‘Feed my sheep’, the Lord charged Peter. That injunction formed the title of Pope St Pius X’s 1907 encyclical, in Latin Pascendi Dominici Gregis. Here the enemy is in plain sight, and it is to be found within the Church, and its fundamental mistake is identified as agnosticism
According to this teaching human reason is confined entirely within the field of phenomena, that is to say, to things that are perceptible to the senses, and in the manner in which they are perceptible; it has no right and no power to transgress these limits. Hence it is incapable of lifting itself up to God, and of recognising His existence, even by means of visible things. From this it is inferred that God can never be the direct object of science, and that, as regards history, He must not be considered as an historical subject
As the then Bishop of Limerick pointed out at the time, such a way of thinking was profoundly foreign to Newman’s ideas, which saw theology as one of the natural sciences, and denied that materialism was the sole mode by which man proceeded intellectually. As he put it in his Idea of a University:
religious truth is not only a portion, but a condition of general knowledge. To blot it out is nothing short, if I may so speak, of unravelling the web of University Teaching
Those who wish to proceed in such a way can, of course, do so, and will, but they can claim neither Newman’s support, or that of Catholic teaching.
Newman’s very definition of religion was the antithesis of the subjectivity characterstic of modernist teaching: By Religion I mean the knowledge of God, of His Will, and of our duties to Him. Contrary to the protestations of modernism, which held that God could not be apprehended through nature, reason or history, Newman argued that there were:
‘three main channels which nature furnishes for our acquiring this knowledge, viz., our own minds, the voice of mankind, and the course of the world, that is of human life and affairs.’
That did not mean, neither did St Pius X mean, that there could only be one school of Catholic theology, but it meant, as the Pope meant, that all those schools had to submit to the Magisterium – there was and never could be a dictatorship of relativism within the Church.
In terms of dogma, the Modernists held it did not transmit absolute truth. This was the opposite of what Newman believed:
Newman held that the Christian revelation was made by Christ our Lord to His Apostles; that He, in human language, conveyed His teaching to them; that the definite body of doctrines which He thus taught to the Apostles is the total and complete Christian revelation which was then made, once for all
That did not mean that the Creed appeared magically, but it did mean that it was contained in Scripture and that as enunciated by Christ’s Church, it must be believed in every aspect; that was divine truth and we were bound to hold it. Christ was truly human and divine, he was crucified, did die, was buried, did descend into hell, did rise on the third day and did ascend into heaven, and would come again to judge the living and the dead. These things were not symbols, signs, allegories or contrivances of human ingenuity – they were historical facts and to be believed as such in the eye of faith.
Faith, in its beginning and its end, was, like salvation, a gift which we in no manner deserved by nature:
There is no truth, my brethren, which Holy Church is more earnest in impressing upon us than that our salvation from first to last is the gift of God. It is true, indeed, that we merit eternal life by our works of obedience; but that those works are meritorious of such a reward, this takes place not from their intrinsic worth, but from the free appointment and bountiful promise of God; and that we are able to do them at all is the simple result of His grace. That we are justified is of His grace; that we have the dispositions for justification is of His grace … He holds the arbitration of our future life in His hands; without an act of His will independent of ours we should not have been brought into the grace of the Catholic Church, and thus, as I began by saying, our salvation from first to last is the gift of God (Perseverance in Grace).
In the long list of the sins of modernism, there is nothing there which can plead Newman in its defence – quite the opposite.