To a greater degree than many people realize, some extremely serious conflicts throughout history have resulted from an error that most people not only fail to recognize as an error, they do not see any difference between the error and what is correct. Seemingly so esoteric that it appears to have absolutely no relation to anything in real life, it is the question whether the natural law is based on what can be observed about human nature or is based on someone’s interpretation of something accepted as God’s Will . . . or whatever is put in God’s place.
|Aristotle: Primacy of the Intellect|
How serious is this apparently arcane question? Very serious. If the natural law is based on what can be observed about human nature, then — as the Catholic Church has consistently taught, in common with Aristotle and other philosophers — knowledge of God’s existence and of the natural law is attainable by human reason. That being the case, the natural law applies to every human being, and all human beings have the same natural rights as all other human beings.
If, on the other hand, the natural law is based on someone’s personal idea of God’s Will, then right and wrong depend only on what some are able to force others into accepting. There are no objective standards of right and wrong. Might makes right.
As we saw in the previous posting on this subject, then, John Henry Newman’s sermons from the pulpit of Saint Mary’s, the Oxford University church, were not the usual type of sermon church attendees were likely to hear, even from the standpoint of entertainment or the lack thereof. Instead, as virtually everyone noted — even those who were opposed to the Oxford Movement — Newman focused on delivering the basics of the Christian faith as traditionally understood in a calm, rational, and above all understandable manner.
|John Henry Newman: captivating sermons.|
Unfortunately, a number of things interfered with the acceptance of common sense on a widespread scale. For one thing, European type liberalism and socialism were making great inroads into the Church of England at this time, as they were in organized religion on the continent and even in America. This can be accounted for primarily by the fact that non-American liberalism and socialism — two aspects of the same thing, really — are not based on reason, but on faith.
European type liberalism manifests as a concept of the natural law that assumes the human creation of the collective is greater than the divine creation of the human person. Newman’s calm reasoning, while it was effective as a logical argument, did not change the minds of diehard European type liberals and socialists, and only touched a relatively small number of English type liberals and capitalists.
For another thing, logic and common sense rarely have any lasting impact on emotional, faith-based positions. A number of people who became the bitterest opponents of Newman after he converted to Catholicism were among those who had been most entranced by the delivery of his sermons, often without regard to anything Newman actually said. By allowing themselves to fall victim to form over substance, they subsequently accused Newman of doing the deceiving, not the self-delusion engendered by their own immature or undeveloped intellects.
Then there was the problem of the narrowness of the Oxford Movement itself. Although it is one of the characteristics of social justice that nothing is done in a vacuum and everything has an effect outside the particular milieu within which it takes place, the people in the Movement only looked within the Movement itself to gauge its effectiveness. They considered whatever was outside the Movement only in terms of how it affected the Movement, not vice versa. They did not really look beyond their own “High Church” circle at Oxford and did not take into consideration the fact that the Evangelical Anglicans and other parties were also in the Church of England. And that created a problem. . . .
|Renn Dickson Hampden|
The first big shakeup — what might be called the beginning of the end — had its roots in something that happened the year before the Oxford Movement was launched. In 1832 the Reverend Renn Dickson Hampden (1793-1868) had delivered the prestigious Bampton Lectures. As Hampden was an excessively dull lecturer and the lectures themselves were more than a little obscure, not to say long-winded and tedious, virtually no notice was taken of them. As Maisie Ward put it, “They were just that year’s Bampton Lectures. They were printed. They were forgotten.” (Ward, Young Mr. Newman, op. cit., 287.)
Unfortunately, Hampden, while politically sound in the liberal sense, was philosophically and theologically unsound in the academic and religious sense. He was “broad” — liberal — in his religious views to an advanced degree, to the point where some would later question whether Hampden’s theories were Christian in any meaningful sense. He was also the most learned Aristotelian among the faculty.
The problem there was Hampden was as heterodox an Aristotelian as he was a Christian. He was something on the order of what Thomas Aquinas faced in the thirteenth century in his debate with Siger of Brabant. Siger claimed Aristotle’s support against the basic principles of Aristotelian philosophy so that something could both “be” and “not be” at the same time under the same conditions.
|G. K. Chesterton|
Specifically, Hampden held that certain teachings of the Church of England could be both true and false at the same time, depending on who was interpreting them. As Chesterton described this belief in the thought of Siger of Brabant, possibly with Hampden in mind,
Siger of Brabant said this: the Church must be right theologically, but she can be wrong scientifically. There are two truths; the truth of the supernatural world, and the truth of the natural world, which contradicts the supernatural world. While we are being naturalists, we can suppose that Christianity is all nonsense; but the, when we remember that we are Christians, we must admit that Christianity in true even if it is nonsense. In other words, Siger of Brabant split the human head in two, like the blow in an old legend of battle; and declared that a man has two minds, with one of which he must entirely believe and with the other may utterly disbelieve. To many this would at least seem like a parody of Thomism. As a fact, it was the assassination of Thomism. It was not two ways of finding the same truth; it was an untruthful way of pretending that there are two truths. (G.K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox”. New York: Image Books, 1956, 92-93.)
This, obviously, is an ideal philosophy for an established, political church whose doctrines must be broad enough and wide enough to embrace even significant contradictions if deemed necessary or expedient by the political powers-that-be. It is not, however — as Newman and others realized immediately — a philosophy that would permit the Church of England to return to its fundamental principles and maintain some semblance of orthodox Christian beliefs.
|Joseph Blanco White|
Somewhat ironically, what the members of the Oxford Movement found objectionable in the lectures may not even have originated with Hampden. The theories had most probably been inserted by the Spanish theologian and poet, Joseph Blanco White (José María Blanco y Crespo, 1775-1841). White had drifted through various Christian sects, starting with Catholicism, until finally ending up a Unitarian.
Nevertheless, all of this would have been forgotten had it not been for the fact that in March of 1834, on the strength of having delivered the Bampton lectures, Hampden obtained the Oxford Moral Philosophy Professorship. This was a position for which Newman had also been considered, but Hampden controlled two more votes than Newman.
Coincidentally, in that same month, sixty-three members of the Cambridge University Senate petitioned parliament for the abolition of the requirement to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles or any other religious test in order to take a degree at the university. A bill was introduced and passed the House of Commons by a large majority, whereupon it went to the House of Lords.
Briefly, the “Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion” are the “constitution” of the Church of England. A part of the Book of Common Prayer (the official instructions for worship services of the Anglican Communion), the Thirty-Nine Articles present the specific doctrines and certain disciplines (applications of doctrine) that define the Church of England as a Christian church.
|Elizabeth I Tudor|
Deliberately vague and in some parts contradictory in order to allow as many people as possible to agree to them, the Articles were originally intended to form the basis for a non-papal Catholicism, i.e., a schismatic rather than heretical church. After half a dozen or so iterations, the final form was adopted in 1571 following the excommunication of Elizabeth I Tudor in part to force Catholics either to leave the country or the Catholic Church, preferably the latter.
Opponents of the bill began organizing, and even from Cambridge, more liberal than Oxford, protests were strong. Nevertheless, at Oxford, in support of the initiative to abolish the subscription requirement, Hampden published Observations on Religious Dissent. This was a pamphlet he evidently hoped would counter the success of the more orthodox Tracts and help turn popular opinion in the direction of abolition of the subscription requirement.
Hampden’s pamphlet explained in greater detail some of the more confusing parts of his Bampton Lectures. Where the lectures had largely been ignored, however, the pamphlet enjoyed a relatively wide circulation.
|John Frederick Denison Maurice|
In a surprising move, John Frederick Denison Maurice (1805-1872) wrote a pamphlet under the pseudonym “Rusticus” in which he defended subscription, albeit on somewhat unusual grounds. Paradoxically taking a very broad view, Maurice argued that the Thirty-Nine Articles did not really present actual doctrines, but “conditions of thought.” It was by this means those who signed indicated not assent to anything specific, but their willingness to learn or teach at the university, as the case might be.
In this Maurice exhibited an early example of what was to become a highly developed skill at fence-straddling and managing to take both sides of opposing questions at the same time. In common with similar tactics adopted later by the Fabian Society, this enabled Maurice to become the leading philosopher of Christian socialism in England.
Probably impressed by the fact of Maurice’s defense of the Thirty-Nine Articles, Newman at first approved of Maurice’s thought. On closer examination, however, Newman decided that Maurice’s thought was “hazy” and dismissed it.
Thus, in somewhat backhanded fashion, Hampden and Maurice were arguing in favor of the case for liberalism in a similar way but from different sides of the issue. Hampden made the case that the Thirty-Nine Articles should be abolished because they asserted specific doctrines the orthodox considered essential to be a Christian.
Since in Hampden’s opinion doctrine per se was of no religious significance, non-orthodox Christians could not sign in good conscience as they would be agreeing to something they thought was not essential to believe in order to be a Christian. For his part, Maurice argued that the Articles should be retained because the doctrines they asserted were of no importance, and anyone could sign in good conscience because they were in effect agreeing to nothing.
|Daniel O'Connell, the Great Emancipator|
The real issue was whether a liberal or an orthodox understanding of Christianity should define the beliefs — the creed — of the Church of England. Newman’s position, and that of the other members of the Oxford Movement was ultimately that liberal Christianity (and by extension socialism and modernism) was not even a real religion, much less a Christian one.
It is easy for people in the twenty-first century to deprecate, even condemn a religious test to attend a university or hold public office. The opposition to emancipation for Dissenters, Catholics, and Jews and resistance to the recognition of their civil rights strikes people of today the same way. Nor are they wrong — there should never be any religious test for anyone to participate in civil society, take a university degree, practice a profession, or anything else non-religious.
To understand the Oxford Movement, however, it is essential to realize that in the early nineteenth century the Church of England faced two serious problems. One, the Church of England was an established church with all the evils, civil, religious, and domestic (education is, technically, under domestic society — the Family — as parents are the primary teachers of their children), that accompany that peculiar arrangement.
When a religion is established, anyone who is not a member in good standing of the government religion is automatically a second class citizen in that society. At the same time, granting full rights of citizenship to people who are not members of that religion means that people who are not adherents of a particular faith have the power to vote on matters of religious doctrine on discipline of a faith that is not even their own.
Two, changes in doctrine or discipline due to non-members of a religion voting on them subjects what should be purely religious beliefs and practices to political and other non-religious influences. A political move that calls traditional religious teachings into question (such as the suppression of bishoprics) will almost always override doctrine or discipline out of perceived expedience or necessity.
|Sir Robert Peel, Tory MP for Oxford University|
Thus, as was the case in the Oxford Movement, those who stand by traditional beliefs and practices will tend to be conservative, even reactionary in their politics. It was no coincidence that Oxford was a Tory stronghold.
Adding to the problems associated with the paradox of an established religion was the fact that in this case it was not merely political expedience or necessity that was attempting to bring about change. There was that, of course, especially with the issue of Catholic Emancipation, the politically, but not religiously right thing to do.
With the rise of socialism and modernism, and the spread of European type liberalism, however, the issue became at once more fundamental and serious, even grave. At stake was not only the definition of Christianity for the Church of England, but the understanding of religion itself, Christian or otherwise.
This is a point that cannot be emphasized enough, as it explains not merely the inspiration of the Oxford Movement, but the emotion it evoked among its opponents, or (more accurately) opponents of Newman, who epitomized the Movement in the eyes of many. Members of the Movement fought against the “new things” of the modern age the best they knew, using the doctrines and disciplines of the church in which tenets they believed.
In this, members of the Movement appeared to be resisting new religious doctrines that would make membership in the Church of England much more attractive and in tune with the modern age. Even worse for an established religion, they were opposing the will of the people. They were thus pitting themselves against a government that (at least in theory) represented all the people, not just members of the Church of England . . . or — more accurately — whatever élite claimed to speak in the name of the people and had the economic power to enforce that claim.