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.

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