In 1864, in response to the novelist Charles Kingsley’s allegation in Macmillan’s Magazine that “Truth for its own sake was never a virtue with the Roman clergy” and that “Father Newman informs us that it need not be, and on the whole ought not to be,” the great convert John Henry Newman (1801-1890) wrote his Apologia Pro Vita Sua to defend his own and his co-religionists’ veracity.
Twenty years earlier, Newman had been the Anglican Church’s most influential churchman, a redoubtable preacher, polemicist and educator. W.E. Gladstone said that his influence at Oxford had been one “for which perhaps, there is no parallel in the academical history of Europe, unless you go back to the twelfth century or to the University of Paris.”
In leading the Oxford Movement’s efforts to rescue the National Church from its Erastian illegitimacy, Newman came to see Catholicism as the one true faith. In 1841, four years before converting, he could no longer deny that “there is… more in the Fathers against our own state of alienation from Christendom than against the Tridentine Decrees.” If Anglicans wished to imagine the Roman Church a corruption of the Primitive Church, Newman came to see the one as the ineluctable development of the other. History converted him.
In thus converting, Newman joined a faith that most Englishmen regarded as backward, superstitious, treacherous and irrational. The bookman Augustine Birrell (1850 –1933) put this view memorably when he observed how: “It was common talk at one time to express astonishment at the extending influence of the Church of Rome, and to wonder how people who went about unaccompanied by keepers could submit their reason to the Papacy, with her open rupture with science and her evil historical reputation. From astonishment to contempt is but a step. We first open wide our eyes and then our mouths.”
This was Kingsley’s view as well, and once he impugned Newman and his fellow Catholics, he gave the convert the opening he needed not only to refute his assailant but to explain to his contemporaries why he had left everything in the world dear to him to join what he called “the One True Fold of the Redeemer.” His Apologia would be, at once, his defense and his self-portrait.
For so agile a controversialist as Newman, refuting Kingsley was child’s play. One cannot read the book without coming away pitying the man whose ill-considered accusations inspired it. Newman demolishes Kingsley. The novelist George Eliot nicely attested to this when she observed: “I have been made so indignant by Kingsley’s mixture of arrogance, coarse impertinence and unscrupulousness with real intellectual incompetence, that my first interest in Newman’s answer arose from a wish to see what I consider thoroughly vicious writing thoroughly castigated. But the Apology now mainly affects me as the revelation of a life.”
Eliot’s last point was precisely what Newman intended his readers should see in his riposte to his unscrupulous accuser. After dreading the prospect of revisiting so much harrowing ground in his controversial life, Newman resolved on what would be the book’s governing principle. “I recognized what I had to do,” he wrote, “though I shrank from both the task and the exposure which it would entail. I must… give the true key to my whole life; I must show what I am, that it may be seen what I am not, and that the phantom may be extinguished which gibbers instead of me. I wish to be known as a living man, and not as a scarecrow which is dressed up in my clothes.”
What makes the Apology such an extraordinary book is that it furnishes the “key” to the author’s “whole life” not by mining the usual autobiographical quarries of family, childhood, and education but by focusing on his evolving religious convictions, which, far from being deceitful or rote, were of the most guileless probity. With no confessional exhibitionism or unseemly volubility, Newman wrote the history of how his avid and exacting faith took shape in a book that merits comparison with perhaps the greatest of all Christian autobiographies, St. Augustine’s Confessions.
Indeed, he wrote his account, partly, as he said, for “religious and sincere minds, who are simply perplexed… by the utter confusion into which late discoveries or speculations have thrown their most elementary ideas of religion.” And it was on their behalf that he invoked those “beautiful words,” as he called them, of the Bishop of Hippo, who knew from bitter personal experience “the difficulty with which error is discriminated from truth, and the way of life is found amid the illusions of the world.”
Some literary genius only comes of religious genius, and, Newman, like St. Paul, possessed it in excelsis. His Apologia captures this genius in all of its depth and incandescence. Indeed, in some of the greatest prose in all of English literature, prose which influenced G.K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox, Graham Greene, and Muriel Spark, Newman succeeded in showing his readers that it was not imposture that animated his conversion, but love.
Since it was Newman’s rule of life to serve the Truth, regardless of whatever pressures were put on him to sidestep or repudiate it, we can see how it was this quality – the one which Kinglsey sought so strenuously to deny him – that most animated not only his conversion but his account of his conversion. Indeed, at the very end of the Apologia, he makes this plain:
To one other authority I appeal on this subject, which commands from me attention of a special kind, for it is the teaching of a Father. It will serve to bring my work to a conclusion. ‘St. Philip’, says the Roman Oratorian who wrote his Life, ‘had a particular dislike of affectation both in himself and others, in speaking, in dressing, or in any thing else. He avoided all ceremony which savoured of worldly compliment, and always showed himself a great stickler for Christian simplicity in every thing; so that, when he had to deal with men of worldly prudence, he did not very readily accommodate himself to them. And he avoided, as much as possible, having any thing to do with two-faced persons, who did not go simply and straight-forwardly to work in their transactions. As for liars, he could not endure them, and he was continually reminding his spiritual children, to avoid them as they would a pestilence.’ These are the principles on which I have acted before I was a Catholic; these are the principles which, I trust, will be my stay and guidance to the end.
Many excellent autobiographies were written in England in the tumultuous 19th-century – most notably by John Ruskin, Mark Pattison and Anthony Trollope – but the subtlest, deepest and most revelatory, for all of its incidental reticence, was the one written by the man who has been recently declared a saint by the Church that needs his unbiddable integrity more than ever.
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