It is cheering news that John Henry Newman’s canonization now appears to be at hand since a second miracle attributed to his intercession has been accepted.
Whenever I am asked how I became Catholic (Newman himself thought such a question should never be answered quickly—“between the fish and the soup,” as he memorably put it), I always point to Alasdair MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, and Cardinal Newman. Hauerwas and MacIntyre had limited success over several years. But in 1996, finding the doctrinal disarray of Anglicanism increasingly hard to ignore, I happened one afternoon to venture down the street from my apartment in Ottawa to a cramped used bookstore operated (as I learned only later) by a cantankerous Catholic. There I bought a very yellowed copy of Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua. I left it on the arm of my reading chair by the window for the better part of a week, refusing to open it while saying sotto voce, “That is a very dangerous book for me to read just now.”
And indeed it proved to be so. By the time I was transported to the last page, carried aloft on Newman’s magnificent prose throughout the spell-binding work, I knew I had to become Catholic. Soon after, I was hit by a bus, which resulted in being hospitalized for many months; among the further works I read during my long recovery were several that Ignatius Press has reprinted in handsome editions, including Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons as well as his Prayers, Verses, and Devotions.
Later works would also prove to be of lasting value, and never more so than in the current pontificate. Last year I spent a semester luxuriating with my students in the long and dense work Newman finished in 1845, sealing his decision to become a Catholic: the famous Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. And then this year I have found myself going back again to the Apologia for what it says about the purpose and powers of the papacy, a theme treated at length in Newman’s beguilingly named Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, which was written in the aftermath of Vatican I, the consequences of which I have been re-thinking in the light of the sex abuse crisis and this papacy.
Though the Apologia is ostensibly a spiritual autobiography, it is, in characteristic Newmanian fashion, also a work deeply embedded in patristic history, especially of the fourth century. (Benjamin King’s book Newman and the Alexandrian Fathers: Shaping Doctrine in Nineteenth-Century England is a good study of Newman’s patrology, as was the work of the late Oratorian scholar C.S. Dessain. As I learned in writing my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy, an early draft of which had a chapter on Newman, he was the only theologian of the nineteenth century whose work—especially in patristics—was of sufficient stature to merit being translated into Greek so that Orthodox theologians could study him.)
Astonishingly, the Apologia was written out by hand over a six-week period after Newman had been attacked in the popular press with fake accusations about his motives for conversion and his conduct as a Catholic. Charles Kingsley was the adversary who brought forth this magnificent riposte. As I always tell my students, even if you cannot appreciate the nature of the controversy at the time, or cannot follow Newman’s conclusions and become Catholic, read the book for no other reason than to savor his rapier-like rhetoric and the beauty of his prose.
In the Apologia Newman addresses many caricatures of Catholics at the time and rebuts many charges made against the Church throughout history. In an age (the Apologia was finished in 1864, just five years before Vatican I) when ultramontane agitations were increasing and a rising cult of the papacy was being exploited by Pius IX (r. 1846-78), Newman points to the irrelevance and impotence of the papacy of the fourth century as a good thing. In typical fashion, he takes one of his enemy’s arguments and turns it back on him to deadly effect:
Indeed, it is one of the reproaches urged against the Roman Church, that it has originated nothing, and has only served as a sort of remora or break in the development of doctrine. And it is an objection which I really embrace as a truth; for such I conceive to be the main purpose of its extraordinary gift. It is said, and truly, that the Church of Rome possessed no great mind in the whole period of persecution. Afterwards for a long while, it has not a single doctor to show; St. Leo, its first, is the teacher of one point of doctrine; St. Gregory, who stands at the very extremity of the first age of the Church, has no place in dogma or philosophy.
Newman would return to the papacy again in the lead-up to Vatican I, the calling of which he greeted with not a little anxiety in a famous letter to his bishop in which he plaintively asks what need there is for a council in the first place:
No impending danger is to be averted, but a great difficulty is to be created. … What have we done to be treated as the faithful never were treated before? When has the definition of doctrine de fide been a luxury of devotion, and not a stern painful necessity?
In the end, Newman greeted the proceedings with relief, writing to the Duke of Norfolk that the extreme ultramontane party (led in England by his fellow convert-cardinal Manning) had been rebuffed with a “moderate infallibility—that is, embracing only faith and morals, whereas the ultra party wished to pass political principles.”
But many feared that Vatican I had at the very least dire political consequences. In a newly united Germany, the imperial chancellor Bismarck claimed the council reduced the bishops to the pope’s “postmen,” giving him an excuse to ratchet up the Kulturkampf. In England, the prime minister Gladstone revived old caricatures of Catholics in a pamphlet he published saying Vatican I proved once more that Catholics could never be loyal to the English crown because they were reduced to mindless and treasonous obedience to a foreign papal crown.
Newman used Gladstone’s explosive claims as the basis for his lengthy public letter to the Duke of Norfolk, the premier dukedom atop the English peerage, which had largely managed to stay in Catholic hands. It is a letter very much worth re-reading today as claims by and for the papacy and its powers are more controverted at any time since Newman’s death in 1890. His section on the relationship between the individual Catholic’s conscience vis-à-vis the pope is one I have long directed my students to. In addition, his thoughts on papal limitations are well worth recalling today. In the interests of brevity, let me just give a taste: “a Pope is not infallible in his laws, nor in his commands, nor in his acts of state, nor in his administration, nor in his public policy.” (For the rest of his thoughts, and almost all his other works I have not touched on, go to the invaluable Newman Reader website run by the National Institute for Newman Studies.)
In conclusion, I’ll make two pleas: first, for those who do not know the full, rich, and variegated humanity of Newman, read Fr Ian Ker’s unsurpassed and indispensable John Henry Newman: A Biography (Oxford University Press, 2010). I read it years ago and have often gone back to it. I met the author in 2004 when I was a nobody writing a doctoral dissertation using Newman, and Ker—the doyen of Newman scholars and an Oxford man—was extremely kind and helpful to me. His book deserves a renewed audience.
Finally, let me make bold to put in a plea on Newman’s behalf directly as we move towards his canonization: do not turn him into a “clothes rack for virtues,” as I recall him saying somewhere about plaster saints and other manufactured totems of hagiography that bleed out the humanity of those considered holy. His sharp mind—especially in matters of ecclesiology—should not be domesticated. Nor should we ignore his other gifts, not least his sly humor in dealing with stupid ideas. He has much to teach us still.
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