October 2004By Richard Geraghty
Richard Geraghty teaches philosophy to pretheologians at Eternal World Television Networks St. Joseph House of Studies in Birmingham, Alabama.
Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations. By John Henry NewmanIntroduction and Notes by James Tolhurst. University of Notre Dame Press. 431 pages. $30.
Today there is a great deal of discussion about the nature of evangelization. The Venerable John Henry Newman was concerned about evangelization, and we will find good examples of it in this book of Catholic sermons.
In his first sermon, titled The Salvation of the Hearer the Motive of the Preacher, he states his purpose. It is to save his listeners from the pains of Hell so that they might experience the joys of Heaven. His next sermon, Neglect of Divine Calls and Warnings (and others that follow), is designed to put his listeners into the proper frame of mind in regard to the real condition of their souls.
In one sermon, Newmans message is that no ones salvation can be taken for granted. He mentions how great saints such as St. Augustine thought that the number of those saved would be small. He cites passages from Scripture on the narrowness of the way to salvation and the broadness of the path to perdition. Newman himself does not offer an opinion about the number of those who will be saved; God, in His infinite wisdom, is the sole Judge of the actual state of the human heart (even seeing infidelity beneath apparent fidelity and fidelity beneath apparent infidelity).
Newman goes on to speak of grace, the infinitude of God, saintliness as the Christian standard, the mental suffering of Christ, and ends with two sermons on the glory of the Blessed Mother. The image in whose light these different elements of the faith are portrayed is that of an Infinite God who is perfectly happy in Himself whether He creates or does not create. He is perfectly free to save His rebellious creatures in any way He chooses. So He sends Jesus to become a man in order to die on a cross like a common criminal. When one joins this image of Christ with that of the Catholic Church, as Newman does, one discovers an even more shocking mystery as far as men are concerned, namely, that Gods plan for mans salvation is entrusted to bishops all sinners, and yet Gods chosen instruments.
We are used to looking at a world in which today unbelief in the teachings of Christianity is the accepted norm. Further, Christians themselves are divided, many rejecting the teachings of the Church as a corruption of the Gospel. Among Catholics there is division about the authority of the Churchs dogmatic and moral teachings. What has happened to faith? Any reasonably instructed Catholic recognized its definition as the assent of the mind and will to the teachings of the Church because they come from God.
Consequently, the believer must give absolute assent to these teachings, because God can neither deceive nor be deceived. Thus, to object to or question the basic teachings of the Church is equivalent to rebelling against God Himself, thereby jeopardizing ones immortal soul. This is the nature of the Catholic faith.
Conscious that he is speaking to a mixed congregation, Newman illustrates the nature of this faith by considering an example that no Christian can doubt. It is the example of the first Christians, the Apostles, going forth into the world to preach about what they have seen, heard, and touched in the person of Christ. Nevertheless, they proceed by faith, not strict knowledge. They do not know that Christ is God. Only Christ knows that, because He is God Himself. Thus, even the Apostles are presented with the choice of belief or unbelief. They believe; others do not. Seeing a man work miracles does not automatically produce faith. Men have to choose. So begins the final stage of the drama of salvation.
Just as Christ made no apologies or compromises in His preaching to the Apostles, so the Apostles make no apologies or compromises with their listeners. They present what God has revealed. Men either accept or reject it. If they believe, they accept the whole message, because there is no argument with messengers sent by God. But if men wish to argue, to pick and choose parts of the message, or even to reject it entirely, they do not believe. In this exercise of their freedom, men are choosing their eternal destinies.
How do men acquire eyes of faith? They believe in the words of other men as messengers from God. The Apostles believe in the words of the man called Christ. The first Christians believe in the words of the Apostles. And later Christians throughout the ages believe in the words spoken by the bishops, the successors of the Apostles. The nature of faith is the same throughout. It is complete acceptance of a message from God Himself. It is total obedience to the authority of men who are ordained as Shepherds. Thus lies the way to salvation. How do men become blind? They reject the words of other men as messengers from God. They reject the living authority of the Church and so reject the words of the Apostles and of Christ Himself.
This conclusion of Newman may seem extreme, because we are used to considering the break between Protestants and Catholics in the 16th century as resulting from a difference about a few particulars of the faith. But Newman points out that the disagreement about the authority of the Church changes the very meaning of faith. Those who reject the authority of the Church enshrine religious authority solely in the words of the Bible. But the Bible is a book, albeit a sacred one, but nevertheless a book. It is not a living authority exercised by shepherds who lead, correct, and admonish the sheep. For Protestants, the result is interminable divisions about the proper interpretation of the Bible. Faith is for them a matter of private judgment. Newman makes the practical judgment that the majority of the religious people of his time had no faith at all. He does not, of course, make this judgment an absolute; otherwise, he would be undercutting the truth that men without revelation still have their conscience, by which they will be judged by their Creator. He would also be undercutting the fact that Protestants have enough real faith in God that they could eventually submit themselves to the living authority of the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, Newman is uncompromising.
When the reader remembers that faith is the way to salvation and unbelief the way to perdition, he does indeed feel the edges of the sword of truth. But the sword not only cuts it also heals.
DOSSIER: Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman