Newman on the Laity

Author: Rev. Michael Sharkey


Rev. Michael Sharkey

(This article has already appeared in GREGORIANUM 68, 1-2 [1987], pages 339-346).

"What is the province of the laity? To hunt, to shoot, to entertain," (1) wrote Monsignor George Talbot in protest at the position John Henry Newman had expressed in his article On Consulting theFaithful in Matters of Doctrine,which was published in the Rambler inJuly, 1859. As John Coulson says of Newman, "his publication of this essay was an act of political suicide from which his career within the Church was never fully to recover; at one stroke he,whose reputation is the one honest broker between the extremes of English Catholic opinion had hitherto stood untarnished, gained the Pope's personal displeasure, the reputation at Rome of being the most dangerous man in England, and a formal accusation of heresy proffered against him by the Bishop of Newport". (2)

Talbot's conception of the laity has since been caricatured in the remark that the laity are in the Church to "pray up, pay up and shut up!" The nub of Talbot's anxiety was plain: "if a check not be placed on the laity in England they will be the rulers of the Catholic Church instead of the Holy See and the Episcopate". (3)Even Bishop Ullathorne, Newman's Ordinary, could ask, "Who are the laity?" As Newman noted, "I answered (not in these words) that the Church would look foolish without them". (4)

The purpose of this note is to recall the occasion of Newman's article, to outline its content, and to indicate briefly his initiatives on behalf of the laity,

When 1859 began there was a debate in progress in England about elementary education. The government wanted to see more and more elementary schools established. It provided subsidies for their funding, and it appointed a commission whose representatives were to see that this money was well spent and that schooling was extended to all classes. The main providers of schools were the religious denominations. How were they to maintain their denominational integrity if they were to be subjected to public control?

A number of educated Catholic laity took the view that cooperation between the Catholic Church and the commission was not only possible, it was also advisable since the quality of education in Catholic elementary schools would be seen to be high, and the prejudice that Catholics make bad citizens would be put toflight. Thecommission's representatives would not be concerned with the content of religious education but with its method.

The Catholic bishops declined to cooperate in this way. Perhaps they would have cooperated if they had been guaranteed that the commission's representatives would have been Catholics. In fact, they probably could have secured that, but they were too slow at the time. Before the decision of the bishops became public, articles were already appearing in the Rambler advancing the contrary policy. This was not intentional contradiction of the bishops, but some embarrassment was caused by it. In the first number of the Rambler to come under Newman's control as editor, that of May 1859, he printed an apology to the bishops, and then went on to explain his own point of view:

"Acknowledging, then, most fully the prerogatives of the episcopate, we do unfeignedly believe, both from the reasonableness of the matter, and especially from the prudence, gentleness ,and considerateness which belong to them personally, that their Lordships really desire to know the opinion of the laity on subjects in which the laity are especially concerned. If even in the preparation of a dogmatic definition the faithful are consulted, as lately in the instance of the Immaculate Conception, it is at least as natural to anticipate such an act of kind feeling and sympathy in great practical questions, out of the condescension which belongs to those who are forma facti gregis ex animo. If ourwords or tone were disrespectful, we deeply grieve and apologise for such a fault; but surely we are not disrespectful in thinking, and in having thought, that the bishops would like to know the sentiments of an influential portion of the laity before they took any step which perhaps they could not recall. Surely it was no disrespect towards them to desire that they have the laity rallying round them on the great question of education…". (5)

There were immediate objections, especially to his wanting to see the laity "consulted". Bishop Ullathorne suggested that he give up editing the Rambler,soafter preparing the next number for July, Newman did so; but it was that number which contained his famous article.

Newman's argument has three parts:

1. He explains what he means by "consult". We may consult a barometer about the weather, or a watch about the time of day. "A physician consults the pulse of his patient; but not in the same sense in which his patient consults him". (6) Newman then returns to his earlier assertion that, in the preparation of a dogmatic definition, the faithful are consulted. "Doubtless their advice, their opinion, their judgement on the question of definition is not asked; but the matter of fact, viz. their belief, is sought for, as testimony to that apostolical tradition, on which alone any doctrine whatsoever can be defined". (7)

2. "Then follows the question, Why? and the answer is plain, viz. because the body of the faithful is one of the witnesses to the fact of the tradition of revealed doctrine, and because their consensus through Christendom is the voice of the infallible Church". Then follows the famous paragraph:

"I think I am right in saying that the tradition of the Apostles, committed to the whole Church in its various constituents and functions per modum unius,manifests itself variously at various times: sometimes by the mouth of the episcopacy, sometimes by the doctors, sometimes by the people, sometimes by liturgies, rites, ceremonies, and customs, by events, disputes, movements, and all those other phenomena which are comprised under the name of history. It follows that none of those channels of tradition may be treated with disrespect: granting at the same time fully, that the gift of discerning, discriminating, defining, promulgating, and enforcing any portion of that tradition resides solely in the Ecclesia docens".(8)

He goes on to explain how he came to lay such great stress on the consensusfidelium. For many years he had had a difficulty, the point of which was, "that up to the date of the definition of certain articles of doctrine respectively, there was so very deficient evidence from existing documents that bishops, doctors, theologians held them". Newman discussed his difficulty in 1847 in Rome with Perrone and was much impressed by Perrone's belief in the consensus fidelium "as a compensation for whatever deficiency there might be of patristical testimony in behalf of various points of the Catholic dogma". Drawing on Perrone's book on the Immaculate Conception, Newman explains Perrone's treatment of the historical fact of the sensus fidelium, the relation of the sensus fidelium to the sensus Ecclesiae, thevarious instrumenta traditionis "sothat the strength of one makes up in a particular case for the deficiency of another", and the force of the sensus fidelium "as distinct (not separate) from the teaching of their pastors". (9)

A few years after Perrone's book appeared, Pius IX issued an Encyclical Letter requiring the bishops to ascertain the feeling of the clergy and the faithful both towards the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception and its definition. Then, in 1854 the definition was issued, with Pius IX explaining that although he had already known the sentiments of the bishops, he had wished to know the sentiments of the people also. His language is a loud echo of Perrone's treatise. Newman summarises and comments: "Conspiratio;the two, the Church teaching, and the Church taught, are put together, as one twofold testimony, illustrating each other, and never to be divided". (10)

3. The third section of Newman's article is the longest. He begins it by showing the various ways in which the consent of the faithful is to be regarded: "1. as a testimony of the fact of the apostolical dogma; 2. as a sort of instinct, or fronhma, deep in the bosom of the mystical body of Christ; 3. as a direction of the Holy Ghost; 4. as an answer to its prayer; 5. as a jealousy of error, which it at once feels as a scandal". (11)

Newman's first book had been The Arians of the Fourth Century.He turns now to one of the great lessons he had learned in his researches for that book, "that in that time of immense confusion the divine dogma of our Lord's divinity was proclaimed, enforced, maintained, and (humanly speaking) preserved, far more by the Ecclesia docta than by the Ecclesia docens,that the body of the episcopate was unfaithful to its commission, while the body of the laity was faithful to its baptism..." (12) Most of this section of Newman's article consists of quotations from ancient authorities to show that the Nicene dogma was maintained during the greater part of the fourth century "1. not by the unswerving firmness of the Holy See, Councils, or bishops, but 2. by the consensus fidelium". (13)

At the end, Newman observes that "if ever there was an age which might dispense with the testimony of the faithful, and leave the maintenance of the truth to the pastors of the Church, it is the age in which we live", and he speculates that it is because the bishops are so united to the Holy See and so dutiful that the consensus fidelium has fallen into the background. "Yet each constituent portion of the Church, has its proper functions, and no portion can safely be neglected. Though the laity be but the reflection or echo of the clergy in matters of faith, yet there is something in the pastorum et fidelium conspiratio, which is not in the pastors alone". (14)

In 1871Newman shortened and slightly revised his article and reissued it as an appendix to his new edition of The Arians of the Fourth Century. (15)There are some modifications, e.g. " speaking of the laity, I speak inclusively of their parish-priests (so to call them), at least in many places"; but the substance of his argument remained unchanged.

One of the confusions that has arisen is that Newman uses the word consult intwo different ways. With regard to the education issue, he had wanted the bishops to enter into dialogue with knowledgeable laity about the provision of elementary schools. In matters of doctrine, though, the laity are to be questioned/consulted about what they hold, what they believe. "In most cases when a definition is contemplated, the laity will have a testimony to give; but if ever there be an instance when they ought to be consulted, it is in the case of doctrines which bear directly upon devotional sentiments". (16) (This remark is not without its significance for liturgists. In a note of 1865 Newman declared, "The people have a special right to interfere in questions of devotion"). (17) However, the confusion is resolved if Newman is understood to extend consultation in the sense that since the laity are to be consulted in matters of doctrine as to fact, then they may, and ought to be, consulted in pastoral matters as to policy in those things that most concern them and in which they have a particular expertise.

As a theologian Newman held a "high" doctrine of the episcopate and a "high" doctrine of the priesthood; but his theology of the Church was whole, and be held a "high" doctrine of the laity too. He did not pit pastor and flock against each other, but rather sought to promote a full life and mission of the Church in which each part and each person has a proper contribution to make, the contributions complementing, not rivalling each other.

The historical lesson which Newman learned from his study of the Arians was to be reinforced by his experience as effective leader of the Oxford Movement in trying to renew the Church of England. "Yet, I confess, Tory as I still am, theoretically and historically, I begin to be a Radical practically. Do not let me misrepresent myself. I, of course, think that the most natural and becoming state of things is for the aristocratical power to be the upholder of the Church; yet I cannot deny the plain fact that in most ages the latter has been based on a popular power". (18) In the same year, 1833,in his series of articles on The Church of the Fathers,he wrote, "I shall offend many men when I say, we must look to the people"(Newman's italics)...; "...our influence is to depend on them, yet the sacraments reside with us". (19)

Those discoveries of the significance of the laity in the Nicene history and theology and in the Church of England in the 1830stook Newman's perspective beyond the confines of his own social class and privileged background. Not that he promoted mass movements in the Church: on the contrary he believed that the Gospel is best spread by the personal influence of individuals. When he gave his lectures Onthe Present Position of Catholics in England in1851, he insisted:

"Your strength lies in your God and your conscience; therefore it lies not in your number. It lies not in your number any more than in intrigue, or combination, or worldly wisdom... Grace ever works by few, it is the keen vision, the intense conviction, the indomitable resolve of the few, it is the blood of the martyr, it is the prayer of the saint, it is the heroic deed, it is the momentary crisis, it is the concentrated energy of a word or a look, which is the instrument of heaven". (20)

Even in his early sermons (as yet unpublished) Newman taught that the laity, whether rich or poor, literate or not, are called to holiness and are entrusted with baptismal responsibilities, (21) but this teaching became a deeper and deeper conviction. By the mid-1830s he was sure: the maintenance of the faith is the responsibility of the laity, but he did not know what part they might play in the governance of the Church. (22) Unfortunately, he never really returned to that question.

There are two characteristics of the laity during the Nicene period, though, which are particularly important for an understanding of Newman's mind: 1. they were well catechised, (23) and, 2. they were faithful to their baptismal promises. (24) Here lies the answer to Ullathorne's question, "Who are the laity?" They are the baptized who have received the Creed, who have been properly instructed in it, and who have entered into the new way of life of the Church, who nourish their faith and protect their virtue, and who are united around their bishop. In promoting and mobilizing the laity in 1851, Newman said:

"I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold, and what they do not, who know their creed so well, that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it. I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity... You ought to be able to bring out what you feel and what you mean, as well as to feel and mean it". (25)

Newman's famous preaching in and around Oxford during his Anglican years brought so many men into the Anglican ministry that it is easy to overlook the fact that his preaching was directed towards the laity as laity. His notes in the archive of the Birmingham Oratory reveal that he planned his sermons schematically as courses of Christian instruction. (26) A study of them would reveal what he meant hiscongregations to be by "well catechized" and "faithful to their baptismal promises".

His Anglican preaching, however, is only one, albeit the most important, example of his apostolate among the laity. There were three initiatives which he took as a Roman Catholic which are also important: the founding of the Catholic University of Ireland, his establishment of a school for boys at the Birmingham Oratory, and the very establishment of the Oratory itself as a community of priests to serve the laity,after the example of St Philip Neri himself. (27) The Oratory and the school were happier for him than the University turned out to be. The Irish bishops who had invited him were not yet ready for Newman's idea of a University, which included appointing laymen to the professorships. In 1873 he recalled:

"One of the chief evils which I deplored in the management of the affairs of the University twenty years ago, was the resolute refusal with which my urgent representations ever met that the Catholic laity should be allowed to cooperate with the archbishops in the work. As far as I can see there are ecclesiastics all over Europe, whose policy is to keep the laity at arm's length, and hence the laity have been disgusted and become infidel, and only two parties exist, both ultras in opposite directions. I came away from Ireland with the distressing fear that in that Catholic country, in like manner, there was to be an antagonism, as time went on, between the hierarchy and the educated classes.

"You will be doing the greatest possible benefit to the Catholic cause all over the world, if you succeed in making the University a middle station at which clergy and laity can meet, so as to learn to understand, and to yield to each other—and from which, as from a common ground, they may act in union upon an age which is running into infidelity". (28)

Since Newman's day there has been a great revival of lay responsibility in the Church, but it must be admitted that in some quarters there is confusion about what the laity might or might not do, and indeed there are arguments and accusations of being either priest-ridden or anti-clerical. For those who are confused or even combative, there are some further clues in Newman's theology which enlighten the mind and clear the path to the future. According to Newman, the Church and her development is ordered by God.

The Divine Persons and their attributes do not exist in anarchy or chaos, but in a perfect, simple harmony and unity. Through the Incarnation, that perfect order, that Holy Order of God himself enters into human history, and, after the atoning work of Christ, is set up in the Church, the Body of Christ, by the agency of the Holy Spirit in the Church. It is the perfect, Holy Order of God which orders the Church. (29)

The distinction of Persons and unity of Being in God is a major theme in Newman's writings. We all know from our human experience how true love unites the lovers, yet differentiates their individuality, indeed even fosters their individual uniqueness. This is the case humanly because it is the case in God: the perfect unity of a uniqueness of Persons. The life and love of the Trinity in the Church is the principle of order and the guarantee of the uniqueness of parts and roles in a unity of being and a complementarity of mission. The more godly we are in our prayer and ecclesial behaviour, the clearer will become the way ahead, for our love will foster the uniqueness of our several roles and responsibilities in the structure and mission of the Church, while ensuring the essential unity in this diversity which is founded on God himself.


1) John Henry Newman, On Consultingthe Faithful in Matters of Doctrine,with an Introduction by John Coulson, London 1961: reissued with a Foreword by Derek Worlock. Archbishop of Liverpool, London 1986, p. 41.

2) Ibid., p. 2.

3) Ibid., p. 41.

4) Ibid., pp. 18-19.

5) Ibid., pp. 13-14.

6) Ibid., p. 54.

7) Ibid., pp. 54-55.

8) ibid., p. 63.

9) lbid., p. 66,

10) Ibid., p. 71.

11) Ibid., p. 73.

12) Ibid., p. 76.

13) Ibid,, p. 77.

14) Ibid., pp. 103-4.

15) Pp. 445-468 in the standard Longmans edition.

16) Coulson, op. cit., p. 104.

17) J. Derek Holmes (ed.), The Theological Papers of John Henry Newman on Biblical Inspiration and on Infallibility,Oxford, 1979, p. 104,

18) Anne Mozley (ed.), LettersandCorrespondence of John Henry Newman During His Life in the English Church, 2 vols. London 1891; Vol. 1, p. 450.

19) J.H. Newman, Historical Sketches, Vol. II, pp. 340-1.

20) J.H. Newman, The Present Position of Catholics in England, pp.388, 389-90.

21) E.g. his sermon (unpublished) of 12th September, 1824: "The Church of God consists of members and each has his own office. Not even the poorest and most humble but may be promoting the glory of God and the extension of his Kingdom".

22) Mozley, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 110.

23) Coulson, op. cit., p. 76.

24) Ibid.

25) J.H. Newman, ThePresent Position ofCatholics in England, pp.390-1.

26) Birmingham Oratory Newman Archive, e.g. A.7.B.

27) Cf. Charles Stephen Dessain, Cardinal Newman, the Oratory and the Laity,published privately by the Birmingham Oratory (no date).

28) Quoted and discussed by Dwight Culler, The Imperial Intellect. A Study of Cardinal Newman's Educational Ideal, New Haven, 1955, p. 262.

29) J.H. Newman, Sermons Preached on Various Occasions, pp. 184-5; and Essays Critical and Historical,Vol. II. p. 96.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
7 September 1987, page 6

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