Travesties of Newman

The editors of a new book of essays on Cardinal John Henry Newman are unable to overcome their own biases in their consideration of the great churchman.

No Englishman—or only Lord Byron—ever fascinated his countrymen more than John Henry Cardinal Newman. Lord Macaulay was convinced that the British public’s fascination with Byron was mostly pharisaical. For the great Whig historian, the man whom Sir Walter Scott called “the Champion of the English Parnassus” was held up “as a sort of whipping boy” to show how superior English morals were to “the Parisian laxity”; he was also “guilty of the offence, which, of all offences, is punished most severely; he had been overpraised.” Yet, Macaulay clearly relished the irony that after “the savage envy of aspiring dunces” had done all it could to discredit the prolific poet, his work “became more popular than it had ever been.”

The appeal Newman held for his compatriots was of an entirely different order. In 1883, Matthew Arnold might have spoken for some Protestants and some unbelievers when he said that Newman “adopted, for the doubts and difficulties which beset men’s minds to-day, a solution which, to speak frankly, is impossible.” Indeed, Arnold was convinced that the nineteenth-century Englishman who had sought to offer the truest solution to these “doubts and difficulties” was none other than Byron. In his preface to the Poetry of Byron (1881), Arnold contended, “As the inevitable break-up of the old order comes, as the English middle-class slowly awakens from its intellectual sleep of two centuries, as our actual present world, for which this sleep has condemned us, shows itself more clearly, —our world of an aristocracy materialised and null, a middle-class purblind and hideous, a lower class crude and brutal, —we shall turn out eyes again, and to more purpose, upon this passionate and dauntless soldier of a forlorn hope.” Yet, notwithstanding this quixotic plug for the cultural savior in Byron, even for those who did not follow Newman into the Church of Rome, the great convert remained a source of intense interest precisely because of the steadfastness with which he affirmed and reaffirmed his faith in the ancient Church. 

In 1890, Richard H. Hutton, the High Church editor of the Spectator, captured this aspect of Newman’s appeal perhaps better than anyone in his brief biography of the cardinal. After marveling at the esteem and affection held by “all the English Churches and all the English sects for the man who had certainly caused the defection of a larger number of cultivated Protestants from their Protestant faith than any other English writer or preacher since the Reformation,” Hutton observed that, “In a century in which physical discovery and material well-being have usurped and almost absorbed the admiration of mankind, such a life as that of Cardinal Newman stands out in strange and almost majestic, though singularly graceful and unpretending contrast.” For Hutton, who wrote more than 30 pieces about Newman over the course of his long critical career, “No life known to me in the last century of our national history can for a moment compare with it, so far as we can judge of such deep matters, in unity of meaning and constancy of purpose. It has been carved, as it were, out of one solid block of spiritual substance.”  

In his unsurpassed intellectual biography of Newman, first published in 1989 and reissued with an afterword in 2009, Father Ian Ker brilliantly mined this “solid block of spiritual substance” in Newman’s books and correspondence to show how all of his life’s work had culminated in what his subject had inscribed on his gravestone, “Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem,” which Ker nicely translated, “Out of unreality into reality.” In any consideration of Newman’s reception by his contemporaries or posterity, the nature of this uncompromising course has to be taken into account. Newman left the unreality of the Anglo-Catholic party within the National Church that he had been so instrumental in setting up because he hungered for the reality that only the Church of Rome could supply.

To insist on this may grate on those who wish to present Newman as an ecumenical figure or, more mischievously still, a liberal malgré lui. Yet there was nothing ecumenical or liberal about what Newman had to say about the National Church or Anglo-Catholics in his Lectures on Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Submitting to the Catholic Church (1850) or Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England (1851). On the contrary, in the latter, he could not have been more forthright in his impatience with the unreality of the National Church, for all of its power and appeal. 

 If…“life” means strength, activity, energy, and well-being of any kind whatever, in that case doubtless the national religion is alive. It is a great power in the midst of us; it wields an enormous influence; it represses a hundred foes; it conducts a hundred undertakings. It attracts men to it, uses them, rewards them; it has thousands of beautiful homes up and down the country, where quiet men may do its work and benefit its people; it collects vast sums in the shape of voluntary offerings, and with them it builds churches, prints and distributes innumerable Bibles, books, and tracts and sustains missionaries in all parts of the earth. In all parts of the earth it opposes the Catholic Church, denounces her as antichristian, bribes the world against her, obstructs her influence, apes her authority, and confuses her evidence. In all parts of the world it is the religion of gentlemen, of scholars, of men of substance, and men of no personal faith at all. If this be life,—if it be life to impart a tone to the court and houses of parliament, to ministers of state, to law and literature, to universities and schools, and to society,—if it be life to be a principle of order in the population, and an organ of benevolence and almsgiving towards the poor,—if it be life to make men decent, respectable, and sensible, to embellish and refine the family circle, to deprive vice of its grossness, and to shed a gloss over avarice and ambition,—if indeed it is the life of religion to be the first jewel in the Queen’s crown, and the highest step of her throne, then doubtless the National Church is replete, it overflows with life; but the question has still to be answered, Life of what kind? Heresy has its life, worldliness has its life. Is the Establishment’s life merely national life, or is it something more? Is it Catholic life as well? Is it a supernatural life?

One might say that these were the avowals of a recent convert, eager to attest to the Faith that he had sacrificed so much to embrace. Yet in August of 1870, at the height of the papal infallibility crisis leading up to the First Vatican Council, when the rumor surfaced that the convert was contemplating returning to the Anglican Church, Newman responded to an Anglican clergyman from Devon by the name of Henry Thomas Ellacombe with a letter full of the same satirical fire and conviction that had animated those ebullient books of his in the 1850s.  

Don’t let me hurt you, my dear Ellacombe, by thus smiling over your letter, for I am not hurt at you — ‘make up my mind to return’ — Why, I could as easily ‘make up my mind’ to be a Garibaldian or a Siamese twin. Be sure there is as much chance of my turning an Anglican again as of my being the Irish Giant or the King of Clubs. Don’t let impertinent Pamphleteers delude you. I am as certain that the Church in communion with Rome is the successor and representative of the Primitive Church, as certain that the Anglican Church is not, as certain that the Anglican Church is a mere collection of men, a mere national body, a human society, as I am that Victoria is Queen of Great Britain. Nor have I once had even a passing doubt on the subject, ever since I have been a Catholic. I have all along been in a state of inward certainty and steady assurance on this point, and I should be the most asinine, as well as the most ungrateful of men, if I left that Gracious Lord who manifests Himself in the Catholic Church, for those wearisome Protestant shadows, out of which of His mercy he has delivered me.   

It is a pity that no response from Rector Ellacombe survives to this splendid letter. If he had any sense of fun he must have enjoyed the charm with which Newman disabused him of his wild misapprehensions. If Newman could be fierce in public controversy, he was always gentle to those who took issue with him in private. “This is why I cannot help smiling at your invitation,” Newman wrote to Ellacombe, “though it comes out of so kind a heart, as I should have laughed if I had been the chicken, to whom the good-wife said, ‘Chick, chick, come and be killed.’” The unity that Hutton and Ker saw in Newman’s life and work is here amusingly confirmed by Newman himself.

What strikes one initially upon opening Receptions of Newman, a collection of academic essays edited by Dr. Frederick Aquino and Dr. Benjamin King, is that it is dedicated, in part, to Frank Turner, the stridently anti-Catholic author of John Henry Newman The Challenge of Evangelical Religion, which the editors laud for “opening up new historical and philosophical lines of inquiry.” If Hutton and Ker saw admirable integrity in Newman, Turner saw only depravity and imposture. Indeed, for the unaccountably assertive Yale professor, Newman was “a confused schismatic,” who only converted to the Catholic Church to mask his manifold skepticism. 

Following suit, the editors begin their introduction by asking, “Was John Henry Newman an agnostic?” The justification they give for inaugurating their volume with this peculiar query does not inspire confidence.

First, Newman’s writings on matters of faith continue to inform the study of theology, philosophy, and history… Second, division over agnosticism show the contradictory ways in which Newman’s readers have understood him… Third, by beginning this introduction with one example among the many subjects on which Newman wrote, the editors want to be clear from the start this this volume is not an exhaustive account of the receptions of his work…

However odd a defense for giving their collection so tendentious a turn, this does at least have the merit of showing readers how the liberal academy currently regards Newman and his legacy. If, after Tract 90, Newman found himself “posted up by the marshal on the buttery-hatch of every College of my University, after the manner of discommoned pastry-cooks, and… denounced as a traitor… against the time-honoured Establishment,” the true Catholic convert is no more welcome today in most of our own colleges and universities.  Of course, the false agnostic Newman may be welcome for various purposes, but that is a different story.  

What is also striking about this collection is that the editors and their contributors only acknowledge in passing the Victorian rationalists who first brought the charge of agnosticism against Newman, most notably Thomas Huxley, Leslie Stephen, James Fitzjames Stephen, and Martin Fairbairn. Given the editors’ stated interest in the charge of agnosticism, why there is no proper discussion anywhere in the volume of these polemicists and the character of their attacks on Newman’s faith is a lively question. Were these Victorian rationalists ever successful in demonstrating that Newman did, indeed, succumb to agnosticism? Or did they deliberately misrepresent Newman and his work to justify or resolve their own agnosticism? Readers will find no answers to such questions in these unbalanced pages. If, as Prof. Colin Barr claims, the aim of the collection was to establish “the Newman of history,” he and his academic friends might have included some discussion of the thinkers from whom their own thinking stems. 

When it comes to failing to acknowledge debts to past authors, however, no one can match Dr. Peter Nockles, who in his essay here on the Tractarian response to Newman refuses to admit that he took his thesis for his deeply misleading study The Oxford Movement in Context (1994) from Frederick Meyrick (1827-1906), the Church of England clergyman who argued as early as the 1870s that much of the Anglican High Church had already begun to accomplish in the 18th what Newman set out to accomplish in the Tractarian Movement in the 19th century. Instead, he has the effrontery to charge that “Meyrick’s extraordinary attempt to deny Newman was ever central to or even necessary to the life of the Tractarian movement finds a muted echo in Owen Chadwick.” Of course, Chadwick was remorselessly hostile to the convert who had so much satirical fun with the die-hards of the Anglo-Catholic party, but for Nockles to try to deflect attention away from his own failure to acknowledge his debt to Meyrick by calling attention to someone else’s takes the biscuit for impudence. 

Prof. Cyril O’Regan, a native of the County Limerick who teaches theology at Notre Dame, contributes what is probably the least coherent piece in the collection. In “Receptions of Newman the Saint,” we meet the usual defamatory innuendoes in which detractors of Newman have always specialized, though the professor, like so many of Newman’s Victorian detractors, is not always careful to verify his claims. “Not all Catholics are possessed of a sensorium for sanctity; often the perceptual default for Catholics is more nearly ethical,” the professor writes in his characteristically baffling English. “Some Catholic readers of Newman could conceivably find him wanting in justice with respect to his adversaries and insufficiently attentive to the ills of society at large. Others again, who have a capacity for recognizing sanctity, might not find Newman compelling in the way they find Francis of Assisi or even John Paul II.” The sanctity of Newman, in other words, is dubious because he did not treat his controversial opponents with kid gloves or advance what liberals currently call “social justice.” Nevertheless, any even cursory reading of Newman the controversialist will show that he treated his opponents with remarkable forbearance and fairness, indeed suavity. One need only recall the patience and charity with which he debated the issue of papal infallibility and civil allegiance with Gladstone. And if Newman did not comport with 21st-century ideas of “social justice,” he did win the hearts and minds of the Birmingham poor, who flocked to his funeral at the Oratory in the thousands. And as for Newman not putting one in mind of St. Francis or St. John Paul the Great, well, he was rightly insistent on the inalienable uniqueness of each individual, and this would necessarily obtain in something as personal as sanctity. Still, it is comical that O’Regan should try to make invidious comparisons between Newman and Pope John Paul II, because the Polish pope was warmly appreciative of Newman’s self-evident sanctity. Indeed, on January 22, 2001, the pope wrote an apostolic letter to the bishop of Birmingham, confirming his admiration for the great convert:

“Lead kindly light amid the encircling gloom, lead Thou me on,” Newman wrote in “The Pillar of the Cloud”; and for him Christ was the light at the heart of every kind of darkness. For his tomb he chose the inscription: Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem; and it was clear at the end of his life’s journey that Christ was the truth he had found. But Newman’s search was shot through with pain. Once he had come to that unshakeable sense of the mission entrusted to him by God, he declared: “Therefore, I will trust Him… If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him… He does nothing in vain… He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me. Still, He knows what He is about” (Meditations and Devotions). All these trials he knew in his life; but rather than diminish or destroy him they paradoxically strengthened his faith in the God who had called him, and confirmed him in the conviction that God “does nothing in vain.” In the end, therefore, what shines forth in Newman is the mystery of the Lord’s Cross: this was the heart of his mission, the absolute truth which he contemplated, the “kindly light” which led him on.

Another fundamental problem with the collection is that it pointedly ignores the one book of Newman’s that attracted the most attention from his contemporaries, his Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864), which Newman wrote to defend himself and the development of his religious views against the calumnies of Charles Kingsley. This is particularly egregious in any book dedicated to Turner because the whole thrust of Turner’s vituperative attack on Newman’s integrity proceeds from the historian’s revisionist misreading of the Apologia. If the editors and their contributors were as committed to establishing the historical Newman as they claim to be, surely they would have devoted some critical attention to ascertaining whether Turner’s polemical attack on the reliability of the Apologia is tenable. Instead, with the exception of a few passing asides, they are almost entirely mum on that scurrilous, historically indefensible attack. 

O’Regan may uncritically accept Turner’s claim that the Apologia is little more than an exercise in self-vindication, but no impartial reader can revisit Newman’s account without seeing that the autobiography teems with self-criticism. After all, Newman is unsparing when it comes to his ill-advised formulation of the via media. He also quotes at length from the many abusive references to Rome that he penned when he was still within the Anglican ministry. Where the self-vindication lies in these recantations is rather inscrutable. After one citation of one particularly robust anti-Roman salvo, the chastened autobiographer is constrained to admit: “No one ought to indulge in insinuations; it certainly diminishes my right to complain of slanders uttered against myself, when, as in this passage, I had already spoken in disparagement of the controversialists of that religious body, to which I myself now belong.” Then, again, Newman expressly faults himself for helping usher in the triumph of liberalism at Oxford following his defection to Rome, a triumph which Dean Church would make the centerpiece of his classic History of the Oxford Movement, published nearly 25 years after Newman’s account.   If disciples of Turner like O’Regan wish to claim that Newman’s account is nothing more than a tissue of self-serving lies, they must also charge Church with the same uncritical mendacity, for he incorporated all of Newman’s interpretive insights into his own history.   

What Stanley Jaki referred to as Turner’s “colossal mischief” is also rubberstamped by Prof. William Abraham, who in his essay entitled “Reception of Newman on Revelation” exhaustively recounts Turner’s numerous libels against Newman only to conclude that their truth or falsehood is ultimately unascertainable. Why? “We all fall back on our best judgments,” the professor explains, “assembled in the light of all the relevant evidence.” In other words, we can repeat libels in scrupulous detail but we cannot determine whether or not they are true. That the Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies in the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University should follow up this startling claim by revealing in a footnote that his “work on the epistemology of divine revelation is deeply indebted to Newman” gives his discussion of the epistemologist in Newman added comic absurdity. 

In light of their unwillingness to engage Turner with any critical rigor, the liberal bias of the book’s contributors will come as no surprise to readers. In their essay on “The Roman Catholic Reception of the Essay on Development,” for example, Dr. Kenneth Parker and Dr. Michael Shea applaud Newman for prescience in his Essay but also “willful hopefulness.” Why? “Development did indeed become central to the Catholic understanding of the Christian past, though not in a smooth teleological trajectory. There were many twists and turns on the journey.” Although Cardinal Walter Kasper is only mentioned once in a footnote, his licentious misuse of Newman’s idea of development hovers over nearly everything discussed in the essay. The “smooth teleological trajectory” for which the authors yearn may not have been in the cards, but they are not without hope. As they write in their conclusion,

In the 2010 dialogue with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, archbishop of Buenos Aires—now Pope Francis—also affirmed the principle of development. He stated, “Religious truth does not change, but it does develop and grow. It is like with the human being, we are the same as a baby and in old age, but in the middle there is a whole journey.”

In other words, the truths of the catechism may never change, but their pastoral application certainly may. What the “whole journey” envisioned by the ineffable Jorge Mario Bergoglio may entail is anyone’s guess, though it is unlikely to include the principle of semper eadem so essential to Newman’s understanding of legitimate development, not to mention the Magisterium’s commitment to upholding the moral law. In any event, the authors show their own affinities clearly enough when they write:

Catholic receptions of Newman’s Essay may be understood in the context of decisions that—like the tacking of a sailboat in a strong headwind—have moved forward even when zigging and zagging in opposite directions. Leo XIII launched the Thomistic revival, yet made Newman a cardinal and commended his works. In 1910, priests and seminary professors around the world were required to swear, “I flatly reject the heretical invention of the evolution of dogmas.” However, Pius X earlier exempted Newman from the anti-modernist censure and commended him as a great teacher.

Reading between the lines, we can see that what the authors are saying here is that Leo XIII and Pius X did not know their man. Far from being the sympathetic figure they thought they were commending, Newman was a liberal, the same liberal that the Modernists and their sympathizers have been trying to fob off as the real Newman ever since the Dublin-born Father George Tyrell, SJ (1861-1908) tried to defend what he called “the right of each age to adjust the historico-philosophical expression of Christianity to contemporary certainties.” Another Irishman beguiled by “contemporary certainties,” Eamon Duffy, in his review of John Cornwell’s potboiler Newman’s Unquiet Grave for The New York Review of Books, even went so far as to claim that Benedict XVI beatified a false conservative Newman to repress the true liberal one. In such ahistorical assertions, poor Newman is not only presented as at odds with Thomism: he is claimed to have been a proto-Modernist. Of course, none of these contentions is new, but that the authors should write of them as though they were minted yesterday says a good deal about their historical pretensions. 

To be fair, there is one excellent essay in the collection by Father Keith Beaumont, entitled “The Reception of Newman in France,” which puts Newman and the Modernists in proper critical perspective. “The regular misquotation of Newman’s brilliantly pithy formula in the Essay on Development, almost always taken out of context, is revealing,” he writes.

Most modernists quoted, often with their own variations, only the last sentence of the relevant passage: “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” But the sentence which precedes is equally important, and determines the meaning of that which follows: “It [the idea] changes with them [new forms which continually appear] in order to remain the same.”

Here, again, is the insistence on semper eadem that Kasper and his liberal friends refuse to acknowledge. This solitary piece, however, for all of its insight, learning, and good judgement, cannot salvage an otherwise deeply misguided collection. 

In 1991, after the centennial of Newman’s death, the English Dominican Fergus Kerr edited a collection of essays with David Nicholls called John Henry Newman: Reason, Rhetoric, and Romanticism which had the same polemical hobby horses as King and Aquino’s collection. Despite, or perhaps one should say because of its strenuous denigration of Newman and his work, the book met with almost total oblivion. Trusting in Newman’s understanding of the accumulation of probabilities, we should expect the same fate for Receptions of Newman. What Lord Macaulay called the “savage envy of aspiring dunces” is no match for the man about whom the Staffordshire Gazette wrote, with welcome good sense: “The strength and dignity, the simplicity and sweetness of his character were conspicuously reflected in his writings, but these qualities and virtues appealed less powerfully to his countrymen than the grandeur of his soul which made him content to find in a life of self-sacrifice and obscurity the truest opportunities for dutiful service to God and man.”  

Yet perhaps the point that most needs to be made about receptions to Newman and his work is that, early and late, whether hostile or sympathetic, brilliant or obtuse, they never shook him from his profound, unbiddable faith. A good example of this is the reception Newman’s imminent conversion received from Frederic Rogers, a staunch Tractarian, who would later go on to hold high office in Gladstone’s government.  In April of 1843, Rogers wrote his dear Oriel friend: 

My dear Newman,

I do not like to meet you again without having said, once for all, what I hope you will not think hollow or false. I cannot disguise from myself how very improbable, perhaps impossible a recurrence to our former terms is. But I wish, before the time has past for such an acknowledgment, to have said how deeply and painfully I feel and I may say have more or less felt for years the greatness of what I am losing, and to thank you for all you have done and been to me. I know that it is in a great measure by my own act that I am losing this, and I cannot persuade myself that I am substantially wrong, or that I could long have avoided what has happened. But I do believe, if I may dare to say so, that God would have found a way to preserve to me so great a blessing as your friendship if I had been less unworthy of it. I do feel most earnestly how much of anything which I may venture to be thankful for in what I am is of your forming, how more than kind, how tender you have always been to me, and how unlikely it is that I can ever again meet with anything approaching in value to the I intimacy which you gave me. … I should have been pained at leaving all this unsaid. But I do not write it with any idea of forcing an answer from you nor does it require one and I shall not attach any meaning to your leaving it unanswered.

Yours affectionately,

Frederic Rogers

In 1868, five years after reconciling with Newman, after an estrangement of 20 years, Rogers, now Lord Blachford, wrote his old colleague about an Anglican vicar named Bartholomew, who could never think of Newman “sine summo desiderio,” and Newman responded with all of his accustomed fellow feeling: “Pray convey my best thanks to Mr. Bartholomew…for his kindness in writing for me the letter you send me…I feel also the great kindness of what he says to you about me. It is pleasant, while it is painful to me, to have left a lasting regret in the minds of such as him.” Of course, this was the response of one who had played the lead part in shattering Tractarianism. Yet there was another response, and it continues to appeal to anyone interested in the historical Newman, rather than the Newman of liberal caricature. “To-day is the 20th anniversary of my setting up the Oratory in England,” Newman told Rogers, “and every year I have more to thank God for, and more cause to rejoice that he helped me over so great a crisis.” And then he left his old friend with a parting reassurance. 

Since Mr. Bartholomew obliges me to say it, this I cannot omit to say. I have found in the Catholic Church abundance of courtesy, but very little sympathy, among persons in high place, except a few—but there is a depth and a power in the Catholic religion, a fulness of satisfaction in its creed, its theology, its rites, its sacraments, its discipline, a freedom yet a support also, before which the neglect or the misapprehension about oneself on the part of individual living persons, however exalted, is as so much dust, when weighed in the balance. This is the true secret of the Church’s strength, the principle of its indefectibility, and the bond of its indissoluble unity. It is the earnest and the beginning of the repose of Heaven.

Receptions of Newman
Edited by Frederick Aquino and Benjamin King
Oxford University Press, 2015
264 pages.

About Edward Short 11 Articles

Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries and Newman and his Family, both published by Bloomsbury, and, most recently, Adventures in the Book Pages, published by Gracewing.