Matthew Arnold was the son of Dr. Thomas Arnold, the legendary headmaster of Rugby, who many decades after his death had the misfortune to be one of the four figures held up to ridicule in Lytton Strachey’s landmark book, Eminent Victorians. (The other three were Florence Nightingale, Cardinal Manning, and General "Chinese" Gordon). Matthew, one of the great critics, poets, and social thinkers of the Victorian Age, was an even more eminent Victorian than his father, and Matthew, unlike his father, was rarely ridiculous — except perhaps when he took to writing about religion. (In truth, Dr. Arnold himself was rarely ridiculous — except in the eyes of Strachey and his many readers, participants in the anti-Victorian counterrevolution that took place in the early part of the 20th century.)
Dr. Arnold had been one of the great leaders of the "broad church" party in the Church of England. His idea was that the Church of England should be a "comprehensive" church — in other words, a church that embraced all English Protestants. But to bring Anglicans and Dissenters (Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Unitarians, etc.) under a single ecclesiastical roof, it would be necessary to downplay those doctrines that differentiated the many denominations from one another, while at the same time stressing those Christian beliefs and values they all had in common; and what they had in common was, above all, a Christian morality.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and when Matthew Arnold came to write about religion (which he did most notably in a work titled Literature and Dogma, subtitled An Essay towards a Better Apprehension of the Bible, first published in 1873), he wrote in the broad church spirit; that is to say, he minimized dogma and emphasized morality. Matthew Arnold said, in effect, "Let’s discard all Christian doctrine except the bare minimum." Out goes the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth, and so on. The only thing that remains on the doctrinal side is a somewhat unusual belief in God; that is, a belief that there is a great superhuman force operating in the universe that is favorable to moral goodness. For Matthew Arnold, God is "the Eternal not-ourselves that makes for righteousness." The essence of religion is to be found not in doctrine but in morality. In a famous definition, Arnold declared that religion (and by "religion" he chiefly meant Christianity) is "morality touched by emotion."
The great intellectual foe of Arnoldian (or broad-church or non-dogmatic) religion in 19th-century England was, of course, John Henry Newman, in both the Anglican and Catholic phases of his career. He called this kind of religion "liberalism," and he neatly summed up a lifetime of opposition to it in the speech he gave when receiving his cardinal’s red hat in 1879:
Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another . . . . [Liberalism] is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.
Cardinal Newman further held that all Protestantism tends toward liberalism, and that all liberalism tends toward atheism.
It is odd that Cardinal Newman is something of a favorite among American Catholics who tend to be religiously liberal. This is probably because of the title of a long essay he published in a magazine in 1859, "On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine." It is a great misunderstanding of the man, however, to believe that he would wish the pope and the bishops to be guided by the Letters to the Editor page of the National Catholic Reporter.
The model he had in mind when thinking that the "faithful" can guide the hierarchy was that of the rank-and-file Catholics of the fourth century, the age of the Arian controversy. Many bishops, under political pressure from Constantinople, were defecting to Arianism from the doctrine of Nicea, but the rank-and-file — for whom Athanasius (Athanasius contra mundum) spoke — remained loyal to the Catholic-Orthodox doctrine. The faithful were more orthodox, more "traditional" (if I may use a word that sounds like an obscenity in the ears of Catholic "progressives"), than much of the hierarchy; the fourth-century laity were decidedly not liberal, not "progressive." Eventually, as we know, Athanasius and the rank-and-file faithful prevailed, and the hierarchy returned to the straight path.
If Cardinal Newman were with us today, commenting on the present-day scene, he would see no reason to change his mind about religious liberalism. In Europe, including Newman’s beloved England, Protestantism, which has become very liberal, is in a state of disintegration. European Catholicism is not quite so badly off; but it too, at least among the laity, has become liberal, and it too is approaching disintegration. In the United States things are not much better — with the notable exception of Protestant and quasi-Protestant denominations that still take religious dogma (even in some cases very odd dogmas) seriously: I mean Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. These denominations are flourishing.
Such religion as is left among liberal churches is more and more approximating Arnold’s ideal: morality touched by emotion (albeit rather mild emotion). But what morality? Not the old Christian morality, with its sexual strictness. Rather, the fashionable morality of the day. Liberal Christianity today believes in fornication (with precautions to guard against disease and unwanted pregnancy), cohabitation, abortion, embryonic stem cell research, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, a war against global warming, etc.
This is not the morality that either Dr. Arnold or his son Matthew had in mind, and they would no doubt be distressed to find it prevailing among "broad" Christians. Perhaps they would decide that Newman was right after all when he contended that liberal religion tends toward atheism.