Newman on Principle and Practice

Depend upon it, the strength of any party lies in its being true to its theory. Consistency is the life of a movement.—John Henry Newman

I enjoy Newman’s Apologia for its history of the Tractarian controversy and the author’s conversion to Catholicism. Yet it offers insights that go beyond the minutiae of early Victorian religious debates.  At one point, for example, Newman discusses the manner in which public associations (like the conservative Oxford Movement, which he was involved in from 1833-1841) function and express themselves. Responding to charges of extremism, he says of his former associates: “They were not answerable for the intemperance of those who dishonoured a true doctrine, provided they protested, as they did, against such intemperance.”

Not only can we judge a public figure or group by what they say, we can also judge them by what they fail to say. One contemporary politician comes to mind. Though I shared his theoretical views, I was dismayed when he did not distance himself from his supporters’ bad behavior. It indicated not only a lack of prudence, but fostered suspicions in my mind about the man’s philosophical commitments. Actions speak louder than any number of coy pronouncements.

Discrepancies between theoretical belief and personal character are not uncommon. The challenge is to take into account these inconsistencies without becoming completely equivocal.  “Aberrations there must ever be,” Newman says, “whatever the doctrine is, while the human heart is sensitive, capricious, and wayward. A mixed multitude went out of Egypt with the Israelites.” Some people become so fastidious that they eschew any cause more controversial than supporting public libraries or helping stray cats. At the other extreme there are those who think the righteousness of the cause justifies even criminal behavior.

Newman also spoke of supporters of the Oxford movement who were loud and uncouth, and did not understand the beliefs they advocated. They were more attracted by protest than principle. On the other hand are those who “in the silent humility of their lives… show that they in truth accept these principles as real and substantial, and by habitual purity of heart and serenity of temper, give proof of their deep veneration…. whether our professed adherents or not,” they are true allies.  The lesson is not to mistake rhetoric for reality, even when it comes from one’s own side.

Newman would add that, having done one’s duty and made the right distinctions, it is enough to defend one’s principles without embarrassment. Real respect for others still means respecting the truth.

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