The Genteel Impostor: Newman’s Social Criticism

By Msgr. Steven Otellini

Pastor, Church of the Nativity (Menlo Park, Calif.)
Thomas Aquinas College Washington, D.C., Board of Regents
Gadsby’s Tavern Museum
Alexandria, Va.
April 21, 2013


Two anecdotal facts about John Henry Newman will help in situating this paper on his social criticism: We are told from various sources that Newman had the most discerning palate for wine in the entire University of Oxford; we are also told that he had a predilection for cold baths in the winter. Anyone who attempts a caricature sketch of Newman’s thought in any field inevitably collides with this enigmatic tension in a so complex and elusive mind.

We are familiar with Newman’s critical analysis of ecclesial life in Victorian England. We know his touchstone principle of antiquity which he applied so ruthlessly to his own Church. Newman’s methods, initially innovative and radical, are now the conventions of the theological science. We seem to forget that the seven principles given in the Development of Doctrine are not seven independent litmus tests of sound doctrine, but seven strings which must be simultaneously maintained in an harmonic tension.

When I was systematically reading Newman for my thesis, my curiosity was aroused as to this subject of social criticism. We know well what he thought of the religious situation of his Church ad antra; but what did he think of the social situation ad extra? Did he engage in an objective scrutiny of the political, economic and societal mores of Victorian England? Was he as critical of ruthless prime ministers as he was of slumbering bishops? The answers to such an inquiry are found, as one expects in Newman, in no systematic treatise “de societate perfecta”; instead, they must be carefully gleaned from tangential sources. And we must always keep in mind this fine balance of complementary views. Here is a man, after all, who on one page can write the memorable phrase “England, surely, is the paradise of little men, and the purgatory of great ones” [D.A., p. 343], and a few pages later concede: “I suppose, England is...the best country to live in the world” [D.A., p. 353].

Newman’s remarks about his society can be classified under four general headings: 1. The dangers of wealth, 2. The shallowness of public opinion,_ 3. The abandonment of conscience, and 4. A gentleman’s culture. While, clearly, there is much overlapping in these categories, still they are distinct enough to offer a structure for assembling ideas which Newman held with substantial consistency throughout his entire life.


In a sermon preached on St. Matthew’s Day, 1835, Newman queries whether the contemporary neglect of scriptural teaching about the dangers of riches is because of genuine unconcern about the topic or a subtle denial instigated by misgivings over raising the question “...which cannot be safely or comfortably discussed by the Christian world at this day...” [P.S. TI, p. 344]. Certainly, in a society whose Church had lost the witness to evangelical poverty in the suppression of the religious orders, merely raising the question from the pulpit of St. Mary’s before the sons of England’s ruling class must have seemed ominous. Newman hastens to justify himself with the example of St. Matthew, saying that “...ministers, may use great freedom of speech, and state unreservedly the peril of wealth and gain...” [P.S. II, p. 357]. Yet, Newman does not assume the role of a prophet of social reform. He says the message must be given without “harshness” or “uncharitableness,” and that the teaching on poverty is of a general character without insistence as to what are the obligations of individuals.

Newman makes a distinction of some importance between the dangers of acquiring wealth, and of possessing wealth. Each has a particular peril. For us this may seem quite academic, but to an age where landed wealth was perpetuated hereditarily with no taxes, and where there was a rising entrepreneurial class aspiring to position, it was an obvious distinction.

The pursuit of wealth was detrimental to the person because it created great anxieties over the acquisition and retention of money. He could not give himself wholeheartedly to religious pursuits. The making of money tends to allow the acquirer to idolize himself, and feel self-satisfied with his own power. He will become possessive of what was hard won; and, there is a tendency to unfairness connected with such dealings. It can also be a kind of denial of Christ’s assurances not to worry over such preoccupations.

The possession of wealth, for Newman, has a different pathology. It is the “carnal security” which it gives which is most insidious. Worldly possessions replace the “One Object” of supreme devotion. Possessiveness is a most difficult vice to remove, precisely because it is so subtle: “Religious men are able to repress, nay extirpate sinful desires, the lust of the flesh and of the eyes, gluttony, drunkenness, and the like ... but as to wealth, they cannot easily rid themselves of a secret feeling that it gives them a footing to stand upon, an importance, a superiority; and in consequence they get attached to this world, lose sight of the duty of bearing the Cross...” [P.S. II, pp. 347-8].

While monetary wealth comes under particular scrutiny, Newman, reflecting a Calvinistic disdain for comfort, attacks any kind of thing that contributes to “easy living” which, in turn, could seduce one into a sense of self-sufficiency; we like “ have things our own way, to be the centre of a sort of world, whether of things animate or inanimate, which minister to us” [P.S. VII, p. 98]. These too lead to false idols. While admitting that material things may offer comforts and pleasures which all but obscure our destiny, Newman, is not so simple as to suggest that poverty automatically renders one a saint: “A hard life is, alas!, no certain method of becoming spiritually minded, but it is one out the means by which Almighty God makes us so” [P.S. V, 337]. In the end, Newman reiterates that all the scriptural evidence is against riches and that “...according to the rule of the Gospel, the absence of wealth is, as such, a more blessed and a more Christian state that the possession of it.” [P.S. II, p. 346].

Newman is admirably consistent in applying this principle of avoiding comfort even to church decor. In Tract 40, he condemns “the luxurious and fashionable fitting up of town churches.” In an essay written about the Episcopal Church in America, he chides the decadence of “well-warmed chapels, softly cushioned pews and eloquent speakers” [Ess. I, p. 350]. Newman reminds his congregation, in an Advent sermon, that the dark and chill of the season are appropriate to penitents, mourners, watchers, and pilgrims. And then, in one of the most eloquent apologies ever spoken for a lack of central heating, he states: “More dear to them that loneliness, more cheerful that severity, and more bright that gloom, than all those aids and appliances of luxury by which men nowadays attempt to make prayer less disagreeable to them. True faith does not covet comforts. It only complains when it is forbidden to kneel, when it reclines upon cushions, is protected by curtains, and encompassed by wealth” [P.S. V, p. 2].

Lest one should confuse human comfort with rich ornament, Newman clearly felt that splendor and pomp had their place in church decoration. The saintly counterpart to worldly pomp was the Church arrayed in all its loveliness, both material and spiritual. While courts and palaces could tempt one to idolatry, the display of the Church exalts holiness “...that meekness might be set up on high as well as pride, and sanctity become our ambition as well as luxury” [P.S. VI, pp. 288-9]. Miserliness in church appointments had no place in Newman’s thought. On the contrary, the use of precious materials in the house of God was their rightful “sacramental” application. Newman must have had in mind his trip to Italy when he said in a sermon, “Go through the countries where His name is known, and you will find all that is rarest and most wonderful in nature or art has been consecrated to Him. Kings’ palaces are poor, whether in architecture or decoration, compared with the shrines which have been reared to Him” [P.S. VI, pp. 285¬6].

Newman had no time for the faithless critics of beautiful churches, or “spiritual” brethren who eschewed display. To the first he said: “ is the way of the world to be most sensitively jealous of over-embellishment in the worship of God, while it has no scruples or misgivings whatever at an excess of splendour and magnificence in its own apparel, houses, furniture, equipages, and establishments” [P.S. VI, P. 307]. To the religious philistine he responds: “Persons who put aside gravity and comeliness in the worship of God, that they may pray more spiritually, forget that God is a Maker of all things, visible as well as invisible...” [P.S. VI, P. 304].

Newman forcefully chastises his fellow countrymen in a sermon preached in 1839 on this theme of material goods and their proper ends: “I say it is the way with us Englishmen, who are the richest people on earth, to lay out our wealth upon ourselves; and when the thought crosses our minds, if it ever does, that such an application of God’s bounties is unworthy [of] those who are named after Him who was born in a stable, and died upon the Cross, we quiet them by asking, ‘What is the use of all the precious things which God has given us, if we may not enjoy them?’... I have already suggested the true answer to this difficulty ... Give them to God” [P.S. VI, pp. 307-8].

Newman’s warning that the pursuit or possession of wealth can lead to idolatry or a false sense of self-sufficiency is the same critique he will level at those who insist too much upon their political or social privileges as rights. For Newman these were duties which carried heavy responsibilities, ultimately the responsibility of saving one’s soul. Involvement in political life was one of those worldly “excitements,” together with gaming, the theater, dancing, etc., which distract the Christian from preparation as a citizen of the New Jerusalem. In his disdain for politics, Newman grudgingly concedes: “The greatest privilege of a Christian is to have nothing to do with worldly politics, to be governed and to submit obediently; and though here again selfishness may creep in, and lead a man to neglect public concerns in which he is called to take his share, yet, after all, such participation must be regarded as a duty, scarcely as a privilege” [P.S. II, p. 352].

It may be noted that so far in this presentation of Newman’s thought on the dangers of wealth, nothing has been said from what we would consider an essential perspective, that is the question of social responsibility or the equitable distribution of wealth. Newman says very little about this. His concern is more with the individual, and the spiritual damage done to the person by the pursuit or possession of wealth. I have found only one reference where Newman does speak along the lines of social justice, in his Difficulties of Anglicans: “Now, were it to my present purpose to attack the principle and proceedings of the world, of course it would be obvious for me to retort upon the cold, cruel, selfish system, which this supreme worship of comfort, decency, and social order necessarily introduces; to show you how the many are sacrificed to the few, the poor to the wealthy, how an oligarchical monopoly of enjoyment is established far and wide, and the claims of want, and pain, and sorrow, and affliction, and guilt, and misery are practically forgotten” [v. I, p. 252].


Newman was not a popularist. Everything in his nature was against it. He was shy; he retained a sense of “election”; he had an acute sense of separateness from the world. His motto as a cardinal, selected from St. Francis de Sales, was “Cor ad cor loquitur”; he believed with every breath he took that communication of truth, divine truth, could only occur with personal contact. Mass movements, the mobilization of crowds were ideas, if not completely repugnant to him, at least very foreign. He was an acknowledged poor leader of men. His genius, his extreme sensitivity, his idiosyncrasies all conspired to make him a solitary warrior, as was his great hero Athanasius. It is no wonder that such a man should hold so low an esteem of public opinion. In a University Sermon preached in 1831, he argues that the broad reception of any principle indicates its “earthly” character. Divine truth is attested to, not by popular acceptance, but by its ability in “...elevating the moral character.” The reason for this state of affairs is not that it is willingly hid from mankind, but because of the contagion of a “perverse freedom” [U.S., pp. 41-2].

If this is the case with first principles, then, Newman felt, that lesser questions of a political, social, or religious nature would be even more chaotic when set before the public. He may concede “plain good sense” to the multitude, but practically, it was rarely exhibited. If the public was to be won over, Newman declared, it was necessary to avoid logical arguments and rely on appeals to prejudice, or fears; one side or another of a question may have to be exaggerated to win support. The conclusion is sobering: “And thus government and the art of government becomes, as much as popular religion, hollow and unsound” [P.S. V, pp. 36¬7].

Public opinion is then not an “intelligent” act, but an act of imagination which speaks an authority of numbers. How does one combat false public opinion? Newman answers: “Arguments are the fit weapons with which to assail an erroneous judgement, but assertions and actions must be brought to bear against a false imagination” [H.S. III, p. 3].

While failure to apply good logic is one reason for false public opinion, Newman admits also that laziness is another: “Most men in this country like opinions to be brought to them, rather than to be at pains to go out and seek them ... Hence the extreme influence of periodical publications at this day, quarterly, monthly, or daily ... the Englishman ... is best on action, but as to opinion he takes what comes, only he bargains not to be teased or troubled by it” [O.5., pp. 149-50].

The moral danger inherent in all this is the ease by which personal responsibility evaporates. One assumes “the whole world” thinks in this way, but no one claims to be answerable. An opinion takes hold and is spread as “commonly held”, then indeed it becomes lodged in the public mind. If the adopted position is, in fact, immoral, Newman does not hesitate to call it sin, even if the public does not, and hides behind the cloak of crowd anonymity. “Men call themselves the nation when they sin in a body, and think that the nation, being a name, has nothing to answer for...” [P.S. IV, pp. 96-7].

Newman took on fickle public opinion concretely during the Crimean War. In March of 1855 he wrote a long, pseudonymous letter to The Catholic Standard, pointing out that public opinion which by then had tired of the war, had originally embraced the adventure. Implacable Englishmen wanted the benefits of a strong State in war, but insisted on the benefits of a weak State in peace. Clearly it could not be had both ways. The article was entitled “Who is to blame?” Newman answers in conclusion, “They are to blame, the ignorant, intemperate public, who clamour for an unwise war, and then, when it turns out otherwise than they expected, instead of acknowledging their fault, proceed to beat their zealous servants in the midst of the fight for not doing impossibilities” [D.A., p. 362].

Lest one should accuse Newman of absolute snobism, he does have sympathetic things to say about the common man. For example, when speaking about the jury system in England, he states two advantages: First there is the identification of the jurymen with the established order; they can feel they have a stake in the common good. Second, Newman defends juries with this reasoning: “...a still more plausible defence, I think, may be found in the consideration of the inexpediency of suffering the tradition of Law to flow separate from that of popular feeling, whereas there ought to be a continual influx of the national mind into the judicial conscience” [D.A., p.347].


Newman’s understanding of conscience was one of the first principles of his thought. It was this way from his earliest recollections till the end of his long life. Conscience was that natural guide which taught us three things: 1). The personal responsibility for our actions, 2). The impossibility of transferring that responsibility to another, and 3). The dereliction of our moral duty involves punishment. To say that fear played a large part in Newman’s faith would not be wrong. He was frank about the demands of conscience: “Now conscience is a stern, gloomy principle; it tells us of guilt and of prospective punishment” [P.S. I, p. 312].

Insofar as “religions of barbarism” preserved this primordial guide of conduct, expressed in “frightful presentiments,” they were superior to, what Newman called, the “religions of civilization.” Religions of civilization replaced conscience with other things, e.g. civil laws, the rule of expediency, or beauty. This is so because a civilized religion emphasizes the intellect. “...[T]his civilization itself is not a development of man’s whole nature, but mainly of the intellect, recognizing indeed the moral sense, but ignoring conscience” [G.A., p. 396].

This phenomenon of the abandonment of conscience Newman saw first exemplified in ancient Greece, where “beauty” had replaced conscience. It was not isolated to the Athenian philosophers, however; Newman says that this substitution “ especially congenial to men of an imaginative and poetical cast of mind...” [Idea, p. 193]. Victorian England merely fell into line with other civilized societies, “Conscience has rights because it has duties, but in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience...” [Diff. II, p. 250].

With conscience gone, the objective element of religion fades away since there is no appeal to the Lawgiver; people’s faith becomes an opinion, and sin becomes mere regret. With this natural guardian of truth gone, perverse human instinct takes over and sweeps away from religion that which is “dark and deep.” Only the cheerful side of Christianity is embraced: “Accordingly, when its terrors disappear, then disappear also, in the creed of the day, those fearful images of Divine wrath with which the Scriptures abound ... Every thing is bright and cheerful. Religion is pleasant and easy, benevolence is the chief virtue; intolerance, bigotry, excess of zeal, are the first sins” [P.S. I, p. 313]. Edmund Burke’s “Valediction to the Spirit of Chivalry” epitomized this whole spiritual degradation. Newman observes in comment: “...[here] we have too apt an illustration of the ethical temperament of a civilized age. It is detection not the sin, which is the crime; private life is sacred, and inquiry into it is intolerable; and decency is virtue” [Idea, p. 201].

With the dissolution of the objective element of religion which conscience assures, the demands of Christianity over and against society disappear. Religion is absorbed into culture; this already happened in Newman’s time. What he foresaw and forewarned against was an emergent pantheism, a religion with no restraints which was both speculative and self-indulgent. “Pantheism”, said Newman, “indeed, is the great deceit which awaits the Age to come” [D.A., p. 233].


The unraveling of the spiritual foundation of society which the abandonment of conscience catalyzed, Newman labeled with the apposite philosophy of Liberalism. In his “Biglietto” speech, he called opposition to Liberalism his life’s work. In 1874 he could look back with regret on the battles lost: “No one can dislike the democratic principle more than I do. No one mourns, for instance, more than I, over the state of Oxford, given up, alas! to liberalism and progress” [Diff., p. 268]. This was no surprise to Newman however. Forty years earlier he had already recognized the abandonment of the Church by the established powers of the State, i.e. the king and the aristocracy; and, with regret, he admonished that churchmen must now “look to the people” for support. His consolation was that this was the more scriptural view and that “... the poor are her members with a peculiar suitableness, and by a special right” [H.S. I, p. 341]. Remembering Newman’s estimation of public opinion, we see this as a great concession on his part.

Newman was an eminent pessimist (some would say realist) when attributing motives to society: “The world believes in the world’s ends as the greatest of goods; it wishes society to be governed simply and entirely for the sake of the world. Provided it could gain one little islet in the ocean, one foot upon the coast, if it could cheapen tea by a sixpence a pound, or make its flag respected among the Esquimaux of Otahetians, at the cost of a hundred lives and a hundred souls, it would think it a very good bargain” [Diff. I, p.235]. Newman asks the rhetorical question as to English society’s motivation for supporting the Church: “Is it not as plain as day, that the mass of persons who support the Church in her legal privileges, do so, not so much because they care for the Kingdom of the Saints, as because they think that the downfall of our civil institutions is involved in her downfall? [S.D., p. 273]. He has no doubt that there are temporal or political benefits for a Christian society. He lists them in various places as the following: It makes men contented and obedient subjects; it keeps the lower orders from outbreaks; it takes a firm stand against rebellion, sedition, conspiracy and fanaticism; it is the best guarantee of private property; it has abolished great social anomalies, and raised the tone of morality; it has elevated the female sex to its proper dignity, protected the lower classes, destroyed slavery, and encouraged literature and philosophy. The problem is that people both within and outside the Church considered them the primary or exclusive benefits of Christianity, while ignoring the real aim: “...the unseen and spiritual blessings which are its true and proper gifts” [S.D., p. 273].

Newman’s great fear was that this “liberal” attitude engendered only a superficial adherence to Christianity in most people. He imagined that little would change in their lives if “...they believed Christianity to be a fable” [P.S., p. 301], or if Christianity ceased to be the religion of England. This state of affairs he described this way: “They are polished in manners, kind from natural disposition of a feeling of propriety. Thus their religion is based upon self and the world, a mere civilization...” [P.S. I, p. 30].

All of what has been said is preliminary to introducing Newman’s most favored convention for criticizing the society of his day: his distrust of the “gentleman.” It is a theme which runs from sermons he preached as an Anglican through his Grammar of Assent in 1870. The “gentleman” was the archetypical emanation of civilization. He represented the best and the worst of civilization. Newman found fault in the ideal not so much in what qualities it circumscribed, but in what it omitted and chose to ignore.

Newman remarks in his Idea of a University that it is far easier to find examples of gentlemen than saints. The reason should be obvious: “The world is content with setting right the surface of things; the Church aims at regenerating the very depths of the heart” [Idea, p. 203]. So Newman sees the gentleman as superficial. In this he has many literary precedents from Horace to Moliere; but Newman’s objection does not vent itself in high satire and then depart with good-fellow handshakes all around. There is genuine danger; in Newman’s view, something is being disguised: “The splendours of a’ court, and the charms of good society, wit, imagination, taste, and high breeding, the prestige of rank, and the resources of wealth, are a screen, an instrument, and an apology for vice and irreligion” [Idea, p. 202]. What is being hidden by the fine ways of genteel society is original sin: “What, indeed, is the very function of society, as it is at present, but a rude attempt to cover the degradation of the fall, and to make men feel respect for themselves, and enjoy it in the eyes of others, without returning to God” [P.S. VIII, p.266]. What is missing is virtue which comes with holiness; and any attempt to supplant the role of virtue with that of liberal education is futile: “Quarry the granite rocks with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and pride of man” [Idea, p. 121].

In presenting his blueprint for the Catholic University of Ireland he was sent to found, Newman makes it clear that he is not seeking to transplant some English ideal “...of that antiquated variety of human nature and remnant of feudalism...called ‘a gentleman” [Idea, p. X]. The gentleman’s superficial moral illusion had also an intellectual counterpart. There was, in Newman’s view, the danger of dilettantism in this discarded English ideal: “They know just enough on all subjects, in literature, history, politics, philosophy, and art to be able to converse sensibly on them, and to understand those who are really deep in one or other of them. This is what is called, with a special appositeness, a gentleman’s knowledge, as contrasted with that of a professional man, and is neither worthless nor despicable, if used for its proper ends; but it is never more than the furniture of the mind...” [G.A., p. 155]. What he is striving for instead is “...the versatility of intellect, the command over our own powers, the instinctive just estimate of things as they pass before us...” [Idea, p. XVI]. Newman does not disparage the ideals of the gentleman when seen for what they are: “ is well to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life; they are the objects of a University ... but still, I repeat, they are no guarantee for sanctity or even for conscientiousness...” [Idea, p. 120]. Just as the world may mistake culture for religion, and information for education, so too the outward qualities of the gentleman and the Christian may be confused: “ is an especial fault of the present day, to mistake the false security of the man of the world for the composure, cheerfulness, and benevolence of the true Christian” [U.S., p. 102”.

All this being said, it is of supreme irony that time and again Newman’s famous definition of a gentleman is hauled out for graduations or retirements, either to inspire or eulogize, all without the slightest circumspection that what has been said is not a desideratum but a caveat. Has the gloom of paganism settled so firmly over us? We would do well to read on another paragraph beyond the usual citation: “Such are some of the lineaments of the ethical character, which the cultivated intellect will form, apart from religious principle. They are seen within the pale of the Church and without it, in holy men, and in profligate; they form the beau-ideal of the world; they partly assist and partly distort the development of the Catholic. They may subserve the education of a St. Francis de Sales or a Cardinal Pole; they may be the limits of the contemplation of a Shaftesbury or a Gibbon. Basil and Julian were fellow-students at the school of Athens; and one became the Saint and Doctor of the Church, the other her scoffing and relentless foe” [Idea, p.211].

Posted: June 7, 2013

Msgr. Steven Otellini
Matthew Duggan (’18)

“When you’re discussing the great works you have to assimilate what’s being said by the author to your own understanding. Rather than passively receiving information, we’re becoming self-learners and independent thinkers, making the great ideas our own.”

– Matthew Duggan (’18)

Wayzata, Minnesota

“I am full of admiration for what the College, its founders, its leadership, its faculty and staff, and its students and alumni have achieved.”

– George Cardinal Pell

Archbishop of Sydney