The statue of Cardinal John Henry Newman by L.J. Chavalliaud (1858-1921) in front of Brompton Oratory in London. Renáta Sedmáková/AdobeStock

Cardinal Newman’s Pursuit of the Truth

Exploring the epistemological principle of disproportion, and analysis of ‘phronema’

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One of the great truths of Catholicism is that we are a “both-and” community, as opposed to “either-or.” This inclusivity is a hallmark of the Roman Tradition: we are saved, yet we are sinners; the Kingdom is here and is yet to come; Jesus is human and divine; we worship in word and in sacrament; we love and praise a God who is both revealed a ;nd hidden; we belong to a Church that is administrative and organized, as well as missionary and charismatic; we are guided by Scripture, but also by Tradition; we are a people who embrace the “God of the Book” who is also the “God of the Gathering.”

If one would ask what might be the great gift that the Protestant tradition brings to Christianity, one might rightly suggest it is the importance of the truth — and the innate mandate of following the truth in one’s conscience as one sees the truth. But because in Protestantism there is a lack of a single, agreed upon universal Christian authority save Scripture, and that can be interpreted in so many ways, sectarianism sets in. The divisions begin when one follows the truth as he or she sees it, and others, in good conscience, follow the truth as they see it; and so, there is a long tradition of sincere believers disagreeing, which results, as history has shown, in chronic instances of sectarianism. The number of Protestant traditions and congregations bears witness to this factual historical development.

The gift that Catholicism brings, I would suggest, is included in the pursuit of the truth. What this means is an insistence upon the necessity of community, and unity of community, and that the God revealed in community takes precedence over the primacy of private revelation that is found in so many other sincere, yet divided, Christian faith traditions.

This begs the issue of theological truth and how it is pursued and manifested in the Christian tradition. Certainly, there is an authority in the Scriptures (but the issue of hermeneutics remains).

As Cardinal St. John Henry Newman insisted, God would have never provided us with a revelation (which he has in Jesus Christ), if he would not also have provided for us a theologically (regarding dogmas and morals), unerring authority to keep the Church from error — that is, the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit, which we refer to as Tradition, an infallible, apostolic authority.

And thus, as Catholics, we have Tradition and sacred Scripture as a dual source of divine revelation, a Tradition that is grounded and rooted in an apostolical succession of authority, as Newman referred to it. This is one of the ways we believe Jesus keeps his promise to be with us, his Church, until the end of time.

In Dei Verbum (the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation), we note that not only does sacred Tradition teach us along with the word of God, constituent of divine revelation, but that the recipients of this revelation include the lay faithful (for reception and interpretation), and not just the formal hierarchy.


One of the ways the Church has exercised its pursuit of the truth — in grace and prayer, and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit — has been through the process of consultation. My particular interest here is (as it was for Newman) the consultation of the laity. In particular, I would argue, in accord with Newman, that truth is revealed in the laity by virtue of the presence within them (individually and in the community) of the Holy Spirit.

There have been many and various consultations in Church history in the past; one need only look at the major councils, the minor synods and consultations taken up by bishops in their various dioceses, from the Council of Jerusalem (cf. Acts 15) to the consultation of Pio Nono prior to the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception, to the consultation process almost 10 years ago that Pope Francis invoked in preparation for the extraordinary synod on the family, to the present process of the synod on synodality.

What I hope to suggest is that not only is this process of consultation a continuation of and a development in the way the Holy Spirit is continuing to guide the Church in the way of truth but is a recognition of the importance of baptism itself, as well as the recognition of the presence of the Holy Spirit in all believers by virtue of this sacrament. This, I would argue, is insightfully insisted upon by Newman both regarding his epistemological principle of disproportion and his use and analysis of the Greek word phronema (which is a vital foundation to his 1859 work “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine,” Sheed and Ward, $12.95). By phronema, he means the “instinct,” or “possession,” of the Holy Spirit each believer has by virtue of his or her baptism.


Underlying much of Newman’s work is his principle of disproportion. This is a theological–epistemological principle that undergirds Newman’s insistence on the importance of a consultation of the laity. Simply put, Newman suggests that the human mind can conceive of an idea, but because of the limitations of the human intellect (human knowing), one can only know the idea in parts.

For example, what variety of perceptions might come to mind if I asked two dozen people to share what image came to them when I said the word “Jesus”? My guess is that they might be quite diverse, but each would have (or include) some truthful aspect of the whole. They all have some bit of the truth, therefore, the more “takes” ( images, if you will) we embrace of an idea, the closer we will approximate (though never reach) the whole or fullness of the concept because each of the singular “takes” on an idea or image would be disproportionate to the whole.

Conversely, to the extent we do not consult the various images, ideas, insights and experiences of others, the farther we are from a truthful and full perception of the whole.

For example, I might listen to a Vivaldi concerto, but if I skip the adagio, I may have heard some beautiful music, but I certainly have not heard a Vivaldi concerto. As an aside, this idea concerning the limitations of the human mind is one of the main principles that undergirds Newman’s insistence that dogma develops — and it is not the dogma as such that develops as much as it is our limited ability to grasp its full meaning, which occurs only as history hurries along.

As Newman insists, regarding this principle of disproportion in pursuit of theological truth, since the laity are, by virtue of their baptism, in possession of the Holy Spirit, they, too, must be consulted (again, as one would a barometer or a thermometer). To grasp the fullness of the truth, the more consultation that occurs, the closer can be achieved an approximation of the fullness of the truth. By the same token, if this consultation is neglected, to that extent, the fullness of the truth will be less available — and in case of disregarding the laity, it becomes a disregard for the Holy Spirit of God — a dicey enterprise in any circumstance.

Newman makes this point in his “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine” by employing phronema. If the mind has only a partial grasp on a reality, there remains always more to be apprehended and learned; the theological enterprise is never and will never be complete: such is the qualified nature of the human ability to know, or even to perceive, “mystery.”

Newman was convinced the human mind did indeed have the capacity to conceive a unity, but only details could be known. Not all the details or all the aspects of a reality could be known or perceived at once. Thus, all human perceptions — that is, all knowledge, is always and unavoidably partial. Therefore, all human knowledge is necessarily incomplete and thus only partially representative of the whole. We can know something of the work of Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas or Shakespeare, but we cannot have in our mind the fullness of their thought at any one time. This is why, in the secular world, as well as in ecclesiastical circles, consultation is so vital in the pursuit of the fullness of the truth (or as much of the whole as is able to be attained).

One of the reasons knowers find themselves in conflict, and even offer contradicting perceptions of the same reality, is that their knowing, indeed all knowing, is partial. The part or details that one may know of a particular perceived thought or entity may be different from the part or details known by another — therefore, there may be conflict over what each believes to represent the same reality. In fact, it may be the same reality, but because it is perceived differently, it may not be because they are not knowing (or perceiving) the object in the same way. As accurate as each perceiver’s knowledge might be, even if they are not in conflict, both partial perceptions are necessarily and inevitably inadequate to the whole — that is, both perceptions, while they may be valid, are disproportionate to the reality being perceived or discussed. This principle, for Newman, which affirms the limited capacity of the human mind, is a logical consequence of the doctrine of original sin, an entity that Newman took very seriously.

Father John Katamba, pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Appleton, Wisconsin, with the assistance of altar server Justin Zirimwabagabo, reads a prayer in Swahili during a Mass April 3, 2022. CNS photo/Sam Lucero, The Compass

This then would hold true for the theological enterprise and the pursuit of religious truth, as well. Just as God is both immanent and transcendent, Deus absconditus et revelatus, there is, as well, a disproportion between what the human can experience and what of that experience can actually be known and articulated. The significance of this for theology is rather straightforward. In any human enterprise involving the divine, there will be lacunae between what is experienced and the whole of a reality. In the theological enterprise, this principle of disproportion is doubly insured, from the human side in the limitations inherent in the process of human knowing, and on the divine side in that the divine nature is always and has always “other” vis-à-vis human nature.

The lesson for the theologian is clear. A priori, the theological enterprise involves an imbalance. For as much as the divine might be known, to that same extent, the divine remains unknown. For every insight gained into truth, there is a sense in which it remains always and only a part of the truth. This is the necessary lot of any knower, and particularly the lot of the theologian. This is also a vindication of the need for consultation in the ever-pressing need for theological research and investigation in the pursuit of truth.

Therefore, as Newman would argue, the laity must be consulted in the aforementioned barometer sense. This is why the Church, from the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) to the consultations of Pope Francis, as well as the many councils, synods and gatherings of the Church through the years, all under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, have been an integral part of the pursuit of the truth. We have a hierarchy, an apostolic tradition and a depositum fidei, all of which testify that no single theological opinion could possibly stand up to or outweigh the 2,000 years of accumulated wisdom under the guidance of the Holy Spirit that the Catholic Church possesses and cherishes. No small part of the truths of our faith was clarified through history by consultation in prayer and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

FATHER PATRICK MANNING, Ph.D., is a priest of the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio.


Decree Speaks of the Role of the Laity

The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem) notes: “The laity derive the right and duty to the apostolate from their union with Christ the head; incorporated into Christ’s mystical body through baptism and strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit through confirmation, they are assigned to the apostolate by the Lord himself. They are consecrated for the royal priesthood and the holy people (cf. 1 Pet 2:4-10) not only that they may offer spiritual sacrifices in everything they do but also that they may witness to Christ throughout the world. The sacraments, however, especially the most holy Eucharist, communicate and nourish that charity which is the soul of the entire apostolate.

“One engages in the apostolate through the faith, hope and charity which the Holy Spirit diffuses in the hearts of all members of the Church. Indeed, by the precept of charity, which is the Lord’s greatest commandment, all the faithful are impelled to promote the glory of God through the coming of his kingdom and to obtain eternal life for all men — that they may know the only true God and him whom he sent, Jesus Christ (cf. Jn 17:3). On all Christians therefore is laid the preeminent responsibility of working to make the divine message of salvation known and accepted by all men throughout the world” (No. 3).


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