Enemy or Sacrament?: Newman on Wealth and Holiness

David Paul Deavel, Ph.D. is editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and a visiting assistant professor at the University of St. Thomas. 

Introduction: A Paradox

Newman tended to talk about wealth and commerce in two ways: one prophetic and denunciatory, particularly of nations of shopkeepers, and one with applause—this is the nation of free enterprise. These two modes might be divided into his earlier, stricter Anglican period and his later more world-affirming Catholic period. Read carefully, however, we can see both that the themes of danger and the themes of opportunity for good are present in both earlier and later sermons and writings. Not only that, but these two ways are consistent with each other and understandable given his own experience as a man with responsibilities for schools and parishes and also his understanding of economics within the circle of knowledge. In fact, as I argue, to look at his thought as a whole is to discover that though his public approval of wealth and its uses grows perhaps more positive in his Catholic career, he never ceases to see that this-worldly goods such as wealth or success in business—like education, acknowledgments, public recognition, and authority—are not in and of themselves good or bad (assuming that they have been gained honestly) for a person. It is this notion of advancing material prosperity as a panacea, found in the works of Nassau Senior, that he argues against in The Idea even as he argues that the science of gaining wealth (political economy) is a legitimate study. Instead, like the material of sacraments, the pursuit and the holding of money and goods can be used either to construct an idol to the self, blocking one from God, or a sacrament by which one can taste and see the Lord's goodness.

A Nation of Shopkeepers is a Bad Thing

Think for instance of his 1835 Anglican sermon, "The Danger of Riches," where he warns: "The danger of possessing riches is the carnal security to which they lead; that of 'desiring' and pursuing them, is, that an object of this world is thus set before us as the aim and end of life. It seems to be the will of Christ that His followers should have no aim or end, pursuit or business, merely of this world." He goes on in this sermon to describe the inevitable temptations that are fallen into by those who pursue and those who attain to great wealth, such as the penurious quality of those who have money, their difficulty in remaining honest, and the anxiety and the care that attend to any pursuit of financial gain. "Dissipation of mind, which these amusements create, is itself indeed miserable enough: but far worse than this dissipation is the concentration of mind upon some worldly object, which admits of being constantly pursued,—and such is the pursuit of gain." There seems to be no uncertainty about what we are to think of the pursuit of gain, which is nothing other than an idolatry: "There is no excuse then for that absorbing pursuit of wealth, which many men indulge in as if a virtue, and expatiate upon as if a science. 'After all these things do the Gentiles seek!'" Note that here not only is the idea of economics not a virtue, but it appears not to be a science at all. And no dosage is safe since "the pursuit of gain, whether in a large or small way, is prejudicial to our spiritual interests."[1]

While the sermon ends with some consolation, it is not without national warning. "It is a very fearful consideration that we belong to a nation which in good measure subsists by making money. I will not pursue it; nor inquire whether the especial political evils of the day have not their root in that principle, which St. Paul calls the root of all evil, the love of money. Only let us consider the fact, that we are money-making people, with our Saviour's declarations before us against wealth, and trust in wealth: and we shall have abundant matter for serious thought."[2]

Other similar warnings appear throughout his published sermons and essays, particularly about the dangers of the veneration and pursuit of wealth. In a sermon preached ten years earlier in 1825 Newman had spoken of the "odious overestimation of wealth" so common among the English.[3] The essential error of Lot, he preached in 1829, was that he forgot that the "chief value" of the wealth he had was that it was a divine gift; instead, in choosing the land of Sodom and Gomorrah, he "esteemed it for its own sake, when he allowed himself to be attracted by the richness and beauty of a guilty and devoted country." This taking of "worldly prosperity" whether it comes from God or not, Newman frankly states, is a sign of "falling into that sin which the Apostle calls 'idolatry.'"[4] In his "Advertisement" to the 1840 reprint of the Caroline Divine Edward Wells's The Rich Man's Duty to Contribute Liberally to the Building, Rebuilding, Repairing, Beautifying, and Adorning of Churches, Newman observes that even worldly prosperity that is from God can turn to idolatry if there is no thought as to how this wealth can be used to glorify God: "It seems to be thought by numbers that the legitimate use of the precious things which nature contains lies in their ministering to the honour and the grandeur of the creature." Not only do the rich not even think about how their wealth might be used to glorify God by making churches reflect his glory, but they often object to the "idolatrous tendency" incited by dedicating rich materials to God in the form of beautifully appointed churches without thinking about the fact that "consecration" of those gifts "to self" in the form of rich clothing and home furnishings is much more idolatrous. At times[5] he suggested that this tendency to idolatrous wealth-holding might be due to the nature of the profession of an individual. An 1839 essay on Henry Caswall's report on the state of the American Episcopal Church, Newman observes that while the possession of wealth itself has a "providential corrective in the duties which it involves, as in the case of a landlord . . . these do not fall upon the trader."

"He has rank without tangible responsibilities; he has made himself what he is, and becomes self-dependent; he has laboured hard or gone through anxieties, and indulgence is his reward. In many cases he has had little leisure for cultivation of mind, accordingly luxury and splendour will be his beau ideal of refinement. If he thinks of religion at all, he will not like from being a great man to become a little one; he bargains for some or other compensation to his self-importance, some little power of judging or managing, some small permission to have his own way. Commerce is free as air; it knows no distinctions; mutual intercourse is its medium of operation. Exclusiveness, separations, rules of life, observance of days, nice scruples of conscience, are odious to it. We are speaking of the general character of a trading community, not of individuals; and, so speaking, we shall hardly be contradicted."[6]

This leads, he says, to "Socinianism."

The life of the shopkeeper is a bad one, particularly if it is successful. In his sermon "Christ the Quickening Spirit," originally preached in 1831 though re-written, Newman gives his own version of Romans 8:39, telling us that nothing can separate us from the love of God, including trials, temptations, times of tribulation, pain, bereavement, anxiety, sorrow, poverty, and insults. Squeezed into this list right after tribulation and before pain and the rest are, significantly, "time of wealth."[7] One might well pray as Newman's speaker does in the 1829 poem, "A Thanksgiving": "Deny me wealth."[8]

While one certainly can hear in Newman the echoes of other Tractarians such as S. R. Bosanquet, who thundered against political economy and business in the pages of The British Critic in the 1830s and 1840s, the Catholic Newman still issues the same sorts of warnings. The Discourses to Mixed Congregations (1849), comprised of sermons preached early in his Catholic priesthood, include the same themes of wealth as idolatry and business engrossing the mind.

In an 1848 sermon Newman preaches of modern day possession by evil spirits, such as "the rich" who are "engrossed with the wish to make their wealth greater, and the pursuit of wealth blocks up the avenues to their hearts, and they have neither time, nor thought, nor love for the great things which concern their peace. What is all this but another possession of the devil . . . ?"[9]

In Newman's 1855 Callista, surely a historical novel, he quotes from St. Cyprian of Carthage's actual words explaining how the church, including bishops, has hit a low time so soon after the end of the Decian persecution. "A long repose had corrupted the discipline which had come down to us. Every one was applying himself to the increase of wealth; and, forgetting both the conduct of the faithful under the Apostles, and what ought to be their conduct in every age, with insatiable eagerness for gain devoted himself to the multiplying of possessions."[10]

After the 1850s we have few new sermons, but his use of his old ones shows that he did not reject these themes.[11]

A Nation of Shopkeepers is Good

Yet the other side is there. Newman's career was spent dealing with money and administration, in his parishes, the University, and the Oratory School. And like any sane person, when faced with the difficulties of the Achilli Trial, Newman discovered the trials of paying lawyers. "Who in any line of work makes such a sum?"[12]

But Newman was actually interested in the questions of politics and economics. Political economist and theologian Paul Oslington notes that Newman's library contained a number of volumes on economics by authors such as Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo, Nassau Senior, and his old mentor, Richard Whateley, though his reading in such works seems to have been largely in the first half of his life.[13] Oslington further observes that a "good test of Newman's attitude toward political economy" is his approach to the subject as Rector of the Catholic University of Ireland. One of the first professors Newman hired was John O'Hagan, a political economist, whose independence from "clerical interference" Newman "vigorously defended."[14] Not only this, but Newman dedicates part of Discourse 4 in The Idea to the question of the place of political economy in the circle of knowledge, defending its place and its importance in the circle of knowledge. In the original version of Discourse 5 he compared political economy to less important subjects. Finally, in Newman's examination of political theory in Who's To Blame? Newman is seen to praise the private enterprise system in a voice as hearty as any free-marketer could do.

"This, then, is the people for private enterprise; and of private enterprise alone have I been speaking all along. What a place is London in its extent, its complexity, its myriads of dwellings, its subterraneous works! It is the production, for the most part, of individual enterprise. Waterloo Bridge was the greatest architectural achievement of the generation before this; it was built by shares. New regions, with streets of palaces and shops innumerable, each shop a sort of shrine or temple of this or that trade, and each a treasure-house of its own merchandize, grow silently into existence, the creation of private spirit and speculation. The gigantic system of railroads rises and asks for its legal status: prudent statesmen decide that it must be left to private companies, to the exclusion of Government. Trade is to be encouraged: the best encouragement is, that it should be free. A famine threatens; one thing must be avoided,—any meddling on the part of Government with the export and import of provisions."[15]

He writes in a private letter that as long as it is not a question of the authority based on "ecclesiastical principle and enjoined by a sacred sanction," in secular matters "it is but an acquiescence in the custom of our country and the traditions of the day to adopt private judgment and free trade for our watchwords, and to denounce monopolies."[16]

In the correspondence in the 1859 edition of the liberal Catholic magazine The Rambler, of which Newman was the editor, Newman even makes the argument that a "note" or mark of the church is indeed temporal prosperity, observing that he has a difficult time explaining why it is that many Catholic countries like Italy and Spain suffer from lower levels of development than do traditionally Protestant countries. "Religion may preach poverty to the saint, but it teaches worldly success and the comforts of life to the faithful at large. It is the foster-parent, if not the natural mother, of industry, thriftiness, order, honesty, and equitable dealing; and these virtues are the infallible antecedents of making money, gaining a character, and rising in society. I cannot see the flaw in this argument; and when Protestants urge it, I cannot answer them."[17]

Reconciling the Shopkeepers to Themselves: The World as Enemy and Sacrament

Two brief lines. The first is from the 1841 sermon "Unreal Words": "This is the legitimate use of this world, to make us seek for another. Experience of it gives experience of that which is its antidote, in the case of religious minds; and we become real in our view of what is spiritual by contact of things temporal and earthly." The second, from over a decade later in The Idea of a University: "We attain to heaven by using this world well."[18] The world for Newman, in the words of Vincent Ferrer Blehl, is both enemy and sacrament.[19] Its very goodness is what makes it dangerous.

And there is more to the world than simply wealth. Read only Newman's "The Danger of Accomplishments" and you will see that the dangers of wealth are equally matched by the dangers of human achievement and refinement of all kinds, including learning. Newman did not abandon his warnings about these either after he became a Catholic nor after he ran a university. In fact in a letter to W. G. Ward of November 8, 1860 Newman wrote of the dangers accruing to intellectual learning.

"9. that, as the rich man, or the man in authority, has his serious difficulties in going to heaven, so also has the learned.

10. that the more a man is educated, whether in theology or secular science, the holier he needs to be, if he would be saved.

11. that devotion and self-rule are worth all the intellectual cultivation in the world.

12. that, in the case of most men, literature and science and the habits they create, so far from ensuring these highest gifts, indispose the mind toward their acquisition."[20]

Even more provocative, Newman observes that unselfish ends like "the relief of the ills of human life or society, of ignorance, sickness, poverty, or vice" are still temporal ends and can be a snare just as are the pursuit of "name, influence, power, wealth, station."[21]

Even in the midst of his emphasis on the use of the world as merely pointing us to the next world, Newman often emphasizes on the right use of this world being sacramental. In the case of wealth, this is not merely limited to his demand that people spend as much money on the decoration of churches as they do on decorating their own houses, but this is definitely part of it.[22] Instead, just as Jesus uses economics lessons in the parables to indicate what heaven is like, so does Newman in an 1870 sermon, "Stewards and also Sons of God," wherein he observes first that what the parable of the unjust steward teaches us is the lesson of St. Paul about love of money being the root of evil, but then observes that the larger lesson of that parable and the parable of the talents is that the demand of the master for a profit in both cases is exactly the kind of thing that God does with us—provides us with capital and demands profit or interest.[23] And in an 1848 devotion Newman gives the rule that there is no general "good" for the individual since different situations in life lead to the ultimate happiness for different people. The colloquy he appends to the devotion has the pray-er confess to God that "Wealth or woe, joy or sorrow, friends or bereavement, honour or humiliation, good report or ill report, comfort or discomfort, Thy presence or the hiding of Thy countenance, all is good if it comes from thee."[24]

Conclusion: Economics and Wealth within Limits

Newman never stopped seeing temptation in the things of this world. Discourse IV of the Idea does the newly important field of political economy the favor of seeing it as an integral part of the circle of knowledge and thus a fit part of university education, but it also does its part to warn against seeing economics as a subject that can do without the rest of the circle, most importantly philosophy and theology. It is a field of study that deals in facts about the world in one aspect. Against the claims of some economists who claim it can, and some critics of economists who complain that it doesn't, Newman defends the autonomy of political economy as an intellectual field and notes that it cannot give complete answers to the questions of what to do in an economy. The goals of action and the limits on behavior must be found in the fields of philosophy and theology. The world is not enough unless it is acknowledged to be from God and given up for his direction. Then, it is enough—no longer an enemy, but a sacrament, even in the hustle and bustle of trade and free enterprise.


[1] Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons II: 349, 355, 356, 353, 355. Hereafter PS.

[2] Newman, PS, 356–57.

[3] PS, I, 52. "Secret Faults." In an 1841 letter to Ambrose Phillips, Newman talks of the English national character as characterized by conservatism derived from "mere love of money, in great measure. Some one says that an Englishman's heart is in his pockets." Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman (hereafter LD), viii, 270.

[4] PS, iii, 4. "Abraham and Lot."

[5] Newman, "Advertisement: to Edward Wells, The Rich Man's Duty to Contribute Liberally to the Building, Rebuilding, Repairing, Beautifying, and Adorning of Churches (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1840), iii–vii. Quotations from iv and v.

[6] Newman, Ess, i, 348–49.

[7] Newman, PS, ii, 149.

[8] Newman, Verses on Various Occasions, 45.

[9] Newman, Faith and Prejudice and other Sermons (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1956), 79–80.

[10] Newman, Callista, 18.

[11] When William Copeland was re-publishing his Anglican sermons, the Catholic Newman found it impossible to go back and fix everything he thought should have been done differently, limiting himself to corrections. Yet though he was disappointed by some of his older sermons, he nevertheless felt comfortable recommending them to Anglicans interested in the Catholic Church, as he did to Louisa Simeon in an 1869 letter. See LD, xxiv, 248.

12 Newman to Edward Badeley and James Hope (Aug. 1852), LD, xv, 154.

[13] Paul Oslington, "John Henry Newman, Nassau Senior, and the Separation of Political Economy from Theology in the Nineteenth Century," History of Political Economy 33, no. 4 (Winter 2001): 825–42, at 833. Oslington is relying on J. D, Earnest and G. Tracey, eds. John Henry Newman: An Annotated Bibliography of his Tract and Pamphlet Collection (New York: Garland Publishing, 1984).

[14] Oslington, "John Henry Newman, Nassau Senior and the Separation," 833.

[15] Newman, Discussions and Arguments, 336–67.

[16] LD, xviii, 567–68.

[17] Rambler (May 1859): 102. Newman signed this letter as "O. H."

[18] James Reidy, "Newman and Christian Humanism," Renaissance 44 no. 4 (Summer 1992): 249–64, at 249. The quotations are from PS, v, 40–41, and from Idea, 112.

[19] Vincent Ferrer Blehl, The White Stone: The Spiritual Theology of John Henry Newman (Petersham, MA: St. Bede's, 1993), ch. 4.

[20] LD, xix, 417.

[21] Newman, Mix, 2.

[22] See the sermon "Offerings for the Sanctuary," PS, vi, 295–312.

[23] Newman, Faith and Prejudice, 99–109.

[24] Meditations and Devotions of the late Cardinal Newman (London: Longmans and Co., 1893), 299.

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