The Better We Do, the More Grateful and Dependent We Become

This year finds the Catholic Church celebrating the second anniversary of the canonization of John Henry Newman, a saint and theologian whose relation to the Council Fathers of the Second Vatican Council is that of a forerunner or, indeed, forefather. The council’s desire for a return to the Church Fathers as a critically important source for theology, its treatment of the development of doctrine, as well as its meditation on conscience and religious freedom, are all anticipated in the works of the English convert and later cardinal.

These contributions as a scholar and a theologian are common knowledge in academic circles. And as with the great Doctors, there is perhaps less attention paid to his preaching, which is also a valuable source, insofar as it affords opportunities to witness his theology at work. In what follows, I offer a brief reflection on his teaching on Consistency, proposing it as one vein in which to mine Newman’s assimilation of the Patristic theme of deification.

I take my bearings from the sermon “Promising without Doing,” where Newman considers how and why the actions and lives of Christians so often fall short of what is expected of faithful children of God. He identifies inconsistency as evidence of unfaithfulness—and consistency as a mark of sanctity. But there are various kinds of consistency, and it is therefore profitable to articulate Newman’s meaning, to explicate the nature of the inconsistency he preaches against, and to explore how his categories are applicable to exemplary personae that are found in Scripture.

Consistency: Not A Good in Itself

Newman recognizes various forms of consistency possible in a human life and does not advocate consistency for its own sake: his motto is not “Where Consistency is, there is Sanctity.” One form of consistency against which he warns is consistency merely with self.

Simple consistency, say, between one’s beliefs, desires and actions is far from a guarantee of moral or intellectual perfection. This much he inherits from Greek philosophy: whether we consider the vicious man of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics or tyrannical souls in the mold of Plato’s Callicles and Thrasymachus, living simply by one’s private judgment has never been a salutary principle of moral psychology in the tradition that Newman inhabits.

Though he believes that conscience is to be obeyed, he also recognizes that it “is not infallible,”[1] and can be darkened by sinful living. As he explains, habitual immoral acts have the effect that “sins, once known, in time become secret sins,” and this leads him to a dramatic conclusion:

It seems then (and it is a startling reflection), that the more guilty we are, the less we know it; for the oftener we sin, the less we are distressed at it. I think many of us may, on reflection, recollect instances, in our experience of ourselves, of our gradually forgetting things to be wrong which once shocked us.[2]

In such a progressive increase of perverse consistency, one becomes more and more conformed to sin and also diminishes in self-knowledge. One thinks here of the escalating evils that ensnare David’s soul because he did not immediately repent of his adultery with Bathsheba.

And yet, a decrease of sensitivity is not a definitive sign that one is on the path to perdition: progress from scrupulosity to moral maturity, for example, entails becoming less easily scandalized. And so the problem: simply being true “to thine own self” is an unreliable guide for distinguishing between growth and corruption. The problem is both ethical—how do we achieve right consistency?—and epistemological—how would we recognize it?

Even if we grant that the self is an insufficient ground for the consistency that Newman endorses, not any outside authority will do. He explains, “Every age has its own wrong ways; and these have such influence, that even good men, from living in the world, are unconsciously misled by them.”[3] Consistency with custom trades individual subjectivism for collective subjectivism. Just as the former life provides no way for distinguishing between the Socratic life, wherein to suffer evil is better than to do evil, and that in which Might makes Right, so the latter cannot adjudicate between Thucydides’ Melians and the Athenians: both individualism and conventionalism, as relativist, ultimately terminate in atheistic nihilism.

Individuals and communities live according to mingled instincts and assumptions, noble and ignoble, true and erroneous. To make either of these the standard is to engage in a form of self-worship or idolatry: whether in the individual or in the community, both succumb to the Progatorean fault, making man’s judgment the measure of reality, rather than having the truth be the measure of our judgment. To be consistent with Protagoras is to be consistent with error: such consistency can engender only blindness in the mind and misshapenness for the soul. In Newman’s words, “error is like other delinquents; give it rope enough, and it will be found to have a strong suicidal propensity.”[4] Not all consistencies, then, are life-giving: we need to be vigilant against self-deception as well as the lures and lies of the age, lest we become collaborators in our own ruin.

Consistency in Christ

We need consistency, but not consistency with ourselves. “He who aims at attaining sound doctrine or right practice,” Newman tells us, “more or less looks out of himself.”[5] Thus David can be called back to himself by being directed outside of himself. And again, “The supremacy of conscience is the essence of natural religion,” in which we find an abundance of errors, while, “the supremacy of Apostle, or Pope, or Church, or Bishop, is the essence of revealed.”[6] To set up one’s private judgment—indeed, one’s conscience—against the authority of the Church is, therefore, to slide back into pagan religion. But even our legitimate authorities are but intermediaries, enjoining us “to look up to our sinless and perfect Lord,”[7] on whom their legitimacy ultimately rests. Thus the consistency of the saint is consistency finally in Christ, and this in two intimately related ways.

In the first place, Christ is the perfect model of holy consistency. The Christian ideal is to submit, “to surrender [ourselves] to God in deed and act,”[8] and “There has been but One amongst the sons of men who has said and done consistently; who said, ‘I come to do Thy will, O God,’ and without delay or hindrance did it.”[9] It is by “fixing our eyes more earnestly on Him than on ourselves”[10]—a vivifying principle for any Christian, whether priest,[11] preacher,[12] religious, or lay—that we can impress on our hearts and minds the true exemplar of the Christian life and produce in our lives “the eloquence of saints.”[13]

A saint is holy insofar as he is Christ. And so, we come to the second point: holy consistency is possible only in communion with Christ. Christ as a mere model, inspiration, prophet, or teacher is reductive and inadequate; holy consistency is achieved only for the person “[whom] the Eternal Word has purified by His own union with [him].”[14] For this reason, Consistency is arguably part of Newman’s contribution to the retrieval and rehabilitation of the doctrine of theosis or deification: one cannot simply imitate Christ, one must be Christ.

Christ therefore solves the ethical and epistemological puzzles of sanctity. He is the only one in whom holiness is both intelligible and attainable. Our efforts alone cannot make us holy and, perhaps paradoxically, we cannot even know ourselves—as a species or individual persons—except in light of him: in Augustinian terms, we can neither know nor be our true selves apart from him.[15]

The Struggle against Inconsistency

Still, though much grace is communicated through the sacraments, rites, and life of the Church, perfect consistency in Christ is not easily achieved. Thus Newman observes that “our religious professions are at a far greater distance from our acting upon them, than we ourselves are aware;”[16] that “we promise to serve God” but “do not perform;”[17] that in us “there is a great interval between feeling and acting;”[18] that we must be reminded to prize piety principally in “deeds, not words and wishes;”[19] and again that there is among Christians, new and old, “this interval between promising and performing.”[20]

Between a Christians’ words, wishes, and works there exist significant discrepancies, particularly between the former two and the last. This lag is the now natural condition of wounded humanity. Per Newman, “From the time that the Creator clothed Adam, concealment is in some sense the necessity of our fall,”[21] confirming that with the loss of original innocence came an unnatural “interval” in our very nature.

Newman’s remedy for this hobbling interval between word, wish, and action is constant and continual struggle, particularly “in little things.”[22] Rather than ostentatious displays of piety and presumptuous professions of devotion, Newman prefers the faithful fulfilment of the small, invisible duties of everyday life, the sobriety of seemingly trivial mortifications, and humble immersion in the prayers and liturgical action of the Church.

Newman’s doctrine is therefore neatly allied to that Little Way of his younger contemporary, Thérèse of Lisieux. Focusing on Christ allows us, following St. Paul, “to put on the Lord Jesus Christ”[23] in every aspect of our lives and therefore avoid fracturing our life and sometimes living as if God did not exist. Such is Newman’s ordinary path to holy consistency, a consistency desired at any particular moment and also through time. As he puts it, “Past sacrifices, past labours, past victories over yourselves,—these, my brethren, are the tokens of the like in store, and doubtless of greater in store; for the path of the just is as the shining, growing light.”[24] But he is not Pelagian.

While complacent reliance simply on our own lights and efforts confirms us in our errors, deafening us to the voice of the Father, blinding us to the face of the Son, and numbing us to the stirrings of the Spirit, Newman’s way is not self-congratulatory. The better we do, the more grateful and dependent we become. As the light of Christ waxes in our lives, so too does knowledge of our sins, and so our self-satisfaction wanes: “Therefore you must always fear while you hope. Your knowledge of your sins increases with your view of God’s mercy in Christ.”[25] But just as “Errors in reasoning are lessons and warnings, not to give up reasoning, but to reason with greater caution,” so our sins, viewed in the light of God’s merciful love, are spurs to greater love, devotion and reliance, inspirations to more integral consistency.

Scala Sanctitatis

So much then for a summary of holy consistency. I conclude by applying this idea—and related ones—to Newman’s treatment of various figures from the Gospel, with a view to clarifying his meaning further. I shall proceed by proposing a ladder of consistency, to demonstrate that as sanctity increases, the interval between word, desire, and action decreases. Let us begin with Judas and Peter.

Both apostles are traitors to Christ, but for different reasons and to divergent resolutions. Newman tells us that “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt,” that “difficulty and doubt are incommensurate;”[26] and that while believers might have difficulties, “faith is incompatible with doubt.”[27] He also adds, “I may love by halves, I may obey by halves; I cannot believe by halves: either I have faith, or I have it not.”[28] Judas’s betrayal, many speculate, is born of doubt;[29] Peter’s of difficulty. At some point Judas did not recognize Christ as Lord and this produced sustained variance between what he said, felt and did.[30] Peter’s faith is constant but often tried by difficulties, some of obedience, e.g., in accepting Christ’s crucifixion or the foot washing, and others of courage, e.g., when walking on water or after Jesus’s arrest. Peter’s interval between word and deed is the smaller and so he is more open being recalled to repentance by the gaze of Christ.

Holier than Peter, presumably, is the Apostle John. Newman remarks, “We can contemplate him in his youth and in his venerable old age; and on his whole life, from first to last as his special gift, is marked purity.”[31] The youngest apostle is distinguished by such devotion to Christ that there is almost no interval between his professions, his zeal, and his actions. This closeness to Christ made him the best of the apostles at recognizing the Lord after the resurrection.

More “majestic” than the Evangelist is the Baptist.[32] Newman reflects that “nothing unholy does the Church celebrate” and “[t]hree nativities alone does she commemorate, our Lord’s, His Mother’s, and lastly, St. John’s . . . And such as was [St. John’s] commencement, was the course of his life.”[33] From birth to death, John the Baptist’s life is characterized by consistent sanctity. When Mary’s salutation reaches Elizabeth, the unborn Baptist in the womb “leaped for joy;”[34] i.e., John’s first recorded deed is an act that affectionately and delightedly proclaims the Lord, while providing the pattern for the Precursor’s whole life: one in which the interval between word, feeling, and action is nearly erased.

Three nativities the Church celebrates, but only two conceptions. Holier, purer and more consistent than the Baptist is the Virgin Mother. She alone received “the Only-begotten in the bosom of the Father”[35] into her heart and womb, her soul and flesh. Her words, affections, and actions are perfectly consistent with Christ’s. And so, looking down the ladder of consistency, we discover a charming cascade: that Christ came first to dwell in Mary,[36] who announced him to the Baptist, who announced him to the Evangelist,[37] who, with Andrew, announced him to Peter.[38] Though Mary is Mediatrix, her life in Christ is unmediated; its only “interval” is that between Creator and creature.

The Marian title that Newman appears to love best is Stella matutina, because the Morning Star “heralds the sun. She does not shine for herself, or from herself, but she is the reflection of her and our Redeemer, and she glorifies Him.”[39] Intriguingly, the Greek word for Morning Star, Ἑωσφόρος, may be translated as Lucifer in Latin or Light-bearer in English. Mary and the Devil, then, could serve as the bounds for the spectrum of consistency along which all creatures fall. Mary possesses the consistency the Devil should have had—and more besides.

Creaturely consistency is ultimately a finite image of God’s simplicity. Mary’s consistency reflects that of the Godhead. The Second Person is “His Father’s Word and Wisdom, manifesting His Father’s glory and accomplishing His Father’s purposes,”[40] and Newman prays to the Holy Spirit as “that Living Love, wherewith the Father and the Son love each other.”[41] And speaking of the One God in Three Persons he says, “In all He is and all He does, He is Wisdom and He is Love.”[42]

In the Trinity, the interval between word, desire, and deed is not simply absent; it is impossible. The Father eternally begets the Word, the Word eternally does the will of the Father, and the Spirit is the eternally living Love between them. Newman’s holy consistency is therefore a call to pursue likeness of the Trinity’s inner life, the intelligible image of the ineffable God.

[1] Ian Ker, The Genius of John Henry Newman: Selections from His Writings (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 220.

[2] Ibid., 128-9.

[3] Ker, Genius of Newman, 129.

[4] Newman, Idea of a University, 351.

[5] Ker, Genius of Newman, 150.

[6] Ibid., 220.

[7] Ibid., 134.

[8] Ibid., 135.

[9] Ibid., 137.

[10] Ibid., 145.

[11] John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University, ed. Martin J. Svaglic (Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), 319.

[12] Ibid., 306-7.

[13] Ibid., 307.

[14] Ker, Genius of Newman, 137.

[15] See Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, X.27.

[16] Ker, Genius of Newman, 131.

[17] Ibid., 132.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 133.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 276.

[22] Ibid., 136.

[23] Romans 13:14.

[24] Ker, Genius of Newman, 133.

[25] Ibid., 145.

[26] John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, ed. Ian Ker (London: Penguin Classics, 1994), 214.

[27] John Henry Newman, “Faith and Doubt,” accessed on

[28] Ibid.

[29] Pope Benedict XVI notes that according to one tradition of interpretation, “Judas would have been disappointed at seeing that Jesus did not fit into his programme for the political-militaristic liberation of his own nation.” General Audience, 18 October, 2006. The pope, however, leaves the cause of Judas’ betrayal as a mystery.

[30] Alban Goodier, S.J., locates Judas’ break from Jesus at the last visit to Bethany, where Mary pours her perfume on Christ. He thinks it possible that Judas was disappointed with Jesus and no longer believed in him. See The Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ (New York: P. J. Kennedy and Sons, 1941), 13-4.

[31] Newman, “Love and Purity,” accessed on

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Luke 1:44.

[35] Newman, “Christ, the Son of God Made Man,” accessed on

[36] John 1:14, Luke 1:35-38.

[37] John 1:35-39.

[38] John 1:40-42. Importantly, Andrew tells Peter, “We have found the Messiah,” indicating that the testimony of John was included in the first proclamation to Peter. Cf. Matthew 4:18-22, Luke 5:1-11.

[39] Newman, meditation “On the Assumption” VIII, May 31, accessed on

[40] Newman, “Christ, the Son of God Made Man,” accessed on

[41] Newman, “The Paraclete,” accessed on

[42] Newman, “The Mystery of the Holy Trinity,” accessed on

Featured Image: Photo of the canonization of John Henry Newman, ©Mazur/; Source: Flickr, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.


Kevin Kambo

Kevin Kambo is an assistant professor of philosophy at Hope College. His work centers on bringing insights from ancient Greek moral psychology into contemporary conversations on virtue and ethics.

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