(This article has already appeared in GREGORIANUM 68, 1-2
, pages 339-346).
"What is the province of the laity? To hunt, to shoot, to
entertain," (1) wrote Monsignor George Talbot in protest at the
position John Henry Newman had expressed in his article On Consulting
the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, which was
published in the Rambler in July, 1859. As John Coulson
says of Newman, "his publication of this essay was an act of
political suicide from which his career within the Church was never
fully to recover; at one stroke he, whose reputation is
the one honest broker between the extremes of English Catholic opinion
had hitherto stood untarnished, gained the Pope's personal displeasure,
the reputation at Rome of being the most dangerous man in England, and a
formal accusation of heresy proffered against him by the Bishop of
Talbot's conception of the laity has since been caricatured in the
remark that the laity are in the Church to "pray up, pay up and
shut up!" The nub of Talbot's anxiety was plain: "if a check
not be placed on the laity in England they will be the rulers of the
Catholic Church instead of the Holy See and the Episcopate". (3)
Even Bishop Ullathorne, Newman's Ordinary, could ask, "Who are
the laity?" As Newman noted, "I answered (not in these words)
that the Church would look foolish without them". (4)
The purpose of this note is to recall the occasion of Newman's
article, to outline its content, and to indicate briefly his initiatives
on behalf of the laity,
When 1859 began there was a debate in progress in England about
elementary education. The government wanted to see more and more
elementary schools established. It provided subsidies for their funding,
and it appointed a commission whose representatives were to see that
this money was well spent and that schooling was extended to all
classes. The main providers of schools were the religious denominations.
How were they to maintain their denominational integrity if they were to
be subjected to public control?
A number of educated Catholic laity took the view that cooperation
between the Catholic Church and the commission was not only possible, it
was also advisable since the quality of education in Catholic elementary
schools would be seen to be high, and the prejudice that Catholics make
bad citizens would be put to flight. The commission's
representatives would not be concerned with the content of religious
education but with its method.
The Catholic bishops declined to cooperate in this way. Perhaps they
would have cooperated if they had been guaranteed that the commission's
representatives would have been Catholics. In fact, they probably could
have secured that, but they were too slow at the time. Before the
decision of the bishops became public, articles were already appearing
in the Rambler advancing the contrary policy. This was not
intentional contradiction of the bishops, but some embarrassment was
caused by it. In the first number of the Rambler to come under
Newman's control as editor, that of May 1859, he printed an apology to
the bishops, and then went on to explain his own point of view:
"Acknowledging, then, most fully the prerogatives of the
episcopate, we do unfeignedly believe, both from the reasonableness of
the matter, and especially from the prudence, gentleness ,and
considerateness which belong to them personally, that their Lordships
really desire to know the opinion of the laity on subjects in which the
laity are especially concerned. If even in the preparation of a dogmatic
definition the faithful are consulted, as lately in the instance of the
Immaculate Conception, it is at least as natural to anticipate such an
act of kind feeling and sympathy in great practical questions, out of
the condescension which belongs to those who are forma facti gregis
ex animo. If our words or tone were disrespectful, we deeply
grieve and apologise for such a fault; but surely we are not
disrespectful in thinking, and in having thought, that the bishops would
like to know the sentiments of an influential portion of the laity
before they took any step which perhaps they could not recall. Surely it
was no disrespect towards them to desire that they have the laity
rallying round them on the great question of education…". (5)
There were immediate objections, especially to his wanting to see the
laity "consulted". Bishop Ullathorne suggested that he give up
editing the Rambler, so after preparing the next
number for July, Newman did so; but it was that number which contained
his famous article.
Newman's argument has three parts:
1. He explains what he means by "consult". We may consult a
barometer about the weather, or a watch about the time of day. "A
physician consults the pulse of his patient; but not in the same sense
in which his patient consults him". (6) Newman then returns to his
earlier assertion that, in the preparation of a dogmatic definition, the
faithful are consulted. "Doubtless their advice, their opinion,
their judgement on the question of definition is not asked; but the
matter of fact, viz. their belief, is sought for, as testimony to that
apostolical tradition, on which alone any doctrine whatsoever can be
2. "Then follows the question, Why? and the answer is plain,
viz. because the body of the faithful is one of the witnesses to the
fact of the tradition of revealed doctrine, and because their consensus
through Christendom is the voice of the infallible Church".
Then follows the famous paragraph:
"I think I am right in saying that the tradition of the
Apostles, committed to the whole Church in its various constituents and
functions per modum unius, manifests itself variously at
various times: sometimes by the mouth of the episcopacy, sometimes by
the doctors, sometimes by the people, sometimes by liturgies, rites,
ceremonies, and customs, by events, disputes, movements, and all those
other phenomena which are comprised under the name of history. It
follows that none of those channels of tradition may be treated with
disrespect: granting at the same time fully, that the gift of
discerning, discriminating, defining, promulgating, and enforcing any
portion of that tradition resides solely in the Ecclesia docens".
He goes on to explain how he came to lay such great stress on the consensus
fidelium. For many years he had had a difficulty, the point of
which was, "that up to the date of the definition of certain
articles of doctrine respectively, there was so very deficient evidence
from existing documents that bishops, doctors, theologians held
them". Newman discussed his difficulty in 1847 in Rome with Perrone
and was much impressed by Perrone's belief in the consensus fidelium
"as a compensation for whatever deficiency there might be of
patristical testimony in behalf of various points of the Catholic
dogma". Drawing on Perrone's book on the Immaculate Conception,
Newman explains Perrone's treatment of the historical fact of the
sensus fidelium, the relation of the sensus fidelium to
the sensus Ecclesiae, the various instrumenta
traditionis "so that the strength of one makes up in a
particular case for the deficiency of another", and the force of
the sensus fidelium "as distinct (not separate) from the
teaching of their pastors". (9)
A few years after Perrone's book appeared, Pius IX issued an
Encyclical Letter requiring the bishops to ascertain the feeling of the
clergy and the faithful both towards the doctrine of the Immaculate
Conception and its definition. Then, in 1854 the definition was issued,
with Pius IX explaining that although he had already known the
sentiments of the bishops, he had wished to know the sentiments of the
people also. His language is a loud echo of Perrone's treatise. Newman
summarises and comments: "Conspiratio; the two, the
Church teaching, and the Church taught, are put together, as one twofold
testimony, illustrating each other, and never to be divided". (10)
3. The third section of Newman's article is the longest. He begins it
by showing the various ways in which the consent of the faithful is to
be regarded: "1. as a testimony of the fact of the apostolical
dogma; 2. as a sort of instinct, or fronhma,
deep in the bosom of the mystical body of Christ; 3. as a direction of
the Holy Ghost; 4. as an answer to its prayer; 5. as a jealousy of
error, which it at once feels as a scandal". (11)
Newman's first book had been The Arians of the Fourth Century.
He turns now to one of the great lessons he had learned in his
researches for that book, "that in that time of immense confusion
the divine dogma of our Lord's divinity was proclaimed, enforced,
maintained, and (humanly speaking) preserved, far more by the Ecclesia
docta than by the Ecclesia docens, that the body of
the episcopate was unfaithful to its commission, while the body of the
laity was faithful to its baptism..." (12) Most of this section of
Newman's article consists of quotations from ancient authorities to show
that the Nicene dogma was maintained during the greater part of the
fourth century "1. not by the unswerving firmness of the Holy See,
Councils, or bishops, but 2. by the consensus fidelium".
At the end, Newman observes that "if ever there was an age which
might dispense with the testimony of the faithful, and leave the
maintenance of the truth to the pastors of the Church, it is the age in
which we live", and he speculates that it is because the bishops
are so united to the Holy See and so dutiful that the consensus
fidelium has fallen into the background. "Yet each constituent
portion of the Church, has its proper functions, and no portion can
safely be neglected. Though the laity be but the reflection or echo of
the clergy in matters of faith, yet there is something in the pastorum
et fidelium conspiratio, which is not in the pastors alone".
In 1871 Newman shortened and slightly revised his article and
reissued it as an appendix to his new edition of The Arians of the
Fourth Century. (15) There are some modifications, e.g.
"...in speaking of the laity, I speak inclusively of their
parish-priests (so to call them), at least in many places"; but the
substance of his argument remained unchanged.
One of the confusions that has arisen is that Newman uses the word consult
in two different ways. With regard to the education issue, he
had wanted the bishops to enter into dialogue with knowledgeable laity
about the provision of elementary schools. In matters of doctrine,
though, the laity are to be questioned/consulted about what they hold,
what they believe. "In most cases when a definition is
contemplated, the laity will have a testimony to give; but if ever there
be an instance when they ought to be consulted, it is in the case of
doctrines which bear directly upon devotional sentiments". (16)
(This remark is not without its significance for liturgists. In a note
of 1865 Newman declared, "The people have a special right to
interfere in questions of devotion"). (17) However, the confusion
is resolved if Newman is understood to extend consultation in the
sense that since the laity are to be consulted in matters of
doctrine as to fact, then they may, and ought to be, consulted in
pastoral matters as to policy in those things that most concern them and
in which they have a particular expertise.
As a theologian Newman held a "high" doctrine of the
episcopate and a "high" doctrine of the priesthood; but his
theology of the Church was whole, and be held a "high"
doctrine of the laity too. He did not pit pastor and flock against each
other, but rather sought to promote a full life and mission of the
Church in which each part and each person has a proper contribution to
make, the contributions complementing, not rivalling each other.
The historical lesson which Newman learned from his study of the
Arians was to be reinforced by his experience as effective leader of the
Oxford Movement in trying to renew the Church of England. "Yet, I
confess, Tory as I still am, theoretically and historically, I begin to
be a Radical practically. Do not let me misrepresent myself. I, of
course, think that the most natural and becoming state of things is for
the aristocratical power to be the upholder of the Church; yet I cannot
deny the plain fact that in most ages the latter has been based on a
popular power". (18) In the same year, 1833, in his series
of articles on The Church of the Fathers, he wrote,
"I shall offend many men when I say, we must look to the people"
(Newman's italics)...; "...our influence is to depend on them,
yet the sacraments reside with us". (19)
Those discoveries of the significance of the laity in the Nicene
history and theology and in the Church of England in the 1830s took
Newman's perspective beyond the confines of his own social class and
privileged background. Not that he promoted mass movements in the
Church: on the contrary he believed that the Gospel is best spread by
the personal influence of individuals. When he gave his lectures On
the Present Position of Catholics in England in 1851, he
"Your strength lies in your God and your conscience; therefore
it lies not in your number. It lies not in your number any more than in
intrigue, or combination, or worldly wisdom... Grace ever works by few,
it is the keen vision, the intense conviction, the indomitable resolve
of the few, it is the blood of the martyr, it is the prayer of the
saint, it is the heroic deed, it is the momentary crisis, it is the
concentrated energy of a word or a look, which is the instrument of
Even in his early sermons (as yet unpublished) Newman taught that the
laity, whether rich or poor, literate or not, are called to holiness and
are entrusted with baptismal responsibilities, (21) but this teaching
became a deeper and deeper conviction. By the mid-1830s he was sure: the
maintenance of the faith is the responsibility of the laity, but he did
not know what part they might play in the governance of the Church. (22)
Unfortunately, he never really returned to that question.
There are two characteristics of the laity during the Nicene period,
though, which are particularly important for an understanding of
Newman's mind: 1. they were well catechised, (23) and, 2. they were
faithful to their baptismal promises. (24) Here lies the answer to
Ullathorne's question, "Who are the laity?" They are the
baptized who have received the Creed, who have been properly instructed
in it, and who have entered into the new way of life of the Church, who
nourish their faith and protect their virtue, and who are united around
their bishop. In promoting and mobilizing the laity in 1851, Newman
"I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not
disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who
know just where they stand, who know what they hold, and what they do
not, who know their creed so well, that they can give an account of it,
who know so much of history that they can defend it. I want an
intelligent, well-instructed laity... You ought to be able to bring out
what you feel and what you mean, as well as to feel and mean it".
Newman's famous preaching in and around Oxford during his Anglican
years brought so many men into the Anglican ministry that it is easy to
overlook the fact that his preaching was directed towards the laity as
laity. His notes in the archive of the Birmingham Oratory reveal that he
planned his sermons schematically as courses of Christian instruction.
(26) A study of them would reveal what he meant his congregations
to be by "well catechized" and "faithful to their
His Anglican preaching, however, is only one, albeit the most
important, example of his apostolate among the laity. There were three
initiatives which he took as a Roman Catholic which are also important:
the founding of the Catholic University of Ireland, his establishment of
a school for boys at the Birmingham Oratory, and the very establishment
of the Oratory itself as a community of priests to serve the laity,
after the example of St Philip Neri himself. (27) The Oratory and
the school were happier for him than the University turned out to be.
The Irish bishops who had invited him were not yet ready for Newman's
idea of a University, which included appointing laymen to the
professorships. In 1873 he recalled:
"One of the chief evils which I deplored in the management of
the affairs of the University twenty years ago, was the resolute refusal
with which my urgent representations ever met that the Catholic laity
should be allowed to cooperate with the archbishops in the work. As far
as I can see there are ecclesiastics all over Europe, whose policy is to
keep the laity at arm's length, and hence the laity have been disgusted
and become infidel, and only two parties exist, both ultras in opposite
directions. I came away from Ireland with the distressing fear that in
that Catholic country, in like manner, there was to be an antagonism, as
time went on, between the hierarchy and the educated classes.
"You will be doing the greatest possible benefit to the Catholic
cause all over the world, if you succeed in making the University a
middle station at which clergy and laity can meet, so as to learn to
understand, and to yield to each other—and from which, as from a
common ground, they may act in union upon an age which is running into
Since Newman's day there has been a great revival of lay
responsibility in the Church, but it must be admitted that in some
quarters there is confusion about what the laity might or might not do,
and indeed there are arguments and accusations of being either
priest-ridden or anti-clerical. For those who are confused or even
combative, there are some further clues in Newman's theology which
enlighten the mind and clear the path to the future. According to
Newman, the Church and her development is ordered by God.
The Divine Persons and their attributes do not exist in anarchy or
chaos, but in a perfect, simple harmony and unity. Through the
Incarnation, that perfect order, that Holy Order of God himself enters
into human history, and, after the atoning work of Christ, is set up in
the Church, the Body of Christ, by the agency of the Holy Spirit in the
Church. It is the perfect, Holy Order of God which orders the Church.
The distinction of Persons and unity of Being in God is a major theme
in Newman's writings. We all know from our human experience how true
love unites the lovers, yet differentiates their individuality, indeed
even fosters their individual uniqueness. This is the case humanly
because it is the case in God: the perfect unity of a uniqueness of
Persons. The life and love of the Trinity in the Church is the principle
of order and the guarantee of the uniqueness of parts and roles in a
unity of being and a complementarity of mission. The more godly we are
in our prayer and ecclesial behaviour, the clearer will become the way
ahead, for our love will foster the uniqueness of our several roles and
responsibilities in the structure and mission of the Church, while
ensuring the essential unity in this diversity which is founded on God
1) John Henry Newman, On Consulting the Faithful in Matters
of Doctrine, with an Introduction by John Coulson, London
1961: reissued with a Foreword by Derek Worlock. Archbishop of
Liverpool, London 1986, p. 41.
2) Ibid., p. 2.
3) Ibid., p. 41.
4) Ibid., pp. 18-19.
5) Ibid., pp. 13-14.
6) Ibid., p. 54.
7) Ibid., pp. 54-55.
8) ibid., p. 63.
9) lbid., p. 66,
10) Ibid., p. 71.
11) Ibid., p. 73.
12) Ibid., p. 76.
13) Ibid,, p. 77.
14) Ibid., pp. 103-4.
15) Pp. 445-468 in the standard Longmans edition.
16) Coulson, op. cit., p. 104.
17) J. Derek Holmes (ed.), The Theological Papers of John Henry
Newman on Biblical Inspiration and on Infallibility, Oxford,
1979, p. 104,
18) Anne Mozley (ed.), Letters and Correspondence of
John Henry Newman During His Life in the English Church, 2 vols.
London 1891; Vol. 1, p. 450.
19) J.H. Newman, Historical Sketches, Vol. II, pp. 340-1.
20) J.H. Newman, The Present Position of Catholics in
England, pp. 388, 389-90.
21) E.g. his sermon (unpublished) of 12th September, 1824: "The
Church of God consists of members and each has his own office. Not even
the poorest and most humble but may be promoting the glory of God and
the extension of his Kingdom".
22) Mozley, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 110.
23) Coulson, op. cit., p. 76.
25) J.H. Newman, The Present Position of Catholics
in England, pp. 390-1.
26) Birmingham Oratory Newman Archive, e.g. A.7.B.
27) Cf. Charles Stephen Dessain, Cardinal Newman, the Oratory and
the Laity, published privately by the Birmingham Oratory (no
28) Quoted and discussed by Dwight Culler, The Imperial Intellect.
A Study of Cardinal Newman's Educational Ideal, New Haven, 1955, p.
29) J.H. Newman, Sermons Preached on Various Occasions, pp.
184-5; and Essays Critical and Historical,Vol. II. p. 96.