Newman, in the best Protestant style, cited the relevant passage from St. Paul (Hebrews 13: 17) enjoining submission to those placed in positions of authority and challenged Gladstone directly: ‘Is there any liberalistic reading of this Scripture passage?’[v] Catholics held that the Pope was the successor of St. Peter; that being so the obedience paid to him was only that demanded by Holy Scripture itself – and Newman denied utterly that obedience to that authority amounted to ‘slavery’. He drew an analogy between divine and human law. The Law, he argued, was ‘supreme’ and those under it were bound to follow its direction, but no one would claim it ‘interferes either with our comfort or our conscience.’ Newman attempted to correct the English obsession with the power of the Pope. Catholic consciences, like those of any Christian, were regulated by an ancient system of moral theology deriving from sources common to all: the Ten Commandments; the Pauline injunctions of Faith, Hope and Charity; and the practices of fasting, sabbatarianism and tithing; the Pope had little, if anything, to do with these matters. The Pope’s jurisdiction lay in matters ecclesiastical, not in civil affairs; Gladstone’s evident confusion of the two was, Newman commented wryly, the origin of his alarm.

Nor did Newman shy away from Gladstone’s attempt to link Infallibility and the Syllabus. He denied that any of the Pope’s words could be construed as releasing subjects from their allegiance to the State, or as condemning either freedom of the press or of conscience. Failing to anticipate where arguments for the latter would lead, Newman asserted that that no one would say that everything should be published, or that people had the right to unrestricted liberty; every State provided, in its laws, for limits to these things; it was the abuse of such liberty, not the liberties themselves, which the Pope condemned. It was the ‘liberty of self-will’ which was being anathematised, not liberty per se. The Syllabus was, Newman reminded Gladstone, a collection of propositions already condemned in the writings of previous Popes; it had been sent by Pius IX to his bishops, and could only be properly understood in that context; it contained no new matter by the Pope. None of this justified Gladstone’s equating the Syllabus with ex cathedra pronouncements of the Holy See: ‘Utterances which must be received as coming from an Infallible Voice, are not made every day, indeed they are very rare; and those which are by some persons affirmed or assumed to be such, do not always turn out what they are said to be.’ Patience was the ‘sine qua non’ when it came to the interpretation of documents emanating from Rome. It was quite untenable, in Newman’s view, to attribute Infallibility to the Syllabus; from this came all Gladstone’s errors.

Newman’s words are as wise and relevant now as they were then, treading a line between the claims of the Ultramontanes and the liberals. Understood aright, Infallibility is the guard against Christ’s Church teaching error; no more, no less.

[iv] Ibid., p. 39

[v] Ibid., p. 40.