This is the first part of a paper delivered at the conference “Anglo-Catholicism: Uncovering Roots,” Church of the Advent, Boston, November 15-16.

When most people think of Anglo-Catholicism, they may think of rich liturgy, a beautiful choral tradition, a high understanding of ecclesiology, and perhaps the ability to throw really good parties. One category that we may not think about as often is the idea of ethics. In an afterword for The Oxford Handbook of the Oxford Movement, Colin Podmore mentions the importance the movement gave to changing (and beautifying) church interiors and vestments, retrieving the Eucharist as the principal Sunday service at most parishes, and the institution of a sung Mass. He also identifies spiritual and pastoral traditions of prayer, worship, and priestly formation, as well as a strong ecclesiological foundation of catholicity and apostolicity. He does not identify any effect that Anglo-Catholicism had on the discussion of ethics, whether academically or in formation within parishes.

I believe that retrieving an understanding of the significance of ethics for Anglo-Catholicism is crucial for creating a faithful future. Understanding the Church’s role in helping develop people’s holiness is what ties together all of these other wonderful and important ideas. It is a concept we need to reclaim and reintegrate if we want to have the healthy, growing churches necessary for Catholic Anglicanism to survive and flourish. Further, I will also argue that the type of ethics we can and should retrieve from the Oxford Movement is of a specific type: an ethic of practical virtue grounded in robust understandings of holiness and sanctification. Discussion of virtue and sanctification, with their Wesleyan connotations, have more often been associated in contemporary Anglicanism, when discussed at all, with the evangelical wing of the church. I believe that this relegation represents a loss of a key component of the Oxford Movement.

In this paper, I will argue that the two key works of John Henry Newman, written while he was still Anglican, The Lectures on Justification and the Plain and Parochial Sermons, present at least an implicit theory of a Catholic virtue ethic. I will first, briefly, provide some historical background on the importance of this debate at the foundation of the Oxford Movement. Then, in the majority of this paper, I will provide an overview of Newman’s theology of sanctification and development of an ethic of practical virtues. To do this, I will draw upon his theological theory of the relationship between justification and sanctification, worked out in his lectures on justification. Then, I will argue that the first two volumes of the plain and parochial sermons, read as a unit, should be understood as a practical guide to understanding how virtue can be developed by Christians, as well as a guide to teaching this. I will close by briefly considering how adopting this approach would transform practices of catechesis in the Church today.


First, for those here who are not ethicists, What is a virtue ethic? In the last few decades, discussions of the retrieval of various types of virtue ethics have become significant in the field of Christian ethics. Most theologians advocating for a virtue ethic trace at least some part of the lineage back to St. Thomas Aquinas, and through him to Aristotle. Aristotelian ethics is grounded on the belief that the goal of our actions is to maximize human fulfillment or happiness. Fulfilment should not be understood as the temporary satisfaction of the needs and desires of our animal nature, but rather the actualization of all our potentiality as rational embodied beings. In order to accomplish this goal, and to make sure we are not distracted by temporary and less perfect goods, humans have the capacity to develop habits, called virtues, which give us the settled disposition to direct our capacity to this ultimate end of human fulfilment. These habits are referred to as acquired virtues, because they can be developed over time through education, training, discipline, and the imitation of other virtuous people. They are directed toward ensuring right treatment of other people. Determining how these habits are developed and how they are properly oriented comprises much of the field of reflection upon virtue ethics. It is, perhaps, best understood in its secular guise as a theory of moral psychology.

For Christians, this explanation of the development of virtue as maximizing our human potential is clearly not sufficient. It fails to address the influence of sin and grace in our lives, and considers only the end of human life in accordance with our natural created capacity, not the possibility of friendship with God. To correct for this lack in Aristotle’s theory, Aquinas draws upon Paul to identify three further virtues: faith, hope, and love. These are not virtues acquired by our action, but rather are infused into the soul by the Holy Spirit. They are theological as opposed to acquired, and are directed to the end of union with God. The theological virtues transform our human nature, making it possible for us to become, according to Thomas, “partakers in the divine nature.”[1]

Since grace perfects nature and does not destroy it, the theological virtues, while they transform our human nature, do not remove or negate the need for the development of our natural capacities. While human fulfilment is understood by the Christian as properly the beatific vision, friendship with God, this does not mean that we only consider what happens on the spiritual or transcendent level, but what happens in our daily life matters as well. Thus, the theological virtues, although they transform the acquired virtues, do not do away with the individual’s need to develop prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude — the four cardinal acquired virtues. These cardinal virtues are transformed, just as the individual is, by the infusion of the acquired virtues. For example, while the paradigm action for the acquired virtue of fortitude, standing alone, is willingness to die in battle, the paradigmatic action for the infused acquired virtue is martyrdom. The infusion of the acquired virtues does not mean that we no longer need to work to obtain them, but rather that our attainment of them is now assisted by the Holy Spirit and aimed at both natural and supernatural ends.

Newman, although less systematically developed than Aquinas, describes a similar virtue ethic. What Newman’s theory lacks in systematization it provides in practical application and guidance. Claiming Newman as some form of virtue theorist is definitely applying an anachronistic term, but is supported by what we know of influences on Newman. First, comments made throughout Newman’s corpus, such as his reflection on practical wisdom in his Grammar of Assent, demonstrate that he was deeply influenced by Aristotle’s ethics, specifically as articulated in the Nicomachean Ethics.[2] Second, in the Lectures on justification, Newman is clearly drawing much of his argument on sanctification from the works of the Catholic theologians at the Council of Trent, who were deeply grounded in and drawing from Thomas’s conception of the relationship between justification, sanctification, and virtue. In addition, it is important to note that the Caroline divines who had such influence on Newman, although they do not figure explicitly in the works I am considering, placed an important value on holiness as an essential component of Anglican ethics.

The context for Newman’s discussion of virtue ethics can be traced to the early days of the Oxford Movement. Pusey first raised the question of the relationship between sanctification and justification in three tracts on baptism published in 1835-36. As Peter Erb writes: “He effectively summed up his argument with the words of Richard Hooker (1554-1600), stating that ‘when the signs and Sacraments of His grace are not either through contempt unreceived, or received with contempt, we are not to doubt, but that they really give what they promise, and are what they signify.’”[3] This claim aroused some controversy, from those who saw in it either a misreading of the 39 Articles or a rejection of the foundational Protestant claim that justification was by faith alone.

Newman entered the controversy to defend Pusey, and then elaborated on his defense in a series of lectures on justification, delivered from April to June of 1837 and published in 1838.

In this series, as in most of his writing of this period, he sought to challenge two different groups within the church of England: liberal Christians and evangelicals. Although these groups were in his time, and in our day as well, often presented as diametrically opposed, Newman argued that both groups made the same basic theological error: that the demonstration of holiness through actions in a person’s life is not related to salvation.

For evangelicals, this error was grounded in a wholesale adaptation of Lutheran statements that justification was by faith alone, and a dismissal of the importance of works for salvation. Against the majority of the Christian tradition, they had adopted an innovative understanding of justification as only imputing righteousness, not actually imparting it. This meant that while evangelicals might (and did) stress the importance of holiness in everyday life, they argued against any claim that the redeemed might be transformed through the sacraments, that their actions might be meritorious, and that they could ever share in Christ’s righteousness in any actual way.[4] Thus, for evangelicals, sacraments could never be more than simply ritual and memorial, not a transformative reality in the here and now. Put in virtue ethics terms: the evangelicals claimed that only the theological virtues were important, and did not leave any room in the order of salvation for the development of the infused acquired virtues.

For liberals, the concern was not with whether Christians actually partook in Christ’s righteousness and could produce works meritorious of salvation, but rather perceived the goal of Christianity as only a social mechanism for training average citizens, conversant in the morality of their time. Cyril O’Regan points out that “Newman was aware that the standard for moral behavior (distinct from sainthood which is a theological notion) is provided by its best practitioners. The point of view of liberal Christianity, however, is that the benchmark was no longer provided by the best, but by the average person with average forms of virtue and vice.”[5] O’Regan identifies this belief as a “naturalistic anthropology.”[6] The second component of liberalism is a reductive “anthropocentric horizon of discourse,” which “not only brackets theological notions such as ‘sin’ and ‘grace’ but cannot envisage God as having anything to do with holiness, whether holiness is thought to be applicable to human beings or not.”[7] Because holiness is either too high a standard, or not something God is concerned with, O’Regan identifies a third strand: a “de-authorization of religious disciplines” intended to promote holiness as no longer relevant.[8] If God is not holy, worship loses its deep theological significance. If this holiness can never be ours, the historic moral practices of the Christian faith are merely oppressive relics of past, primitive perceptions of God. In virtue ethics terms, liberals only focused on the development of natural acquired ethics, using the contemporary mean as the paradigmatic example.

Newman, contrary to the evangelicals, argues that justification gives us the opportunity of actually partaking in Christ’s holiness. Contrary to the liberals, he argues that holiness does matter to God, and is in fact achievable in this life through our actions, even though always through sacrifice: first Christ’s and then our own. Thus, for Newman, not only does justification, “God’s great act,” constitute a declaration of our righteousness, but also, as part of the same great act, we are made actually righteous, at least to a certain extent.[9] This is a real and actual righteousness, reflected in changed actions in our life and a growth toward holiness, not simply imputed righteousness. Through justification, then, Christians are not only turned around, but also “enabled to fulfil the Law, which they certainly are, in spite of modern divines, because St. Paul says so. He says expressly that Christ came that ‘the righteousness of the Lamb might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit.’”[10]

In summary, in understanding the ordo salutis, Newman understands the original source of our righteousness as God’s mercy, the “meritorious cause” as the life and death of Christ,[11] and the efficient cause as the Holy Spirit working to renew us within our hearts.[12] The instrument of this transformation is originally baptism.[13] Baptism is the “instrument” that affects the original change within us, an ontological change that makes us capable of becoming temples of the Holy Ghost and thus truly righteous.

The question of the development of infused acquired virtues arises at this point, and Newman begins to deploy virtue language. The presence of the Holy Spirit functions as “a sanctifying virtue in our hearts, changing the character of our service, making our obedience new in kind, not merely fuller in degree, making it to live and grow, so that it is ever tending to a perfect righteousness as its limit.”[14] Through the work of the Holy Spirit, we receive faith, which becomes a habit of the soul. “A habit is something permanent, which affects the character; it is a something in the mind which develops itself through the acts of the mind, and disposes the mind to move in this way, not that.”[15]

These habits that are given to us result in the transformation of our natural faculties. “God’s grace unfetters the will which by nature is in bondage and thus restores to us the faculty of accepting or rejecting that grace itself. It enables us to obey, not as instruments merely, but as free agents who, while they obey, are not constrained to obey, except that they choose to obey; and whose obedience as for that reason more pleasing to God.”[16] In another lecture, Newman describes this gift of righteousness as “a supernatural presence in our moral nature, distinct from it and yet dwelling in it and changing it …. [T]he garment of salvation put on us, is such as to cleave to us, and to end to become part of us; what was at first a covering merely, becomes our very flesh …. [T]he glory of the Divine Nature, of which St. Peter says we are partakers, first hides our deformity and then removes it.”[17]

Because our faculties are freed and our moral nature is in the process of being transformed from within, we are given the opportunity to participate in this work of sanctification. The first and most important way that we can cooperate with God in this growth in righteousness is through receiving the Eucharist, which is also an instrument of change, building upon the originally justifying effect of baptism and resulting in “the further justification of the already just.”[18] We can also cooperate by using our renewed faculties to pursue natural perfection. We cannot add to the gift of the theological virtues already implanted in our soul, but we can engage in the development of our natural capacities, pursuing what Newman describes as “a spiritual circumcision, a crucifixion of the flesh, or sanctification.”[19] The fact that we are made capable of being God’s temples at baptism cannot be increased, but there can still be an increase in righteousness that follows. “A still further communication of God’s glory is promised to the obedient …. Righteousness, then, considered as the state of being God’s temple cannot be increased; but considered as the divine glory which that state implies, it can be increased, as the pillar of the cloud which guided the Israelites could become more or less bright.”[20]

This article concludes on Friday.


[1] Summa, I-II.62.1.

[2] Cyril O’Regan, “John Henry Newman and the Argument of Holiness,” Newman Studies Journal, Vol. 9, No. 1 (2012), pp. 52-74, especially p.  59.

[3] Peter Erb, “Justification and Sanctification in the Oxford Movement,” The Oxford Handbook of the Oxford Movement, ed. Steward Jay Brown, et al. (Oxford, 2017), p. 245. Quoting Pusey 1836: II.214; quoting Hooker 1888: II.258 [Bk. 5: chap. 57, 5])

[4] David Newsome, “Justification and Sanctification: Newman and The Evangelicals,” The Journal of Theological Studies, New Series, Vol. 15, No. 1 (April 1964), pp. 32-53, especially pp. 34-35

[5] O’Regan, p. 59.

[6] O’Regan, p. 57.

[7] O’Regan, p. 58.

[8] O’Regan, p. 58.

[9] John Henry Newman, Lecture IV, Lectures on Justification (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001), p. 85.

[10] Ibid. at 91.

[11] Newman, Lecture VI, p. 133.

[12] Newman, Lecture VI, p. 137.

[13] Ibid., pp. 132-33.

[14] Lecture IV, p. 92.

[15] Lecture XII, p. 293.

[16] Lecture IV, p. 95.

[17] Lecture VIII, p. 197.

[18] Lecture VI, p. 154.

[19] Lecture VII, pp. 173-74.

[20] Lecture VI, pp. 150-51.

About The Author

Elisabeth is assistant professor of moral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. She received her PhD in Theology from the University of Notre Dame, where her dissertation focused on reclaiming the theological jurisprudence of the 16th-century Spanish theologian and legal scholar, Francisco Suárez.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.