“In necessary things unity…”

Over at Pontifications   o{]:¬)   there was a useful post clarifying something patristibloggers are familiar with, namely, that Augustine of Hippo did not write or say a famous phrase often attributed to him: In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas.

It was pointed out that the source of this seems to be an 1959 Encyclical of Bl Pope John XXIII (who used to live in the residence I live in) entitled Ad Petri cathedram.  Want the Latin text? Here it is on the Vatican website.

Here is the text:

Sunt tamen non pauca, quae Catholica etiam Ecclesia theologis disputanda permittit, quatenus haec non omnino certa sint, et quatenus etiam, ut celeberrimus Angliae scriptor loannes Henricus Newman Cardinalis animadvertit, eiusmodi controversiae unitatem non discindant Ecclesiae, sed potius ad altiorem melioremque dogmatum intellegentiam, ex ipso variarum sententiarum attritu novum praebendo lumen, non parum conferant, ad eamque assequendam viam sternant ac muniant.  Verumtamen commune illud effatum, quod, aliis verbis interdum expressum, variis tribuitur auctoribus, semper retinendum probandumque est: In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas.

71. The Catholic Church, of course, leaves many questions open to the discussion of theologians. She does this to the extent that matters are not absolutely certain. Far from jeopardizing the Church’s unity, controversies, as a noted English author, John Henry Cardinal Newman, has remarked, can actually pave the way for its attainment. For discussion can lead to fuller and deeper understanding of religious truths; when one idea strikes against another, there may be a spark.  72. But the common saying, expressed in various ways and attributed to various authors, must be recalled with approval: in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.

Cf. J.H. Newman, Difficulties of Anglicans, v. 1, 261 ff.

Pontifications also provided a link where someone did the footwork on the phrase.  It is very interesting.


This famous motto of Christian Irenics, which I have slightly modified in the text, is often falsely attributed to St. Augustin (whose creed would not allow it, though his heart might have approved of it), but is of much later origin. It appears for the first time in Germany, A.D. 1627 and 1628, among peaceful divines of the Lutheran and German Reformed churches, and found a hearty welcome among moderate divines In England. The authorship has recently been traced to RUPERTUS MELDENIUS an otherwise unknown divine, and author of a remarkable tract in which the sentence first occurs.  … The tract of Meldenius bears the title, Paraenesis votiva pro Pace Ecclesiae ad Theologos Augustanae Confessionis, Auctore Ruperto Meldenio Theologo, 62 pp. in 4to, without date and place of publication. It probably appeared in 1627 at Francfort-on-the-Oder, which was at that time the seat of theological moderation.  …  The golden sentence occurs in the later half of the tract (p. 128 in Luecke’s edition), incidentally and in hypothetical form, as follows:- "Verbo dicam: Si nos servaremus IN necesariis Unitatem, IN non-necessariis Libertatem, IN UTRISQUE Charitatem, optimo certe loco essent res nostrae." [In a word, I’ll say it: if we preserve unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and charity in both, our affairs will be in the best position.]


Interesting, huh? From a Lutheran’s pen to a Pope’s pen. 

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. John says:

    Very interesting!

    St Augustine is also credited with the remark that He who sings prays twice. However, I have read that he never said this. Can any one correct the record about this old chesnut?

  2. Fabio P.Barbieri says:

    One small correction. “Celeberrimus” in Bl.John XXIII’s description of Cardinal Newman signifies not “noted” but “legendary, extremely illustrious, of the highest possible renown”. It is the superlative of CELEBER, “honoured, illustrious”, and raises that already strong word of praise to the highest possible pitch. Pope John chose it to underline the greatness of Cardinal Newman; the word not only is very strong in Latin, but has come down with the same extreme pitch of meaning in Pope John’s native Italian.

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