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Cardinal John Henry Newman on
The Corruption of the Church

Taken from: Newman on Being a Christian
by Jan Ker
University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN

The Creed proclaims belief in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. And so the Church also possesses what Newman called "the great Note of the Church" namely sanctity. But if holiness is an essential mark of the Church, then how is it that sin seems also to be a distinctly marked characteristic as well? The difficulty led Newman to develop a veritable theology of the corruption of the Church. . . .

The simplest answer is to point to the Gospels. "Even among the Apostles themselves, one was a ‘Devil,'" remarks Newman: "No wonder then that ever since, whether among rulers or the subjects of the Church, sin has abounded." But in a much less dramatic way the Church in its sinful human members cannot help but seem sinful, and more sinful than holy:

Even supposing there were a society of men influential individually by Christian motives, still this society, viewed as a whole, would be a worldly one; I mean a society holding and maintaining many errors, and countenancing many bad practices. Evil ever floats at the top. And if we inquire why it is that the good in Christians is seen less than the bad? I answer, first, because there is less of it; and secondly, because evil forces itself upon general notice; and good does not. And so, Newman argues, there is an important sense in which the real holiness of the Church is hidden from view:

It is only the actions of others which we see for the most part . . . God only sees the circumstances under which a man acts, and why he acts in this way and not in that. God only sees perfectly the train of thought which preceded his action, the motive, and the reasons . . . Think for a moment, how many hours in the day every man is left wholly to himself and his God, or rather how few minutes he is in intercourse with others — consider this, and you will perceive how it is that the life of the Church is hid with God, and how it is that the outward conduct of the Church must necessarily look like the world, even far more than it really is like it.

Three are words of warning against judging people by their outward behavior, which ought to make us more cautious in our criticisms of the Church, especially perhaps of its leaders:

Consider, moreover, how much there is, while we are in the body, to stand in the way of one mind communicating with another. We are imprisoned in the body, and our intercourse is by means of words, which feebly represent our real feelings. Hence the best motives and truest opinions are misunderstood. However, genuine corruptions in the Church should be no surprise as they were clearly predicted by Christ himself in the Gospels. Newman thought that such prophecies had been visibly fulfilled in the corruptions particularly of the papacy. Later, as a Catholic, he came to see these same corruptions not as evidence that the Church of Rome was the Church of the Antichrist but rather almost as notes of the true Church! For corruption is now seen as inseparable from a living true Church: "Things that do not admit of abuse have very little life in them." And it is this very quality of "life" which Newman insists on as an especial note of the Church: "the Church is emphatically a living body . . . . she alone revives even if she declines; heretical and schismatical bodies cannot keep life."

No only did Christ predict scandals, but in the parable of the tares and the wheat, for example, he spoke of the Church "as in its very constitution made up of good and bad." The corruption of the Church has existed from the time of Judas Iscariot and indeed is so "bound up with the very idea of Christianity" as to be "almost dogma." Given that world is sinful, once "it has poured into the Church, it has insulted and blasphemed the religion which it professed, in a special way, in which heathenism cannot insult it." One would expect, Newman adds, to find greater corruption in the Catholic Church than in the Protestant Church, for "a Protestant world cannot commit that sin which a Catholic world can." When ordinary human weaknesses are "coupled with that intense absolute faith which Catholics have, and Protestants have not," one finds "acts of inconsistency, of superstition, violence etc. which are not to be looked for external to the Catholic Church. In other words, on the old principle that the corruption of the best is the worst, if the claims of the Catholic Church are anything to go by, one would expect to find in it the greatest scandals. In particular, in regard to the papacy, "where you have power, you will have the abuse of power — and the more absolute, the stronger, the more sacred the power, the greater and more certain will be its abuse." Because, too, the Church is a visible polity, it is also "necessarily a political power, and to touch politics is to touch pitch."

Toward the end of his life, Newman tackled the sensitive problem of corruption in a more profoundly theological manner. The Church, he points out, is the mystical body of Christ, who "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 . . . but three offices, which are indivisible, though diverse, viz, teaching, rule, and sacred ministry." It follows that Christianity "is at once a philosophy, a political power, and a religious rite: as a religion, it is Holy; as a philosophy, it is Apostolic; as a political power, it is imperial, that is, One and Catholic. As a religion, its special center of action is pastor and flock; as a philosopher, the Schools; as a rule, the Papacy and its Curia." These three different offices are based on different principles, use different means, and are liable to different corruptions:

Truth is the guiding principle of theology and theological inquires; devotion and edification, of worship, our emotional nature; of rule, command and coercion. Further, in man as he is, reasoning tends to rationalism; devotion to superstition and enthusiasm; and power to ambition and tyranny.

The difficulty of combining all three offices is well illustrated by the question: "What line of conduct, except on the long, the very long run, is at once edifying, expedient, and true?" Certainly, the charism of infallibility protects the Catholic Church from error not only directly in teaching but also "indirectly" in "worship and political action also;" however, "nothing but the gift of impeccability granted to her authorities would secure them from all liability to mistake in their conduct, policy, words and decisions." The problem of exercising these three very different functions "supplies the staple of those energetic charges and vivid pictures of inconsistency, double-dealing, and deceit of the Church of Rome."

Far from blaming the corruptions to be found in the Church on Catholic theology, he observes that "ambition, craft, cruelty, and superstition are not commonly the characteristic of theologians," whereas the alleged corruptions in fact "bear on their face the marks of having a popular or a political origin," and "theology, so far from encouraging them, has restrained and corrected such extravagances as have been committed, through human infirmity, in the exercise of the regal, and sacerdotal powers." Indeed, he adds dramatically, religion is never "in greater trouble than when, in consequence of national or international troubles, the Schools of theology have been broken up and ceased to be." He then gives the reason for this in some of the weightiest words he ever wrote:

I say, then Theology is the fundamental and regulating principle of the whole Church system. It is commensurate with Revelation, and Revelation is the initial and essential idea of Christianity. It is the subject-matter, the formal cause, the expression, of the Prophetical Office, and, as being such, has created in a certain sense a power of jurisdiction over those offices, as being its own creations, theologians being ever in request and in employment in keeping within bounds both the political and popular elements in the Church's constitution — elements which are far more congenial than itself to the human mind, are far more liable to excess and corruption. . .