What with the “canonization” of John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) coming up in a couple of weeks, we thought we would add our two cents as well as a few hundred words into the discussions that are raging. (Canonization does not "make" someone a saint; it is a certification process.) By and large, the discussion seems to be whether Newman was a liberal or a conservative. From the interfaith viewpoint, however, it seems more to the point whether Newman was in agreement with the Just Third Way.
|John Henry Newman|
For the record, Newman was opposed to liberalism of any kind, even that with which he agreed! As he explained in an appendix (not generally included these days) to his Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864), he opposed liberalism as an Anglican, supposing the Anglican position to be conservative. After his conversion to Catholicism, he realized that what the English political and religious establishment regarded as conservative was really a different form of liberalism, and rejected it.
Newman then expressed puzzlement at the fact that Charles Forbes René de Montalembert (1810-1870) and Father Jean-Baptiste Henri Dominique Lacordaire (1802-1861), both former associates of Hugues-Félicité Robert de Lamennais (1782-1854) — the founder of liberal Catholicism — agreed with Newman in repudiating de Lamennais’s liberalism and English “conservative” liberalism. At the same time, both Montalembert and Lacordaire continued calling themselves liberals! Newman concluded by saying that it pained him to disagree with two such eminent and orthodox thinkers, and supposed that they must mean something else by the term liberalism. As Montalembert said later,
To new and fair practical notions, honest in themselves, which have for the last twenty years been the daily bread of Catholic polemics, we had been foolish enough to add extreme and rash theories; and to defend both with absolute logic, which loses, even when it does not dishonour, every cause. (Montalembert, from his Life of Lacordaire, quoted by John Henry Cardinal Newman, “Note on Essay IV., The Fall of La Mennais,” Essays Critical and Historical. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1897, 173-174.)
That appears to be the case. Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville (1805-1859) described three types of liberal democracy in Democracy in America (1835, 1840). These were 1) French or European in which the collective or State is sovereign, 2) English, in which an élite is sovereign, and 3) American, in which the human person under God is sovereign.
Interestingly, de Tocqueville worked with de Lamennais in the legislature during the brief Second French Republic. De Tocqueville recognized de Lamennais’s ability and even shared some of the same goals, but thought he was an arrogant jackass: “He has pride enough to walk over the heads of kings and bid defiance to God.” (Alexis de Tocqueville, The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville. Cleveland, Ohio: The World Publishing Company, 1959, 191.)
The American type of liberal democracy is embodied in the original intent of the U.S. Constitution, which almost every pope since Pius IX has approved — although not using the word liberal to describe it. Pius IX modeled the first constitution of the Papal States on the U.S. Constitution. This was the “Fundamental Statute,” which William Ewert Gladstone (1809-1898) erroneously thought was derived from the unwritten English constitution. Leo XIII kept a special copy of the Constitution, a gift of Grover Cleveland at the suggestion of Cardinal Gibbons, in his personal apartments, and showed it to favored visitors.
Newman continued to reject the term liberalism, but eventually reached some sort of accommodation with American liberalism, most likely through his lively “debate” (we’re being polite) with Orestes Augustus Brownson (1803-1876). Like Montalembert, Lacordaire, and even Blessed Antoine-Frédéric Ozanam (1813-1853) and Newman himself, Brownson at first supported de Lamennais and then condemned him in his unique Brownsonian manner. Newman even invited Brownson to be on the faculty of the Irish university he was trying to put together, although probably fortunately for Brownson’s temper and Newman’s peace of mind Brownson declined.
In Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae (1899), Leo XIII carefully distinguished American liberal democracy (“Americanism”) as a political theory from Americanism applied to religious doctrine (modernism and socialism). This was largely as a result of a distorted translation into French of a biography of Brownson’s friend Father Isaac Hecker (1819-1888) in which the translator Abbé Felix Klein (1862-1953) — possibly inadvertently — made the mistake of using terms that meant one thing in American liberalism and almost the exact opposite in French liberalism.
This gave the French modernists a weapon against the more orthodox elements in the Church. Some conservative French prelates were calling the Americans Archbishop John Ireland (1838-1918) and James Cardinal Gibbons (1834-1921) heretics. The French conservatives appeared to assume that when Ireland and Gibbons called themselves progressive (another word that has completely changed its meaning) and liberal they meant the exact opposite of what the Americans actually meant.
Gibbons and Ireland were both hurt that Leo XIII demanded their explicit submission to Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae (which they gave after trying to figure out what was being condemned), but socialists, modernists, liberals, and progressives have used the different meanings of liberalism to spread confusion and obscure the inroads of socialism and modernism down to the present day.
So, yes, Newman was a liberal . . . but not in any sense either he meant or today’s liberals mean the term.