In the previous posting on this subject, we contended that the Oxford Movement was an exemplar of social justice a century before the term had the precise meaning Pope Pius XI assigned it in his social doctrine. Prior to the late 1840s, in fact, “social justice” had a variety of meanings almost completely unrelated to any concept of social virtue. That would come only with the work of Monsignor Luigi Aloysius Taparelli d’Azeglio, S.J. (1793-1862), and would rapidly be hijacked by the socialists.
|Monsignor Aloysius Taparelli|
The hijacking of social justice, however, was at least a decade in the future in 1833 when John Keble gave his sermon on “National Apostasy.” It must also be understood that by “exemplar of social justice,” we mean a material adherence to the techniques of social justice, and a generally close adherence to the norms of the natural law, albeit with a little stumbling when it came to distinguishing between the principle involved and the application of the principle involved.
For example, except as a temporary expedient (e.g., the virtual disappearance of civil authority in some areas during the early Middle Ages), union of Church and State is a very bad idea. It inevitably happens that the religion attempts to impose religious doctrines on civil life, politics starts to influence religious doctrine, or both.
One of the first reforms Pope Pius IX (Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti, 1792-1878, elected 1846) attempted to implement, in fact, was a complete separation of the civil administration of the Papal States from the purely religious teachings of the Catholic Church. His idea was to transform the papacy into a liberal constitutional monarchy with limited powers of the executive on the American model in the civil realm, while retaining full religious authority as head of the Catholic Church. He failed due to a number of factors not directly related to the subject of this study and has been egregiously misunderstood ever since by both liberals and conservatives.
|Rev. John Keble|
This, of course, does not deny the legitimacy of a religious state, but it also does not deny that it is ordinarily a very bad idea to have one, and hardly recommended, especially as a permanent arrangement. Members of the Oxford Movement, however, insisted on a union of Church and State as the only acceptable arrangement . . . but then contradicted themselves by insisting with equal vehemence that England should be guided politically by the Church of England and almost in the same breath condemned the pope for exercising civil authority in the Papal States.
In any event, John Henry Newman had been sojourning in Italy, and while there had suffered a near-fatal illness he contracted in Sicily. He recovered and returned to England, arriving on July 9, 1833. Less than a week later on July 14 Keble preached the sermon that is credited with beginning the Oxford Movement. Newman was inspired. As Maisie Ward described his attitude,
[Newman] says of himself that he undertook the work of the Movement in a spirit that was “fierce yet sportive”. James Mozley describes him as “perfectly ferocious in the cause, and proportionately sanguine of success — ‘We’ll do them,’ he says at least twenty times a day — meaning, by ‘them’, the present race of aristocrats, and the Liberal oppressors of the Church in general.” (Ward, Young Mr. Newman, op. cit., 258.)
|Hugh James Rose|
It is significant that even at this early date Newman linked those whom he identified (erroneously) as the English type liberal élite with the French type liberal “oppressors” of the Church of England. Later he would lump all liberalism together, failing to realize the profound difference between the English and French forms (which fosters capitalism and socialism, respectively), and the American form chronicled by Alexis de Tocqueville (which fosters economic and political personalism).
That, however, takes nothing away from the point: the effectiveness of the act of social justice when carried out in a manner consistent with the laws and characteristics of social justice, the hallmark of which is organizing for the common good of the institution within which those concerned “subsist” or “subside.” Solidarity and subsidiarity are essential. As the Oxford Movement and its aftermath demonstrated, acts of social justice can only be undertaken by those inside the institution itself. Outsiders may give helpful, even necessary assistance, but they cannot by definition undertake acts of social justice. That can only be done by members of the group or institution being affected.
|Richard Hurrell Froude|
Shortly after Keble’s sermon, a small group of concerned individuals met at the rectory of Hadleigh, where Hugh James Rose (1795-1838) was pastor. Present at the conference, which soon afterwards resulted in the formation of “Association of Friends of the Church,” were Rose, Richard Hurrell Froude (1803-1836), William Palmer (1803-1885), and Arthur Philip Perceval (1799-1853).
Newman was not present, but evidently received a full report from Froude. Judging from the letter Newman wrote to Keble, Froude and Perceval wanted to charge forward, full speed ahead — although in different ways, which caused a little lively debate between Froude and Perceval, at least according to Keble — Rose wanted to plan carefully before taking any action (a position with which Newman agreed), while Palmer was “desperately cautious” to the point of inaction. (Ward, Young Mr. Newman, op. cit. 239.)
The first decision that confronted the group once they had decided on action was whether to form an association with chapters throughout the United Kingdom, or issue “tracts.” A tract is a brief pamphlet or flyer traditionally used for religious purposes as a means of exhorting people to reform their lives in some manner. They are often distributed free of charge, left in convenient places for any who wish to take them, or sold at as low a cost as possible.
|John Henry Newman|
The group compromised by deciding first to form a network of societies and then issue tracts through them. Anonymity of authorship would be preserved to enhance the appearance of solidarity and hopefully prevent the idea that the tracts conveyed personal opinion instead of established orthodox doctrine.
What the members of the Movement proposed with their tracts was something significantly different from the usual religious tract, even revolutionary in a way. Of course, the tract format would alert the public that the subject was religious in nature, but the idea was not merely to exhort, but to instruct. This would serve the double purpose of spreading word of the Movement and teach people the fundamentals of Church of England beliefs as those in the Movement understood them.
What the group considered the “compromise” of first forming a network of societies before issuing tracts was, in social justice terms, a stroke of genius. It is, in fact, virtually impossible to address systemic social problems without doing so in a social manner, and that means organizing for the common good.
Unfortunately, that was as far as it went. Although Newman noted soon after the decision to form societies that there seemed to be a number of them “in germ” in half a dozen counties in England, they failed to develop further. The fact was that without common agreement on fundamental principles, it was impossible to form viable societies apart from the original one at Oxford that had its inception during the meeting at Hadleigh.
|The Oxford Movement members.|
Even among the original members of the Oxford Movement it was difficult to get anything other than a general, even at times vague agreement on basic principles. Although he later discovered otherwise to his cost, Newman believed that this was one of the greatest strengths of the Movement. In his opinion, the Church of England couldn’t get too specific on principle as it “was intended to cope with human nature in all its forms” (ibid., 240). In this Newman unconsciously acknowledged that the Church of England was more of a political institution than a religious one, at least in that respect.
As a political institution, insisting on too great a specificity on doctrine in the Church of England without allowing room for personal interpretation would drive people away, especially the ones the members of the Movement most wanted to reach. As Newman said in a letter to Keble, “I doubt whether the Society ought to pledge itself to more than a general approval of the principles of any tracts” as they would be dull and “take no one.” (Ibid., 241.)
|The Movement as seen in the secular press.|
It is important to understand that ordinarily in social justice what Newman said would have been adequate. He was correct from a technical point of view. In social justice, institutions must continually adapt applications of principles, and the principles must be stated in as broad and general manner as possible so as not to exclude anyone unnecessarily. This is especially true with a religion, that must be able to adapt its applications of fundamental principles constantly, but without changing fundamental doctrine.
. . . except when what is adapted is not the applications of principles, but the principles themselves. Problems in the Church of England at this point were calling basic doctrines, even in some cases the fact of doctrine itself, into question. When reform of an institution involves clarifying or identifying fundamental principles, then the utmost precision is not merely desirable, but absolutely essential.
|Aristotle: Small errors lead to great errors.|
Newman was wrong, therefore, with respect to the fundamental precepts of a religion or a philosophy because there it is possible to be just a little — or a lot — too broad and general, making that small mistake in the beginning that leads to great errors in the end much more likely. The fundamental precept of the natural law (good is to be done, evil avoided), and that of the supernatural law (love one another) are sufficient for those who have the time to reason things out and — very important — have no flaw in their reasoning. It is, however, far from adequate for most people, who simply lack the time and other resources to think things through without making material errors. It is a disaster when (as was the case in England at this time) there are people working to undermine the meaning of doctrine, or even the idea of doctrine itself.
Again, it must be stressed that what Newman and his associates carried out were acts of social justice that conformed to the principles of social justice in broad outline. This accounts for the early success of the Movement.
The refusal to agree on fundamental principles in a more precise manner, however, ensured that the flaws that always crop up in any human endeavor would be more serious and exaggerated in their effects, even ruinous, than they otherwise would have been. It is, after all, one thing for people to disagree — sometimes violently — on how to get from point A to point B. As we will see in the next posting on this subject, it is quite another thing altogether for people to disagree on whether their goal is point B, C, D, or any other.