Moral, Intellectual and Religious Freedom according to John Henry Newman

By Fr. Juan R. Vélez

Author of Holiness In a Secular Age

A friend who was once an atheist told me he used to think that Christians were ignorant people who did not think for themselves, people who accepted doctrines without reasoning. Of course once he became a Christian, he realized this was a false generalization.

The all too common generalization of the ignorance of Christians is dispelled by facts.Christianity has a long tradition of reading and study, conversation and teaching which begins with the early Christians such as St. Paul and St. Justin, Origen, St. Basil and St. Athanasius, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine. In the Middle Ages, the names St. Bede, St. Albert and St. Thomas loom high; in the modern ages St. Thomas More, Erasmus, and Cardinal Newman. At the turn of the last century we have men and women like Chesterton, Tolkien and St. Edith Stein. In every age, the Church invites Christians to perfect their reason and the will because as Jesus taught: “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:22).

For Christians, the moral life demands the use of right reason and free exercise of the will. God has granted His children the faculty of reason so that we might understand material and spiritual realities. But Christians must develop the capacity to reason rightly. With our use of reason we have freedom, which is the capacity to choose what is good and true. Unlike lower animals, we are able to judge and freely choose the good ends in life and the means to attain them.

Learning requires intellectual freedom that should be respected by all. In his well-known book, Idea of a University, John Henry Newman, the first rector of the Catholic University of Ireland, argued that for a university to be truly a place of universal learning, it must respect each science, including theology. Without theology, knowledge is not universal, and other sciences erroneously try to take the place of theology. Examples from other disciplines would be helpful. Imagine if literature were to be omitted from the liberal arts and history took its place, or if chemistry was omitted and psychology took its place. This is akin to what happens when theology is omitted.

Freedom of the intellect requires a cultivation of all the sciences at schools and universities in an atmosphere of respect for the nature and limits of each science.

In The Development of Christian Doctrine Newman championed freedom in religious inquiry. He understood that our God-given reason can grow in the understanding of revelation. Over the centuries the Church’s doctrines have developed through the use of reason applied to revealed truths, and under the tutelage of a teaching authority.

In a sermon for the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, Newman used the text of St. Luke: "But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart." Luke ii. 19.

He commented:

“Thus St. Mary is our pattern of Faith, both in the reception and in the study of Divine Truth. She does not think it enough to accept, she dwells upon it; not enough to possess, she uses it; not enough to assent, she develops it; not enough to submit the Reason, she reasons upon it; not indeed reasoning first, and believing afterwards, with Zacharias, yet first believing without reasoning, next from love and reverence, reasoning after believing” (University Sermons).

In matters that the teaching office of the Church have not defined as those of faith, theologians are free to investigate religious truths. It is the role of the pope and the whole body of bishops, with the help of theologians, to weigh and discern which theological conclusions and religious truths are defined as matters to be believed by all, and which conclusions express errors.

In secular and religious matters there are mistakes and also apparent contradictions. In these circumstances Newman encouraged a serene study of such questions and explained “... that he who believes Revelation with the absolute faith which is the prerogative of a Catholic is not the nervous creature who startles at every sound, and is fluttered by every strange or novel appearance which meets his eyes ...” (Idea of a University).

When a Christian finds an apparent collision between science and faith, or between some religious beliefs, he realizes that there are various ways of solving the difficulty because God who is Truth itself does not contradict Himself. Thus, far from accepting ignorance, a Christian strives to exercise his reason in moral, intellectual and religious matters. He does so with patience, serenity and confidence in truth.

But, in light of this, each Christian needs to take seriously the formation of his reason through good reading and study as well as through meaningful conversations with others. And he should ask himself: how might I better form myself? Furthermore he should ask the Holy Spirit every day for the gifts of wisdom, understanding and science (by which we know how created realities relate to God) to perfect our human faculties.

Fr. Juan R. Vélez   grew up in Medellin, London and Philadelphia. As a physician specialized in internal medicine, he obtained a licentiate in theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross and a doctorate in theology at the University of Navarre. In 1998 he was ordained a priest for the Prelature of Opus Dei. A resident of Chicago, he has published academic articles on medical ethics and on Cardinal John Henry Newman. He is author of Passion for Truth, the Life of John Henry Newman as well as A University Education for the 21st Century: The Opening of the American Mind.

He has written Holiness in a Secular Age , and you can Explore more by Fr. Juan, by visiting, 


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