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Blessed John Henry Newman on the Laity

Blessed John Henry Newman on the Laity

When Pope Benedict came to England last September one of the highlights was his visit to Cofton Park in Birmingham for the beatification of Cardinal Newman. I therefore invited Dr Mervyn Davies to submit a piece looking at Cardinal Newman’s vision of an informed and enlightened laity. Here is what he wrote on that theme.

Blessed John Henry Newman on the Laity

In his homily during the beatification of Cardinal Newman at Cofton Park in Birmingham, Pope Benedict reminded his fellow-pilgrims of Newman’s famous call for an educated Catholic laity: “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” It was a time when Catholicism was struggling to find its place in British society and also experiencing some of the aggressive of attacks on faith that have become much more common today. It was also a time before women had full access to education.


Newman saw that the formation of the laity would be crucial in the witnessing to the Gospel that would be needed in the future. He introduced people to his views on the laity in a famous article called On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine in which he pointed out that historically there had been times when the body of the faithful had remained true to the faith of the Church when the majority of bishops seemed to have abandoned it. The reason for him saying that was that he believed that the Church as a whole has an instinct for truth which is “deep within the Body of Christ” and that the faithful as a whole will, over time, reject  error like a body will reject a foreign substance making it ill. He called for a kind of conspiratio or breathing together of clergy and laity which would be essential for the life of the Church in the future.


Newman detected a kind of imbalance in the Church of his time so that the laity was seen by many clergy as simply those who were left after you had talked about bishops, deacons and priests, monks and religious. They were there to ‘pay and pray’ but not to take an active part in the Church or become educated in the faith. His ideas were not well-received at first by his fellow bishops or in Rome which caused him much suffering. Such a view, Newman said, will lead to indifference to faith amongst the educated and superstition among the poor and uneducated. So the idea of the laity as an important and active element in the Church became a key part of his theology of the Church. Each layperson has his/her unique mission and work. God has chosen each one of us to be part of his saving work in a different way from anyone else. What we have to do is to discern what that role is. One of the functions of a pastor, therefore, is to help each of us to discern our vocation and to follow it whether as layperson or as ordained.


On what was this based? Newman used a very ancient image that went right back to the Early Church. Each baptised person shares in the prophetic, priestly and kingly roles of Christ. Newman speaks of Christ as fulfilling the prophetical office by teaching and challenge; the priestly office by sacrificial suffering and the blessing of the bread and the cup; the kingly office by converting all nations and forming the Church to receive them in fellowship and communion. Every baptised person has a role to play in this but in different ways. The Catholic Church recognises this by explicitly ordaining people to the ‘presbyteral’ or ‘diaconal’ order of priesthood to distinguish it from the priesthood shared by all.


Much of Newman’s thinking is reflected in the documents of Vatican II through a number of theologians who had studied Newman, notably a Dominican Fr Yves Congar who wrote much of the document on The Church and the one on the Laity.


For Newman, the laity is important, not because of a shortage of priests, but in their own right as active co-workers in the Church. This idea is reflected in the English Bishops’ document The Sign We Give in which they argue that working collaboratively with the laity – Newman’s conspiratio – is an essential part of the Gospel sign we give to the world. Bringing the laity fully into the life of the Church in this way was very near to Newman’s heart but is yet to be fully realised.

cardinal newman

Blessed John Henry Newman

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