The National Catholic Reporter ‘quotes’ Newman in support of an anti-papal campaign. Why <em>is</em> it that liberals think that Newman was one of them?

Benedict XVI presides at the beatification of John Henry Newman at Cofton Park in Birmingham (Photo: CNS)

What is it about today’s theological liberals that they are so keen on quoting John Henry Newman in support of their own disobedience? I had forgotten how utterly contemptible the National Catholic Reporter (aka, says Father Z, the “fishwrap”, ie wet and stinking) really was; I suppose, since the only time one normally reads it is in the often admirable articles of John L Allen, that one sometimes takes away the impression that if they publish him they can’t be all that grossly subversive of Catholic values and teaching. But they really are, as we see exemplified by an editorial on women’s ordination this week which is really an excuse for yet another incitement to rejection of papal authority.

But why are they so keen on recruiting Newman of all people in their crypto-protestant revolt? Either they quote him out of context or just make it up. In this case, I think it’s almost certainly the latter, since Newman just didn’t think what they say he did: “Blessed John Henry Newman,” according to the NCR’s “editorial staff”, “said [just where exactly?] that there are three magisteria in the church: the bishops, the theologians and the people.” This little pseudo-Newmanian gem is called in aid for an incitement to an anti-papal political campaign: “On the issue of women’s ordination, two of the three voices have been silenced, which is why the third voice must now make itself heard. We must speak up in every forum available to us: in parish council meetings, faith-sharing groups, diocesan convocations and academic seminars. We should write letters to our bishops, to the editors of our local papers and television news channels.” And so on.

It’s not particularly interesting to be told that the Fishwrap is viscerally opposed to papal authority and wants to stir up lay disobedience to it, we all knew that. But to have Newman constantly invoked in this anti-Catholic cause is becoming increasingly irritating. “The pope,” said Newman “has for centuries upon centuries had and used that authority, which the Definition [of infallibility] now declares ever to have belonged to him … It may be objected that a representation such as this, is negatived by the universal [anti-papal] sentiment, which testifies to the formidable effectiveness of the Vatican decrees, and to the Pope’s intention that they should be effective; that it is the boast of some Catholics and the reproach levelled against us by all Protestants, that the Catholic Church has now become beyond mistake a despotic aggressive Papacy, in which freedom of thought and action is utterly extinguished. But I do not allow that this alleged unanimous testimony exists… I say there is only one Oracle of God, the Holy Catholic Church and the Pope as her head. To her teaching I have ever desired all my thoughts, all my words to be conformed; to her judgment I submit what I have now written, what I have ever written, not only as regards its truth, but as to its prudence, its suitableness, and its expedience. (Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, 10)”

How about them apples, “NCR editorial staff”? How on earth did you ever come to believe that Newman could with any integrity be used in support of your anti-papal campaign? You, too, like the protestant and liberal Catholic opinion of Newman’s own day, really do believe that, like the great and Blessed Pio Nono, the present Pope has established “a despotic aggressive Papacy”: and now as then, Newman would have been utterly dismissive of your disobedience: “On the law of conscience and its sacredness,” he wrote (Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, 5) are founded both his authority in theory and his power in fact … I am considering here the papacy in its office and its duties … [Catholics] are not bound by the Pope’s personal character or private acts, but by his formal teaching.”

And the Pope’s formal teaching on the question of women’s ordination is absolutely clear, and you are bound by it. If, that is, you wish to continue in full communion with the Catholic Church. In 1994, Pope John Paul II declared the question closed in his letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: “in order that all doubt may be removed,” he pronounced, “regarding a matter of great importance… I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” In 1995, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith explained that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, though “itself not infallible, witnesses to the infallibility of the teaching of a doctrine already possessed by the Church… This doctrine belongs to the deposit of the faith of the Church. The definitive and infallible nature of this teaching of the Church did not arise with the publication of the Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis”. Rather, it was “founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium”, and for these reasons it “requires definitive assent”.

Clear? Got it? That is what the magisterium of the Church says. Oh, and let’s hear no more about these fictional “three magisteria” of bishops, theologians and people: apart from anything else, the very idea that Newman would ever have said that the Church’s theologians constitute one of three “magisteria” beggars belief, less that he would ever have said it than that anyone could ever have remotely imagined such a thing: are you sure, NCR “editorial staff” that you weren’t thinking of Hans Küng? That would explain it; they’ve obviously got it into their heads, these theological liberals (the Tablet are always claiming Newman for themselves in just the same way) that Newman was a kind of Victorian version of Hans Küng. Well, sorry; it just ain’t so. Hands off.