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Thursday, March 23, 2006

Human and Divine Nature of the Church: J.H. Newman



THE ORATORY,
April 21, 1875.
MY DEAR JOHN,
There is nothing ungenerous, as you fear, in your new questions; and, if you had asked them distinctly before, I should have answered them to the best of my power.

You now ask me whether I agree or disagree with your judgment "that the Church of Rome, as a society, has sometimes done, more often sanctioned, actions, which were wrong and injurious to mankind." I find no difficulty in answering you. I should say that the Church has two sides, a human and a divine, and that everything that is human is liable to error. Whether, so considered, it has in matter of fact erred must be determined by history, and, for the very reason that it is human as well as divine, I am disposed to believe it has, even before the fact has been proved to me from history. At the same time I must add that I do not quite acquiesce in the wording of your question. It sounds awkward to ask, e.g., "Has the Kingdom of England done or sanctioned wrong?" It would be more natural to say, "Has the nation done wrong, or the sovereign, or the legislature done wrong, or all of these together"? I have no difficulty in supposing that Popes have erred, or Councils have erred, or populations have erred, in human aspects, because, as St. Paul says, "We have this treasure in earthly vessels," speaking of the Apostles themselves. No one is impeccable, and no collection of men.

I grant that the Church's teaching, which in its formal exhibitions is divine, has been at times perverted by its officials, representatives, subjects, who are human. I grant that it has not done so much good as it might have done. I grant that in its action, which is human, it is a fair mark for criticism or blame. But what I maintain is, that it has done an incalculable amount of good, that it has done good of a special kind, such as no other historical polity or teaching or worship has done, and that that good has come from its professed principles, and that its shortcomings and omissions have come from a neglect or an interruption of its principles.

The question that remains is, Has that which claims to be divine in the Church sanctioned that which is human and faulty in it? I maintain, No: and, in alleged cases brought in proof of the affirmative, I should contend either that its sanction of the act in question had no claim to be considered divine, or that the act itself was not faulty. Thus St. Paul says, "I wist not that he was high priest, for it is written," &c., and some commentators say that he was ignorant—that is, his act did not proceed from the divine inspiration with which he was gifted; others that his act was not wrong, for the man whom he reviled, in fact, was not high priest.

However, I cannot simply grant to you, as you assume, that mere {366} omission to pronounce upon a faulty act is necessarily itself a fault. Things are so constituted in this world, that the power of doing good has a maximum. The Church, viewed as a political body, has always been in advance of the age; up to 1600 most men would grant this; but, as the Jews were allowed divorce as practically a necessity in order to avoid worse evils, so it has not always been possible for the Church to do upon the spot that which was abstractedly best, as Elisha shirked the question of Naaman about bowing in the house of Rimmon. Nor am I disposed to deny that, as time goes on, the authoritative view of moral and religious truth becomes clearer, wider, and more exact.

I do not know how I can answer your question more closely than in what I have now said, and as, I think, I did answer it in my former letter.

As to the last three centuries, the Church's great battle has been against the various forms of error to which Protestantism has opened the door. The work of the Church has on every side been met and thwarted by the opposition of rival religions. In India the work, begun by St. Francis Xavier, has been brought to a stand by the variety and discordance of Christian sects. Still, if it is a great work to preserve Christianity in the world, this I think the Church has done and is doing: and at this moment Christianity would be dying out in all its varieties were the Catholic Church to be suppressed.

I hope I need not say I shall always feel a pleasure and interest in hearing whatever you are moved to tell me about yourself—pray do, for I am always
Yours affectionately,
JOHN H. NEWMAN.

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    O God, most glorious, most bountiful, accept, we humbly beseech thee, our praises and thanksgivings for thy holy Catholic Church, the mother of us all who bear the name of Christ; for the faith which it hath conveyed in safety to our time, and the mercies by which it hath enlarged and comforted the souls of men; for the virtues which it hath established upon earth, and the holy lives by which it glorifieth both the world and thee; to whom, O blessed Trinity (+), be ascribed all honour, might, majesty and dominion, now and for ever. Amen.
    --Bishop Lancelot Andrewes

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