book cover imageJohn Henry Newman: A View of Catholic Faith for the New Millennium
by John R. Connolly.
Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005, pp. xviii+162. cloth $90; paper: $30.

With this book, Connolly, a professor at Loyola Marymount, hopes to reach not only theologians and philosophers, but undergraduates and interested non-academics. Connolly’s introduction to Newman is different than most others in circulation that focus either on his spirituality or a broad overview of his thought. Connolly includes a brief biography of Newman’s life, but all numbered chapters except the last are tightly focused on Newman’s views of faith, reason, and their interrelation.

The first chapter provides an overview of the book, treating briefly but generally accurately Newman’s first conversion and then surveying his shifting notions of faith as evidenced in the University Sermons. The early, Evangelical-influenced Newman, says Connolly, tended to oppose faith as a “moral quality” to reason as a generally “secular,” or, perhaps, “worldly” faculty, though in his citation to the University Sermons reads that reason “is opposed as such to the moral qualities, and to Faith.” Reason may be worldly, but faith is not a moral quality for Newman.

Newman’s sermons do, however, speak of faith as a form of “implicit reason” relying on the famous “antecedent considerations” whose importance he learned from Butler. “Implicit reason” in Newman’s formulation is simply “the process of our reasoning,” which is often unconscious. Explicit reasoning, conversely, is a sort of handmaid in “analyzing” or “reflecting” upon the evidences for faith. This “personalism,” Connolly adds, made Newman suspicious to Roman theologians upon reception into the Catholic Church, prompting his attempt to recast his own thought in the scholastic terminology of the 1840s and 50s. While Connolly, like most modern academic theologians, celebrates Newman’s eventual abandonment of scholastic categories, his second chapter shows Newman benefited from them.

“Human Faith and Divine Faith” begins with the ambiguous nature of the early Catholic attempts to treat of human and divine faith. By the late 1840s divine faith and human faith are seen as two aspects of one act, while by 1853 Newman seems to believe one could reach some practical and speculative judgments of divine faith without the help of grace. The difficulty in assessing Newman’s views is that the evidence exists mostly in papers never meant for publication. What is clear is that Newman’s reflections on the distinction between human and divine faith are honed by the Roman theological categories he learned, particularly that of the material and formal objects of faith (fides quae and fides qua).

Newman’s ambiguity about the certitude of human faith lessens when he recognizes that human faith and divine faith are each distinct acts with different material and formal objects. While human faith’s material object is “the revelatio, or the fact of revelation” itself, divine faith’s material object is not the fact of revelation, but the revealed truths themselves. The formal object of human faith is the acceptance of the credibility of revelation based on an informal reasoning process, while for divine faith it is the “acceptance of the revealed truths as true through grace on the authority of the Word of God revealing.” Newman came to the conclusion that “revealed truths can only be the object of divine faith and can never be the object of a human faith.” Yet, Connolly observes, Newman did not wish to sort out the relationship of nature and grace within the two acts of one person approaching the one God. As Connolly successfully argues, Newman simply does not treat the supernatural aspect of divine faith in that work.

It is understandable that even a talented student of Newman like Ferreira might slip up in sorting out the Grammar. The Grammar, published in 1870, was meant to show, in Wilfrid Ward’s words, not only the “personal grounds of belief which the educated and uneducated have in common—grounds largely independent of technical studies and arguments which could be appreciated only by the learned few,” but also “the depth and importance of these informal and personal proofs.” The philosopher Mary Geach is said to have thrown the book across the room halfway through, but persisted after her mother, G. E. M. Anscombe, told her that the effort was more than worthwhile. Connolly’s third chapter, “Human Certitude,” is a sort of dictionary of Newman’s complicated set of terms as well as a walk-through of the two parts of the Grammar, which aim to prove that 1) one can believe what one cannot understand and that 2) one can believe what one cannot absolutely prove. Connolly suggests that Newman’s comments about the will’s role in certitude usually have more to do with the upholding of certitudes one has already reached rather than the pursuit of certitude itself.

With the terms and mental terrain of the mature Newman defined in the third chapter, the fourth and fifth chapters are a tour de force of additional distinctions and subtle readings. Connolly affirms that the will does have a role in assent to the truths of faith. The will does not force assent, but there is no assent without the will. In part, this is because, though faith is reasonable, one is not logically forced to accept it— what Newman calls the “illative sense,” that spontaneous reasoning faculty which is not, after all, a computer program calculating certainties in mathematical fashion. The whole process is and must be necessarily somewhat ambiguous in the end because grace always permeates the entire process of coming to faith, not as an added variable, but as the breath of God permeating all thought and willing. Newman’s greatness was not in rejecting “Roman” thought altogether, but in showing that “there can be more than one Catholic approach to the evidences for Christian faith.”

Unfortunately, Connolly’s last chapter, “Significance of Newman’s Notion of Faith for Catholic Theology Today,” though not formally abjuring such an evenhanded approach, tends to something less than an equitable depiction of today’s Church, declaring, for example, that the “magisterium of the Catholic Church seems to be intent on reviving” the approach of the manualists: “an exaggerated, and often distorted, version of the intellectual approach to faith.” Connolly is mostly content to sneer somewhat vaguely in this chapter, perhaps because he senses Newman might not be on his side at all here.

Though he gets many aspects right, in the end Connolly still fails to “get” Newman. While generally acknowledging Newman’s deference to authority, all of Connolly’s emphasis in this chapter (and elsewhere) is on Newman’s cries for freedom of thought and discussion in the Church. As an academic theologian, Connolly is not unusual in this emphasis. But Newman’s concerns for intellectual freedom always come second to the needs of ordinary believers who might be disturbed by the loud speculations of intellectuals. Connolly does not cite Newman’s preface to the third edition of the Via Media, which is filled with defenses of Roman “tyranny” even in such a case as Galileo’s.

The first five chapters show Connolly to have mastered much of the music and many of the lyrics of some difficult aspects of Newman’s thought. The last chapter has some of the words right, but a wobbly sense of Newman’s difficult harmonies.  

David Paul Deavel is associate editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and contributing editor for Gilbert Magazine. He has a PhD in theology from Fordham University and is an adjunct professor of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas (MN).