The saint and the virus

The trust placed in expert advice has been the subject of debate during the coronavirus pandemic. How much should we rely on our own instincts and judgement? Paul McHugh, Advisor for Secondary RE in the Diocese of Northampton, finds parallels in the opposition to religious liberalism of John Henry Newman.

What can a Victorian cleric and Oxford don turned Roman Catholic, cardinal and eventually canonised saint, tell us about this crisis? Well, something it would appear. In his Oxford days, John Henry Newman and his friends were fighting another pathogen. A spiritual contagion they called religious liberalism or rationalism, which they understood as the application of human reason to that to which it was not equal, that is, to the things of faith. Decades later when he received the cardinal’s hat, Newman defined his life’s battle as against this liberalism.

The religious liberalism in the Tractarian crosshairs owned as one of its dicta ‘I cannot believe what I do not understand’. It is not difficult to see in this the threat to transcendence and mystery in religion, to the sacramental vision, to the miraculous, and, when it comes down to it, to the very nature of religious faith. What religious liberalism appeared to do was set the whole body of traditional Christianity on a Procrustean bed and chop off all that was uncongenial to the optimistic, confident, enlightened religious mind. Eternal punishment, never! Rituals, really? Solemn liturgy, must you? It seemed to commend a tamer deity, one which blessed doctrinal latitude and indifference, approved religious sincerity simply for its being sincere, and forswore that which would make for human eschatological discomfiture.

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