Religion as Sentiment? Newman Speaks

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 14, 2013

While reading Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski’s Epistemic Authority, I couldn’t help thinking of Blessed John Henry Newman. It was Newman who gave us the most comprehensive description of how the human person legitimately attains certainty, especially in religion. He did this in his seminal and comprehensive study, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent.

But Newman also battled against false understandings of religious belief in many other writings, including his influential Idea of a University. I’ve already written several brief essays highlighting key features of this diverse work (for example, Mindless Ways of Limiting God, An Elementary and Practical Catholic Education, and Conscience and Taste: The Impact of Education). The last of these takes up a nearly universal problem in Newman’s day, the problem of dismissing religious doctrine as mere sentiment.

The following extract from the Idea of a University addresses from a very different angle the same issue which concerns Zagzebski—that is, modern resistance to the cognitive demands of belief, and particularly religious belief:

The old Catholic notion, which still lingers in the Established Church, was, that Faith was an intellectual act, its object truth, and its result knowledge…in proportion as the Lutheran leaven spread, it became fashionable to say that Faith was, not an acceptance of revealed doctrine, not an act of the intellect, but a feeling, an emotion, an affection, an appetency; and, as this view of Faith obtained, so was the connexion of Faith with Truth and Knowledge more and more either forgotten or denied. At length the identity of this (so-called) spirituality of heart and the virtue of Faith was acknowledged on all hands. Some men indeed disapproved the pietism in question, others admired it; but whether they admired or disapproved, both the one party and the other found themselves in agreement on the main point, viz.—in considering that this really was in substance Religion, and nothing else; that Religion was based, not on argument, but on taste and sentiment, that nothing was objective, everything subjective, in doctrine. I say, even those who saw through the affectation in which the religious school of which I am speaking clad itself, still came to think that Religion, as such, consisted in something short of intellectual exercises, viz., in the affections, in the imagination, in inward persuasions and consolations, in pleasurable sensations, sudden changes, and sublime fancies… Religion was based on custom, on prejudice, on law; on education, on habit, on loyalty, on feudalism, on enlightened expedience, on many, many things, but not at all on reason; reason was neither its warrant, nor its instrument, and science [in Newman’s sense, systematic knowledge] had as little connexion with it as with the fashions of the season, or the state of the weather. [Taken from Part I, Discourse 2, “Theology a Branch of Knowledge”, as extracted in The Quotable Newman, pp. 160-161]

I pass this along because it ties in closely with so many things we deal with here at CatholicCulture.org. To give just one more example, I have no doubt that this particular attitude, still so prominent in our own day, also informs what passes for the religious thought of the ex-Catholic school principal Mike Moroski.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 9 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - May. 26, 2018 2:12 PM ET USA

    Yes, it seems there are these two remaining possible explanations, and both are bad. A few brave priests, bishops, and cardinals are taking a stand against the confusion, but this Pope ignores them. The faithful Catholic laity are all that’s left, and we, as motley and scared as we are, now have to take our place in the front lines and “clamor like champions” to defend the Faith handed down to us from the Apostles.

  • Posted by: Bellarminite1 - May. 24, 2018 11:12 AM ET USA

    If one is same-sex attracted but is also chaste, has he sinned?

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - May. 23, 2018 7:53 PM ET USA

    Cieslajohn7542 speculates that the private-now-public conversation is being respected by the Pope's silence. Jalsardl5053 hits the nail on the head. Each of the news reports which incites scandal in the public eye could be used by the Pope as a teaching moment, an opportunity to educate the press and interested public on what the Church actually teaches about this or that type of behavior, this or that situation under consideration. Repeatedly missing these opportunities is either negligent or..

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - May. 23, 2018 2:31 PM ET USA

    This far down the road, it's a mistake 2 look @ any bombshell in isolation. It's also a mistake 2 dismiss this simply because it's a private conversation. How 2 explain this mass of bombshells? PF has a raging case of spiritual narcissism. That is, he desires much more strongly 2 be SEEN as merciful than 2 be authentically merciful. This disordered passion often drives him 2 make choices that substitute laxity 4 authentic mercy. He rages @ rules because they hold a mirror up 2 his narcissism.

  • Posted by: cieslajohn7542 - May. 23, 2018 9:17 AM ET USA

    You may or may not be correct, Phil, but both your possibilities rely on pure speculation. The Pope may just be respecting what he feels was a private conversation.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - May. 23, 2018 3:59 AM ET USA

    It doesn't matter if the conversation was private; it is now public. And he doesn't have to take on Cruz directly; a simple recalling of the Church's teaching would be enough answer. If the pope thinks that he is avoiding controversy by missing the opportunity, he is sadly mistaken. Mr. Lawler is also too kind: The confusion...from this entire pontificate is scandalous.

  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - May. 22, 2018 11:02 PM ET USA

    My explanation: "weaponized ambiguity"

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - May. 22, 2018 7:01 PM ET USA

    Right on the mark, again. Recall the previous U.S. Administration that "never let a crisis go to waste." Keep setting fires all over the place, and it's just like any other slight of hand: "look over here," while you are strangling the cat behind your back with the other hand. Trump uses more subtle tactics to keep his political opponents off balance. It's a question of intellect versus cunning. In Trump's case, the media are always trying to catch up. In the other case, the confusion destroys.

  • Posted by: garedawg - May. 22, 2018 10:28 AM ET USA

    Perhaps he is just following the policy of not commenting on private conversations. Although it was not an official confession, it was probably pretty close, and if the other fellow is foolish enough to blab, what can the Pope do? Perhaps it is best just to let the heathen rage.