Newman’s Model for Defending the Church: The 1877 Preface to the Via Media and Today’s Abuse Crisis

Fr. Nicholas Rouch, STD is the Vicar for Education in the Diocese of Erie, Pennsylvania and was a visiting scholar at the National Institute for Newman Scholar in 2019.  

Often when American Catholics speak about defending the church in our current environment, they wish to defend the church not so much from anti-Catholic bigotry from outside the boundaries of the church (although that's still afoot), or gross misunderstanding of her teaching (although that's alive and well), but more from exasperation and frustration with her now well-documented failures in the area of child sexual abuse. Many Catholics, as well as non-Catholics, use words like "betrayal of trust," "utter failure of leadership," "sexual perversion," "clericalism," "secrecy," "corruption," and "loss of credibility" in their descriptions of the church today. Those of us who love the church admit to our own responses of anger, despair, and exhaustion.

Here is a reasonable place to begin to plumb the insights of Newman. On numerous occasions, Newman was inclined to catalogue the failures, corruptions, and scandals within the church. In 1837, as an Anglican, he wrote:

"But in truth the whole course of Christianity from the first . . . [is] but one series of troubles and disorders. Every century is like every other, and to those who live in it seems worse than all times before it. The Church is ever ailing, and lingers on in weakness . . . Religion seems ever expiring, schisms dominant, the light of Truth dim, its adherents scattered. . . . The troubles which encompass us—They have ever been; they ever shall be; they are our portion."[1]

In his recent Letter to a Suffering Church, Bishop Barron relies on these words to call on Newman as an authoritative witness to all the sin, scandal, stupidity, misbehavior, misfortunate, and wickedness in the history of the church.[2]

Thirteen years after he wrote the words above, then a Catholic, Newman returned to this theme when he preached at the installation of the first bishop of Birmingham:

"My Brethren, she [the Church] has scandals . . . She has good children;—she has many more bad. . . . If there was a Judas among the Apostles, and a Nicholas among the deacons, why should we be surprised that in the course of eighteen hundred years, there should be flagrant instances of cruelty, of unfaithfulness, of hypocrisy, or of profligacy, and that not only in the Catholic people, but in high places, in royal palaces, in bishops' households, nay, in the seat of St. Peter itself? Why need it surprise . . . [us that] there have been bishops, or abbots, or priests who have forgotten themselves and their God, and served the world or the flesh, and have perished in that evil service? . . . I can only say that, taking man as he is, it would be a miracle were such offences altogether absent from her history."[3]

A deep dive is not required into Newman's writings to find his sober assessment that in Christianity, and particularly in the Catholic Church, we can, sadly, find ample incidents of corruption and failure.

What may appear less prominent, however, is Newman's mature analysis of such failures in the church—how they develop, how the church responds and how we might understand what is happening in light of sin, grace, and holiness. Newman's model for defending the church was to be brutally honest about her failures, to clarify what it means that Christ instituted the church and that he entrusted it to us, and to assert that Christ preserves the church from error, even if not from human weakness.

In his 70s, Newman was well-established as a leading English Catholic intellectual. The public expressed lively interest in his writings. Newman agreed to publish a uniform edition of his works and in a spirit of transparency, and he changed little of what he wrote as an Anglican, including some strong anti-Catholic statements written in his late 20s. He allowed them to be re-printed with the provision that the publishers include a fresh preface to the works he penned forty and fifty years earlier. In those prefaces, he was able to acknowledge how his thinking had changed, but also to "establish the essential catholicity of ideas gestated during his Anglican years."[4] It is to one of those prefaces which we now turn—Newman's Preface to the 1877 Third Edition of the Via Media. Some have called it "his last great original theological work."[5] Poignantly, others have asserted that in this preface Newman becomes the "theologian of abuses in the Church."[6]

Some background on this preface is helpful. In the 1830s two-volume work eventually entitled the Via Media, Newman attempted to establish a "middle way" (via media) for the Church of England between Protestantism and "Romanism." While in some instances he advocated for various Catholic principles and doctrines, he also made many charges against Catholic doctrines, e.g., papal supremacy, the infallibility of the church, purgatory, and he exposed the frequent contradiction between what the Catholic Church professes and what Catholics actually practice.

Forty years later, as he wrote the preface for the new edition of the Via Media, he said, "I am not undertaking here to defend the Catholic church against all assailants whatever, but against one, that is, myself."[7] Yet, he has an audience more than himself in mind. He was addressing this preface to Christians who are inclined to Catholicism, but who encounter difficulties:

"There are those, not a few, who would be Catholics, if their conscience would let them; for they see in the Catholic Religion a great substance and earnest of truth; a depth, strength, coherence, elasticity, and life, a nobleness and grandeur, a power of sympathy and resource in view of the various ailments of the soul, and a suitableness to all classes and circumstances of mankind; a glorious history, and a promise of perpetual youthfulness; and they already accept without scruple or rather joyfully feed upon its solemn mysteries, which are a trial to others; but they cannot, as a matter of duty, enter its fold on account of certain great difficulties which block their way, and throw them back, when they would embrace that faith which looks so like what it professes to be. To these I would address myself . . . at least I shall be explaining . . . how I myself got over difficulties which I formerly felt as well as they."[8]

He acknowledged that the organization of the church is complex, given all her various prerogatives, functions and duties. It is arduous work for men, yet nothing is impossible for God. Newman also acknowledged that, in this complexity, human leaders have at times, fallen short of what was required of them. But then he reminds the reader that Christ established the church as a divine institution and entrusted to men the responsibility to discharge the high offices, which are his.

"These offices, which specially belong to Him as Mediator, are commonly considered to be three: He is Prophet, Priest, and King; and after His pattern, and in human measure, Holy Church has a triple office too; not the Prophetical alone and in isolation, as these Lectures virtually teach, but three offices, which are indivisible, though diverse, viz. teaching, rule, and sacred ministry."[9]

Newman makes clear that all three belong to the entire body of Christ, not just to the pope. As prophet, the church is entrusted with the truth, to receive it, reason upon it, proclaim it, teach it, whether in season our out of season. As king, the church is entrusted with authority to govern, shepherd, and to maintain good order in an expedient manner. As priest, the church is entrusted with holiness and is to foster right worship of God, the devotion of the people, and their virtuous living.

Newman noted that because "man [is] as he is,"[10] i.e., in possession of a fallen human nature, each of the three offices tends to a certain brand of corruption. The prophetic office can fall into rationalism or heresy. The kingly office can fall prey to ambition or tyranny. The priestly office can fall into superstition and emotionalism. Of course, each could simply fall into laxity, disuse, or neglect.

As these duties are "arduous" in themselves one by one, they are even more arduous to administer in combination. Each "has its separate scope and direction; each has its own interests to promote and further; each has to find room for the claims of the other two; and each will find its own line of action influenced and modified by the others."[11]

In a key description of the challenge before the church, Newman asked, "What line of conduct, except in the long, the very long run, is at once edifying, expedient, and true?"[12] In this complex mission, God promised infallibility in her formal teaching but not impeccability to her authorities. Consequently, there will be failures:

"However well she may perform her duties on the whole, it will always be easy for her enemies to make a case against her, well founded or not, from the action or interaction, or the chronic collisions or contrasts, or the temporary suspense or delay, of her administration, in her three several departments of duty,—her government, her devotion, and her schools,—from the conduct of her rulers, her divines, her pastors, or her people. It is this difficulty lying in the nature of the case, which supplies the staple of those energetic charges and vivid pictures of the inconsistency, double-dealing, and deceit of the Church of Rome."[13]

In the Via Media Newman assumed that the corruptions and scandals he exposed in the Catholic Church were chiefly due to the teachings of the Catholic religion. In this preface, however, he withdrew that assertion quite a bit. "Ambition, craft, cruelty, and superstition are not commonly the characteristic of theologians."[14] In fact, he said that theology "has restrained and corrected such extravagances . . . in the regal and sacerdotal powers."[15] But before theologians are dispensed of any responsibility, he balanced this out: "Yet Theology cannot always have its own way; it is too hard, too intellectual, too exact, to be always equitable, or to be always compassionate; and it sometimes has a conflict or overthrow, or has to consent to a truce or a compromise, in consequence of the rival force of religious sentiment or ecclesiastical interests."[16]

Newman provides many examples where one of the three offices moderates one of the others. For example, he mentioned the censuring of Galileo, the veneration of relics of questionable authenticity, St. Gregory's allowance of things that could now be viewed as pagan practices, Pope Liberius's soft judgement toward the Arian heresy, and Pope Honorius's failure to condemn the Monothelite heresy. In these instances Newman was demonstrating how each of the three offices of Christ, at work in the church, are refine the other office. Ian Ker summarizes Newman's thesis in the preface this way: "Newman's idea of the Church is of a wholeness and unity comprising a variety of elements and parts held together in creative tension, each sustained by mutual dependence rather than threatened by the collision of interaction."[17] Similarly, Eamon Duffy describes it as "a dialectical process, rich and life-giving, but consequently messy, in which the tensions between the conflicting claims of truth, expediency and ardour would not be resolved this side of the eschaton."[18] A metaphor from the natural sciences may also help here. The church is a supernatural organism, and like a sensitive ecosystem, various elements need to function well, each in proper proportion and at the proper time, for the whole system to stay healthy.

So, where does that bring us to our situation today? I would like to propose Newman's preface, i.e., his dynamic understanding of the three offices of Christ and the church, provides us a way to understand how scandals and abuses arise, how the church can respond and how we might understand what is happening in light of sin, grace, and holiness. With this, I think we are in a much better position to defend the church today.

Without getting overly simplistic about the clergy abuse scandal, if we were to attempt a forensic analysis from the viewpoint of the three offices, it was not simply one office of the church that failed but all three, which may help us appreciate why it is testing us so deeply.

The prophetic office: Whenever church teaching is rejected or minimized, there will be consequences, somewhere. Those who lived through the confusion of the 1960s and 70s can recall when authoritative church teaching on human sexuality was stridently rejected by popular culture and sometimes even by theologians and pastors. Clerical celibacy seemed to be moving toward becoming an option rather than a requirement. Sadly, our culture has still not recovered from sexual confusion and error. Fortunately, our church teaching has recovered, especially with the publication of the Catechism, and the robust theology of the body of St. John Paul II. Yet, there were decades when the truth was not received, nor proclaimed clearly, and some priests began to act as if they had license to sexual experimentation.

Seminary formators often fell short in exposing their seminary students to the full panoply of authoritative orthodox doctrine. In its place, they would expound on speculative ideas, which, in effect, placed the received tradition on the sidelines. Added to this was a reluctance to celebrate the unique and essential identity of the ordained priest. In summary, men were completing their studies and were often not sure what the church authoritatively taught on many essential areas of morality and faith, or what it meant to be a priest.

The kingly office—The New Testament is clear that Christ invested His authority in the apostles and their successors and that all Christians share in the responsibility to make decisions that maintain the divine order. This authority is real, even if it is different depending on one's station in the church. But, wherever there is an abuse of power in the church, someone is hurt. We can quickly recognize two abuses of power in our current situation: First, the priest's abuse of his role as shepherd. Where children and their families trusted priests to use their priestly influence for their benefit, they turned that power as a lever for their own perverse ends. Second, when bishops learned of the abuse, they, at times, minimized it, or made decisions favoring the priest over the victim. My own sense, from my conversations with lay faithful, is that there is more anger toward the bishops for their misuse of power, for it only intensified the priest's misuse of power. The McCarrick affair is certainly one recent high-profile situation where power was flagrantly misused. Unfortunately, other situations have been chronicled by the national and local media. It is no surprise, then, that many faithful experience a righteous anger toward those addressed as shepherds in the church.

The priestly office—The vitality of the church depends in large part on her holiness, which includes a genuine reverence for God, the fear of sin, a real desire for virtue, and a commitment to a life of prayer and worship. At the heart of the tragedy before us is the failure of so many priests to devote themselves to prayer and sacrifice. It is no surprise that one response to the current scandal in the church is to pray for the sanctification of priests and for the renewal of true priestly zeal. Quite likely, we are already seeing fruit of this renewal. In addition, however, is the call for all of us to make reparations for the abuses that have occurred. A remarkable element in Catholic spiritual theology is the great service we can offer by making sacrifices and prayers to atone for the sins others have committed, and thereby contribute to the healing of the wounds of the church.

These three offices have been given to the church by Christ, and he is always with his church. Human beings, because of their innate weakness, cannot fulfill these "high offices" without the grace of God, as well as a purified conscience, strength of will, humility of heart, temper of obedience, and genuine love for God and his people. Newman closes his preface with an appeal to faith, noting that the church will be "discredited now and then by apparent anomalies which need, and which claim, at our hands an exercise of faith."[19]

By recognizing the dynamic interplay of three offices of Christ in his living body the church, Newman is able to help us better understand how our current crisis developed. With that understanding, he leaves us with a clear path for healing this wound—authentic doctrine taught with clarity, fullness and confidence (not arrogance), a genuine pursuit of holiness and personal relationship with Christ, and authority exercised in right judgment.

At a late summer cookout with several families, all of whom are committed Catholics, I asked those sitting around in lawn chairs to hear the basic premise described above and give me their thoughts. A college sophomore, thoughtful and eager, said to me, in front of all, "That all makes sense, but what are we, the lay faithful, supposed to do?" His challenging question was actually a breath of fresh air. He spoke for so many who realize that the bishops and priests need to embrace their vocations in fuller ways, but that this deep wound also requires the healing efforts of the lay faithful. Indeed, each member of the church has a share in the three offices by virtue of their baptism and can be a part of "righting the ship." As prophet, each is called to receive the full doctrine of the church, strive to live it in their daily lives, both personally and professionally, and pass it on to their families and within their "spheres of influence." As priest, each is called to daily prayer and sacrifice, a personal call to holiness, and as king, to whatever degree one might have a role of influence, authority or leverage, each can make a commitment to exercising their "governance" proper to the lay state with right judgment and integrity.[20]

In one of his last sermons as an Anglican Newman preached on wisdom and innocence—two attributes that are clearly required as we move forward in our current situation. It is the closing words of that sermon that are so often quoted as a benediction at the end of long and difficult day, entrusting ourselves to the providence of a good and loving God. "May He support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in His mercy may He give us a safe lodging, and a holy rest and peace at the last."[21]


[1] Newman, VM, i, Lecture 14: "On the Fortunes of the Church," 354–55.

[2] Robert Barron, Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis (Park Ridge, IL: Word of Fire, 2019), 42.

[3] Newman, Sermons Preached on Various Occasions (London: Longmans Green and Co.: 1888), 144–46.

[4] Eamon Duffy, "'That Was Then, This Is Now': Some Comments on Newman's 1877 Preface to the Via Media and the Modern Church," New Blackfriars (2011): 170.

[5] Duffy, "That Was Then," 170.

[6] See Newman, LD, xxviii, 1876–78), where the editors Charles Stephen Dessain and Thomas Gornall, assert that Newman "recently earned the title of 'theologian of abuses in the Church'" because of the preface. See LD, xxviii, xvi. It is likely that they were relying on Maurice Nédoncelle, "Newman, théologien des abus de l'Eglise," in Oecumenica (1967): 116–34, and Richard Bergeron, Les Abus de L'glise d'après Newman (Montreal: Bellarmin, 1971).

[7] Newman, VM, i, xxxv.

[8] Newman, VM, i, xxxvi.

[9] Newman, VM, i, xl.

[10] Newman, VM, i, xli.

[11] Newman, VM, i, xli.

[12] Newman, VM, i, xlii.

[13] Newman, VM, i, xliii.

[14] Newman, VM, i, xlvii.

[15] Newman, VM, i, xlvii.

[16] Newman, VM, i, xlviii-xlix.

[17] Ian Ker, John Henry Newman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 707.

[18] Duffy, "That Was Then," 173.

[19] Newman, VM, i, xciv.

[20] Bishop Barron describes some steps for moving forward including institutional reform and renewal of the clergy. He also proposes an "invitation to rediscover and to deepen our own baptismal identity as priests, prophets and kings. Priests are those who are committed, all the way down, to holiness of life; prophets are those who have dedicated themselves to proclaiming Christ to everybody; and kings are those who are resolved to order the world, as far as they can, to God's purposes." Letter to a Suffering Church, 91.

[21] Newman, SD, "Wisdom and Innocence," 307.

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