When Father John Henry Newman delivered his lectures on The Present Position of Catholics in England to the Oratorians of Birmingham in 1851, he gave the Catholic laity some guidance:

What I desiderate [desire] in Catholics is the gift of bringing out what their religion is. 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. I wish you to enlarge your knowledge, to cultivate your reason, to get an insight into the relation of truth to truth, to learn to view things as they are, to understand how faith and reason stand to each other, what are the bases and principles of Catholicism and where lies the main inconsistencies and absurdities of the Protestant theory. I have no apprehension you will be the worse Catholics for familiarity with these subjects, provided you cherish a vivid sense of God above and keep in mind that you have souls to be judged and saved. In all times the laity have been the measure of the Catholic spirit; they saved the Irish Church three centuries ago and they betrayed the Church in England. You ought to be able to bring out what you feel and what you mean, as well as to feel and mean it; to expose to the comprehension of others the fictions and fallacies of your opponents; to explain the charges brought against the Church, to the satisfaction, not, indeed, of bigots, but of men of sense, of whatever cast of opinion.

Newman alludes to the power of the laity to uphold the Catholic spirit and he noted two historical instances: the laity’s devotion saved the Church in Ireland, maintaining their faith in spite of persecution while the laity’s lack of devotion betrayed the Church in England around the same time, as many conformed to the new established religion. Newman urged the Catholic laity of England in the nineteenth-century to seize the opportunity to uphold the Catholic spirit in an age not just of opposing beliefs, but of non-belief.

He offered the laity of his day guidelines for pursuing this goal that apply to the laity today in the United States. The Catholic laity of his day had just been freed from centuries of oppression and discrimination—they were at last able to take their place in English society but their countrymen still feared them because they were Catholic. We should also remember that some in his audience were well-educated former Anglicans, with degrees and fellowships from Oxford. They had followed Newman into the Catholic Church from his leadership of the Oxford Movement. The year before he presented these lectures Pope Pius IX had restored the hierarchy so the Church could rebuild throughout the country: parishes, seminaries, schools, convents, etc. The English laity had lots of work ahead of them and Newman wanted them to be prepared.

We have lots of work ahead of us too, and Newman still offers us guidance to be prepared.

 

Knowledge and Reason        

He starts with urging us to know the content of the Catholic faith, studying our history, understanding why we believe what we believe so that we can explain it. Newman wants us to do this without being arrogant or argumentative.

This is the effort of a lifetime of study: reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Holy Bible according to the Apostolic Tradition of the Church, and studying papal and other ecclesial documents. We need to learn about Church history from the apostolic era, through the age of the Fathers of the Church, the great Ecumenical Councils, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Reformation, the missions, the age of Revolution, and Newman’s own century, the nineteenth, to at least the mid-twentieth century (the Second Vatican Council and its implementation). That’s an incredible range of knowledge to attain: events, people, culture, etc. It takes dedication and time, seeking out educational opportunities throughout our lives well beyond our Catholic school education.

As he emphasized in his The Idea of the University, Newman tells us that we need to learn how to think and develop a method of understanding any subject or issue by seeing things in relationship: “to cultivate your reason, to get an insight into the relation of truth to truth, to learn to view things as they are.” This is Newman’s definition of what is often called a liberal arts education. He called it a university education that helps students develop a philosophical method of mind, able to make distinctions and connections. We need more than facts and information; we need comprehension of reality and truth.

 

Souls to be Saved and Judged

Newman offers us a great deal of independence in our education; he does not speak here of a curriculum or of Church control. He charges each one of us with enlarging our knowledge and cultivating our ability to reason. He warns us, however, that we have obligations to remain true to the Church’s teachings because we have “souls to be saved and judged.” We can’t go astray from the doctrine and morality of God’s Church. We want to be better Catholics.

He also reminds us that we need to explore the connection between reason and faith. We should neither be skeptics or fideists but recognize the reasonableness of our faith in God. Newman had defended the faith of both the uneducated and the highly educated as the Anglican Vicar of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford in 15 sermons on faith and reason from 1826 to 1843. He would continue to address the issue of faith in a world that values scientific knowledge above all other reasoning in his 1870 Grammar of Assent.

 

Firmly I Believe and Truly

Finally, Newman wants us to be prepared to defend the Church against the common charges against us—from “worshipping Mary” to “being against scientific progress”—while recognizing that we’ll probably only be able to reach other reasonable people. Bigots will never listen to reason. He also reminds us that we must have some persuasive power based upon our confidence that what we say is true: “You ought to be able to bring out what you feel and what you mean, as well as to feel and mean it.” We have to firmly believe and truly, to paraphrase one of Newman’s famous hymns, to defend and uphold the faith.

His lectures on The Present Position of Catholics in England were published early in Newman’s life as a Catholic priest. He would go on to support the laity’s “gift of bringing out what their religion is” in formal education from the Oratory School to the Catholic University of Ireland. He defended the laity’s right to be consulted on practical matters. He wanted to do more. When young Catholic men were able to attend Oxford and Cambridge universities for the first time in three hundred years, Newman hoped to found an Oratory in Oxford—like the Newman Centers at secular colleges in the United States—but his plans were thwarted by the hierarchy.

One of the reasons for Newman’s lasting influence is his encouragement of our efforts as laypersons to evangelize our culture and express our faith. He knew we had a special role to play in spreading the Gospel.