Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

John Henry Newman and the Problem of Obedience

(Unpublished article of 1979)

John Henry Newman, like the Gospels, causes difficulties rather than doubts. Specific points that he makes and practical measures that he suggests admit of distinctions, personal tastes, historical influences, and an openness to the variety of human behavior that can be confusing. They may even be contradictory and irrational. Nevertheless, the chief directions of his thought are clear. Woe to the student who dismisses Newman’s main thrust in favor of his lesser sallies! He does so at the risk of ignoring the forest for the trees.

This fate has often befallen those who see in Newman the Catholic Liberal, the proto-modernist, the man for all theological seasons. Newman does make statements that can rub against the traditionalist grain, and statements that can be construed in a liberal-modernist sense. Still, the whole spirit of the great English convert was so anti-liberal, the context of his remarks so much a search for distinctions within the orthodox camp, that his supposed progressive character is really a will-o-the-wisp.

One way of demonstrating this point is by examining Newman’s understanding of the importance and necessity of the virtue of obedience. He was interested in this question both while at Oxford, before his conversion, and later, as a disciple of St. Philip Neri and founder of the English Oratory. The pattern of difficulties presented within an orthodox framework can be noted here as elsewhere in Newman’s work.

It may be best to begin with an outline of the chief direction of Newman’s thought with regard to the question at hand. Obedience, Newman argued, while still an Anglican, had a value which even the naked reason and natural conscience could recognize. (1) Something deeply ingrained in the human person pressed him to find objects to which he might defer and pay homage, whatever the cost involved. “Man”, Newman later noted in Essays Critical and Historical, “is born to obey quite as much as to command. Remove the true objects, and you do not get rid of the natural propensity”. (2) Those, like the nineteenth century democrat, Lamennais, who “did not seem to recognize, nay, to contemplate the idea that rebellion is a sin”, (3) were not only wrong; they were conducting a war against obedience doomed to failure. (4)

The natural purpose and beauty of obedience were obscured through Adam’s sin. Its value, however, was underlined by God at every different stage of salvation history. In the Old Testament, Jahweh harshly enjoined submission upon the Israelites, and when, in the fullness of time, He sent His Son to redeem man, He expected of Christ an act of total, voluntary obedience. Christ’s mission was a mission of love by way of loving surrender (5), a mission that won for man the spiritual aids necessary for the fulfillment of the Father’s commands, a mission calling him to sublime heights as a member of the obedient Christ. (6) So convinced was the scholar Newman that the central purpose of the Incarnation was to enable men infinitely to obey God’s Law, that he urged them to sacrifice the quest for intellectual enlightenment—even when legitimate—should it in any way obstruct this aim (7).

Newman urged those under his pastoral care to practice obedience in three particular ways, with the purpose of promoting God’s plan. A man could first of all offer to the Almighty the responsible performance of mundane duties, a task “neither political nor interesting”. (8) Next, he might obey by “yielding to others when he need not yield, and…doing unpleasant services which he might avoid” (9) This would sharpen his will to abstain from certain innocent activities which nevertheless provided a possible opening through which concupiscence might enter (10). Finally, he could take heed of the ecclesiastical authorities, the representatives of the “awesome presence” (11), and the Church “in which it is Christ’s will that He should be obeyed” (12).

Acts of obedience could be rendered in innumerable other ways, general submission to the Church making certain that they were done in a humble and unostentatious spirit (13). How fortunate were those who had the opportunity to defer constantly to the wishes of others, and, hence, could approach more quickly “Him who is not far off” (14):

The happiest state of life {is} one in which we have not to command or to direct, but to obey solely; not having to choose for ourselves, but having our path of duty, our mode of life, our fortunes marked out for us. This lot, indeed, as is plain, cannot be the lot of all; but it is the lot of the many. Thus God pours out His blessings largely, and puts trial on the few; but men do not understand their own gain….May He give us the grace to cherish a wiser mind, to make much of our privilege, if we have it to serve and be at rest; and if we have it not, to covet it, and to bear dutifully as but a misfortune to a sinner, that freedom from restraint which the world boasts in as a chief good.
Obedience, in sum, was the comprehensive Christian virtue, fit to free a man from sin, capable of saving him from temptation, perplexity, and religious doubt (15), or regenerating him in Christ (16) and serving as the one real test of a living faith (17). Although obedience did not necessarily accompany belief, and was not identical with faith, it was the latter’s closest kin (18). Newman concluded: (19)
I do not say that faith and obedience do not stand for separate ideas in our minds, but they stand for nothing more; they are not divided one from the other in fact. They are but one thing viewed differently….Viewed as sitting at Jesus’ feet, it is called faith; viewed as running to do His will, it is called obedience.
Of course, obedience in itself was no automatic guarantee of full membership in Christ, of “divinization”. Like public acts of charity or reverence, it had to be judged in terms of interior motivation. Custom, desire for worldly gain or popular approval, even natural timidity, could all lead to a real submission to divine law, but such causal factors were far from being heavenly-inspired. (20) Like Balaam, whose object “was not to please God, but to please self without displeasing God; to pursue his own ends, as far as was consistent with his duty” (21), those who obeyed for such reasons admitted that their obedience would end when its worldly motive disappeared. They made of Christianity a sham, and of love a substanceless phantasm. (22)

Christian obedience, the “acceptable obedience” which was the righteousness taught by the Gospel, the obedience “which is of the same temper as faith”, was of a far more excellent character than that offered by the unenlightened world (23). It was based on sublime love, recognition of the worthiness of God, and total altruism. “He who loves does not act from calculation or reasoning”, Newman explained; “he does not in his cool moments reflect upon or talk of what he is doing as if it were a great sacrifice” (24). God wanted the same love of Adam as he expects of us, but we have the graces won by Christ to make this love more simple.

Newman realized that the expressions of obedience required of men, which should and could be “the spontaneous acts of the formed Christian temper” (25), might not necessarily begin as such. An individual might seriously wish to love God as he ought to love Him, but would probably not be able to do so at the outset. Therefore, although obedience without love could not be an end in itself, it could be a start. A submission based upon a sense of duty or a salutary fear was conducive to improvement when the desire for a higher form of surrender was truly present. (26)

Newman thought this truth to be obvious. Numerous saints had indicated that, at times, “even to pray for the grace which in Christ is pledged to them…is an irksome task” requiring a wearied and a forced attention (27). For an easy repentance was “a contradiction in terms” (28); “the Christian spirit is the growth of time” and could not be forced “upon the {mind} however desirable and necessary it may be to possess it” (29). Many years of toil could pass before unreflecting love would provide the peace that surpasseth all understanding.

Christians who thought that they need not obey without some special vision, some notable desire to submit, some palpable fulfillment of “those passionate longings to live in His sight, which look more like religion to the uninstructed” (30), were seriously criticized by Newman. Why? Again, because he did not think that anything save consistent service could teach men what obedience and love truly were; “he who aims vaguely and generally at being in a spiritual frame of mind” finds himself but “entangled in a deceit of words, which gain a meaning only by being made mischievous” (31).

It was time to stop thinking that “no observance is right but what proceeds from impulse, or what is called the heart” (32); time to stop excusing those “indolent and languid in their obedience…from a pretence that they can do nothing of themselves” (33); time to drop any expectation of a submission begun after having felt “some strong urgent motive”, or seen “some bright vision of the Truth acting on the mind” (34), and, “without waiting, begin at once to obey Him with the best heart one had” (35). The wrong kind of obedience or a purely habitual piety might be either hypocritical or simply useless as an aid to perfection. It could, however, become otherwise, whereas irreverence and rebellion could lead to nothing but foolishness and self-deception: (36)

I do not deny that persons who are frequent in prayers and other religious exercises should be zealous over themselves and not take for granted they are going on right; particularly since their very strictness is a call on them for a more exact observance of their other duties. But all this is quite a different matter from such danger being an objection to observing devotional duties.

We must, indeed, be just, honest, temperate, and religious before we can rise to Christian graces and to be practiced in justice and the like virtues is the way, the ordinary way, in which we receive the fullness of the kingdom of God; and, doubtless, any man who despises those who try to practice them (I mean contentious men who, notwithstanding, have not yet clearly seen and welcomed the Gospel system) and slightingly calls them ‘mere mortal men’ in disparagement, such a man knows not what spirit he is of, and had best take heed how he speaks against the workings of the inscrutable spirit of God.

Consistent obedience, whatever one’s momentary temper, and recognition of the difficulty of the task ahead: these were the crucial defenses against religious despair, and the keys to the Christian life (37). Nothing could be expected of a spirituality of “fits and starts” except, perhaps, an initial steam helping a man through the first crucial days of Christian repentance (38).

Newman found himself dealing with this question in a different form in the context of his work with the English Oratory and his consequent discussions of the nature of religious life. The Cardinal’s interest in religious life began with his early recognition of the value of celibacy, and increased under the charm exercised by Manzoni’s portraits of religious in The Betrothed (39). Even before his conversion, he pointed to the monastic life as the spiritual life par excellence, and vigorously defended it against protestant attack: (40)

And if, as we have already been urging, monastic bodies are on the other hand far from neglecting those social duties which Mr. Davison {a fellow of Oriel College} truly says have so essential a portion and so exalted a place in Christian obedience {i.e., by means of prayer, etc.} then it will follow that they fulfill more of our Lord’s precepts than any other set of men, and instead of being ‘one of the most violent perversions of religious doctrine’, they are the nearest approach to the perfection of the Christian spirit.
Newman understood that monastic life granted the dedicated believer an unparalleled opportunity to offer the threefold obedience essential to Christian perfection, promising him a constant submission in things both necessary and indifferent (41). He himself, therefore, soon espoused a quasi-monastic life which he sought to continue, after his conversion, in an English adaptation of the Roman Oratory.

The Oratory, first organized by St. Philip Neri, urged itself upon Newman’s imagination for several significant reasons. Firstly, like all societies and orders, it regarded life-long perseverance as essential for the attainment of the founder’s special protection (42). Secondly, it demanded prompt, blind, and consistent internal and external obedience to superiors, and established a three year novitiate to break the self-will of potential Oratorians. Newman delighted in this period of training, considering it crucial to the process of perfection of one’s submission. “How can you trust a man’s perseverance who is confessed not to have the principle of obedience in him? He wrote to F.W.Faber in 1850. “Till he gives up his will, till he relinquishes that nasty, unphilippine, jansenistic notion of ‘yielding’ an Oratorian obedience, I cannot trust him…”. (43)

Most importantly, however, the Oratory insisted upon these points in a unique way, one in which Newman found himself to be comfortably at home. St. Philip Neri envisaged a society that excluded the taking of special vows. And this, Newman argued, permitted it to rise to the highest conceivable Christian perfection. (44)

Herein lies the “difficulty” with Newman’s thought that can lead the liberal partisan to gross error concerning his more significant points. He was not arguing that religious vows were wicked—that kind of sentiment had disappeared long ago in his protestant past (45). Newman understood that women, military-like organizations such as the Jesuits, and those upon whom the community depended, such as the secular clergy, especially required them. (46)

Nevertheless, he believed that the most exalted of religious orders would allow its members freely, moment by moment, to forge that perfect internal obedience that could only exist when there was no other motive whatsoever for doing so than that of submission itself. Those orders held together by vows, in principle allowed their members to obey for the sake of the vow, even if, in practice, many rose above this kind of self-surrender to a more complete one. Such foundations had charisms and vocations other than those for achieving full community and perfect obedience. The Oratorians, in contrast, by remaining without vows, devoted themselves to the fullness of love through surrender to God’s will: (47)

Among Regulars, the vow is the elementary principle of religious society; they obey because they have solemnly promised to do so. It is otherwise with us; we obey for the sake of obedience; we obey because we choose to obey, and for nothing else. Obedience, then, is our elementary principle, and thus, we differ from others who live in community.

I have said that the perfection of the Oratory lies in Community Life. I have defined Community Life to mean obedience or conformity to a community for the sake of that obedience, in opposition to obedience on account of a vow.

Again, even suppose Regulars to be bona fide in a community, as is often the case with women; well, but it is because they cannot help it. They conform, they obey because they are under a vow. There is nothing to show that they have the gift of living together as such, and for its own sake. They obey, not for the sake of obedience, but from a past act which binds them. There is, then, as distinct a difference of vocation and of perfection between us and regulars in this respect, as there is between us and secular priests.

Just why it was that Newman thought the vow to be an obstacle to perfect obedience when the layman, already bound by baptismal vows, could be urged on to complete perfection is unclear to me. It may indeed reflect vestiges of an English political liberalism, or, perhaps simply a personal taste. The Church has always allowed room for personal tastes, in religious life, so long as these do not become arrogant, as was the case with the Spiritual Franciscan insistence upon the universal necessity of apostolic poverty and its superiority to all other practices.

Newman never reached that point. Instead, his personal tastes were expressed within the context of a whole-hearted acceptance of an orthodox tradition. For, despite its difficulties, there can be no doubt that Newman’s pre-occupation with a complete obedience “without effort or deliberation” (48) is one of the innumerable indications of his real distance from liberal Catholic or modernist positions.

(1) Parochial and Plain Sermons (London: Rivingtons, 1869, Eight Volumes), I, ix, 115; VIII, xiv, 205.

(2) Essays Critical and Historical (London: Pickering & Co., 1881), I, 394.

(3) Ibid., pp. 157, 172.

(4) For more, see Anne Mozley, ed., The Letters and Correspondence of John Henry Newman (London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1891, Two Volumes), II, 225-226, 273-275.

(5) Parochial and Plain Sermons, I, i, 10; VIII, xiv, 203-204.

(6) Ibid., VIII, xiv, 204-205.

(7) Ibid., VII, xviii, 247-251.

(8) Ibid., II, 374.

(9) Ibid., VII, vii, 94-95, 100.

(10) Ibid.

(11) Mozley, II, 339; Parochial and Plain Sermons, III, xiv, 196.

(12) Parochial and Plain Sermons, VII, xvii, 230, 240; Essays, 400; Apologia pro vita sua, ed., Martin J. Svaglic (Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1967), p. 89; Mozley, I, 465-468.

(13) Parochial and Plain Sermons, I, xii, 154.

(14) Ibid., IV, xxii, 332; Extended quotation, III, xiv, 205.

(15) Ibid., I, xviii, 230; II, xiv, 160-161; III, vi, 82, 86; VII, xviii, 247-251; VIII, xiii, 198.

(16) Lectures on Justification (London: J.G. & F. Rivington, 1848), pp. 37, 42, 44, 47-48.

(17) Parochial and Plain Sermons, II, xiv, 157.

(18) Ibid., VII, vii, 89; Difficulties of Anglicans, II, 274.

(19) Ibid., III, vi, 89.

(20) Ibid., I, vi, 75; V, xxiii, 331-335.

(21) Ibid., IV, ii, 30.

(22) Ibid., I, iii, 30-32; Iv, v, 77; xxi, 309.

(23) Ibid., III, vi, 81; I, vi, 81; Lectures on Justification, pp. 35, 47-48.

(24) Ibid., IV, ii, 30.

(25) Ibid., I, xviii, 239.

(26) Ibid., IV, xxi, 317; IV, xxii, 332; I, xxiii, 303; I, xxiv, 322; III, vi, 80.

(27) Ibid., VII, ii, 23.

(28) Ibid., I, I, 11-14; xxiv, 323; VIII, xi, 169.

(29) Ibid., I, xviii, 232-233.

(30) Ibid., I, ix, 122; II, xiv, 160-161.

(31) Ibid., II, xiv, 160-161; III, vi, 82.

(32) Ibid., IV, I, 8-9.

(33) Ibid., VIII, xiv, 211.

(34) Ibid., VII, vii, 89.

(35) Ibid., IV, xxii, 332; I, viii, 100.

(36) First quotation: Ibid., Iv, v, 70-71; Second: I, vi, 78; Also, IV, xxii, 332; I, viii, 100; VIII, xiv, 210-211; Sermon Notes of John Henry Newman: 1848-1878 (London: Longsmans, Green, & Co., 1914), p.66.

(37) Parochial and Plain Sermons, I, xviii, 234-235; 232-234.

(38) Ibid., I, xix, 252; ix, 115.

(39) Apologia pro vita sua, p. 58; Mozley, II, 285-286.

(40) Essays Critical and Historical (“John Davison, Fellow of Oriel”), p. 418; Apologia, pp. 123, 159, 161; For earlier views, see Mozley, I, 112, 114, 117; Also, for change, see II, 310-311.

(41) Essays Critical and Historical, p. 414.

(42) “Santa Croce Papers”, in Placid Murray, O.S.B., Newman the Oratorian (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, Ltd., 1969), p. 416.

(43) Charles S. Dessain, ed., Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman (Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson & Sons, Ltd., 1961), XIII (?), 374; See also, XII, 46-47, Newman to F.S. Bowles, 21 February, 1847; “Oratory Papers” (V & VI) in Murray, pp. 210, 342-343; “Santa Croce Papers”, Murray, pp. 403-412.

(44 “Oratory Papers”, V, Murray, pp. 206-207; Dessain, XI, 305, Newman to J.D. Dalgairns, 31 December, 1846.

(45) Newman to Froude, January 9, 1830, in Mozley, I, 220.

(46) Newman to Lady Georgiana Fullerton, 27 July, 1853, Dessain, XV, 402-403; On Jesuits, whom he nevertheless thought to be too inflexible, Essay on Development of Doctrine (London: W. Blanchard & Sons, 1845), pp. 427-428; Sermons Preached on Various Occasions (London: Burns & Lambert, 1858), p. 311; “Oratory Papers”, in Murray, 210-211.

(47) First quotation in Murrray, 445, on the Oratorian vocation; Second, in Newman to A. Hutchinson, Dessain, X, 426, 447; Third in “Oratory Papers”, XXV, Murray, pp. 334-335; See, also, letters to Mozley, II, 305-309, 310-311, 348; On problem of vows as “wont of faith” and fear that it would not be “given us to do our duty as the day comes”, see Sermons Bearing on Subjects of the Day (London: J.G. Rivington, 1843), 53-55, and Newman to Froude in Mozley, I, 220.

(48) Parochial and Plain Sermons, I, vi, 73-74.

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