Angels, Brutes, and the Light of Faith

“We have more real knowledge about the Angels than about the brutes.” Such a statement, obscurantist at first look, would not be worth considering had it not been penned and preached by John Henry Newman. The statement is in fact his nutshell summary of the sermon, “The Invisible World,” which he preached in 1837, at the very height of his intellectual and moral leadership of the Oxford Movement. The sermon antedates by less than two decades his lectures on the idea of a university which was catholic, or truly universal in its purview precisely because it was unabashedly Catholic. Newman called that purview the privilege of an “imperial intellect,” an epithet rightly applicable to the powers and sincerity of his mind.

Obviously, one cannot assume one thing about Newman as he set up that strange disproportion between the respective measures of our knowledge of angels and of brutes. We cannot assume that Newman ignored the vast fund of knowledge about animals that had been on hand in 1837, two decades or so before the first edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species sold out within a few hours. Nor can one assume that Newman would have deliberately slighted the numerous editions, not only in the French original but also in English translation, of the many volumes of Buffon’s Histoire naturelle bursting with data on the realm of the brutes. It is also most unlikely that Newman had not heard of Cuvier who, as if by magic, reconstructed, from small bones, entire skeletons not only of still living species but also of long extinct ones.

None of this can be assumed on the part of one who was elected fellow of Oriel largely on the strength of his mathematics and for some years still took keen interest in various branches of the natural sciences. His astounding claim that we know more about angels than about brutes poses therefore a challenge worth exploring. And all the more so as he meant that claim to serve as a startling backdrop to a no less startling proposition to which he had assigned an even greater degree of reality: “We are then in a world of spirits, as well as in a world of sense, and we hold communion with it, and take part in it, though we are not conscious of doing so.” Such was the principal thrust of that sermon, “The Invisible World,” which first appeared in print in 1838 in the fourth volume of his Parochial and Plain Sermons and many times thereafter.

In 1837 Newman was just entering a crucial phase of his theological development. For the next three years he tried to work out the idea of a Via Media between Romanism and Protestantism. That idea was to serve as the theological capstone of the Tractarian Movement (or Oxford Movement) which he had been spearheading since 1833. By 1840 or so Newman began to suspect that the Via Media existed only on paper and was a version of that private judgment which invariably invited the reduction of the supernatural to a glorified version of the natural.

That the restoration of the sense of the supernatural, and nothing else, was the chief motivation of the Oxford Movement, Newman set forth in twelve lectures in 1850 for the benefit of those fellow Tractarians who failed to follow him into the Catholic Church. The lectures, which he himself liked to quote as Anglican Difficulties, remain Newman’s truly prophetic work, far surpassing in prophetic power what he offered about the Prophetic Office of the Church as part of his elaborating the idea of a Via Media.

The book should seem particularly prophetic in view of the latest manifestations of that logic that forces the Church of England to renounce ever more palpably the supernatural. Women’s ordination in that Church exposes now in full the pathetic nature of what Newman had called in Anglican Difficulties a “mimic Catholicism.” The same logic of naturalism which conferred a pseudo-supernatural halo on feminism through that ordination, recently prompted the Archbishop of York to speak of the “biology of the soul” and reduce its survival after death to its continued existence in the mind of God. Carefully skirted was the question whether the self created by God was strictly spiritual or just a manifestation of bodily processes. Equally ignored was whether the same theologically coated naturalistic reasoning — “the continuity of the self is rooted in the faithfulness of God towards what he has created,” — would not reduce those pure spirits, called angels, also to beings that exist only in the mind of God.

All this would have deeply shocked the Anglican Newman. For him the souls of the departed were no less real than were the angels, including the guardian angel of each and every soul, whether still in the body or already separated from it. With an eye on the Bible he said in that sermon: “No Christian is so humble but he has Angels to attend him.” With an eye on the Bible he spoke of angels as “our fellow workers.” With an eye on the Bible he spoke with assurance about the angels’ nature, destiny, and function, however mysterious to us. But no more mysterious, he added, than that multitude of beasts, “so various in their natures, so strange and wild in their shapes, living on the earth without ascertainable object.” Obviously Newman did not wish to dispute Buffon or Cuvier or any of the great naturalists of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He merely wanted to drive home that all our vast knowledge about animals leaves us in utter ignorance about the really important questions about them, whereas to similar questions about the angels we have been given clear answers in Revelation.

Then he quoted verse after verse from the letters of St. Paul and St. Peter to show that true Christian life is lived in the presence of angels. He exposed the vanity of men who lord it over others and over the earth whereas, in truth, this earth “has other lords beside them, and is the scene of a higher conflict than they are capable of conceiving. It contains Christ’s little ones whom they despise, and His angels whom they disbelieve; and these at length shall take possession of it and be manifested.”

Newman then turned one’s duty to care for Nature (environment, one would say today) into a chapter on angelology. It was springtide when he preached on the “invisible world.” The bursting into blossoms of a dormant nature was for him not a topic for its own sake, although no present- day ecologist could have spoken with greater tenderness of something as little as a single petal. In the inevitable rejuvenation of nature he saw the pledge of the eventual turning of Nature into a world hidden to physical eyes but not to the eyes of faith: “A world of Saints and Angels, a glorious world, the palace of God, the mountains of the Lord of Hosts, the heavenly Jerusalem, the throne of God and Christ.”

He was ready to stand up for that vision of a world replete with angels and run by them. The sermon he preached on the Feast of Saint Michael in 1834, may send shivers down the spine of all moderns imbued with the idea that nature obeys laws and nothing else. Whatever strictures some dark ages deserved for attributing too much to angels, it was not too much, Newman claimed, to attribute to angels all the world’s motions, local and cosmic: “The sin of what is called an educated age, such as our own, is just the reverse: to account slightly of them [angels], or not at all; to ascribe all we see around us, not to their agency, but to certain assumed laws of nature. This, I say, is likely to be our sin, in proportion as we are initiated into the learning of this world.” And he singled out “chemistry, geology and the like” as causes of “the danger of resting on things seen, and forgetting unseen things, and our ignorance about them.”

Clearly, Newman was not one of those ready to smile at medieval Christian versions of Ptolemaic astronomy where angelic powers were credited with the motion of celestial bodies. He would have immensely rejoiced, had he known what was to be unearthed only a decade or so after his death. I mean the full facts about that epoch making moment in the history of science when Buridan, around 1350, postulated inertial motion for celestial bodies. For Buridan was not a forerunner of Voltaire in claiming that the material world runs like a clockwork mechanism, utterly left to itself after it had been wound up and let go. Cherish as he did the image of the world as a clockwork, Buridan pointedly noted that bodies once created remain in existence only through that divine power which theologians had long ago called conservation, as distinct from creation. By dispensing with motor intelligences (angels), Buridan merely kept physics distinct from metaphysics and theology, the only way to safeguard the activity of angels in the physical world, an activity in which he believed no less firmly than Newman did.

It is that distinction which undergirds Newman’s apparent slighting of science in that sermon on Saint Michael and his hosts. He had very clear notions about the limits of scientific laws. They were good for prediction, for a vast range of practical uses, but they had nothing to say about what physical things and processes were and why they stayed in existence at all. The world not only had to be created but also to be sustained as well as kept in motion. In that latter work God relied on His angels, so Newman declared: “Every breath of air, and ray of light and heat, every beautiful prospect, is, as it were, the skirts of their garments, the waving of the robes of those whose faces see God in heaven.” Newman was so serious on this point that he asked whether it was not “as philosophical . . . to refer the movements of the natural world to them, as to attempt to explain them by certain theories of science.”

Once more he affirmed the great usefulness of the methods of science but only within strict confines. He knew that those laws do not “explain.” They merely co-ordinate data. Anyone ready to ascribe relevance to scientific laws outside these confines ran the risk, according to Newman, of becoming “a poor weak worm and miserable sinner” not merely be putting nature in the place of God but also by slighting “the agency of the thousands and ten thousands of His unseen Servants.” Scientific discourse on nature has to be a religious discourse “as in the hearings of the great Servants of God, with the sort of diffidence which we always feel when speaking before the learned and wise of our own mortal race, as poor beginners in intellectual knowledge, as well as in moral attainments.”

A rough and rude approach toward nature, indeed the useless destruction of a single petal, did, in Newman’s eyes, to the robes of angels what such treatment would do the hem of the garments of one’s fellow men. Anticipating the charge that all this smacked of rank exaggeration, he asked whether one was to assume that Scriptures spoke of Angels for nothing and not for very practical purposes. And, though still a dozen years away from his conversion to the Catholic Church, he revealed something of his instinctive Catholicism as he disposed of the polity, typically Protestant, that called for the abandonment of a practice just because it could be carried to an extreme: “The abuse of a thing does not supersede the use of it.” In calling this “the principle of our Church,” he spoke, yet unbeknownst to himself, as a Catholic who is resolved not to engage in the Protestant error of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, whether that water is really dirty or is merely imagined to be such.

Veneration of the angels had to be acted out in daily lives lest “we make the contemplation of them a mere feeling, and a sort of luxury of the imagination.” He wanted an angelology that went far beyond mere phrases, however soaring: “Many a man can write and talk beautifully about them [angels], who is not at all better or nearer heaven for his excellent words.”

The so-called new Catholic theology contains many examples of a discourse on angels which is not even beautiful, theologically that is, whatever the rhetorical gloss. A very recent instance is the article, “Angels,” in The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality. Its thrust is the very opposite of New- man’s priceless principle that “the abuse of a thing does not supersede the use of it,” apart from the tendentious overblowing of the extent of the abuse.

Newman had well in advance discredited the further claim in that article that patristic angelology is largely a neoplatonist graft on biblical parlance. Long before the ultra-Platonist Pseudo-Dionysius came up with his esoteric choirs of angels, there was enough Platonism in the Alexandrian School of theologians, who, with Athanasius in the lead, were Newman’s chief theological masters. Yet they taught Newman, so he stated in the Apologia, a biblically realistic view of angels. He learned from them to revere the angels “not only as the ministers employed by the Creator in the Jewish and Christian dispensations, as we find on the face of Scripture, but as carrying on, as Scripture implies, the Economy of the Visible World.” Then he referred to his sermon, of 1832, on Saint Michael.

For Newman, professed respect for a truly christological angelology would have called for including at least a brief reference to Christ’s stern warning about scandalizing those little ones whose angels constantly see the face of God (Mt 18:10). Not a reference in that article (whose author purports to restore the central character of Christ’s mediation) to the dozen or so cases when in the New Testament our Lord’s mediation is mediated through angels, from His conception to His resurrection and beyond. Much less is it recommended there that a good Christian should invoke the intercession of angels, and in particular, of his guardian angel.

The mediation which Newman most intently hoped to obtain from his own guardian angel is described in The Dream of Gerontius. For the soul of Gerontius is his own, carried by his guardian angel past the howling choirs of devils towards the throne of God. Of course, only that poem’s esthetic beauty, enhanced by Elgar’s music, appeals to most moderns. Its vividly concrete theological content is alien to most, who are delighted to hear the Archbishop of York declare that “hell is not regarded as a serious option these days.” Newman would say that hell, heaven, angels and devils form one indivisible whole on the landscape of the supernatural.

And this is what Newman asserted in a series of four sermons he preached in four consecutive Sundays in September 1860. Those sermons exist only in outlines, but they fully evidence the continuity between the attention which Newman the Anglican paid to the reality of the supernatural world of angels and devils and the firmness with which he preached about that reality as a Catholic. The fourth of those sermons is about guardian angels, not only of individual souls but of entire celestial bodies as well. In fact, the outline of that sermon includes a reference to his sermon preached in 1832 on Saint Michael and his celestial hosts.

The first of those sermon outlines echoes in a nutshell his claim that we know much more about angels than about the brutes and indeed about the entire physical world. For only after sketching the marvels of angelic knowledge — “Their knowledge most comprehensive . . . whereas the greatest philosophers with pains knew a little” — did Newman conclude: “Many wonderful things in this world, but an angel more wonderful than all. If a creature so wonderful, what the Creator?”

But, as always, Newman was much more interested in the fate of individuals than in the cultural fate or progress of mankind. For individuals alone could be saved for eternal life. The “imperial intellect” fearlessly stated in his Idea of a University that “in the province of physiology and moral philosophy, our race’s progress and perfectibility is a dream, because Revelation contradicts it, whatever may be plausibly argued on its behalf by scientific inquirers.” In quoting this passage, the editors of those sermon outlines added: “In other words, the history of man on this planet is to end in Antichrist and the triumph of wickedness.”

This comment was most warranted as far as Newman’s thinking about angels and his sermon notes were concerned. For in that outline he speaks also of the Guardian Angels to whom Judas and the Antichrist himself were confided. Once more Newman was consistent. The one who gave consistency as the hallmark of saints merely gave here too a glimpse of the saint he was.

It is this saintly Newman, saintly to the hilt in his theology in general and his angelology in particular, who poses the great stumbling block to the juggernaut of theological and spiritual liberalism. The various coachmen (and more lately coach- women too) of that juggernaut have heavily banked on the trick of expropriating Newman to themselves. They were the ones to set up Newman as the guiding spirit of Vatican II, by which they all too often mean their Vatican III if not IV.

In view of the foregoing it should be easy to imagine what Newman’s reaction would be to the fact, largely unnoticed, that the prolific texts of Vatican II contain not a single passage worth mentioning about angels, guardian or other. Perhaps, in a strange consistency with this, those texts include no significant mention of hell and devils either.

One cannot help recalling the plea, undoubtedly most sincere, of Cardinal Ratzinger, in the Messori report that the Council Fathers felt that such and similar items were too well engraved in the minds of the faithful to need renewed emphasis. This plea was offered ten years ago, at a time when it was all too clear that hardly anything specific was by then engraved on the minds of younger Catholics raised on new booklets of instruction. Their compilers all too often avoided even the word catechism while busily promoting shops selling colored crayons.

Omission, however well-intentioned, of points of faith created gaping holes in Catholic consciousness. All too many Catholics, especially in the developed world, have been treated to woefully little about angels. There were some new treatises on angels about whose authors Newman’s foregoing words may not be altogether inapplicable: “many a man can write and talk beautifully about them [angels], who is not at all better or nearer heaven for his excellent words.” For the beautiful style and novel approach all too often went hand in hand with that theological pride which sees too much dirty bathwater around the baby handed down by a tradition in which those authors were reluctant to see Tradition, writ large.

The spiritual desert thus created will not automatically be rejuvenated by the publication of the New Catechism. Its genuine espousal of supernatural reality is already the target of reinterpretations by liberals. Once more they prove that the hallmark of liberalism is a deep-seated intolerance of the supernatural. Spokesmen of theological liberalism will try to obliterate from Catholic memory anything that concretely brings back to the mind the true real world, the supernatural. Very few among those who graduated from American and European seminaries during the last thirty years have the habit of reciting the prayer which was still on the lips (and in Latin at that) of their forebears half a century ago: “Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom His love commits me here, ever this day be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide.”

Yet in this short prayer more sound theology is contained and conveyed than in “theological investigations” about angels that were inspired, in part, by the writings of that Immanuel Kant who once wrote of himself: “I am an Archangel!” and went on to state repeatedly: “I am God!” The archetype for this self-enrichment was none other than Lucifer. If one looks for the source of the pride, of the self-sufficiency, of the naturalism that heavily mark much of the so-called new theology, one merely has to look in the direction of the camp that still breeds Aquikantists. They are the barren offspring of the misalliance, engineered by “enlightened” theological faculties, between Aquinas and Kant.

Aquikantists were overjoyed when the invocation of Saint Michael after mass was dropped as a first step toward the new liturgy. Of course, the mass had been said for nineteen-hundred years without closing it with the request that Saint Michael be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. But never was and never would the Kingdom of the supernatural, that is, the Church, be spared the onslaughts of the Evil One. Nor would that Church ever succeed in resisting the hordes of the Evil One and all their craftiness without the assistance of the heavenly hosts.

With a craftiness unexcelled, the Evil One knows how to fill the place of genuine goods with their counterfeits. The present craze for angels is a symptom of such a treacherous transaction. It would indeed be a huge mistake to see too readily in that craze a craving for the truly supernatural, of which angels are the classic touchstone of truth, to slightly rephrase Maritain’s felicitous remark. That craze will not be cured and that craving will not be satiated by theologians who liberally drag their feet when it comes to delivering that priceless commodity called the supernatural. In doing so they promise a cure with placebos.

Much of the cure would be on hand through a sincere attention to Newman’s claim that through the light of faith the realm of angels looms far more real than all the fauna and flora around us. New- man’s clarity of perception is all the more needed because it has become a theological fad to believe that in saving the environment we will have saved our very souls. It may be that the angels, whom Newman saw, with the eyes of faith, everywhere, and whose chief duty is to sing God’s glory, can weep not only about souls but also about Nature. But today Newman would insist that if angels weep, they weep above all for countless souls caught in a crisis that has not been seen in the Church for a long time now.


  • Rev. Stanley L. Jaki

    Stanley L. Jaki, OSB (1924, Győr, Hungary – 2009, Madrid) was a Hungarian Benedictine priest and Distinguished Professor of Physics at Seton Hall University, New Jersey since 1975. He was a leading thinker in the philosophy of science, theology, and on issues where the two disciplines meet and diverge.

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