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The New Augustine? Przywara’s Case for Newman’s Sanctity

John Henry Newman is the Augustine of the modern era.1 More still: Newman “resolves and redeems” all that was left unresolved and unredeemed in the historical Augustine.2 This is the view of the Polish-German Jesuit Erich Przywara, one of the gateway figures for Newman’s reception in the German-speaking world.

Yet, outside of particular academic circles, few have heard of Przywara. His background influence on the shape of 20th century Catholic thought is hard to overestimate. Only a cursory glance at the figures with which he is personally associated proves the point: Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Rahner, Karl Barth, Edith Stein, Joseph Ratzinger, the list goes on. 

Spanning some 40 books and 800 articles,3 the leitmotif of Przywara’s thought can be taken from the title of the monograph for which he is most famed: the analogia entis (the analogy of being). The primary formula of the analogia entis, Przywara thinks, is to be found in the Fourth Lateran Council’s declaration against the Trinitarian errors of Joachim of Fiore. There, the following sentence is highlighted as the essence of analogy:

“one cannot note any similarity between creator and creature, however great, without being compelled to observe an ever greater dissimilarity between them.” (Denz. 806)4

This sentence captures what Przywara believes to be the interpretive key to the whole of philosophy and theology, both before and after the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. It is the only way, he thinks, to ensure the correct Catholic form of thought. This is because it correctly articulates the relationship between the creature and the Creator: similarities are possible between them, but only if these similarities are understood to be “shot through”, as it were, with a greater dissimilarity. From the extremity of perfect similarity, to the extremity of complete and unbridgeable dissimilarity, the analogia entis shows how these false extremes ought to be interpreted.

Przywara demonstrates these extremities from throughout the history of philosophy and theology. This spans from the ontologically diminished status of the world in Plato, leading to the assertion that the realm of forms is the only true reality, to the modern exclusion of God from the world, leading to the divinisation of the world itself (as in Heidegger).5 Even modern secular philosophies, from Kant to Hegel, Przywara thinks to be but secularised versions of a Protestant theological paradigm. What is needed, he thinks, is a return to the Catholic origins of the problems raised by modernity.6 A return, that is, to the medieval Catholic formulation of the problems. And in this return to the medieval is found the solvent doctrine of analogy, as outlined by the Fourth Lateran Council. 

To turn to Newman, I want to highlight three distinct arguments that Przywara makes in favour of him being recognised as a Doctor. I will return at the end to the question of Newman’s sanctity, for which Przywara offers a comparison to another Doctor which is both startling and telling. These three arguments refer to his accomplishment of a peculiarly Philippine sanctity. All of Przywara’s arguments regarding Newman as a Doctor appeal to his relation to St Augustine. To explain these, Przywara sets out three ways in which Augustine has been falsely—or at least misleadingly—interpreted, and the ways in which Newman corrects these.

More specifically, Przywara acknowledges “unresolved and unredeemed” elements in the historical Augustine. His argument is that these elements are what have been misunderstood in the history of philosophy and theology, and that their resolution is to be found in Newman.

Argument 1: “Community-focused” Christianity vs an “Individual-focused” Christianity

The first argument refers to the extremes of a purely communitarian interpretation of Augustine, and a purely individual interpretation. In the former, Augustine is understood to be the advocate of a “community-focused Christianity of the liturgy”, which sees itself enacted in a “purely organic ‘mystical body of Christ'”.7

At the other extreme is found the Christianity of “God and soul”—that is, a purely solitary relationship between God and the individual.8 This is expressed in the German mystical tradition, in which God is understood to be the innermost part of the soul of the creature: the intellect is the uncreated faculty in an otherwise created human being, and so is the birthplace of divine presence. The ground of the human being’s soul is the same as the ground of God’s being, thus divinising the human being in his innermost self. 

Przywara believes Newman to pronounce a plague on both these houses. He opposes both through his own doctrine of conscience.

Przywara does not deny that Christianity is a religion that is both institutional and interior and personal. But these two relate analogically. Conscience leads us on an interior path. It is in this interiority that Newman identifies the “voice of a Lawgiver”.9 In other words, the interior path of conscience leads to a personal encounter between God and the soul. 

But this interiority does not rest on itself, Przywara thinks. Instead, because of its analogical form, it is through the increasing interiority of conscience that it opens out to the exteriority of the Church. In other words, the exterior authority of the Church is that to which one comes through an authentically inward path of conscience. 

For Newman, the interiority of conscience can only lead to an “anticipation” of the authority of God in His Church. The interiority in conscience leads to the beyond of a sovereignly “authoritative Church”.10 This is the analogical form of Newman’s doctrine of conscience, which navigates the extreme interpretations of Augustine.

“On the one hand,” Przywara says, “there is for Newman only a dogmatic and institutional Christianity.”12 He quotes the Apologia: “from the age of fifteen, dogma has been the fundamental principle of my religion”. But on the other hand, “conscience is for Newman the ‘first principle’ because, as he says in the Grammar: ‘[conscience] does not repose on itself, but […on] something beyond self and dimly discerns a sanction higher than self for its decisions’.”13 Przywara highlights two false interpretations of Newman’s understanding of conscience. On the one hand, it is not a psychologically repose upon oneself. In other words, it is not a means of affirming one’s own thoughts and desires. By the same token, it is not what Freudian theory would call the superego: the merely societal norms which we appropriate and internalise for ourselves. 

But nor is it any kind of “ethical predisposition”.14 By this, Przywara means to distinguish his reading of Newman’s conscience from a Thomistic reading of conscience. What does this mean? The interiority of conscience is not about acknowledging the natural law. In Aquinas’ thinking we recognise that there are laws that govern the reality of the world, and that these are premised on something that is divinely given. If I put a plant in a cupboard, for instance, I cannot expect it to grow. Przywara does not say that this is wrong in any way. Instead, he argues that it is not the preferable starting point for speaking about the analogical nature of conscience. Newman, rather than talking about any impersonal laws in the world, seeks to show that conscience is in fact a personal encounter. It is a personal encounter between God and the soul. And it is this personal starting point that is all-important for Przywara.

The first point was to say that the polarities are true: Christianity is both dogmatic and personal. It is both exterior—that is, institutional—and interior. The second point is that Newman shows us that the “principle of dogma” and the “principle of conscience” are “one living principle”.15 Analogy shows that God dawns in the personal interiority of conscience, and fully manifests in His infallibly authoritative Church.

Argument 2: “Church-as-state-organisation” vs “Church-as-living-organism”

The second argument refers to the extremes of the Church understood as a state organisation, and the Church as understood as a purely organic and living organism.16

In the first extreme, the Church is a purely authoritarian institution of visible, temporal power. This view of Augustine is drawn from the City of God, and resulted in the idea of the total papal state.

In the second extreme, the Church is a purely communitarian institution. This derives from Augustine’s Expositions on the Psalms. Here the Church is viewed as the “purely organic” mystical body of Christ in which there is no hierarchy. The Church is therefore nothing other than the “synergy between its living members”,17 like the limbs of the body. As such, it lacks any concrete reality.

Przywara proposes that Newman opposes these false Augustinianisms through an analogical understanding of “development”. This rescues the real, concrete historicity of the Church manifest in the first extreme; and likewise rescues the otherworldly or mystical purity of the truth from the second.

On the one hand, Newman shows the “organic historicity of the Church” in the Development of Christian Doctrine.18 The Incarnation results, he thinks, in a real and concrete Church, genuinely historical and yet develops organically over time.

On the other hand, the individual Christian develops organically, from apprehending truth as a “notional” reality, to apprehending it in a “real” concrete Christian life.19 As a result, Przywara points out that Newman repudiates any tendency to flee the world in pursuit of “ideal religion”, and instead advocates an “increasing immersion into a real world”.20 This is derived from the Grammar of Assent.

It is “development” which affirms the concrete, historical reality of the Church and the firm, concrete Christian life; and yet prevents either from ossifying into something static and purely secular. It is “development” which affirms the purity of the truth as manifest by the Church, and in the life of the ordinary Christian; and yet forestalls either being an unattainable abstraction, an “ideal religion”. The Church as state organisation is thus condemned as a secularising extreme, and the Church as a purely living organism is condemned as an etherealising extreme. 

Argument 3: Spirit vs Flesh 

The final argument that Przywara advances to show Newman to be the Augustine of today is in response to the historical Augustine’s swing between spirit and flesh.21 It also attends to the extremes outlined in argument two.

The anti-Manichaean writings of Augustine, and later his anti-Pelagian works, took a severe view on all carnality. Even to the point where sexual union was viewed as “the essence of original sin itself”.22

The anti-Donatist Augustine, by contrast, swings entirely the other way and emphasises the “all-too-human humanity of a Church of flesh and blood”.23

By these two extremes—one in favour of the spirit and the other the flesh—is Augustine characterised, almost as the symbol of opposition between spirit and flesh.

Newman heals this opposition in three ways. 

1. The first is to view spiritual realities, invisible though they are, as manifest in the visible world. Newman calls this “life in what is unseen”.24

2. The second clarifies the first. The visible world must realise itself as the world of sin. At the same time, the invisible spiritual reality must realise itself as the “world of the redeeming Cross” in the “visible world”. The sinfully wounded visible world is the site of invisible, divine mercy—the Cross as present in the world. This yields, Przywara shows, a “real and living mutual encounter” between God and the individual.25

3. The third and final way Newman corrects the Augustinian opposition between spirit and flesh is in what Przywara calls the “coincidence of opposites”.26 The expression may be traced as far back as Heraclitus, and received its most eloquent expression in the works of Nicholas of Cusa. The point here is that the “coincidence of opposites” is the very “form of Revelation”.27 For Newman, this is truly the “counterpart to nature”.28 God reveals Himself to us in the coinciding opposition between love and in fear. Newman synthesised this view into what he called the “opposing virtues”, in which the lives of saints manifest the jagged mountains of opposition found in Revelation. It is the “fearing love and loving fear”29 of the saints, made so clear in St Philip Neri: “a fear that springs from love inasmuch as love fears to lose the beloved; and a love that through fear maintains a holy sobriety and a tender reverence”.30 Newman embraces the “coincidence of opposites” as a means of ensuring we do not flee from the world, as aforementioned, into an “ideal religion”, but meet God on precisely the paradoxical grounds He chooses.

 A final word about sanctity

Przywara highlights the exceptional Doctors of the Church in the last three epochs: the Doctors of the Middle Ages, Anselm of Canterbury, Bernard of Clairvaux, Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure. Of the Counter-Reformation, Peter Canisius, John of the Cross, Bellarmine and Alphonsus Liguori. And of the Modern Era.31 It is this last category, however, that he suggests is empty, and must assume Newman as its own. It is not, therefore, that Newman should be considered merely the first Doctor of the Modern Era (which, at any rate, he would not be); rather, that Newman should be considered one of the exceptional Doctors of the Modern Era, in the way that the other names he lists are the exceptional Doctors of their respective eras. 

In his epoch-dividing analysis of the great Doctors of Christian history, he unites Newman with one who, contrary to the more dogmatic presentation normally offered by a Doctor of the Church, has since found herself named a Doctor for the Modern Era: St Thérèse of Lisieux.

We must note how it signals the subtle and penetrating foresight of Przywara to have recognised, back in 1956, the connection between these two saints, given that in 1997 Thérèse would become the first—and currently only—Doctor of the Church for the Modern Era. In their connection, perhaps, lies the strongest argument of all for the proclamation of Newman as a Doctor of the Church. In Thérèse we do not find, as Pope St John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Divini Amoris Scientia makes clear, “a scholarly presentation of the things of God”, “as in other Doctors”.32 And, in many ways, this is also true of Newman, notwithstanding Przywara’s masterful appraisal of his thought in light of the history of philosophy and theology. 

In these two saints, therefore, we see emerging a new language to confront the struggles of our present time, and in which to speak of the eternal and unchanging Gospel of Christ. It could be precisely their unity that elicits for us unique insights into the call to holiness in our times. “[W]e must never lose sight”, Pope St John Paul II tells us, “of the continuity which links the Doctors of the Church to each other”.33

Perhaps it is in the ‘little way’ that Newman finds his strongest point of connection to St Thérèse, as Przywara himself makes clear. It is at once universal,34 and childlike. The universality of St Thérèse’s doctrine of the ‘little way’ is reflected in Newman the “simple observer of real life, and the theorist of concrete religiosity”.35 But perhaps more importantly, as both Przywara and Pope St John Paul II draw out, the inner pulsation of the ‘little way’ is “spiritual childhood”.36 This emphasis on being sons and daughters of God receives its glorious parallel in the personal emphasis of Newman’s Philippine doctrine of the Christian life: Newman’s doctrine of conscience orients us to the personal character of the relationship between God and the self. Away from all aggrandizing, overarching theories, the path of Newman is one of an increasing interiority which leads on, in a self-transcendence, to the infinite and unknown God who is both in us and beyond us. Such an interiority finds itself completed and complemented by the ‘external’ authoritative voice of God in His Church. This interiority of conscience resonates so deeply with that interior path of St Thérèse by which she “realized her vocation to love”37: the “hidden treasures”38 of the “invisible” manifest in the self-transcending interiority of love in and for the “visible” world.

In the final analysis, Newman is to be viewed as manifesting the sanctity of St Philip and the spirit of the Oratory. Przywara could hardly lavish higher praise on the Oratory and on St Philip. He quotes Goethe to highlight the analogical form of St Philip’s sanctity: he “had sought to unite the sacred with the profane, the aspirations of virtue with the common every-day concerns of life.”39 At the time of the Reformation, St Philip, Goethe thought, was preparing his own Reformation. Only his was in “the thought of connecting the spiritual, nay, the sacred, with the profane, introducing the celestial into the secular.”40 He achieved all this, Goethe notes, with humour. Newman captures this spirit, Przywara thinks, in being a “simple observer of real life, and the theorist of concrete religiosity”.41 He sees the invisible world within and beyond the visible. He does not flee the paradoxical pull of the opposites of love and fear, but embraces them. And in so embracing them, embraces the very form of Revelation, and the shape of sanctity peculiar to St Philip.

Newman sees the mystery of constant change which comes in and through the unchanging God. He replaces the “dynamism” that belongs to the world of sin and death with the dynamism of Christianity.42 A Christianity in which the Church herself as much as the individual Christian grows organically within this analogical mystery of change in the unchangeable God. As Newman himself says:

“I know, O my God, I must change […] Oh, support me, as I proceed in this great, awful, happy change, with the grace of Thy unchangeableness. My unchangeableness here below is perseverance in changing.”43

By Dr Christopher M. Wojtulewicz, free research associate at KU Leuven


1 The following is an abridged version of my introduction to and translation of Przywara’s article ‘Newman—Möglicher Heiliger und Kirchenlehrer der Neuen Zeit?’, Newman Studien 3 (March 1957): 28–36, published in the University of Notre Dame’s journal Church Life (October 11, 2019). All references to Przywara’s article are from that translation. This talk was delivered at the Oratory of St Philip Neri in Toronto, Canada on Monday 23rd September 2019.

2 Erich Przywara, ‘Newman—Möglicher Heiliger und Kirchenlehrer der Neuen Zeit?’, Newman Studien 3 (March 1957): 30.

3 See Erich Przywara, ‘Translator’s Preface’, in Analogia Entis. Metaphysics: Original Structure and Universal Rhythm, trans. John R. Betz and David Bentley Hart (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2014), xi; see also Erich Przywara, Sein Schrifttum 1912-1962, ed. Leo Zimny (Einsiedeln: Johannes-Verlag, 1963).

4 Translation as given in John R. Betz, ‘Translator’s Introduction’, in Analogia Entis: Metaphysics: Original Structure and Universal Rhythm, trans. John R. Betz and David Bentley Hart (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm.B. Eerdmans, 2014), 72f.

5 See ibid., 51.

6 Erich Przywara, Analogia Entis: Metaphysics: Original Structure and Universal Rhythm, trans. John R. Betz and David Bentley Hart (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2014), 150.

7 Przywara, ‘Newman—Möglicher Heiliger und Kirchenlehrer der Neuen Zeit?’, 31.

8 Ibid.

9 John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (London, New York, Bombay, Calcutta: Longman, Green, and Co., 1909), Chapter 2, Section 2 ‘An Infallible Developing Authority to be Expected’, 86, [accessed 21 August 2019].

10 Przywara, ‘Newman—Möglicher Heiliger und Kirchenlehrer der Neuen Zeit?’, 31.

11 Ibid.

12 John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Being a History of His Religious Opinions (London, New York, Bombay, Calcutta: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1908), Chapter 2, 49, [accessed 21 August 2019].

13 ‘Newman—Möglicher Heiliger und Kirchenlehrer der Neuen Zeit?’, 31, quoting John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (London, New York, Bombay, Calcutta: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1903), Chapter 5, §1, 107, [accessed 21 August 2019].

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 See ibid., 32.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid., 32–34.

22 Ibid., 33.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid., 34.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid., 35.

28 Ibid., 34.

29 Przywara, Ringen der Gegenwart, vol. 2, 543 as cited and translated in John R. Betz, ‘Erich Przywara and the Analogia Entis‘ (2018), 84.

30 Ibid.

31 Przywara, ‘Newman—Möglicher Heiliger und Kirchenlehrer der Neuen Zeit?’, 28.

32 Pope St John Paul II, Divini Amoris Scientia (October 19, 1997), §7, [accessed 21 August 2019]. Divini Amoris Scientia is the Apostolic Letter of Pope St John Paul II that declares St Thérèse a Doctor of the Church.

33 Ibid., §11.

34 Ibid., §10.

35 Przywara, Religionsbegründung, 286. 

36 Pope St John Paul II, Divini Amoris Scientia, §8.

37 Ibid., §9.

38 Ibid.

39 Przywara, ‘Newman—Möglicher Heiliger und Kirchenlehrer der Neuen Zeit?’, 29 quoting Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Goethe’s Travels in Italy: Together with His Second Residence in Rome and Fragments on Italy, trans. Alexander James William Morrison and Charles Nisbet, Dohn’s Standard Library (London: George Bell and Sons, 1885), 351, [accessed 23 May 2019].

40 Goethe, Travels in Italy, 327.

41 Przywara, Religionsbegründung, 286.

42 Przywara, ‘Newman—Möglicher Heiliger und Kirchenlehrer der Neuen Zeit?’, 36.

43 J.H. Newman, Meditations and Devotions, 11, ‘IX. God Alone Unchangeable’, 370, [accessed 21 August 2019], cited in ibid.

St Philip's Seminary, Toronto
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