The problem of translating English into English is compounded by simplistic study of history, including the history of Christian doctrine. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the self-contradictory thought of Tract 90. In his Anglican days, John Henry Newman demonstrated great care in writing a defense of the Thirty-Nine Articles, showing that the doctrines set forth therein do not contradict the beliefs of the Catholic Faith as known to the Universal Church. In this tract he set forth evidence and sound reasoning about the more difficult passages of the Articles, as well as giving clarification about the Black Rubric, which is not closely related to the Articles, but only distantly related. Even so, he demonstrated that even this unauthorized paragraph that was stolen into the Book of Common Prayer by stealth at the Printer's Shop, does not contradict the High theology of the Sacrament and belief in the Real Presence.
His tone was calm and deliberate, his facts were well-ordered, and his explanations in perfect accord with the mind of Anglican Divines such as Richard Hooker, Lancelot Andrewes and Abp. William Laud. He drew from the Homilies, a source as old (indeed, as olde) as Abp.Thomas Cranmer himself to show why the plain meaning of the Anglican Prayer Book can be understood rightly only as setting forth the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament (Newman mainly considering the 1662 edition, but with clear knowledge of all earlier editions). He states these things clearly enough and often shows that he appreciated the true meaning of these old Formularies. None of his explanations were a mere interpretation, but rather the only possible intended meaning; for, in light of all the evidence, no different conclusions make any sense. He did too good a job to give any ground to the opposition.
But, as good as his reasoning is throughout the body of his argument, he spoils his own ointment with flies, inflicting wounds on his own work. He begins well enough in the introduction, opening the tract with an excellent sentence that summarizes the argument to follow:
IT is often urged, and sometimes felt and granted, that there are in the Articles propositions or terms inconsistent with the Catholic faith; or, at least, when persons do not go so far as to feel the objection as of force, they are perplexed how best to reply to it, or how most simply to explain the passages on which it is made to rest. The following Tract is drawn up with the view of showing how groundless the objection is, and further of approximating towards the argumentative answer to it, of which most men have an implicit apprehension, though they may have nothing more.
To this beginning we have nothing to say but, "amen" and "of course." But, at the end of the introduction he weakens his own case.
But these remarks are beyond our present scope, which is merely to show that, while our Prayer Book is acknowledged on all hands to be of Catholic origin, our articles also, the offspring of an uncatholic age, are, through GOD'S good providence, to say the least, not uncatholic, and may be subscribed by those who aim at being catholic in heart and doctrine.
Indeed, his tone was conciliatory, for in his day the Anglo-Catholic movement had its opponents (though often in matters not of doctrine, but of liturgical practice). But, in yielding ground to the other side for no reason, he committed an error against historical fact. The phrase, "the offspring of an uncatholic age" is misleading altogether. He is left with having to attribute only to Providence the fact that the Articles are "not uncatholic," as if somehow the framers did not believe what they said, wrote, practiced and many times defended; as if they were called "papists without the pope" and defended their Catholic Practices against the Puritans, without ever meaning what they said and did. Sadly, Newman weakened, by his uncalled for and unjustified concession, all that follows in the excellent body of the Tract (certainly worth the time to read).
In the conclusion he should have argued that the Catholic faith and intentions of Protestant Reformers, evident through reasonable and careful study free of knee-jerk reaction, has been aptly demonstrated. In such a conclusion he could have offered a meeting of minds to the Anglicans of the Nineteenth Century (which would have served well the century that followed), a place of peace and unity, the very unity he called for in his opening of the Tract. Indeed, he offers this excellent thought as part of the conclusion: "In giving the Articles a Catholic interpretation, we bring them in to harmony with the Book of Common Prayer, an object of the most serious moment in those who have given their assent to both formularies." But, he has spoiled already the promise of such thinking by having said, "In the first place, it is a duty which we owe both to the Catholic Church and to our own, to take our reformed confessions in the most Catholic sense they will admit; we have no duties toward their framers. [Nor do we receive the Articles from their original framers, but from several successive convocations after their time; in the last instance, from that of 1662.]"
The conclusion shows that Newman, as brilliant as he had been in writing the body of the Tract, could not free his mind from the false choices of his own day, having accepted a chasm between "Catholic" and "Protestant" that made these words contrary to each other, these words that had been seen in the earlier generations of Anglicanism as complementary. He lost sight of the complement, interpreting the past by the prejudices of his own era. In the end, having proved his case, he relegates it to a mere Anglo-Catholic interpretation of Protestant Articles. What a sad way to conclude a Tract that had proved its point by use of the old Homilies, the Prayer Book, and by sound historical and theological reasoning.
Different emergencies in different times
In our time we have inherited the same prejudice that existed in the Nineteenth Century. Today we find that even among those who see the Catholic nature of the old Anglican Formularies, some hesitancy to inform their understanding of the Sixteenth Century by the shape and pattern of Anglican teaching that survived and emerged. Like Newman, they make themselves ripe for the picking, to be carried away into another church body where they may forget, as in time he apparently forgot, the facts that illuminate sound reasoning. The same Newman went on, in his Roman Catholic years, to write many simplistic statements about Anglican doctrine that simply had no basis in fact. His constant swipes at our doctrine, usually in short little sentences, describe beliefs that Anglicanism has never taught, in fact, often the very opposite. The samples are too numerous to list, and they are particularly tragic in nature. The most charitable explanation I can give is this: Perhaps he was addressing the hypocrisy of certain Anglicans who did not believe their Prayer Book and other Formularies. Nonetheless, even in one of his best Anglican works, Tract 90, we see that he judged his Fathers by the errors of his own time, failing to appreciate what they intended in their time, hearing what they said, but crediting only Providence. He failed to question the conventional wisdom of his era, with its deplorable party spirit.
In my paper Anglican Identity (posted here and other places) I said the following:
The English Church established a carefully maintained balance between Rome, Calvinism, Lutheranism, and Zwinglianism, criticizing and rejecting various ideas in each of these systems. This in turn kept the Anglicans in a state of at least some amount of opposition to everybody all the time. Each of these camps saw the Church of England as accepting error by adopting or maintaining some of the ideas and practices of Rome, or some of those belonging to Calvin, or some of those belonging to Luther, but never to the satisfaction of loyalists in any of those parties...They were not weak and lacking in substance, needing to draw strength from the outside. Rather, they were strong enough to deal honestly and seriously with outside influences, all the while resisting the pressure to conform. The strength of Anglicanism, as it emerged, was in its strength to be both Catholic and Evangelical in a way that was entirely unique. And that is Anglican Identity.1
It is intellectually lazy to look at the Reforms of the English Church in terms of our own day. Recently, it was observed here in comments that the 1549 Book of Common Prayer did not allow Elevation of the Host. And, that fact is a perfect example of the kind of thing that will be misunderstood if we allow the prejudices of our time to move us to knee-jerk reaction. The Elevation of the Host in 1549 would have contradicted a major Reform, that of teaching the people that mere "gazing" on the Sacrament was not sufficient; that the Masse is also the service of Holy Communion in which they were supposed to receive this Sacrament that is "generally necessary to salvation." Refusing to allow Elevation of the Host in the context of that era was a necessary step to restoring Catholic Faith and Practice, no matter how much a modern person who refuses to weigh the evidence will insist on seeing something else. About these things I have written before, and you may read what I have already set forth for your benefit (for example this essay found here).
The work of Unconfusing requires translation of olde English into our English, and the labor it requires to understand the times of the English Reformers and Anglican Divines. Anyone who actually thinks that they intended to undermine Catholic Faith is in serious need of true education; for that was never the goal of anyone. The times in which they lived required correction of Medieval errors, superstition and false doctrine, replacing it with sound teaching (indeed, the Council of Trent itself said many of the same things as the English Reformers, and in only slightly different ways, though we cannot give it full assent, and we take issue with some of it). The crises and emergencies of their era were not the same as those we face today; and restoring Catholic Faith and Practice to England required efforts very different from the efforts we must undertake in our time. It included words that need translation from their English to ours for the work of Unconfusing. The tragedy with Newman is that his arguments were right, but he did not stand up for his own words, and could not bear to live with having proved his case. Let us have more freedom to embrace the soundness of our own case.
1. In this I gave too much ground to our time and its errors, as if "Catholic" and "Evangelical" are, properly speaking, separate. When one has said "Catholic" no more should need to be said. I hope one day that will be enough for clear communication.