Blessed John Henry Newman and the Primacy of Peter
Papal Infallibility, Papal Error, and the One Church
"For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard…the revelation..."Pastor Aeternus 4.6
When John Henry Newman explicated the issues of papal primacy and infallibility, he was aware that these topics pose a major stumbling block to most Protestants, in as much as the ideas defined by the definitive statement of Pastor Aeternus states that “the sentence of the Apostolic See (than which there is no higher authority) is not subject to revision by anyone, nor may anyone lawfully pass judgment thereupon." The Protestant rejoinder to this doctrine (which Newman admits to having shared) is that it is completely untenable to accept the pontiff’s solemn and infallible declaration that "there is no higher authority" than the Apostolic See, especially where this authority extends over interpretations of Scripture and Ecumenical Councils. Even the Orthodox tradition claims that it is the Church herself that is “the pillar and foundation of the truth,” and that the mind of the Church is therefore expressed ecumenically, and not by a monarchial pope. On such accounts account, Petrine primacy translates into neither universal, ordinary jurisdiction, nor infallibility. Rather, a college of bishops retains the ultimate jurisdiction, under the primacy of the Apostolic See, as a sort of “chairman of the board” who may, as a first among equals, set the agenda and direct discussion as would a significant figure head, but nothing more.
As Newman anticipates, such an argument holds that the Church’s infallibility and empirical unity cannot reside in the pope as Head, because the Head has historically made doctrinal mistakes: Liberius anathematized Athanasius; Honorius promulgated monothelatism. History thus problematizes the Pastor Aeternus claim that "in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been preserved unblemished, and sacred doctrine been held in honor." Accordingly, Protestants have argued that the Catholic religion of the 7th century was only preserved despite the best efforts of the Apostolic See.
Newman’s responses suggest that the doctrine of papal infallibility proceeds from the conviction that Christ, the single Author of Truth does not contradict Himself in any sources of revelation; by extension, Christ does not in one aspect of the Magisterium (not in the whole episcopate), nor in the other (nor in its leader). Therefore, the papacy's claims need not cause scandal to those who are convinced of the unity of Truth. On the other hand, Newman’s argument suggest that the primacy of the popes is not only a necessary epistemic criterion in the life of the Church vis a’ vis the discerning of God’s revelation, but that furthermore, the papacy is such an essential feature in the hierarchical constitution of the Church that there can be no such thing as an ecumenical council independent of, or in opposition to, the pope, in the same way that no body can perform a corporate function without the cooperation of its head.
Newman’s logic is not of the pope being pitted over and against the Church as a distinct agent; rather, Newman regards the pope's authority as derived from Christ, the Head of the Church, and from the nature of the infallible Church itself. Newman allows that papal infallibility does not necessarily translate into clear and heroic witness, which has left some wondering whether such a doctrine has any “usefulness” at all. In this regard, Newman does his fair share of arguing that the papacy is vitally expedient for the mission of the Church in the world.
However, I propose that there is also warrant for finding in Newman the assertion that the Church cannot be the Church without its head. Newman suggests that because the Catholic faithful were constituted under their pope and bishops, the consensus of the faithful could thereby preserve important doctrines even when the hierarchy failed; the Church, on the metaphor of a body, has its epistemic voice only in as much as it has its ontological head. Newman provides us with an eloquent descriptions of the pope, who, on the model of Ignatius of Antiochs’ bishops, does not provide for a merely epistemic or juridical unification of Christ’s Church; rather, the Church is united in and under his person, as the visible vicar of Christ.
A brief summary of the relevant evidence for this claim in the documents at hand follows. In On Consulting the Faithful (1859), Newman admits 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.” (Consulting 2) Newman highlights that “for myself, I am accustomed to lay great stress on the consensus fidelium,” even to the extent that the sensus communis fidelium can make up for the silence of the Fathers;” furthermore, “the voice of tradition may in certain cases express itself, not by Councils, nor Fathers, nor Bishops, but (by) the "communis fidelium sensus.” Newman holds that the sense of the faithful is distinct but inseparable from the teaching of the pastors, and is indicative of the judgment or sentiment of the infallible Church, and thus should be taken into account to the utmost; in fact, the sense of the faithful could even be taken to ground the decision of the pontiff. At this point, Newman invokes the metaphor of an organic “body” that reactively expels whatever substances it finds to be foreign to itself and obnoxious to its health; Newman further extends this principle to the vital role of the laity’s faith in the discernment of true doctrine, as was evident in the lay opposition to the heresies of the Episcopal hierarchy during the Arian controversies of the early Church.
Next, in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1875), Newman describes the voices of the faithful as drawn together and held together in the visible institution of the Church; and here, Newman explicitly describes this Church as constituted under the head that was commissioned by Christ Himself and secured by historical exigency:
We must either give up the belief in the Church as a divine institution altogether, or we must recognize it at this day in that communion of which the Pope is the head. With him alone and round about him are found the claims, the prerogatives, and duties which we identify with the kingdom set up by Christ. We must take things as they are; to believe in a Church, is to believe in the Pope. And thus this belief in the Pope and his attributes, which seems so monstrous to Protestants, is bound up with our being Catholics at all; as our Catholicism is bound up with our Christianity. I say, we cannot help ourselves…we should not believe in the Church at all, unless we believe in its visible head… the Papacy "was the only power which lay not entirely and absolutely prostrate before the disasters of the times—a power which had an inherent strength, and might resume its majesty. It was this power which was most imperatively required preserve all which was to survive out of the crumbling wreck of Roman civilization.
Having described the Church as an institution united and constituted in, by, and under the pontiff, Newman returns once again to the theme of the “voice of the faithful” that is implicit in the issues of the individual conscience addressed in his Letter IV. Raising various hypothetical situations, Newman considers whether “the case (could) ever occur, in which I should act with the Civil Power, and not with the Pope?” Newman answers this issue by invoking the principles of three authorities: Cardinal Turrecremata, Cardinal Bellarmine, and Archbishop Kenrick:
A) Cardinal Turrecremata says, "Although it clearly follows from the circumstance that the Pope can err at times, and command things which must not be done, that we are not to be simply obedient to him in all things, that does not show that he must not be obeyed by all when his commands are good. To know in what cases he is to be obeyed and in what not ... it is said in the Acts of the Apostles, 'One ought to obey God rather than man:' therefore, were the Pope to command anything against Holy Scripture, or the articles of faith, or the truth of the Sacraments, or the commands of the natural or divine law, he ought not to be obeyed, but in such commands is to be passed over (despiciendus)." Summ. de Eccl., pp. 47, 48.
B) Bellarmine, speaking of resisting the Pope, says, "In order to resist and defend oneself no authority is required ... Therefore, as it is lawful to resist the Pope, if he assaulted a man's person, so it is lawful to resist him, if he assaulted souls, or troubled the state (turbanti rempublicam), and much more if he strove to destroy the Church. It is lawful, I say, to resist him, by not doing what he commands, and hindering the execution of his will."—De Rom. Pont., ii. 29.
Finally, Newman’s invocation of Archbishop Kenrick hearkens clearly to the earlier principles of On Consulting the Faithful: "(the pope’s) power was given for edification, not for destruction. If he uses it from the love of domination scarcely will he meet with obedient populations." Consequently, Newman elaborates on the idea of the seemingly extensive discretion permitted to the individual who is faced with a state of “emergency:” in such cases, the person does not owe absolute obedience either to the (potentially conflicting) Church or state, and, in the case of a conflict, he would consult available ancillary authorities, resorting in the end to his own judgment and conscience: “it seems, then, that there are extreme cases in which Conscience may come into collision with the word of a Pope, and is to be followed in spite of that word.”
Despite this allowance, it is clear that Newman thinks that such hypothetical divergence between the de fide statement of a pope and the constraints of the individual conscience are hardly possible, since both conscience and pope are in some sense “the vicars of Christ.” In fact, Newman urges that the Church is “built on” the foundation of the obedient conscience answering to the will of God.
Given these qualifications of papal infallibility in light of “the sense of the faithful” and the prerogatives of the individual conscience, it is at this point that we may see that the role of the pope in Newman’s ecclesiology is not primarily one of epistemological or moral adjudication; rather it is primarily a role of ontological headship, posited by Christ to be the given constitutive of His Body. In this regard, Newman explains that the “supreme” human conscience, as itself a vicar of Christ, is itself to be formed by the principle of charity with regard to the heir of Peter in Christ’s will:
He must have no willful determination to exercise a right of thinking, saying, doing just what he pleases, the question of truth and falsehood, right and wrong, the duty if possible of obedience, the love of speaking as his Head speaks, and of standing in all cases on his Head's side, being simply discarded. If this necessary rule were observed, collisions between the Pope's authority and the authority of conscience would be very rare.
Finally, Newman explicates the following principles in his Preface to the Third Edition (1877). Though Popes may err, nonetheless, their role as Head of the Church, by and in whom the Church is united, remains uncompromised:
Acts simply unjustifiable, such as real betrayals of the truth on the part of Liberius and Honorius, become intelligible, and cease to be shocking, if we consider that those Popes felt themselves to be head rulers of Christendom and their first duty, as such, to be that of securing its peace, union and consolidation.
Although Newman dwells so much on the senses of the faithful and the voices of the individual consciences that comprise the one body of the faithful, there is also a strong sense in Newman by which we understand that the corrective voice of the infallible Church entire is, as a body, possible only when the body is aligned to the Head. Recalling Ignatius’ principle that the ecclesia is united in the person of the bishop, and not merely by obedience to his rulings, a reading of Newman’s position can be summarized as follows. In Consulting the Faithful, Newman holds that “the Ecclesia docens is not at every time the active instrument of the Church's infallibility,” since historically, the faith has itself been impugned by the bishops. In terms of the expediency of the papacy, which Newman highlights, we recall that even in the debaucle of the Arian debates, the great Council of Nicaea, with its 318 Bishops, was convoked under the authority of the pope; the very council that refuted the pope was convened by the pope. As Newman cites in Letter 3.3.213:
To Western Christianity was absolutely necessary a centre, standing alone, strong in traditionary reverence, and in acknowledged claims to supremacy. Even the perfect organization of the Christian hierarchy might in all human probability have fallen to pieces in perpetual conflict: it might have degenerated into a half-secular feudal caste, with hereditary benefices more and more entirely subservient to the civil authority, a priesthood of each nation or each tribe, gradually sinking to the intellectual or religious level of the nation or tribe. On the rise of a power both controlling and conservative hung, humanly speaking, the life and death of Christianity—of Christianity as a permanent, aggressive, expansive, and, to a certain extent, uniform system.
In conclusion, I would submit that in addition to these considerations of the expediency of the papacy in the life of the Church, Newman is also positing an ontological claim about the metaphysical nature of the Church in his considerations of the papacy.