Why They Don’t Return

As a framework for continuing the present discussion, we can consider a person’s religious opinions as though they had a numerical probability. Of course, as was said earlier, probability is a formalization of degrees of belief, and as a formalization, it can only be an approximate representation of people’s real behavior. Evidently people are not in fact typically assigning such numbers. Nonetheless, the very “rigidity” of such numerical assignments can help us to understand the present issue.

In some cases, then, a child will effectively take the probability of his religious opinions to be 100%. As said in the linked post, the meaning of this is that, to the degree that 100% is the correct approximation, it is approximately impossible for him to change his mind, or even to become less sure of himself. P. Edmund Waldstein might be understood as claiming to be such a person, although in practice this may be more a matter of a mistaken epistemology which is corrigible, and consequently the approximation fails to this extent.

In the previous post, one of my conditions on the process was “given that he is capable of looking at the world honestly.” This condition basically does not apply to the person assigning the probability of 100%. In effect, he is unable to see any evidence against his position.

But suppose our approximate probability is very high, but not 100%, as for example 99.99%. This is not a balanced assessment of the real probability of any set of religious claims, but is likely a good approximation of the assessment made by a child raised very devoutly in a religion. So if the person correctly assesses the evidence that arrives throughout his life, that probability must diminish, as described in the previous post. There will of course be individual cases where a person does not have the 100% assignment, but cannot or will not correctly assess the evidence that arrives, and will either continually increase his assignment, or leave it unchanged throughout his life. The constant increase is more likely in the case of converts, as in the linked post, but this also implies that one did not start with such a high assignment. The person who permanently leaves it unchanged might be more correctly described as not paying attention or not being interested in the evidence one way or another, rather than as assessing that evidence.

But let us consider persons in whom that probability diminishes, as in the cases of Shulem Deen and of St. Therese discussed in the previous post. Of course, since evidence is not one sided, the probability will not only diminish, but also occasionally increase. But as long as the person has an unbalanced assessment of the evidence, or at least as long as it seems to them unbalanced compared to the evidence that they see, the general tendency will be in one direction. It can be argued that this should never happen with any opinion; thus Robin Hanson says here, “Rational learning of any expected value via a stream of info should produce a random walk in those expectations, not a steady trend.” But the idea here is that if you have a probability assignment of 99% and it is starting to decrease, then you should jump to an assignment of 50% or so, or even lower, guessing where the trend will end. And from that point you might well have to go back up, rather than down. But for obvious reasons people’s religious opinions do not in fact change in this way, at least most of the time, regardless of whether it would be reasonable or not, and consequently there are in fact steady trends.

So where does this end? The process causing the assessment to diminish can come to an end in one way if a person simply comes to the assessment that seems to him a balanced assessment of the evidence. At this point, there may be minor fluctuations in both directions, but the person’s assessment will henceforth stay relatively constant. And this actually happens in the case of some people.

In other persons, the process ends for reasons that have nothing to do with assessing evidence. St. Therese is certainly an example of this, insofar as she died at the age of 24. But this does not necessarily mean that her assessment would have continued to diminish if she had continued to live, for two reasons. First, the isolated character of her life, meant that she would receive less relevant evidence in the first place. So it might well be that by the time of her death she had already learned everything she could on the matter. In that sense she would be an example of the above situation where a person’s assessment simply arrives at some balance, and then stays there.

Second, a person can prevent this process from continuing, more or less simply by choosing to do so, and it is likely enough that St. Therese would have done this. Fr. Joseph Bolin seems to advocate this approach here, although perhaps not without reservation. In practice, this means that one who previously was attending to the relevant evidence, chooses to cease paying attention, or at least to cease evaluating the evidence, much like in our description of people whose assessment never changes in the first place.

Finally, there are persons in whom the process continues apparently without any limit. In this case, there are two possibilities. Either the person comes to the conclusion that their religious opinions were not true, as in my own case and as in the case of Shulem Deen, or the person decides that evidence is irrelevant, as in the case of Kurt Wise. The latter choice is effectively to give up on the love of truth, and to seek other things in the place of truth.

As an aside, the fact that this process seems almost inevitably to end either in abandoning religious claims, or in choosing to cease evaluating evidence, and only very rarely in apparently arriving at a balance, is an argument that religious claims are not actually true, although not a conclusive one. We earlier quoted Newman as saying:

I have no intention at all of denying, that truth is the real object of our reason, and that, if it does not attain to truth, either the premiss or the process is in fault; but I am not speaking here of right reason, but of reason as it acts in fact and concretely in fallen man. I know that even the unaided reason, when correctly exercised, leads to a belief in God, in the immortality of the soul, and in a future retribution; but I am considering the faculty of reason actually and historically; and in this point of view, I do not think I am wrong in saying that its tendency is towards a simple unbelief in matters of religion. No truth, however sacred, can stand against it, in the long run; and hence it is that in the pagan world, when our Lord came, the last traces of the religious knowledge of former times were all but disappearing from those portions of the world in which the intellect had been active and had had a career.

Newman explains this fact by original sin. But a more plausible explanation is that religious claims are simply not true. This is especially the case if one considers this fact in relation to the normal mode of progress in truth in individuals and in societies.

But getting back to the main point, this explains why they “do not return,” as Shulem Deen says. Such a return would not simply require reversing a particular decision or a particular argument. It would require either abandoning the love of truth, like Kurt Wise, or reversing the entire process of considering evidence that went on throughout the whole of one’s life. Suppose we saw off a branch, and then at the last moment break off the last little string of wood. How do we unbreak it? It was just a little piece of wood that broke… but it is not enough to fix that little piece, with glue or whatever. We would have to undo all of the sawing, and that cannot be done.

While there is much in this post and in the last which is interesting in itself, and thus entirely useless, all of this evidently has some bearing on my own case, and I had a personal motive in writing it, namely to explain to various people what expectations they should or should not have.

However, there is another issue that will be raised by all of this in the minds of many people, which is that of moral assessment. Regardless of who found the truth about the world, who did the right thing? Shulem Deen or St. Therese?


The First Mistake

At the end of the last post, I mentioned two opposed errors. The first was to say that the Christian thesis that God is hidden is a mere excuse, one given because someone realizes that his position is basically unsupported. This is not true, because as I indicated even in the last post, the thesis is a basic principle of Christian theology, and always has been, much as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out that the principles of development, and of interpretation relative to Christ, have always been at work within the Church.

More generally, the idea that God is hidden is a basic principle of any and every religion or theology. In a previous discussion I showed how motivations other than truth affect our beliefs more in matters more remote from the senses, and I included religious beliefs in this area. And this is in fact how the world is. But it is easy enough to imagine a world where religion is not remote from the senses, and where substantial disagreement about religion would not exist. The Garden of Eden as described would be one such world, but it is easy to imagine this in other ways as well. The point is that such a world is evidently not the actual world, and real religions do not posit such a world.

Blaise Pascal discusses this situation:

194. … Let them at least learn what is the religion they attack, before attacking it. If this religion boasted of having a clear view of God, and of possessing it open and unveiled, it would be attacking it to say that we see nothing in the world which shows it with this clearness. But since, on the contrary, it says that men are in darkness and estranged from God, that He has hidden Himself from their knowledge, that this is in fact the name which He gives Himself in the Scriptures, Deus absconditus; and finally, if it endeavours equally to establish these two things: that God has set up in the Church visible signs to make Himself known to those who should seek Him sincerely, and that He has nevertheless so disguised them that He will only be perceived by those who seek Him with all their heart; what advantage can they obtain, when, in the negligence with which they make profession of being in search of the truth, they cry out that nothing reveals it to them; and since that darkness in which they are, and with which they upbraid the Church, establishes only one of the things which she affirms, without touching the other, and, very far from destroying, proves her doctrine?

In order to attack it, they should have protested that they had made every effort to seek Him everywhere, and even in that which the Church proposes for their instruction, but without satisfaction. If they talked in this manner, they would in truth be attacking one of her pretensions. But I hope here to show that no reasonable person can speak thus, and I venture even to say that no one has ever done so. We know well enough how those who are of this mind behave. They believe they have made great efforts for their instruction when they have spent a few hours in reading some book of Scripture and have questioned some priests on the truths of the faith. After that, they boast of having made vain search in books and among men. But, verily, I will tell them what I have often said, that this negligence is insufferable. We are not here concerned with the trifling interests of some stranger, that we should treat it in this fashion; the matter concerns ourselves and our all.

The immortality of the soul is a matter which is of so great consequence to us and which touches us so profoundly that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent as to knowing what it is. All our actions and thoughts must take such different courses, according as there are or are not eternal joys to hope for, that it is impossible to take one step with sense and judgment unless we regulate our course by our view of this point which ought to be our ultimate end.

Thus our first interest and our first duty is to enlighten ourselves on this subject, whereon depends all our conduct. Therefore among those who do not believe, I make a vast difference between those who strive with all their power to inform themselves and those who live without troubling or thinking about it.

I can have only compassion for those who sincerely bewail their doubt, who regard it as the greatest of misfortunes, and who, sparing no effort to escape it, make of this inquiry their principal and most serious occupation.

But as for those who pass their life without thinking of this ultimate end of life, and who, for this sole reason that they do not find within themselves the lights which convince them of it, neglect to seek them elsewhere, and to examine thoroughly whether this opinion is one of those which people receive with credulous simplicity, or one of those which, although obscure in themselves, have nevertheless a solid and immovable foundation, I look upon them in a manner quite different.

This carelessness in a matter which concerns themselves, their eternity, their all, moves me more to anger than pity; it astonishes and shocks me; it is to me monstrous. I do not say this out of the pious zeal of a spiritual devotion. I expect, on the contrary, that we ought to have this feeling from principles of human interest and self-love; for this we need only see what the least enlightened persons see.

We do not require great education of the mind to understand that here is no real and lasting satisfaction; that our pleasures are only vanity; that our evils are infinite; and, lastly, that death, which threatens us every moment, must infallibly place us within a few years under the dreadful necessity of being for ever either annihilated or unhappy.

There is nothing more real than this, nothing more terrible. Be we as heroic as we like, that is the end which awaits the world. Let us reflect on this and then say whether it is not beyond doubt that there is no good in this life but in the hope of another; that we are happy only in proportion as we draw near it; and that, as there are no more woes for those who have complete assurance of eternity, so there is no more happiness for those who have no insight into it.

Surely then it is a great evil thus to be in doubt, but it is at least an indispensable duty to seek when we are in such doubt; and thus the doubter who does not seek is altogether completely unhappy and completely wrong. And if besides this he is easy and content, professes to be so, and indeed boasts of it; if it is this state itself which is the subject of his joy and vanity, I have no words to describe so silly a creature.

How can people hold these opinions? What joy can we find in the expectation of nothing but hopeless misery? What reason for boasting that we are in impenetrable darkness? And how can it happen that the following argument occurs to a reasonable man?

“I know not who put me into the world, nor what the world is, nor what I myself am. I am in terrible ignorance of everything. I know not what my body is, nor my senses, nor my soul, not even that part of me which thinks what I say, which reflects on all and on itself, and knows itself no more than the rest. I see those frightful spaces of the universe which surround me, and I find myself tied to one corner of this vast expanse, without knowing why I am put in this place rather than in another, nor why the short time which is given me to live is assigned to me at this point rather than at another of the whole eternity which was before me or which shall come after me. I see nothing but infinites on all sides, which surround me as an atom and as a shadow which endures only for an instant and returns no more. All I know is that I must soon die, but what I know least is this very death which I cannot escape.

“As I know not whence I come, so I know not whither I go. I know only that, in leaving this world, I fall for ever either into annihilation or into the hands of an angry God, without knowing to which of these two states I shall be for ever assigned. Such is my state, full of weakness and uncertainty. And from all this I conclude that I ought to spend all the days of my life without caring to inquire into what must happen to me. Perhaps I might find some solution to my doubts, but I will not take the trouble, nor take a step to seek it; and after treating with scorn those who are concerned with this care, I will go without foresight and without fear to try the great event, and let myself be led carelessly to death, uncertain of the eternity of my future state.”

Who would desire to have for a friend a man who talks in this fashion? Who would choose him out from others to tell him of his affairs? Who would have recourse to him in affliction? And indeed to what use in life could one put him?

In truth, it is the glory of religion to have for enemies men so unreasonable; and their opposition to it is so little dangerous that it serves, on the contrary, to establish its truths. For the Christian faith goes mainly to establish these two facts: the corruption of nature, and redemption by Jesus Christ. Now I contend that, if these men do not serve to prove the truth of the redemption by the holiness of their behaviour, they at least serve admirably to show the corruption of nature by sentiments so unnatural.

Nothing is so important to man as his own state, nothing is so formidable to him as eternity; and thus it is not natural that there should be men indifferent to the loss of their existence, and to the perils of everlasting suffering. They are quite different with regard to all other things. They are afraid of mere trifles; they foresee them; they feel them. And this same man who spends so many days and nights in rage and despair for the loss of office, or for some imaginary insult to his honour, is the very one who knows without anxiety and without emotion that he will lose all by death. It is a monstrous thing to see in the same heart and at the same time this sensibility to trifles and this strange insensibility to the greatest objects. It is an incomprehensible enchantment, and a supernatural slumber, which indicates as its cause an all-powerful force.

There must be a strange confusion in the nature of man, that he should boast of being in that state in which it seems incredible that a single individual should be. However, experience has shown me so great a number of such persons that the fact would be surprising, if we did not know that the greater part of those who trouble themselves about the matter are disingenuous and not, in fact, what they say. They are people who have heard it said that it is the fashion to be thus daring. It is what they call “shaking off the yoke,” and they try to imitate this. But it would not be difficult to make them understand how greatly they deceive themselves in thus seeking esteem. This is not the way to gain it, even I say among those men of the world who take a healthy view of things and who know that the only way to succeed in this life is to make ourselves appear honourable, faithful, judicious, and capable of useful service to a friend; because naturally men love only what may be useful to them. Now, what do we gain by hearing it said of a man that he has now thrown off the yoke, that he does not believe there is a God who watches our actions, that he considers himself the sole master of his conduct, and that he thinks he is accountable for it only to himself.? Does he think that he has thus brought us to have henceforth complete confidence in him and to look to him for consolation, advice, and help in every need of life? Do they profess to have delighted us by telling us that they hold our soul to be only a little wind and smoke, especially by telling us this in a haughty and self-satisfied tone of voice? Is this a thing to say gaily? Is it not, on the contrary, a thing to say sadly, as the saddest thing in the world?

If they thought of it seriously, they would see that this is so bad a mistake, so contrary to good sense, so opposed to decency, and so removed in every respect from that good breeding which they seek, that they would be more likely to correct than to pervert those who had an inclination to follow them. And, indeed, make them give an account of their opinions, and of the reasons which they have for doubting religion, and they will say to you things so feeble and so petty, that they persuade you of the contrary. The following is what a person one day said to such a one very appositely: “If you continue to talk in this manner, you will really make me religious.” And he was right, for who would not have a horror of holding opinions in which he would have such contemptible persons as companions!

Thus those who only feign these opinions would be very unhappy, if they restrained their natural feelings in order to make themselves the most conceited of men. If, at the bottom of their heart, they are troubled at not having more light, let them not disguise the fact; this avowal will not be shameful. The only shame is to have none. Nothing reveals more an extreme weakness of mind than not to know the misery of a godless man. Nothing is more indicative of a bad disposition of heart than not to desire the truth of eternal promises. Nothing is more dastardly than to act with bravado before God. Let them then leave these impieties to those who are sufficiently ill-bred to be really capable of them. Let them at least be honest men, if they cannot be Christians. Finally, let them recognise that there are two kinds of people one can call reasonable; those who serve God with all their heart because they know Him, and those who seek Him with all their heart because they do not know Him.

But as for those who live without knowing Him and without seeking Him, they judge themselves so little worthy of their own care, that they are not worthy of the care of others; and it needs all the charity of the religion which they despise, not to despise them even to the point of leaving them to their folly. But because this religion obliges us always to regard them, so long as they are in this life, as capable of the grace which can enlighten them, and to believe that they may, in a little time, be more replenished with faith than we are, and that, on the other hand, we may fall into the blindness wherein they are, we must do for them what we would they should do for us if we were in their place, and call upon them to have pity upon themselves, and to take at least some steps in the endeavour to find light. Let them give to reading this some of the hours which they otherwise employ so uselessly; whatever aversion they may bring to the task, they will perhaps gain something, and at least will not lose much. But as for those who bring to the task perfect sincerity and a real desire to meet with truth, those I hope will be satisfied and convinced of the proofs of a religion so divine, which I have here collected, and in which I have followed somewhat after this order…

195. Before entering into the proofs of the Christian religion, I find it necessary to point out the sinfulness of those men who live in indifference to the search for truth in a matter which is so important to them, and which touches them so nearly.

Of all their errors, this doubtless is the one which most convicts them of foolishness and blindness, and in which it is easiest to confound them by the first glimmerings of common sense and by natural feelings.

For it is not to be doubted that the duration of this life is but a moment; that the state of death is eternal, whatever may be its nature; and that thus all our actions and thoughts must take such different directions, according to the state of that eternity, that it is impossible to take one step with sense and judgement, unless we regulate our course by the truth of that point which ought to be our ultimate end.

There is nothing clearer than this; and thus, according to the principles of reason, the conduct of men is wholly unreasonable, if they do not take another course.

On this point, therefore, we condemn those who live without thought of the ultimate end of life, who let themselves be guided by their own inclinations and their own pleasures without reflection and without concern, and, as if they could annihilate eternity by turning away their thought from it, think only of making themselves happy for the moment.

Yet this eternity exists, and death, which must open into it and threatens them every hour, must in a little time infallibly put them under the dreadful necessity of being either annihilated or unhappy for ever, without knowing which of these eternities is for ever prepared for them.

This is a doubt of terrible consequence. They are in peril of eternal woe and thereupon, as if the matter were not worth the trouble, they neglect to inquire whether this is one of those opinions which people receive with too credulous a facility, or one of those which, obscure in themselves, have a very firm, though hidden, foundation. Thus they know not whether there be truth or falsity in the matter, nor whether there be strength or weakness in the proofs. They have them before their eyes; they refuse to look at them; and in that ignorance they choose all that is necessary to fall into this misfortune if it exists, to await death to make trial of it, yet to be very content in this state, to make profession of it, and indeed to boast of it. Can we think seriously of the importance of this subject without being horrified at conduct so extravagant?

This resting in ignorance is a monstrous thing, and they who pass their life in it must be made to feel its extravagance and stupidity, by having it shown to them, so that they may be confounded by the sight of their folly. For this is how men reason, when they choose to live in such ignorance of what they are and without seeking enlightenment. “I know not,” they say…

Pascal is surely right about the importance of religious truth. He is also right to say that the idea that this truth is somewhat hidden from men is not foreign to religion, but an essential part of every real religion. The argument that “if religion is true, it should be obvious to everyone,” is evidently invalid, because religions not only do not claim this, but explicitly deny it. If a religion were obviously true to everyone, it would be a very different religion from any that exists, and a very different world.

Rather than attacking such a non-existent religion, he says,

In order to attack it, they should have protested that they had made every effort to seek Him everywhere, and even in that which the Church proposes for their instruction, but without satisfaction. If they talked in this manner, they would in truth be attacking one of her pretensions. But I hope here to show that no reasonable person can speak thus, and I venture even to say that no one has ever done so.

But here he is almost certainly going too far. It may be that “they would in truth be attacking one of her pretensions,” but only to the degree that they believe that ultimately it is more reasonable to think that religious beliefs are untrue. They would not be attacking the Church’s claims, or at least any claim truly important to the Church, simply by saying that some individual may do his best to seek the truth, and may come to the conclusion that religious truth is not present in the Church.

I touched on this earlier when discussing the suggestion of Leo XIII that it is easy to see that Catholicism is true. If this is taken to apply to the real world in any concrete way, he is mistaken, and this in fact would be the claim that Pascal says is obviously wrong and obviously not the Church’s claim. On a very similar topic, Newman says:

Starting then with the being of a God, (which, as I have said, is as certain to me as the certainty of my own existence, though when I try to put the grounds of that certainty into logical shape I find a difficulty in doing so in mood and figure to my satisfaction,) I look out of myself into the world of men, and there I see a sight which fills me with unspeakable distress. The world seems simply to give the lie to that great truth, of which my whole being is so full; and the effect upon me is, in consequence, as a matter of necessity, as confusing as if it denied that I am in existence myself. If I looked into a mirror, and did not see my face, I should have the sort of feeling which actually comes upon me, when I look into this living busy world, and see no reflexion of its Creator. This is, to me, one of those great difficulties of this absolute primary truth, to which I referred just now. Were it not for this voice, speaking so clearly in my conscience and my heart, I should be an atheist, or a pantheist, or a polytheist when I looked into the world. I am speaking for myself only; and I am far from denying the real force of the arguments in proof of a God, drawn from the general facts of human society and the course of history, but these do not warm me or enlighten me; they do not take away the winter of my desolation, or make the buds unfold and the leaves grow within me, and my moral being rejoice. The sight of the world is nothing else than the prophet’s scroll, full of “lamentations, and mourning, and woe.”

To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; and then their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship; their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long-standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the Apostle’s words, “having no hope and without God in the world,”—all this is a vision to dizzy and appall; and inflicts upon the mind the sense of a profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution.

What shall be said to this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact? I can only answer, that either there is no Creator, or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from His presence. Did I see a boy of good make and mind, with the tokens on him of a refined nature, cast upon the world without provision, unable to say whence he came, his birthplace or his family connexions, I should conclude that there was some mystery connected with his history, and that he was one, of whom, from one cause or other, his parents were ashamed. Thus only should I be able to account for the contrast between the promise and the condition of his being. And so I argue about the world;—if there be a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, a fact as true as the fact of its existence; and thus the doctrine of what is theologically called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God.

And now, supposing it were the blessed and loving will of the Creator to interfere in this anarchical condition of things, what are we to suppose would be the methods which might be necessarily or naturally involved in His purpose of mercy? Since the world is in so abnormal a state, surely it would be no surprise to me, if the interposition were of necessity equally extraordinary—or what is called miraculous. But that subject does not directly come into the scope of my present remarks. Miracles as evidence, involve a process of reason, or an argument; and of course I am thinking of some mode of interference which does not immediately run into argument. I am rather asking what must be the face-to-face antagonist, by which to withstand and baffle the fierce energy of passion and the all-corroding, all-dissolving scepticism of the intellect in religious inquiries? I have no intention at all of denying, that truth is the real object of our reason, and that, if it does not attain to truth, either the premiss or the process is in fault; but I am not speaking here of right reason, but of reason as it acts in fact and concretely in fallen man. I know that even the unaided reason, when correctly exercised, leads to a belief in God, in the immortality of the soul, and in a future retribution; but I am considering the faculty of reason actually and historically; and in this point of view, I do not think I am wrong in saying that its tendency is towards a simple unbelief in matters of religion. No truth, however sacred, can stand against it, in the long run; and hence it is that in the pagan world, when our Lord came, the last traces of the religious knowledge of former times were all but disappearing from those portions of the world in which the intellect had been active and had had a career.

Newman takes the existing situation to be a strong argument for the doctrine of original sin. This is not as strong an argument as it seems to him; the existing situation is a likely result of the order of the world. In any case, his point is that one way or another, in the real world, it is not easy to come to the conclusion that a religion is true. In fact, he says that the natural tendency is to come to the opposite conclusion.

It is possible and reasonable to say in a sense that human beings in general are dishonest and unreasonable, and that this is the main explanation for why they disagree substantially in such important matters.

But it is quite unreasonable to say, “Human beings are divided into two kinds: the honest and reasonable ones, and the dishonest and unreasonable ones. The honest and reasonable ones are those who agree with me, and the dishonest and unreasonable ones are those who disagree with me.” And this is basically what Pascal asserts when he claims that no one can say that he has made every effort to discover the truth about religion, and has concluded that it is not present in the Church. He says even more: “I hope here to show that no reasonable person can speak thus, and I venture even to say that no one has ever done so.” Here he says that “no one has ever done so,” that is, no one has even claimed to make such an investigation. He is mistaken in both respects: in whatever sense there exist reasonable people, there are reasonable non-Catholics. And surely some of them have investigated Catholicism, come to the conclusion that it was not true, and said that they have done so.

Gwern Branwen explains the history of his religious opinions:

For I count being refuted a greater good, insofar as it is a greater good to be rid of the greatest evil from oneself than to rid someone else of it. I don’t suppose that any evil for a man is as great as false belief about the things we’re discussing right now…

I think religion was the first subject in my life that I took seriously. As best as I can recall at this point, I have no “deconversion story” or tale to tell, since I don’t remember ever seriously believing – the stories in the Bible or at my Catholic church were interesting, but they were obviously fiction to some degree. I wasn’t going to reject religion out of hand because some of the stories were made-up (any more than I believed George Washington didn’t exist because the story of him chopping down an apple tree was made-up), but the big claims didn’t seem to be panning out either:

  1. My prayers received no answers of any kind, not even a voice in my head
  2. I didn’t see any miracles or intercessions like I expected from a omnipotent loving god

There is a basic flaw in Gwern’s thinking here, and it is basically a naive concept of God, much like that of Richard Dawkins. The result is that he is falling into the error that Pascal condemns. The Church does not expect such things, at least on a regular basis, and if you think that it follows from the concept of an omnipotent loving God, then your concept of that being is not a Christian concept. In this sense, his whole mistake is that he fails to understand the idea that God is hidden. Nonetheless, it is wrong to say that the reason for Gwern’s mistake is that he was dishonest and unreasonable, and it is especially wrong to say that it was because he did not care about religious truth:

So I never believed (although it was obvious enough that there was no point in discussing this since it might just lead to me going to church more and sitting on the hard wooden pews), but there was still the troubling matter of Heaven & Hell: those infinities meant I couldn’t simply dismiss religion and continue reading about dinosaurs or Alcatraz. If I got religion wrong, I would have gotten literally the most important possible thing wrong! Nothing else was as important – if you’re wrong about a round earth, at worst you will never be a good geographer or astronomer; if you’re wrong about believing in astrology, at worst you waste time and money; if you’re wrong about evolution and biology, at worst you endanger your life; and so on. But if you’re wrong about religion, wasting your life is about the least of the consequences. And everyone accepts a religion or at least the legitimacy of religious claims, so it would be unspeakably arrogant of a kid to dismiss religion entirely – that sort of evidence is simply not there. (Oddly enough, atheists – who are not immediately shown to be mistaken or fools- are even rarer in books and cartoons than they are in real life.)

Kids actually are kind of skeptical if they have reason to be skeptical, and likewise will believe all sorts of strange things if the source was previously trustworthy. This is as it should be! Kids cannot come prewired with 100% correct beliefs, and must be able to learn all sorts of strange (but true) things from reliable authorities; these strategies are exactly what one would advise. It is not their fault that some of the most reliable authorities in their lives (their parents) are mistaken about one major set of beliefs. They simply have bad epistemic luck.

So I read the Bible, which veered from boring to incoherent to disgusting. (I became a fan of the Wisdom literature, however, and still periodically read the Book of Job, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs.) That didn’t help much. Well, maybe Christianity was not the right religion? My elementary school library had a rather strange selection of books which included various Eastern texts or anthologies (I remember in particular one anthology on meditation, which was a hodge-podge of religious instruction manuals, essays, and scientific studies on meditation – that took me a long time to read, and it was only in high school and college that I really became comfortable reading psychology papers). I continued reading in this vein for years, in between all my more normal readings. The Koran was interesting and in general much better than the Bible. Shinto texts were worthless mythologizing. Taoism had some very good early texts (the Chuang-tzu in particular) but then bizarrely degenerated into alchemy. Buddhism was strange: I rather liked the general philosophical approach, but there were many populist elements in Mahayana texts that bothered me. Hinduism had a strange beauty, but my reaction was similar to that of the early translators, who condemned it for sloth and lassitude. I also considered the Occult seriously and began reading the Skeptical literature on that and related topics (see the later section).

It is clear from this that he did in fact care about getting the truth about religion, much for the reasons that Pascal says it is important to care about it.

More generally, in the real world there are honest and reasonable people, in the sense in which there are such people at all, belonging to every religion, and some belonging to none. And if we think about it carefully, this is a necessary effect of the thesis of the hidden God. Perhaps, as Pascal says, “God has set up in the Church visible signs to make Himself known to those who should seek Him sincerely, and that He has nevertheless so disguised them that He will only be perceived by those who seek Him with all their heart.” The purpose might be to distinguish between people who care and those who don’t. And this may succeed to some extent, but the net will inevitably catch some of the wrong people and miss some of the right people: some people who do not care, will believe anyway, and some people who do, will end up not believing.


Newman and Modernism

In 1907 Pope Pius X published his encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis condemning modernism. The encyclical begins:

The office divinely committed to Us of feeding the Lord’s flock has especially this duty assigned to it by Christ, namely, to guard with the greatest vigilance the deposit of the faith delivered to the saints, rejecting the profane novelties of words and oppositions of knowledge falsely so called. There has never been a time when this watchfulness of the supreme pastor was not necessary to the Catholic body; for, owing to the efforts of the enemy of the human race, there have never been lacking “men speaking perverse things” (Acts xx. 30), “vain talkers and seducers” (Tit. i. 10), “erring and driving into error” (2 Tim. iii. 13). Still it must be confessed that the number of the enemies of the cross of Christ has in these last days increased exceedingly, who are striving, by arts, entirely new and full of subtlety, to destroy the vital energy of the Church, and, if they can, to overthrow utterly Christ’s kingdom itself. Wherefore We may no longer be silent, lest We should seem to fail in Our most sacred duty, and lest the kindness that, in the hope of wiser counsels, We have hitherto shown them, should be attributed to forgetfulness of Our office.

2. That We make no delay in this matter is rendered necessary especially by the fact that the partisans of error are to be sought not only among the Church’s open enemies; they lie hid, a thing to be deeply deplored and feared, in her very bosom and heart, and are the more mischievous, the less conspicuously they appear. We allude, Venerable Brethren, to many who belong to the Catholic laity, nay, and this is far more lamentable, to the ranks of the priesthood itself, who, feigning a love for the Church, lacking the firm protection of philosophy and theology, nay more, thoroughly imbued with the poisonous doctrines taught by the enemies of the Church, and lost to all sense of modesty, vaunt themselves as reformers of the Church; and, forming more boldly into line of attack, assail all that is most sacred in the work of Christ, not sparing even the person of the Divine Redeemer, whom, with sacrilegious daring, they reduce to a simple, mere man.

3. Though they express astonishment themselves, no one can justly be surprised that We number such men among the enemies of the Church, if, leaving out of consideration the internal disposition of soul, of which God alone is the judge, he is acquainted with their tenets, their manner of speech, their conduct. Nor indeed will he err in accounting them the most pernicious of all the adversaries of the Church. For as We have said, they put their designs for her ruin into operation not from without but from within; hence, the danger is present almost in the very veins and heart of the Church, whose injury is the more certain, the more intimate is their knowledge of her. Moreover they lay the axe not to the branches and shoots, but to the very root, that is, to the faith and its deepest fires. And having struck at this root of immortality, they proceed to disseminate poison through the whole tree, so that there is no part of Catholic truth from which they hold their hand, none that they do not strive to corrupt. Further, none is more skilful, none more astute than they, in the employment of a thousand noxious arts; for they double the parts of rationalist and Catholic, and this so craftily that they easily lead the unwary into error; and since audacity is their chief characteristic, there is no conclusion of any kind from which they shrink or which they do not thrust forward with pertinacity and assurance. To this must be added the fact, which indeed is well calculated to deceive souls, that they lead a life of the greatest activity, of assiduous and ardent application to every branch of learning, and that they possess, as a rule, a reputation for the strictest morality. Finally, and this almost destroys all hope of cure, their very doctrines have given such a bent to their minds, that they disdain all authority and brook no restraint; and relying upon a false conscience, they attempt to ascribe to a love of truth that which is in reality the result of pride and obstinacy.

Once indeed We had hopes of recalling them to a better sense, and to this end we first of all showed them kindness as Our children, then we treated them with severity, and at last We have had recourse, though with great reluctance, to public reproof. But you know, Venerable Brethren, how fruitless has been Our action. They bowed their head for a moment, but it was soon uplifted more arrogantly than ever. If it were a matter which concerned them alone, We might perhaps have overlooked it: but the security of the Catholic name is at stake. Wherefore, as to maintain it longer would be a crime, We must now break silence, in order to expose before the whole Church in their true colours those men who have assumed this bad disguise.

4. But since the Modernists (as they are commonly and rightly called) employ a very clever artifice, namely, to present their doctrines without order and systematic arrangement into one whole, scattered and disjointed one from another, so as to appear to be in doubt and uncertainty, while they are in reality firm and steadfast, it will be of advantage, Venerable Brethren, to bring their teachings together here into one group, and to point out the connexion between them, and thus to pass to an examination of the sources of the errors, and to prescribe remedies for averting the evil.

In the last paragraph here, Pius X accuses the modernists of a “clever artifice”, namely presenting their doctrines without order and systematic arrangement, “so as to appear to be in doubt and uncertainty, while they are in reality firm and steadfast.” In other words, according to him, they have a clear and developed system for themselves, which they do not present to other people. He lays out this system himself in the encyclical.

Such a clever artifice is not impossible in principle. Although I will not defend this at the moment, it seems to me that Hans Urs von Balthasar has just such a system, complete and developed in his own mind, but presented to others without order and systematic arrangement. And it may be that the system described in Pascendi could be fairly attributed to some Catholics at the time, at least in many or most respects. But the problem is that since those who hold the system admittedly do not clearly claim to hold it, there is no easy way to distinguish such people from Catholics who are actually in doubt and uncertainty, and who do not hold such a system.

The result of this is that the remedies proposed by Pius X are detailed, but very widespread in scope:

48. All these prescriptions and those of Our Predecessor are to be borne in mind whenever there is question of choosing directors and professors for seminaries and Catholic Universities. Anybody who in any way is found to be imbued with Modernism is to be excluded without compunction from these offices, and those who already occupy them are to be withdrawn. The same policy is to be adopted towards those who favour Modernism either by extolling the Modernists or excusing their culpable conduct, by criticising scholasticism, the Holy Father, or by refusing obedience to ecclesiastical authority in any of its depositaries; and towards those who show a love of novelty in history, archaeology, biblical exegesis, and finally towards those who neglect the sacred sciences or appear to prefer to them the profane. In all this question of studies, Venerable Brethren, you cannot be too watchful or too constant, but most of all in the choice of professors, for as a rule the students are modelled after the pattern of their masters. Strong in the consciousness of your duty, act always prudently but vigorously.

49. Equal diligence and severity are to be used in examining and selecting candidates for Holy Orders. Far, far from the clergy be the love of novelty! God hates the proud and the obstinate. For the future the doctorate of theology and canon law must never be conferred on anybody who has not made the regular course of scholastic philosophy; if conferred it shall be held as null and void. The rules laid down in 1896 by the Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars for the clerics, both secular and regular, of Italy concerning the frequenting of the Universities, We now decree to be extended to all nations. Clerics and priests inscribed in a Catholic Institute or University must not in the future follow in civil Universities those courses for which there are chairs in the Catholic Institutes to which they belong. If this has been permitted anywhere in the past, We ordain that it be not allowed for the future. Let the Bishops who form the Governing Board of such Catholic Institutes or Universities watch with all care that these Our commands be constantly observed.

50. It is also the duty of the bishops to prevent writings infected with Modernism or favourable to it from being read when they have been published, and to hinder their publication when they have not. No book or paper or periodical of this kind must ever be permitted to seminarists or university students. The injury to them would be equal to that caused by immoral reading – nay, it would be greater for such writings poison Christian life at its very fount. The same decision is to be taken concerning the writings of some Catholics, who, though not badly disposed themselves but ill-instructed in theological studies and imbued with modern philosophy, strive to make this harmonize with the faith, and, as they say, to turn it to the account of the faith. The name and reputation of these authors cause them to be read without suspicion, and they are, therefore, all the more dangerous in preparing the way for Modernism.

51. To give you some more general directions, Venerable Brethren, in a matter of such moment, We bid you do everything in your power to drive out of your dioceses, even by solemn interdict, any pernicious books that may be in circulation there. The Holy See neglects no means to put down writings of this kind, but the number of them has now grown to such an extent that it is impossible to censure them all. Hence it happens that the medicine sometimes arrives too late, for the disease has taken root during the delay. We will, therefore, that the Bishops, putting aside all fear and the prudence of the flesh, despising the outcries of the wicked, gently by all means but constantly, do each his own share of this work, remembering the injunctions of Leo XIII. in the Apostolic Constitution Officiorum: Let the Ordinaries, acting in this also as Delegates of the Apostolic See, exert themselves to prescribe and to put out of reach of the faithful injurious books or other writings printed or circulated in their dioceses. In this passage the Bishops, it is true, receive a right, but they have also a duty imposed on them. Let no Bishop think that he fulfils this duty by denouncing to us one or two books, while a great many others of the same kind are being published and circulated. Nor are you to be deterred by the fact that a book has obtained the Imprimatur elsewhere, both because this may be merely simulated, and because it may have been granted through carelessness or easiness or excessive confidence in the author as may sometimes happen in religious Orders. Besides, just as the same food does not agree equally with everybody, it may happen that a book harmless in one may, on account of the different circumstances, be hurtful in another. Should a Bishop, therefore, after having taken the advice of prudent persons, deem it right to condemn any of such books in his diocese, We not only give him ample faculty to do so but We impose it upon him as a duty to do so. Of course, it is Our wish that in such action proper regard be used, and sometimes it will suffice to restrict the prohibition to the clergy; but even in such cases it will be obligatory on Catholic booksellers not to put on sale books condemned by the Bishop. And while We are on this subject of booksellers, We wish the Bishops to see to it that they do not, through desire for gain, put on sale unsound books. It is certain that in the catalogues of some of them the books of the Modernists are not unfrequently announced with no small praise. If they refuse obedience let the Bishops have no hesitation in depriving them of the title of Catholic booksellers; so too, and with more reason, if they have the title of Episcopal booksellers, and if they have that of Pontifical, let them be denounced to the Apostolic See. Finally, We remind all of the XXVI. article of the abovementioned Constitution Officiorum: All those who have obtained an apostolic faculty to read and keep forbidden books, are not thereby authorised to read books and periodicals forbidden by the local Ordinaries, unless the apostolic faculty expressly concedes permission to read and keep books condemned by anybody.

52. But it is not enough to hinder the reading and the sale of bad books – it is also necessary to prevent them from being printed. Hence let the Bishops use the utmost severity in granting permission to print. Under the rules of the Constitution Officiorum, many publications require the authorisation of the Ordinary, and in some dioceses it has been made the custom to have a suitable number of official censors for the examination of writings. We have the highest praise for this institution, and We not only exhort, but We order that it be extended to all dioceses. In all episcopal Curias, therefore, let censors be appointed for the revision of works intended for publication, and let the censors be chosen from both ranks of the clergy – secular and regular – men of age, knowledge and prudence who will know how to follow the golden mean in their judgments. It shall be their office to examine everything which requires permission for publication according to Articles XLI. and XLII. of the above-mentioned Constitution. The Censor shall give his verdict in writing. If it be favourable, the Bishop will give the permission for publication by the wordImprimatur, which must always be preceded by the Nihil obstat and the name of the Censor. In the Curia of Rome official censors shall be appointed just as elsewhere, and the appointment of them shall appertain to the Master of the Sacred Palaces, after they have been proposed to the Cardinal Vicar and accepted by the Sovereign Pontiff. It will also be the office of the Master of the Sacred Palaces to select the censor for each writing. Permission for publication will be granted by him as well as by the Cardinal Vicar or his Vicegerent, and this permission, as above prescribed, must always be preceded by the Nihil obstat and the name of the Censor. Only on very rare and exceptional occasions, and on the prudent decision of the bishop, shall it be possible to omit mention of the Censor. The name of the Censor shall never be made known to the authors until he shall have given a favourable decision, so that he may not have to suffer annoyance either while he is engaged in the examination of a writing or in case he should deny his approval. Censors shall never be chosen from the religious orders until the opinion of the Provincial, or in Rome of the General, has been privately obtained, and the Provincial or the General must give a conscientious account of the character, knowledge and orthodoxy of the candidate. We admonish religious superiors of their solemn duty never to allow anything to be published by any of their subjects without permission from themselves and from the Ordinary. Finally We affirm and declare that the title of Censor has no value and can never be adduced to give credit to the private opinions of the person who holds it.

53. Having said this much in general, We now ordain in particular a more careful observance of Article XLII. of the above-mentioned Constitution Officiorum. It is forbidden to secular priests, without the previous consent of the Ordinary, to undertake the direction of papers or periodicals. This permission shall be withdrawn from any priest who makes a wrong use of it after having been admonished. With regard to priests who are correspondents or collaborators of periodicals, as it happens not unfrequently that they write matter infected with Modernism for their papers or periodicals, let the Bishops see to it that this is not permitted to happen, and, should they fail in this duty, let the Bishops make due provision with authority delegated by the Supreme Pontiff. Let there be, as far as this is possible, a special Censor for newspapers and periodicals written by Catholics. It shall be his office to read in due time each number after it has been published, and if he find anything dangerous in it let him order that it be corrected. The Bishop shall have the same right even when the Censor has seen nothing objectionable in a publication.

54. We have already mentioned congresses and public gatherings as among the means used by the Modernists to propagate and defend their opinions. In the future Bishops shall not permit Congresses of priests except on very rare occasions. When they do permit them it shall only be on condition that matters appertaining to the Bishops or the Apostolic See be not treated in them, and that no motions or postulates be allowed that would imply a usurpation of sacred authority, and that no mention be made in them of Modernism, presbyterianism, or laicism. At Congresses of this kind, which can only be held after permission in writing has been obtained in due time and for each case, it shall not be lawful for priests of other dioceses to take part without the written permission of their Ordinary. Further no priest must lose sight of the solemn recommendation of Leo XIII.: Let priests hold as sacred the authority of their pastors, let them take it for certain that the sacerdotal ministry, if not exercised under the guidance of the Bishops, can never be either holy, or very fruitful or respectable (Lett. Encyc. Nobilissima Gallorum, 10 Feb., 1884).

55. But of what avail, Venerable Brethren, will be all Our commands and prescriptions if they be not dutifully and firmly carried out? And, in order that this may be done, it has seemed expedient to Us to extend to all dioceses the regulations laid down with great wisdom many years ago by the Bishops of Umbria for theirs.

“In order,” they say, “to extirpate the errors already propagated and to prevent their further diffusion, and to remove those teachers of impiety through whom the pernicious effects of such dif fusion are being perpetuated, this sacred Assembly, following the example of St. Charles Borromeo, has decided to establish in each of the dioceses a Council consisting of approved members of both branches of the clergy, which shall be charged the task of noting the existence of errors and the devices by which new ones are introduced and propagated, and to inform the Bishop of the whole so that he may take counsel with them as to the best means for nipping the evil in the bud and preventing it spreading for the ruin of souls or, worse still, gaining strength and growth” (Acts of the Congress of the Bishops of Umbria, Nov. 1849, tit 2, art. 6). We decree, therefore, that in every diocese a council of this kind, which We are pleased to name “the Council of Vigilance,” be instituted without delay. The priests called to form part in it shall be chosen somewhat after the manner above prescribed for the Censors, and they shall meet every two months on an appointed day under the presidency of the Bishop. They shall be bound to secrecy as to their deliberations and decisions, and their function shall be as follows: They shall watch most carefully for every trace and sign of Modernism both in publications and in teaching, and, to preserve from it the clergy and the young, they shall take all prudent, prompt and efficacious measures. Let them combat novelties of words remembering the admonitions of Leo XIII. (Instruct. S.C. NN. EE. EE., 27 Jan., 1902): It is impossible to approve in Catholic publications of a style inspired by unsound novelty which seems to deride the piety of the faithful and dwells on the introduction of a new order of Christian life, on new directions of the Church, on new aspirations of the modern soul, on a new vocation of the clergy, on a new Christian civilisation. Language of this kind is not to be tolerated either in books or from chairs of learning. The Councils must not neglect the books treating of the pious traditions of different places or of sacred relics. Let them not permit such questions to be discussed in periodicals destined to stimulate piety, neither with expressions savouring of mockery or contempt, nor by dogmatic pronouncements, especially when, as is often the case, what is stated as a certainty either does not pass the limits of probability or is merely based on prejudiced opinion. Concerning sacred relics, let this be the rule: When Bishops, who alone are judges in such matters, know for certain the a relic is not genuine, let them remove it at once from the veneration of the faithful; if the authentications of a relic happen to have been lost through civil disturbances, or in any other way, let it not be exposed for public veneration until the Bishop has verified it. The argument of prescription or well-founded presumption is to have weight only when devotion to a relic is commendable by reason of its antiquity, according to the sense of the Decree issued in 1896 by the Congregation of Indulgences and Sacred Relics: Ancient relics are to retain the veneration they have always enjoyed except when in individual instances there are clear arguments that they are false or suppositions. In passing judgment on pious traditions be it always borne in mind that in this matter the Church uses the greatest prudence, and that she does not allow traditions of this kind to be narrated in books except with the utmost caution and with the insertion of the declaration imposed by Urban VIII, and even then she does not guarantee the truth of the fact narrated; she simply does but forbid belief in things for which human arguments are not wanting. On this matter the Sacred Congregation of Rites, thirty years ago, decreed as follows:These apparitions and revelations have neither been approved nor condemned by the Holy See, which has simply allowed that they be believed on purely human faith, on the tradition which they relate, corroborated by testimonies and documents worthy of credence (Decree, May 2, 1877). Anybody who follows this rule has no cause for fear. For the devotion based on any apparition, in as far as it regards the fact itself, that is to say in as far as it is relative, always implies the hypothesis of the truth of the fact; while in as far as it is absolute, it must always be based on the truth, seeing that its object is the persons of the saints who are honoured. The same is true of relics. Finally, We entrust to the Councils of Vigilance the duty of overlooking assiduously and diligently social institutions as well as writings on social questions so that they may harbour no trace of Modernism, but obey the prescriptions of the Roman Pontiffs.

56. Lest what We have laid down thus far should fall into oblivion, We will and ordain that the Bishops of all dioceses, a year after the publication of these letters and every three years thenceforward, furnish the Holy See with a diligent and sworn report on all the prescriptions contained in them, and on the doctrines that find currency among the clergy, and especially in the seminaries and other Catholic institutions, and We impose the like obligation on the Generals of Religious Orders with regard to those under them.

57. This, Venerable Brethren, is what we have thought it our duty to write to you for the salvation of all who believe. The adversaries of the Church will doubtless abuse what we have said to refurbish the old calumny by which we are traduced as the enemy of science and of the progress of humanity. In order to oppose a new answer to such accusations, which the history of the Christian religion refutes by never failing arguments, it is Our intention to establish and develop by every means in our power a special Institute in which, through the co-operation of those Catholics who are most eminent for their learning, the progress of science and other realms of knowledge may be promoted under the guidance and teaching of Catholic truth. God grant that we may happily realise our design with the ready assistance of all those who bear a sincere love for the Church of Christ. But of this we will speak on another occasion.

58. Meanwhile, Venerable Brethren, fully confident in your zeal and work, we beseech for you with our whole heart and soul the abundance of heavenly light, so that in the midst of this great perturbation of men’s minds from the insidious invasions of error from every side, you may see clearly what you ought to do and may perform the task with all your strength and courage. May Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of our faith, be with you by His power; and may the Immaculate Virgin, the destroyer of all heresies, be with you by her prayers and aid. And We, as a pledge of Our affection and of divine assistance in adversity, grant most affectionately and with all Our heart to you, your clergy and people the Apostolic Benediction.

It is easy to see that much of this has the effect of penalizing an attitude or various attitudes, regardless of whether a person’s actual beliefs are in conformity with Catholic doctrine or not. This would be the effect of talking about people “imbued with Modernism,” people who “favour Modernism,” “criticizing scholasticism,” “show a love of novelty,” “a style inspired by unsound novelty,” and the like. None of these things are about particular opinions of any kind, but about attitudes, and ones where it may well be unclear whether or not someone has them.

The problem with all of this, of course, is that you cannot resolve people’s doubt and uncertainty by making laws against it. This method simply does not work. And a great deal of Pius X’s concern is in fact about such doubt and uncertainty, and not about particular opinions contrary to Catholic doctrine.

Some of the modernists asserted that Pascendi condemned Newman’s theory of the development of doctrine. Pius X explicitly denied this:

Venerable Brother, greetings and Our Apostolic blessing. We hereby inform you that your essay, in which you show that the writings of Cardinal Newman, far from being in disagreement with Our Encyclical Letter Pascendi, are very much in harmony with it, has been emphatically approved by Us: for you could not have better served both the truth and the dignity of man. It is clear that those people whose errors We have condemned in that Document had decided among themselves to produce something of their own invention with which to seek the commendation of a distinguished person. And so they everywhere assert with confidence that they have taken these things from the very source and summit of authority, and that therefore We cannot censure their teachings, but rather that We had even previously gone so far as to condemn what such a great author had taught. Incredible though it may appear, although it is not always realised, there are to be found those who are so puffed up with pride that it is enough to overwhelm the mind, and who are convinced that they are Catholics and pass themselves off as such, while in matters concerning the inner discipline of religion they prefer the authority of their own private teaching to the pre-eminent authority of the Magisterium of the Apostolic See. Not only do you fully demonstrate their obstinacy but you also show clearly their deceitfulness. For, if in the things he had written before his profession of the Catholic faith one can justly detect something which may have a kind of similarity with certain Modernist formulas, you are correct in saying that this is not relevant to his later works. Moreover, as far as that matter is concerned, his way of thinking has been expressed in very different ways, both in the spoken word and in his published writings, and the author himself, on his admission into the Catholic Church, forwarded all his writings to the authority of the same Church so that any corrections might be made, if judged appropriate. Regarding the large number of books of great importance and influence which he wrote as a Catholic, it is hardly necessary to exonerate them from any connection with this present heresy. And indeed, in the domain of England, it is common knowledge that Henry Newman pleaded the cause of the Catholic faith in his prolific literary output so effectively that his work was both highly beneficial to its citizens and greatly appreciated by Our Predecessors: and so he is held worthy of office whom Leo XIII, undoubtedly a shrewd judge of men and affairs, appointed Cardinal; indeed he was very highly regarded by him at every stage of his career, and deservedly so. Truly, there is something about such a large quantity of work and his long hours of labour lasting far into the night that seems foreign to the usual way of theologians: nothing can be found to bring any suspicion about his faith. You correctly state that it is entirely to be expected that where no new signs of heresy were apparent he has perhaps used an off-guard manner of speaking to some people in certain places, but that what the Modernists do is to falsely and deceitfully take those words out of the whole context of what he meant to say and twist them to suit their own meaning. We therefore congratulate you for having, through your knowledge of all his writings, brilliantly vindicated the memory of this eminently upright and wise man from injustice: and also for having, to the best of your ability, brought your influence to bear among your fellow-countrymen, but particularly among the English people, so that those who were accustomed to abusing his name and deceiving the ignorant should henceforth cease doing so. Would that they should follow Newman the author faithfully by studying his books without, to be sure, being addicted to their own prejudices, and let them not with wicked cunning conjure anything up from them or declare that their own opinions are confirmed in them; but instead let them understand his pure and whole principles, his lessons and inspiration which they contain. They will learn many excellent things from such a great teacher: in the first place, to regard the Magisterium of the Church as sacred, to defend the doctrine handed down inviolately by the Fathers and, what is of highest importance to the safeguarding of Catholic truth, to follow and obey the Successor of St. Peter with the greatest faith. To you, therefore, Venerable Brother, and to your clergy and people, We give Our heartfelt thanks for having taken the trouble to help Us in Our reduced circumstances by sending your communal gift of financial aid: and in order to gain for you all, but first and foremost for yourself, the gifts of God’s goodness, and as a testimony of Our benevolence, We affectionately bestow Our Apostolic blessing.

Pius X is certainly right that Newman’s theory of development is quite different from the modernist system which he condemns in Pascendi. Nonetheless, there is a real relationship between the two, and much more is there one between Newman’s theory and people’s uncertainty and doubt.

The difference, of course, is that the evolution of doctrine which is condemned in Pascendi is the first theory Newman mentions, which tends to imply the absence of a real revelation, and which Ross Douthat says is a view that “sounds like heresy by any reasonable definition of the term.” In this sense, Newman’s theory of development is quite different. However, there is a relationship, because Newman admits the possibility of changes in doctrine, without positively establishing any absolute limits on the possibility.

By doing this, Newman’s theory in itself tends to be a cause of “doubt and uncertainty,” even when it is taken in a Catholic sense. The Catholic interpretation would imply that the substance of a doctrine must remain unchanged. But since all claims are vague, and changes of opinion happen in a vague and slow way, the line between a development of doctrine and a substantial change in doctrine will necessarily be a vague line, just like the line between a man who is bald and a man who is not. This will necessarily cause doubt about whether various changes would constitute a substantial change of doctrine or not, and therefore about whether or not certain opinions, currently rejected by the Church or by most of it, might turn out to be true.

Newman and Darwin

In an ebook Another Look at John Henry Cardinal Newman, Richard Sartino discusses Newman’s view of Darwin:

Darwin’s theory did not shock Newman; he told a correspondent he was willing “to go the whole hog with Darwin.”

It is important to understand Newman’s frame of mind concerning the false theories of evolution in order to understand his notions of development. Darwin’s book, Origin of Species, appeared in 1859, a time when educated men and society in general scoffed at the idea of human evolution, leaving such notions to the few mad scientific theorists, but Newman’s empirical mind and distrust of rational philosophy disposed him to accept whole-heartedly the notions of evolution. He had been contemplating the evolution, not of man, but of religion, long before the appearance of Darwin’s book; his first sermon on the development of Christianity was preached in 1843 while he was still an Anglican and within two years the Development of Christian Doctrine was published, with Newman entering the Church at the same time.

He goes on to compare Newman’s theory with the theory of evolution:

Newman was a pioneer of this new doctrine which shocked both Anglicans and Catholics alike. Theologians until then had never considered his ideas of development, although many before him justly contemplated the mystical and supernatural increase of the treasures of the Church. The difference between Newman and earlier theologians in this matter is that Newman considered only the material aspect of the Church’s growth, not going beyond the temporal history of Her life on earth. Earlier theologians, on the other hand, had considered the formal aspect of the Church, a viewpoint which is vital to the believer who is obliged to view things with a supernatural eye.

Newman saw the Church in the light of history, whereas Catholics see history in the light of the Church. Immersed in an academia of the staunchest historicists whose scepticism imbued the thinkers of that time, Newman followed their lead and often kept up a correspondence with the worst of them, as Dollinger and Acton. Their position confined the Church to Her history, and Her history to their sceptical and critical minds. For these men the work of the Catholic mind is not to meditate upon and adore Christ in the eternal truths of the Church but to subject these truths to historical analysis. What is important for them is not the Incarnation but the development of the idea of the Incarnation. All this, of course, is nothing but that age-old pride whereby the mind of man becomes the measure of religion.

With this in mind we can understand why Newman accepted so easily the errors of Darwin, for there was nothing incompatible between the evolution of man and the evolution of religion and doctrine. On the contrary, both complement one another to form a harmonious view of the whole of creation. In fact, just as all errors begin in the highest part of the soul before they exercise their universal influence on the subordinate faculties and sciences, thus does the evolution of eternal doctrine precede the less radical errors about the evolution of man and social institutions. It is understandable, and appropriate, therefore that Newman’s novel thesis should have preceded Origin of Species by sixteen years. As long as the mind of man is firmly rooted in the immutable and eternal truths of the Faith the occasion will never arise to fall into any kind of evolutionary errors.

Several authors bear testimony of Newman’s evolutionary ideas. A certain Mark Pattison who knew Newman said he saw the whole development of human reason from Aristotle to Hegel as a closed book, and in Studies in Modernism Alfred Fawkes also believes that the essay on Development “is a striking anticipation of the Evolution philosophy; the application of this to theology marked a turning-point in religious thought.”

And another author, Percy Gardner in Modernism in the English Church, asserts that “it shows the greatness of Newman, that before Darwin had set forth his theory of evolution, a foretaste of it appears in Newman’s Development of Christian Doctrine.” So serious were Newman’s aberrations that one of the greatest living Roman theologians at that time, Fr. Franzelin, S.J., wrote an entire treatise, De Divina Scriptura et Traditione, in order to combat what he considered Newman’s departure from the Faith.

He then discusses Newman’s theory directly:

The full force and implication of Newman’s thinking are found in his doctrine known as Development of Christian Doctrine. Characteristic of his personal qualities and life, this specific teaching of Newman contains his ambiguity and ambivalence, in toto, so much so that it allures the most opposed camps of thinkers. Its appeal is universal; to liberals and orthodox, to Protestants and Catholics, to believers as well as infidels. Men of every persuasion find their opinions voiced in this doctrine, for it is as pliable and flexible as Newman’s supposedly transcendent and personal logic.

The essence of Newman’s position consists in reconciling two contradictory propositions: first, that Christianity is unchanging, and second, that Christianity is changing. Apparent contradictions can always be reconciled by a legitimate rational distinction, but Newman does not attempt to do this. His Doctrine of Development does not assert that Christianity is unchanging in one respect, and changing in another, and then delineate the consequent differences and properties from the various distinctions. On the contrary, Newman’s position admits simultaneously and in the same respect that Christianity is changing and unchanging. To accomplish such a formidable task is not really very difficult, at least for a mind enamoured with concrete living experience.

Of course, Newman says no such thing. Rather, he asserts that there have been various changes in Christianity throughout history and it is a question of explaining them. He says, as we quoted earlier:

Here then I concede to the opponents of historical Christianity, that there are to be found, during the 1800 years through which it has lasted, certain apparent inconsistencies and alterations in its doctrine and its worship, such as irresistibly attract the attention of all who inquire into it. They are not sufficient to interfere with the general character and course of the religion, but they raise the question how they came about, and what they mean, and have in consequence supplied matter for several hypotheses.

Of these one is to the effect that Christianity has ever changed from the first and ever accommodates itself to the circumstances of times and seasons; but it is difficult to understand how such a view is compatible with the special idea of revealed truth, and in fact its advocates more or less abandon, or tend to abandon the supernatural claims of Christianity; so it need not detain us here.

A second and more plausible hypothesis is that of the Anglican divines…

It is worthwhile considering the hypothesis that Newman passes over here, that “Christianity has ever changed from the first and ever accommodates itself to the circumstances of times and seasons.” Why is it difficult to understand how such a view is compatible with the special idea of revealed truth? Basically, the position in question is that everything in Christianity is changeable. Christians currently believe that Christ is God, but a thousand years from now, they may all believe that Christ was a mere man. The difficulty is, of course, that both of these cannot be true, so that if the belief of Christians varies from time to time in this way, then the beliefs of Christians cannot be believed to come from divine revelation.

In fact, this position would not be entirely inconsistent with the idea of a particular revelation, but such a revelation would be more like the kind that the Catholic Church considers to be a private revelation. In other words, one would say that the true beliefs, when they are present, are ones that came from a revelation, but that God does nothing to prevent people from abandoning these beliefs and adopting other ones. In this case, of course, the problem would be that there does not seem to be a good way to distinguish between beliefs that are actually revealed, and others which are not. It would be for this reason that people holding this position would “abandon, or tend to abandon the supernatural claims of Christianity.” Consequently, since Newman is not here attempting to argue for the truth of Christianity, he does not care to give this particular theory any lengthy treatment.

We should notice the order of evidence here: changeableness without any limit would be good evidence for an absence of revelation, and for a similar reason, complete absence of changeableness would be good evidence for the presence of a revelation. Newman acknowledges the presence of some changeableness, and he does this without demonstrating the existence of any limit on this changeableness, but only assuming it.

It seems to me that we can see here the reason for Sartino’s rejection of Newman’s theory. Newman certainly does not hold that Christianity is both changeable and unchangeable in the same respect. He simply admits that it is changeable to some extent, and wishes to explain this. But for Sartino, this is a problem in itself, because it opens the door to the possibility that there is no real divine revelation. If Christianity is changeable to some degree, and we have not yet shown that there is any limit on this, then the first rejected hypothesis might turn out to be true, and Christianity might not be supernatural.

The problem with Sartino’s thinking is the same one I pointed out earlier. If Christianity is changeable in some ways, that may leave the door open to the possibility that Christianity is false, and may make this more likely relative to the situation where Christianity is actually unchangeable in every way. But you cannot change these facts by asserting that Christianity is actually unchangeable, because asserting something does not make it so. Both the evidence and the facts will remain just as they are, regardless of what you say about them. In this way, it makes sense that Sartino rejects both Newman’s theory of development and Darwin’s theory of evolution. He is using the same strategy in each case, one which seems to him to make his religion more certain to be true, but which actually has no effect whatsoever.

In reality, Darwin was not responsible for the theory of evolution. The facts were responsible, and as I noted here, if Darwin had not come up with his theory, others would have. In a similar way, the Catholic Church accepted Newman’s theory of development because it was necessary in order to account for the facts of history, and some such theory would have been developed and accepted even if Newman had never existed. You can ignore history just as you can ignore the rocks, but ignoring things does not change them. Newman noted, in fact, that certain real facts tended to open the door to the possibility that his religion was in error, saying, “Not only has the relative situation of controversies and theologies altered, but infidelity itself is in a different,—I am obliged to say in a more hopeful position,—as regards Christianity.”

Ross Douthat, commenting on the recent controversy over the possibility of communion for the divorced and remarried, says:

When this point is raised, reformers pivot to the idea that, well, maybe the proposed changes really are effectively doctrinal, but not every doctrinal issue is equally important, and anyway Catholic doctrine can develop over time.

But the development of doctrine is supposed to deepen church teaching, not reverse or contradict it. This distinction allows for many gray areas, admittedly. But effacing Jesus’ own words on the not-exactly-minor topics of marriage and sexuality certainly looks more like a major reversal than an organic, doctrinally-deepening shift.

At which point we come to the third argument, which makes an appearance in your letter: You don’t understand, you’re not a theologian. As indeed I am not. But neither is Catholicism supposed to be an esoteric religion, its teachings accessible only to academic adepts. And the impression left by this moving target, I’m afraid, is that some reformers are downplaying their real position in the hopes of bringing conservatives gradually along.

What is that real position? That almost anything Catholic can change when the times require it, and “developing” doctrine just means keeping up with capital-H History, no matter how much of the New Testament is left behind.
As I noted earlier, the columnist’s task is to be provocative. So I must tell you, openly and not subtly, that this view sounds like heresy by any reasonable definition of the term.

Now it may be that today’s heretics are prophets, the church will indeed be revolutionized, and my objections will be ground under with the rest of conservative Catholicism. But if that happens, it will take hard grinding, not just soft words and academic rank-pulling. It will require a bitter civil war.

And so, my dear professors: Welcome to the battlefield.

What Douthat calls the “real position” of the reformers, of course, is exactly the first hypothesis which Newman dismisses. It seems to me that there can be no reasonable doubt that this is in fact the position of many, although they might wish to conceal it, in order to better bring about the ends that they seek. Whether or not they therefore abandon the idea of special revelation is unclear, but it would seem the most reasonable position for someone who believes that there is no limit to the changeableness of the Church.

Neither Newman in the text cited, nor Douthat here, say that they can disprove the first hypothesis, but that they do not accept it, because of the implication that there is no real revelation. But they both recognize that they live in the real world, where there is evidence against what you believe, and where you might actually be wrong. Richard Sartino, on the other hand, seems to live in an imaginary world.

A Letter of Newman to Fr. Coleridge

In 1870 the First Vatican Council defined the infallibility of the Pope under certain circumstances. In a letter dated February 5, 1871, Newman says:

My dear Fr. Coleridge,

I began to read Fr. Harper’s papers, but they were (to my ignorance of theology and philosophy) so obscure, and (to my own knowledge of my real meaning) so hopelessly misrepresentations of the book, that I soon gave it over. As to my answering, I think I never answered any critique on any writing of mine, in my life. My Essay on Development was assailed by Dr. Brownson on one side, and Mr. Archer Butler on the other, at great length. Brownson, I believe, thought me a Pantheist–and sent me his work to Rome, by some American Bishop. Mr. Butler has been lauded by his people as having smashed me. Now at the end of twenty years, I am told from Rome that I am guilty of the late Definition by my work on Development, so orthodox has it been found in principle, and on the other side Bampton Lectures have been preached, I believe, allowing that principle, the Guardian acknowledges the principle as necessary, and the Scotch Editors of Dorner’s great work on our Lord’s Person, cautioning of course the world against me, admit that development of doctrine is a historical fact. I shall not live another 20 years, but, as I waited patiently as regards my former work for ‘Time to be the Father of Truth’, so now I leave the judgment between Fr. Harper and me to the sure future.

In the case of the definition of 1854, even if Catholics had once doubted the doctrine, by the time of the definition it was certainly the general belief throughout the Catholic world, and even at the time of St. Thomas it was a common belief among Catholics. But in the case of papal infallibility, there was significantly more disagreement, at least about the details of the idea, even in the nineteenth century. Thus, when Newman says, “I am told from Rome that I am guilty of the late Definition,” the implication is that someone told him that without his theory of the development of doctrine, the council would not have agreed to make the definition.

Brownson Apologizes to Newman

In Brownson’s Quarterly Review (October 1864), Orestes Brownson makes a sort of apology to Newman for his previous criticism of Newman’s theory of the development of doctrine. Brownson writes:

Faith, objectively considered, is infallible, and the Church is infallible, by the assistance of the Holy Ghost, in teaching and defining it. But the faith is to us practically as if it were not, save in so far as it is actively received and appropriated by our own minds. This, we presume, is what Dr. Newman meant when he said: Christianity came into the world a naked idea, which the mind develops or realizes by its own action. Now in realizing, in actively receiving and appropriating the Christian dogma, or the faith, our minds are not infallible. We never conceive it adequately, or take in explicitly all that is in it; and we may, and often do, under various aspects, even misconceive it. Here is, if we understand it, the basis of Dr. Newman’s Essay, and if so, our objections to it were irrelevant, and though well founded, as against the doctrine we deduced from it, they are not as against that which the author held, and intended to set forth, and perhaps did set forth to the minds of all who admired his book. We have long suspected that we did him injustice, though we have not changed our own views of the soundness of the theology we opposed to him, or thought we were opposing to him. The fact is, his book was profounder than we supposed, and was designed to solve theological difficulties which we had not then encountered in our own intellectual life and experience. This acknowledgement, spontaneously made, we hope will be accepted by the illustrious convert and his friends, as some slight atonement for any injustice we may have done him or them, since whatever injustice we may have done was done unwittingly and unintentionally.

On the fact of the inadequacy of our conceptions, and our liability even to wrong conceptions, Dr. Newman bases his doctrine of development on the one hand, and of the necessity, on the other, of a living and ever-present infallible authority in the Church, to preserve the original revelation in its integrity, and to define and condemn the errors which from time to time may arise in the process of development. We do not agree that the definitions of the Church give us new articles or even new dogmas of faith; they are negative rather than positive, and tell us what the faith is not rather than what it is, or what cannot be held without denying or injuring the faith. In other respects, we fully accept what was probably Dr. Newman’s doctrine. There is always in the Church an infallible authority to main the Symbol in its integrity, and to condemn all errors that tend to deny or impair it. But this authority, while it maintains the Symbol, cannot give me understanding, or render my conception of the dogma or even of the definition itself adequate or infallible. The human mind never in its efforts at appropriation or realization, whether in the individual consciousness or in society and civilization, takes in at once the whole Christian idea, and its realizations are always inadequate, and sometimes not unmingled with fatal errors. The Christian work in society and in the individual soul is to struggle to render the human conceptions of the Christian idea less and less inadequate, and to eliminate more and more the errors that mingle with them, so as to advance nearer and nearer to the perfect day, or to a full and complete realization in the understanding, in individual and social life, of the whole Christian idea, or, the perfect formation of Christ within us, and our perfect union with God, possible in its fullness only in the beatific vision, the consummation alike of Creation and Redemption.

Now, unless you can render the human mind as infallible as the Divine mind, there will always be more or less of imperfection and error in our understanding and appropriation of the Christian idea, or the faith as objectively revealed and proposed. Hence theology is not a divine and infallible science; and while the faith in itself is complete and invariable, theology, or its scientific realization, is always incomplete and variable. It may grow from age to age, and the theology which is too high and too broad for one age may be too narrow and too low for another. Hence, any attempt to bind the human mind, though, or reason back to the theology of any past age is hostile to the interests alike of religion and civilization. To require us to receive as authority not to be questioned or examined, not the faith, but the theology or philosophy of the medieval doctors, or even the great theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is to suppose that the work of realization is completed, and human reason in this life has no farther work, which were intellectual death or mental stagnation; or, which amounts to the same thing, that no farther realization is practicable or permissible in Christian truth.

As can be seen, his apology is somewhat half-hearted. As I have said elsewhere, people do not like to admit that they have changed their mind, considering this to be embarrassing and humiliating. Brownson follows this pattern here. While he cannot avoid admitting that he was wrong about Newman, he claims that he has not changed his own theological opinions in any real way, saying that “we have not changed our own views of the soundness of the theology we opposed to him, or thought we were opposing to him.”

Nonetheless, in reality Brownson has changed his mind substantially, even if he may not have entirely accepted Newman’s theory. In this text, Brownson is basically admitting that the doctrine of sola me is false. Perhaps the Church is objectively infallible, but even if this is so, it does not mean that any individual is subjectively infallible in any of his opinions, even those about the teaching of the Church and the meaning of those teachings. But compare this with Brownson’s previous statement, “Christianity, if received at all, must be received, not as a theory, but as a revealed fact; and when we have established it as a revealed fact, no theory is needed or admissible, for we must then believe the fact precisely as it proposes itself.” This pretty clearly implies certainty about exactly what is proposed and in what way, and Brownson is now admitting that this is impossible. Likewise, Brownson had said that if opinions and theories are involved, “What foundation is there or can there be for faith!” Now he is admitting that these things can be and are involved in Christianity, and indeed must be, but he is not concluding that there can be no foundation for faith.

On one point Brownson has not changed his mind: Revelation consists of something like a list of statements which in themselves are fully complete and meaningful, and this list never increases or decreases. It is only people’s grasp of what is contained in this list that can change.

Of course, despite Brownson’s original objections to theories, this is a theory in itself, and it would need to be spelled out in detail in order to understand it. Where and when does this list exist, and in what sense?

We can clarify Brownson’s original idea by examining some of the discussion that followed his original criticism of Newman. The book Orestes A. Brownson’s Middle Life: From 1845 To 1855 contains a letter from William Ward to Brownson, written in 1847. Ward writes:

The idea you seem to have formed is that he [Newman] has devised a theory in a wanton sort of way, as a sort of intellectual exercise, instead of submitting himself humbly to the teachings of the Catholic Church as he found it. I cannot but think that a statement of some of the facts of the case will induce you, in some degree at least, to modify this opinion.

Now my reason for mentioning all this is to show that at that time he had been led by his natural and legitimate course of studies to feel very strongly the pressure of one particular objection against the modern Catholic system of doctrine. That these studies were very extensive no one can doubt who reads his works. I believe I am correct in saying that before he became a Catholic he had read through all the works of all the Greek and all the Latin Fathers at least three times, and that particular objection was that it was historically evident that certain doctrines considered by the present “Roman” church as Catholic were not so considered by the Early Church. This objection was stated most clearly and prominently in the work I have mentioned, and also in great numbers of other works. Any one may see them who will look at the “Tracts for the Times” or the various numbers of the “British Critic” from the time Mr. Newman undertook its editorship down to the year 1841.

Now here it is very important to observe that although many Catholics paid the greatest attention to these writings and various reviews of them appeared in Catholic journals, no real attempt whatsoever was made to meet this objection. The passages from Cardinal Fisher, etc., were not disavowed nor accused of spuriousness nor yet were they plainly adopted and proclaimed to be Catholic in this view. I, for one, felt this and keenly at the time; even so late as 1841, when I paid two days’ visit to Oscott, I could not get Dr. Wiseman to give me any definite answer at all on the subject one way or the other. He would neither say that Newman represented antiquity unfairly, nor that he represented it fairly. He said a great deal, and very well, in attack of Anglicanism, but I could get no light at all on this essential and prominent difficulty which one felt to be in the way of Catholicism.

But before the year 1841 a further change had taken place in Newman’s mind, as he has since informed a great friend of mine, an old Irish Catholic. This change was directly caused by Dr. Wiseman’s article which appeared, I think, in the year 1840, paralleling the Anglicans with the Donatists. From the time he read that article, he felt there was one most decided “screw loose” in Anglican theology; he felt, and strongly, that the Anglicans were in a position which the ancient church would have regarded as schismatic; from the time this view was presented to him the more he thought over the acts and words of the Fathers, the more they seemed to corroborate that view. This, however, only placed him in a most cruel state of difficulty; for it did not tend one step to remove his old objections to the “Roman” Church, though it infused new objections to the “Anglican.” No one can doubt that, from that time at least, he was most anxious to find some clew to extricate himself from the labyrinth, yet no Catholic was at hand to offer him any clew, and I cannot but feel it an extreme injustice and cruelty that Catholics who were silent when he was searching in their direction for some way of escape, should afterwards, when he has found a way for himself and actually brought himself to the Catholic Church by help of it, be loud in their objections to the legitimacy of that way. If this be not the right way, why did they not, years ago, find for him some other?

This observation, my dear sir, cannot be supposed to reflect upon yourself, because you were not, I believe, at that time a Catholic. But I do think that all who find fault with his theory, should ask themselves this plain question, “except for this theory, how could he possibly have become a Catholic?”

Here, then, I confess, I do think that Newman has some right to complain of your treatment of him. Here we have a person of ability and though, who has devoted himself to the study of the Fathers, and who is most anxious to find in them all possible agreement with the present Catholic Church, and yet cannot, for the life of him, read them any other way than as being either discrepant or ignorant, on various matters which are now ruled to be points of Catholic Faith. If on the one hand it is historically clear that the Catholic Church of the nineteenth century is the lineal heir of the Catholic Church of the fourth century, it is equally clear historically (so he thinks) that the doctrine of the first named church is in many particulars an addition upon the doctrine of the last named.

Brownson responded to Ward in September 1847:

You are mistaken in supposing that I proceed on the idea that Mr. Newman “has devised his thory in a wanton sort of way, as a sort of intellectual exercise.” Such an idea never entered my head. From my first reading of the Essay on Development, I have taken substantially the very view of his case which you unfold and confirm in your letter; and if I had not, I should hardly have hazarded my strictures. I have never questioned his sincerity, or that of his friends; I have never for a moment doubted that they really believe the historical assumptions, which seem to them to demand this theory, are well founded; and if well founded, I have not been unable to understand that they must naturally feel that some such theory as they put forth is absolutely necessary for their explanation. I have not arraigned their motives, and I have supposed myself to be treating them, especially Mr. Newman, with great personal respect and even tenderness. I have certainly intended so to treat Mr. Newman; for I have looked upon him as having devised his theory, not as a Catholic, but as an Anglican, and have not doubted that he would abandon it in proportion as he became acquainted with Catholic faith and Catholic life.

I certainly did think, and do still, that he and his friends made a serious mistake in their theory, and even in supposing any theory at all to be necessary. Their inability to accept the church without their theory has, I own, seemed to me to detract somewhat from the simplicity of their faith; and their demand that she should accept their theory, as the condition of their accepting her, I have not been able to reconcile with that entire self-surrender, which I have been taught she requires of all who would be owned as her children. They seem to me to have surrendered only on condition, – to have in their theory stipulated that they should be permitted to retain their side-arms and to march out with the honors. Or, in other words, you seem to me not to have believed the church simply, but only inasmuch as you have believed your theory, and therefore you do not seem to me to have surrendered unconditionally. If I am right in this, you have been unjust to God, unjust to the faithful, unjust to yourselves, and may find it not amiss to ask if after all your conversion does not, unhappily, remain inchoate.

You began by taking a certain view of the primitive teaching of the church; between that view and her present teaching you have found a difference, a “discordance,” as you express it. What then more natural, you may ask, than that we should be unable to submit to the church without some expedient for explaining that discordance, and showing that after all it makes nothing against her claims as the church of God? What more natural, or more justifiable even, than that having found such an expedient, we should insist on it, and urge it upon the attention of our former friends, and of the Doctors of the church, previously ignorant of it, or afraid to adopt it? So, I doubt not, reason the friends of the Theory to themselves, and you may ask me, what I find in this to censure.

I will tell you, my brother. It is that you being with the assumption that your view of the primitive teaching of the church is unquestionably the true view, that in forming it you cannot possibly have erred. But that view is only the common Anglican view; you have adopted it, not as Catholics, but as Anglicans. Anglicans for these three hundred years have been urging it against us, and for three hundred years our own divines have, with one voice, denied it. Now, my brother, how is it that it has never occurred to you that the Catholic understanding of the Fathers may be deserving of as much confidence as the Anglican; that it is possible, after all, that you may be wrong in your view of the primitive teaching of the church, and that, therefore, it is possible that there is, in fact, no such discordance as you pretend? What I complain of is your assumption of the infallibility of your private judgement in determining the primitive teaching of the church, and that since there is a discordance between her present teaching and your view of her primitive teaching, collected from your private interpretation of the Fathers, there must needs be such discordance in fact, really existing, and to be accounted for.

Where, my brother, did you or your friends get that view of ante-Nicene doctrine? From the church, from her authoritative teaching today? You will not pretend it. Whence then? Evidently from your private interpretation of the Fathers. Having thus obtained it, you made it the criterion of ante-Nicene doctrine. Allow me to ask, by what right? Whence, as a Catholic, are you bound to take the doctrine of the church, not in one age only, but in every age? Unquestionably, from the church herself who is always and everywhere the infallible authority by which to determine what she always and everywhere teaches, as well as by which to determine that what she teaches is the word of God. As a Catholic you cannot distinguish between what she teaches in one age and what she teaches in another. For you the church can have no ages. She is one and Catholic in time as well as in space, and, like eternity, she has duration, but no succession. You must go to her, as she is today, to learn what she taught before the Council of Nice, no less than to know what she teaches now. If you assert the alleged discordance, it must be on her authority; you cannot say that she has varied from age to age in her doctrine, taught in one age what she did not in another, in one age doctrines repugnant to those she has taught in others, unless she tells you so. If she tells you so, that is enough; she then confesses her own fallibility, abdicates her throne as the church of God, and you need no theory, for none can save her. If she denies it, teaches the reverse, you cannot assert the discordance, without ceasing to be Catholics. Here, my brother, is my objection to your method, which, as I understand it, is essentially uncatholic.

According to Ward, Newman’s study of the Fathers led him to conclude that there were discrepancies between what the Fathers believed in the early Church and what the Catholic Church, in the nineteenth century, believed to be revealed by God. Brownson’s response here is that the Church teaches that there is no such discrepancy, and therefore that Newman should either reject the Church, or conclude that his opinions about the Fathers were mistaken.

There is a fatal flaw in this reasoning. Brownson says that Newman is exercising private judgment about the opinions of the Fathers; but Brownson himself is equally exercising private judgment about the current teaching of the Church, in saying that it teaches that there is no such discrepancy. And the Church did not in fact teach this, even at the time; as Ward pointed out, Catholics such as Wiseman did not respond to Newman by saying that he was wrong about the beliefs of the Fathers, but by avoiding the discussion.

In any case, Brownson’s claim here is that the Church has definite teachings about what it has believed throughout history, and that those teachings imply that the early Fathers explicitly believed everything which the Church of the nineteenth century held to be definitive. So his implication that there is a specific complete list of Catholic doctrines is quite specific: such a list has to exist in the mind of each of the Fathers, and probably within the mind of most Catholics throughout history.

The problem with this thesis, of course, is that it is obviously false, and it is clear from his apology that by 1864 he no longer believed this theory, although still asserting that he believes in the existence of such a list in principle. But it is no longer clear where that list is located.

Orestes Brownson vs. John Newman on the Development of Doctrine

Not all Catholics were pleased by Newman’s theory of the development of doctrine. Many were hesitant regarding it, or rejected it outright as completely mistaken. Orestes Brownson provides an example of the latter opinion. Not long after the publication of Newman’s book, he writes:

The book before us [Newman’s Development of Christian Doctrine] appears to have been designed to indicate, to some extent, the process by which its gifted author passed in his own mind from Anglicanism to Catholicity, and to remove the principal objections to the Catholic Church, which he himself had raised in his previous publications. As the production of a strong, active, acute, and cultivated mind, enriched with various but not always well digested erudition, brought up in the bosom of heresy and schism, nurtured with false learning, false philosophy, vague and empty theories, gradually, under divine grace, working its way to the truth which gleams from afar, but which the intervening darkness renders fitful and uncertain; it is a work of more than ordinary interest, and one which the enlightened and philosophic few, fond of psychological researches, and of tracing the operations of sectarian or individual idiosyncrasies, may read perhaps with profit. A Protestant, ignorant, as Protestants usually are, of Catholicity, may even fancy the work substantially Catholic, and regard its theory as a convenient one for the Church, and one which she may, without prejudice to any of her claims, if not accept, at least tolerate. It is evident, from the first page of the work, that the author has made up his mind; that he is writing under the full conviction that he must seek admission into the Roman Catholic communion; and that, in his judgment, the theory he is putting forth in justification of the step he has resolved to take is, to say the least, perfectly compatible with Catholic authority and infallibility. He frankly accepts, and in some instances elaborately defends, the principal dogmas and usages of the Catholic Church, and especially those which are in general the most offensive to Protestants; and so little suspicion has he of the unsoundness of his work, so orthodox does he hold it, that he does not scruple, even after his conversion, to publish it to the world. And yet we presume he himself is now prepared to concede, that, when he was writing this book, he was still in the bonds of Protestantism; that he had not as yet set his foot on Catholic ground; that he had not crossed the Jordan, had not even surveyed the promised land from the top of Mount Pisgah, and that he knew it only by vague rumor and uncertain report. All, to his vision, is dim and confused. He stumbles at every step and stammers at every word. He puts forth a giant’s strength, but only to wrestle with phantoms; and gives us learned and elaborate theories to explain facts which he himself shows are no facts, — ingenious and subtle speculations, where all that is needed, or is admissible, is a plain yes or no. From first to last, he labors with a genius, a talent, a learning, a sincerity, an earnestness, which no one can refuse to admire, to develop Protestantism into Catholicity. Vain effort! As well attempt to develop the poisonous sumach into the cedar of Lebanon.

There is an extremely black and white view of Catholicism and Protestantism here. According to Brownson, Catholicism is pure truth while Protestantism is pure error. So there is no reasonable way to get from one to the other. Protestants and Anglicans are simply stumbling around in the darkness. If they end up in the light of Catholicism, it is by pure chance, or at best by divine providence, but either way, it is not because there was anything valid about their previous opinions which could have led them there. You could be virtually certain, then, in advance of reading Newman’s book, that it must be false, at least in its essential aspects. And Brownson is quite sure of this:

It is but simple justice to Mr. Newman to say, that it is not for his sake that we are about to point out some objections to his theory of developments. The circumstances under which he wrote, his acknowledged learning and ability, the presumption that he had thoroughly surveyed his ground, and the apparent favor with which his essay has been received by the Catholic press in England, are not unlikely to convey to Protestant, and perhaps to some partially instructed and speculative Catholic minds, the impression, that, if the theory set forth is not exactly Catholic, it at least contains nothing which a Catholic may not accept. The fact, that the author – whether legitimately or not – comes to Catholic conclusions, that he ends by entering the Catholic communion, that he puts forth his theory expressly for the purpose of removing the obstacles which others may find in following his example, and with this view publishes it to the world even after his conversion, can hardly fail to produce in many minds the conviction that the theory and conclusions are necessarily or at least legitimately connected. And several Protestant reviewers seem actually to entertain this conviction; and they, therefore, hold the theory up to condemnation as the “Romanist” theory; or, as they express themselves, “as the ground on which modern Rome seeks to defend her manifest corruptions of Christian doctrine.” It is therefore due both to the Church and to Protestants to say, expressly, – and we do so with the highest respect for Mr. Newman, and with warm admiration for the truth, beauty, and force of many of the details of his work, – that his peculiar theory is essentially anti-Catholic and Protestant. It not only is not necessary to the defence of the Church, but is utterly repugnant to her claims to be the authoritative and infallible Church of God. A brief examination of some of the principal features of the theory will justify this strong and apparently severe assertion.

In the first place he objects to the very idea of formulating a theory concerning Christianity:

We waive, here, all considerations of this theory so far as it is intended to apply to Christian discipline and theology, and confine ourselves to it solely as applied to Christian doctrine. Under this last point of view, we object to the theory that it is a theory, and not a revealed fact. The truth of an hypothesis can never be inferred from the fact that it meets and explains the facts it is invented to meet and explain; and therefore the admission of any hypothesis into Christian doctrine would vitiate the doctrine itself. Mr. Newman begins his work by telling us that:

“Christianity has been long enough in the world to justify us in dealing with it as a fact in the world’s history. It may legitimately be made the subject-matter of theories: what is its moral and political excellence, what its place in the range of ideas or of facts which we possess, whether it be divine or human, whether it be original or eclectic or both at once, how far favorable to civilization or to literature, whether a religion for all ages or for a particular state of society, – these are questions upon the fact or professed solutions of the fact, and belong to the province of opinion.”

But in this he must be mistaken. Whether Christianity be divine or human is not a question of opinion, but a question of fact, and so is it with all the questions he enumerates. Christianity is a fact in the world’s history; this is a fact. But is Christianity what it professes to be? Is this a question of opinion, to be answered only by a theory? or is it a question of fact, to be taken up and settled, one way or the other, as a fact? If it is a matter of opinion, and if it is answerable only by a theory, what foundation is there or can there be for faith! Christianity is a fact, not only in the world’s history, but in itself, or it is not. If it is, it cannot legitimately be made the subject matter of theories, any more than may be the fact that it is a fact in the world’s history. Christianity, if received at all, must be received, not as a theory, but as a revealed fact; and when we have established it as a revealed fact, no theory is needed or admissible, for we must then believe the fact precisely as it proposes itself.

To some extent the disagreement here is a verbal one. Newman distinguishes between fact and opinion in a fairly common manner where a fact is something established so definitively that there is no substantial disagreement about it, and opinion is something where there is a substantial amount of disagreement. In this sense, whether Christianity is divine is a matter of opinion because large numbers of people believe that it is, and large numbers of people believe that it is not. But there is no significant disagreement concerning whether Christianity exists and has a history. When Brownson says that, “Christianity is a fact, not only in the world’s history, but in itself, or it is not,” on the other hand, he means that the doctrines of Christianity are either true or they are not. Of course this is true, but it does not follow that Newman’s distinction is invalid.

Verbal disagreements, however, typically result from diverse motives of the speakers, and less often because one speaker understands the language and the other does not. It is unlikely that Brownson does not understand the typical distinction between fact and opinion, and it is unlikely that Newman does not know that “this is a fact or it is not,” sometimes means, “this is true or false.”

In this particular case, Brownson speaks the way he does because he wishes to draw the conclusion that Christianity “cannot legitimately be made the subject matter of theories.” And here he has a real disagreement with Newman. Newman had stated, “An argument is needed, unless Christianity is to abandon the province of argument; and those who find fault with the explanation here offered of its historical phenomena will find it their duty to provide one for themselves.” Brownson’s response is that Christianity should indeed abandon the province of argument. According to him, if it is subject to arguments, faith is impossible: “What foundation is there or can there be for faith!” At the end of his critique, Brownson says:

But we say not this for Mr. Newman’s sake. He is no longer outside of the Church, seeking to find reasons to justify him in asking admission into her communion. His doubts and misgivings, his advances and his retreats, have given way to firm faith and filial confidence. He does not now, as in his book, believe the Church because by private reason he has convinced himself of the truth of her teachings; but he believes what she teaches because he believes her, and he believes her because she has received the formal commission from Almighty God to teach all nations to observe whatsoever Christ commanded his apostles, and because he has received, through divine grace, the virtue of faith. He has broken with the past, and sees that his present is not a continuation of his former life; for he now understands that Catholicity is not Protestantism developed. His present and his past are separated by a gulf which grace alone can bridge over; and he needs not that we tell him he can more effectually serve those he has left behind by his prayers than by his hypotheses, however ingenious or elaborate. We take our leave of him with the assurance, that, if we have criticised his book somewhat severely, it has been with no improper feeling towards him; and that, when he shall be disposed to address the public again, and from his new position, he will find us among the most willing, the most eager, and the most respectful of his listeners. This elaborate essay belongs to his past life; let it go with all that Protestantism he abjured before he was permitted to put on the livery of Christ. It belongs not to his Catholic life, and is only accidentally connected with it, either in his own mind or in that of others. The essay he will write hereafter, out of the fullness of his Catholic heart, will breathe a different tone, and fetch another echo. It will refresh the Catholic soul, strengthen his faith, confirm his hope, and warm his charity. A noble career opens before him. May God give him grace to run it with success!

The idea is that if a person’s belief is caused by the grace of faith, it cannot be caused by a reason, and so arguments are irrelevant. Likewise, if they are thought to be relevant, faith becomes impossible. The problem with this is that grace, understood as he understands it here, would be a kind of efficient cause. And as we have seen, it is a mistake to suppose that having an efficient cause for a belief is in contrast to having reasons. And Brownson’s account is also problematic for various other reasons which we have looked at elsewhere.

Newman proposes a number of tests to determine whether a development is a reasonable development of Christian tradition. Brownson objects to the possibility of such a test:

Furthermore, before we can proceed to apply tests to determine whether this or that is a development or a corruption of Christian doctrine, we must have a clear, distinct, and adequate knowledge of Christian doctrine itself; for how can we say the original type or idea is preserved, if we do not know what it is? If we do know what it is, what is the use of the tests or their application? The whole process of the historical application of the tests is, then, at best, regarded as an argument, a mere paralogism. We need all the knowledge of Christian doctrine as the condition of concluding any thing from the application of the tests, which their successful application can give us; for there can be nothing in the conclusion not previously in the premises. Mr. Newman, like professors of natural science, has been misled by what in these times is called “Inductive Philosophy,” – a philosophy which had never had “a local habitation or a name,” more than other “airy nothings,” if it had been borne in mind that we have no logic by which we can conclude the unknown from the known. When your conclusions go beyond what you have established in the premises, they may, sometimes be a guide to observation, but they have in themselves no scientific validity.

Induction, of course, is not meant to establish a conclusion demonstratively. It establishes a probability. In any case, this is not his main objection. He continues:

But, waiving these considerations, we object to Mr. Newman’s theory, that it is an hypothesis brought forward to explain facts which are not facts. His problem is no problem; for it presupposes what no Catholic can concede, and what there is no warrant in the facts of the case for conceding. Mr. Newman proceeds on the assumption, that there have been real variations in Christian doctrine.

After quoting and discussing various passages from Newman regarding such variations, he says:

Now, in regard to all this, we simply ask, Does the Church herself take this view? Does she teach that she at first received no formal revelation, – that the revelation was given as “unleavened dough,” to be leavened, kneaded, made up into loaves of convenient size, baked and prepared for use by her, after her mission began, and she had commenced the work of evangelizing the nations? Does she admit her original creed was incomplete, that it has increased and expanded, that there have been variation and progress in her understanding of the revelation she originally received, and that she now understands it better, and can more readily define what it is than she could at first? Most assuredly not. She asserts that there has been no progress, no increase, no variation of faith; that what she believes and teaches now is precisely what she has always and everywhere believed and taught from the first. She denies that she has ever added a new article to the primitive creed; and affirms, as Mr. Newman himself proves in his account of the Council of Chalcedon, that the new definition is not a new development, a better understanding of the faith, but simply a new definition, against the “novel expressions” invented by the enemies of religion, of what, on the point defined, had always and everywhere been her precise faith. In this she is right, or she is wrong. If right you must abandon your theory of developments; if wrong, she is a false witness for God, and your theory of developments cannot make her worthy of confidence. If you believe her you cannot assert developments in your sense of the term; if you do not believe her, you are no Catholic. This is sufficient to show that Mr. Newman cannot urge his theory as a Catholic, whatever he might do as a Protestant.

Brownson does not give any particular support for these statements about the teaching of the Church about itself, but takes them for granted. Of course Brownson does not have the right to determine that Newman is “no Catholic,” no matter how strongly he disagrees with his opinions. And the Catholic Church evidently disagreed with this assessment, since he was made a Cardinal in 1879, and after his death, he was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.