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A Hero of the Church

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The Victorian theologian Cardinal John Henry Newman, who was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in September 2010

On October 2, 2008, a group of clergy, workmen, police officers, and health officials assembled behind steel screens in a small private cemetery in a suburb of Birmingham, England. They had come to exhume the body of the Victorian theologian, preacher, and writer Cardinal John Henry Newman, in preparation for his beatification (the final stage before canonization as a saint of the Catholic Church) by Pope Benedict XVI. Newman’s remains were to be removed for more convenient veneration as relics to the church that he had founded in Birmingham, where a casket of green Italian marble had been prepared to receive them.

The announcement of the proposed exhumation set off weeks of prurient media controversy. At his own insistence, Newman had been buried in the grave of his disciple and lifelong companion, Father Ambrose St John. A member of the gay rights organization OutRage!, Peter Tatchell, provoked a public furor by denouncing the transfer of relics as a sinister homophobic ploy by the Vatican, designed to conceal the true relationship between these two Victorian priests who had chosen to be buried together. Tatchell insisted that their friendship was homosexual, and suggested that Newman’s epitaph, “ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem,” “out of shadows and phantasms into the truth,” was a coded self-outing from beyond the grave. He conceded, however, that given their religious beliefs and the social mores of the time, the friendship had probably never been sexually consummated.

It soon emerged that Newman had settled the matter of relics in his own way. Though an unwavering convert to Catholicism from the Anglican Church, he never warmed to the more extravagantly material manifestations of Catholic piety, and he was dismissive of suggestions of his own sanctity. “I have no tendency to be a saint,” he told one admirer. “Saints are not literary men…. I may be well enough in my own way, but it is not the ‘high line.’”

It now appeared that he had taken practical steps to ensure that there would be no veneration. Though the grave was excavated to a depth of eight feet, no human remains whatever were discovered. The cardinal had been buried in a simple wooden coffin, and on his instructions the grave had been filled with a soft mulch designed to speed decomposition; the wet clay of the Lickey hills had done the rest. The crestfallen relic-hunters had to content themselves with a few pieces of corroded metalwork and the tassels from Newman’s ceremonial cardinal’s hat.

John Cornwell’s lively new life of Newman takes this bizarre episode as its point of departure. The “unquiet grave” of his title alludes of course to the exhumation and the row over Newman’s sexuality that it provoked. Cornwell devotes a good deal of space to scrutiny of Newman’s relationship to the circle of disciples and admirers whom the popular historian Geoffrey Faber scathingly dismissed in 1933 as his “escort of hermaphrodites.” The possessive intensity of some of these relationships with younger men can still disconcert a modern reader. “You ask me to give my heart,” Newman wrote reproachfully to one of them, Henry Wilberforce, who had got engaged to be married without telling Newman, “when you give yours to another.”

But this was an age, Cornwell argues, in which intense but platonic friendships between men were accepted and valued, most famously that between the poet Tennyson and Arthur Hallam, whose early death inspired Tennyson’s elegiac masterpiece In Memoriam. Cornwell is alert to the submerged erotic charge such relationships might carry, but he argues convincingly for the crassness of recent attempts to force on them an overtly sexualized and anachronistic “gay” template.

But if Cornwell absolves the Vatican of trying to conceal the potentially embarrassing sexuality of a candidate for sainthood, he is inclined to think that the beatification of Newman may nevertheless represent an attempt by an authoritarian church to tame a troublesome and unconventional intellect, and to neutralize Newman’s usefulness to critics of current Vatican policy. Newman was, by nineteenth-century Catholic standards, a deeply unconventional theologian. Soaked in the writings of the Early Church Fathers, he disliked the rigidly scholastic cast of mind that cramped the Catholic theology of his day. He was one of the first theologians to grasp the historical contingency of all theological formulations. Accordingly, he resisted doctrinaire demands for unquestioning obedience to contemporary Church formulae as if they were timeless truths. He was an ardent defender of the legitimate autonomy of the theologian and of the dignity of the laity as custodians of the faith of the Church. He was scathingly critical of the authoritarian papacy of Pope Pius IX (Pio Nono), who held the office between 1846 and 1878, and he opposed the definition of papal infallibility in 1870 as an unnecessary and inappropriate burden on consciences. “We have come to a climax of tyranny,” he wrote. “It is not good for a Pope to live 20 years…. He becomes a god, [and] has no one to contradict him.”

The appetite of the pro-papal “Ultramontane” party for new dogmatic definitions seemed to Newman the sign of a lack of intellectual integrity, “the act of a man who will believe anything because he believes nothing, and is ready to profess whatever his ecclesiastical, that is his political, party requires of him.” Such credulity flowed from intellectual shallowness, not true faith: “A German who hesitates may have more of the real spirit of faith than an Italian who swallows.”

The First Vatican Council, in 1878, was the apotheosis of much that Newman deplored in the Catholicism of his day. By contrast, it has become a theological truism that the Second Vatican Council, summoned in 1962 by John XXIII, with its reforming impulses, its outreach to other churches and faith traditions, its emphasis on the role of the laity, and its move away from papal and clerical authoritarianism, was “Newman’s Council,” the moment when many of the ideas he first championed became the basis for a radical reimagining of what it was to be Catholic. The Vatican, however, is currently backing a campaign to downplay claims that the council marked a decisive break with the Church’s recent past, and Pope Benedict XVI has condemned such claims as proceeding from a “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture.” Cornwell asks, therefore, whether the raising of Newman to the altars of the Church represents not the validation of his true intellectual legacy but an attempt to douse the incendiary potential of his ideas with buckets of holy water, “the taming and enfeebling of his legacy by the resisters of Vatican II.”

It is certainly true that Newman was a man often intellectually at odds with his Church, indeed, with both his churches. His career straddled almost the whole nineteenth century, and what were then two different worlds, Protestant and Catholic. In both, he was a force for unsettlement. We think of him as a Victorian, but like his younger contemporary Dickens, he was in fact a product of Regency England. Born in 1801, the son of a prosperous London banker, he could remember candles placed in windows to celebrate Nelson’s fatal victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Educated at Great Ealing School and Oxford, he read the novels of Austen and Scott and the poems of Byron as they first appeared, and he had reached the pinnacle of his preeminence within the Church of England before the young Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837.

A remarkably consistent thinker, to the end of his life Newman looked back on his conversion to evangelical Protestantism in 1816 as the saving of his soul. Yet as a fellow of Oriel, the most intellectually prestigious of the Oxford colleges, he outgrew his earlier Calvinism. He came to see Evangelicalism, with its emphasis on religious feeling and on the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone, as a Trojan horse for an undogmatic religious individualism that ignored the Church’s role in the transmission of revealed truth, and that must lead inexorably to subjectivism and skepticism.

Partly as an antidote to his own instinctive skepticism, Newman sought objective religious truth initially in a romanticized version of the Anglican High Church tradition, emphasizing the mystery of God, the beauty and necessity of personal holiness, and the centrality of the Church’s sacraments and teaching for salvation. He was ordained as a priest in 1824, and in 1831 was appointed preacher to the university. Eloquent, learned, widely read, combining a beautiful voice with an unmatched mastery of words, by the early 1830s Newman had acquired a cult following in Oxford. Admiring undergraduates imitated even his eccentricities, like his habit of kneeling down abruptly as if his knees had given way.

The university authorities were alarmed at his growing influence, and changed college mealtimes so that undergraduates had to choose between hearing Newman preach and eating their dinners. In their hundreds, they chose the preaching. This was all the more remarkable since Newman’s message was both uncompromisingly austere and often deliberately provocative, as in his declaration that “it would be a gain to this country, were it vastly more suspicious, more bigoted, more gloomy, more fierce in its religion, than at present it shows itself to be.”

The role of provocateur came to him naturally, and Newman quickly established himself as the fieriest spirit of a determined group of like-minded High Church clergy in Oxford. Disgusted by the weakening of the national Church by political concessions to Dissenters and Roman Catholics, they claimed the religious loyalty of the nation, not now on the basis of the Church of England’s legal establishment, but on a new awareness of its “Apostolical descent” from the early Christians. In 1833 Newman and his associates launched a series of polemical “Tracts for the Times,” designed to reeducate clergy and laity about the value of Catholic doctrines, sacraments, and rituals that until then most Protestants had associated with superstition and popery.

A single-minded campaigner, Newman was far from fastidious about his methods in promoting this “Tractarian” agenda. He ruthlessly ousted the editor of a genteel High Church periodical, the British Critic, and transformed it into the pugnacious mouthpiece of the new movement. He orchestrated a “campaign of denigration and protest against the “heretical” liberal theologian Renn Dickson Hampden, in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent his appointment as Regius Professor of Theology at Oxford in 1836. Such maneuverings disgusted religious liberals like Thomas Arnold, the famous reforming headmaster of Rugby School, who branded Newman and his followers as “the Oxford Malignants.” Ironically, Arnold’s own sons were to fall under Newman’s spell, and one of them would eventually follow him into the Catholic Church.

This “Oxford Movement” succeeded beyond its wildest expectations. In little over a generation it would transform the theology, preaching, worship, and even the architectural style of the Anglican Church. Tractarianism was to be the single most important influence in the shaping of the character of the modern Anglican communion. But by the early 1840s, Newman himself had lost confidence in it. His increasingly subtle attempts to interpret the foundation documents of the Church of England in ways compatible with Roman Catholic teaching provoked a hostile backlash both from the Anglican bishops and from older and more cautious High Churchmen.

Frustrated by the apparently impregnable Protestantism of their contemporaries, one by one Newman’s more headstrong disciples became Roman Catholics. Newman did what he could to stem the leakage, but was himself in an agony of indecision, increasingly convinced that Rome possessed the fullness of truth, yet unable to bring his loyalties and emotions into accord with his intellect. “Paper logic” was merely the trace of deeper and more mysterious movements of heart and mind. As he wrote later, recalling this long slow “death-bed” as an Anglican:

It is the concrete being that reasons; pass a number of years, and I find my mind in a new place; how? The whole man moves…. Great acts take time.

He resigned his university pulpit and retreated to Littlemore, a village outside Oxford where he had built a church. There he and a dwindling band of followers lived a quasi-monastic life of prayer, fasting, and reflection. In October 1845 Newman at last recognized where his own logic had led him, and was received into the Roman Catholic Church.

Both Newman’s attraction to Catholicism and his hesitation in embracing it sprang from a radical historicism. As an Anglican, he had subscribed to the notion that truth was unchanging. Christianity was a revealed religion, its doctrines descended to the present in an unbroken tradition from the Apostles. Nothing could count as Christian truth, unless the primitive Church had believed and taught it. The modern Church of Rome, therefore, could not claim to be the true Church, since so much about it—its elaborate worship, the dominant place of the Virgin Mary in its piety, the overweening authority of the pope—seemed alien or absent from the earliest Christianity: there were no rosary beads in third-century Carthage. Yet Newman’s reading in early Christian sources convinced him that to condemn Rome on these grounds would also be to outlaw much of the rest of mainstream Christianity. The doctrines of Incarnation and Trinity, accepted as fundamental by both Catholics and Protestants, were not to be found in their mature form in the early Church. If the central tenets of the faith could develop legitimately beyond their New Testament foundations, why not everything else?

To resolve this apparent contradiction between a religion of objectively revealed truth and the flux of Christian doctrines and practices, Newman wrote at Littlemore a theological masterpiece, the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845). Its central claim is that the concepts and intuitions that shape human history are dynamic, not inert. Great ideas interact with changing times and cultures, retaining their distinctive thrust and direction, yet adapting so as to preserve and develop that energy in different circumstances. Truth is a plant, evolving from a seed into the mature tree, not a baton passed unchanging from hand to hand. Ideas must unfold in the historical process before we can appropriate all that they contain. So beliefs evolve, but they do so to preserve their essence in the flux of history: they change, that is, in order to remain the same. “In a higher world it is otherwise; but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

Other nineteenth-century thinkers had anticipated aspects of this dynamic understanding of religious truth. But no one confronted its difficulties or explored its implications as fully as Newman, whose book offered a remarkable series of diagnostic tests by which to distinguish legitimate developments from corruptions of the truth. Not everything in his analysis has been found convincing, but the Essay was a landmark, legitimizing the notion of doctrinal development. Over the next century or so, it was to prove seminal for Catholic theology, as the Church increasingly sought to come to terms with its own historical contingency.

In the Catholic Church of the 1840s, however, Newman’s frank ideas were viewed with considerable suspicion. As the most famous clergyman in England, he was a prestigious trophy for the Pope. For a while after his reordination as a Catholic priest, Rome treated him as a celebrity. But the papacy was a beleaguered institution, its financial and political independence under threat from the movement for Italian unification, its ideological monopoly in European society everywhere challenged by the rise of often hostile democratic states. Pope Pius IX reacted by denouncing modern society and emphasizing the Church’s unchanging authority. In this atmosphere, Newman’s nuanced historicism came to look halfhearted at best, treacherous at worst. For almost twenty years after his conversion, frustration would attend all he attempted, and his position within the Catholic Church became increasingly uncomfortable.

An invitation from bishops of Ireland to create a Catholic university in Dublin elicited a sublime series of lectures on the nature of liberal education. The resulting book, The Idea of a University (1853), was hailed as a classic then and has remained a central text for educational theorists ever since, with its moral vision of the university as a place where the student

apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them. Hence it is that his education is called “Liberal.” A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom….

But the project itself foundered amid considerable bitterness, the casualty of the mismatch between Newman’s desire to create a blueprint for Christian education and the hardheaded pragmatism of the Irish bishops, intent on rebuilding a nation decimated by famine, and looking not for an idealized Catholic Oxford but an institute of practical education for an aspiring middle class.

Back in England, Newman yearned for a Catholic mission to the real Oxford. He bought land for a church and house there, but the bishops feared apostasies if Catholics once sampled the fleshpots of the Anglican establishment. Newman’s Oxford project was blocked, not least by his erstwhile friend and Tractarian colleague Henry Edward Manning, future cardinal, and now an implacably papalist Catholic zealot. Newman’s own orthodoxy became suspect. In an essay in the liberal Catholic journal The Rambler, he defended the notion that the laity were not passive recipients of clerical teaching, but themselves witnesses to and transmitters of Catholic truth. In Pio Nono’s church the only role of the laity was to listen and obey: to suggest otherwise was a charter for insubordination. Newman was accused of heresy, and there were abortive attempts to extract a recantation from what one papal adviser now called “the most dangerous man in England.”

Unsurprisingly, Newman, always prone to self-pity, felt increasingly isolated and abandoned. He realized that the influence he had exerted as an Anglican had melted away from the moment he had converted. He became conscious of the haggard lines that disappointment had etched into his face, and bitter that all his endeavors seemed to “crumble under my hands, as if one were making ropes of sand.” He was rescued in 1864 by a casually anti-Catholic journal article by the novelist Charles Kingsley, who remarked in passing that truth had never been considered a virtue by Catholic clergy, and that Newman in particular had proposed “cunning” as the weapon given to the Church “to withstand the brute male force of the wicked world.”

This unprovoked attack on his integrity led to Newman’s best-known book, his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, written for serial publication at breakneck speed, in just ten weeks. Years of brooding over his own religious journey proved ideal preparation for the writing of a religious autobiography that is also a triumphant self-vindication, one of the most persuasive portrayals of a mind and heart in movement, in English or any other language. Overnight, Newman’s embrace of an exotic and alien religion was made intelligible to Victorian readers. Catholics hailed a brilliant apologist who presented their unpopular religion in a new and sympathetic light. Anglicans remembered that this man had once transformed the established Church, as many thought, for the better. Newman had become an Eminent Victorian.

His fame gave him leverage—and a degree of immunity—within Pio Nono’s church, but did little to reconcile him to the direction that church was taking. Manning, now archbishop of Westminster, was deeply distrustful of what he saw as the compromised minimalism of Newman’s Catholicism, “always on the lower side…the old Anglican, patristic, literary, Oxford tone transplanted into the Church.” The tide of events was with Manning. Newman watched with dismay the progress of papalism, and denounced the pressure for the definition of papal infallibility as the work of “an aggressive insolent faction.”

He mounted his own single-handed campaign to present another face of Catholicism. In a series of works ostensibly defending the Church against its critics, he subtly redrew the lines of contemporary debate and sketched what was to prove to be the future of Catholic theology. A reply to his old Anglican colleague Edward Pusey on the cult of the Virgin recentered Marian doctrine on the teaching of the Greek and Latin Fathers. His reply to Gladstone’s hysterical denunciations of the Vatican Council set clear limits to papal authority, disparaged by contrast the extremism of Ultramontanes like Manning, and (famously) pledged a toast “to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.” A new preface to his own Anglican writings on the Church subverted the authoritarianism of Pio Nono’s pontificate by arguing that critical theology, spiritual life or piety, and hierarchical (especially papal) authority were the three indispensable functions or “offices” of the Church, permanently in dialectical tension. Catholic truth, he argued, was distorted whenever any one of these offices gained the upper hand over the others, as hierarchy had in his own day.

Newman’s later writings were not confined to the internal affairs of the Church. In 1870, in the midst of the furor over papal infallibility, he published his most sustained philosophical work, the Grammar of Assent. It was a searching exploration of the nature and motives of religious belief, which had taken him twenty years to write; the distinguished Oxford philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny recently described it as the most significant contribution to epistemology between Descartes and Wittgenstein. In it, Newman’s hostility to “liberalism,” the rationalist reduction to mere “paper logic” of the processes by which we make life and death decisions, finds its most powerful expression. His subtle analysis of the sometimes untraceable routes by which we arrive at conviction, the “personal conquest of truth,” anticipates some of Wittgenstein’s most characteristic positions. Pius IX died in 1878, and in the following year his successor, Leo XIII, signaled a new era by making Newman a cardinal. The maverick had been vindicated: as he himself declared, “the cloud is lifted from me for ever.”

Unquestionably the greatest Christian intelligence of his age, Newman’s thought has retained a relevance matched by that of few other Victorians. His centrality for modern Catholic theology was indicated by the theologian-Pope Benedict’s decision to beatify Newman himself (a ceremony normally delegated to cardinals or local bishops). If and when in due course he is canonized, Newman will undoubtedly be declared a “Doctor” or teacher of the Universal Church. John Cornwell argues that Newman’s appeal is wider still, and that his claim to our attention transcends mere ecclesiastical eminence or conventional piety, and lies rather in “his genius for creating new ways of imagining and writing about religion.”

Cornwell’s book should go some way to convincing a general readership to take that claim seriously. He offers us no new discoveries about Newman, and his narrative draws heavily on the major modern biographies by Sheridan Gilley and Ian Ker. Newman’s Anglican career and works are treated more sketchily than those of the Catholic years. Some gremlin in the print house has bafflingly misspelled Newman’s Littlemore retreat throughout the book as “littletons.” But Cornwell is an unfailingly lively and perceptive guide to Newman’s writing. He brings a fresh eye and wide reading to what might otherwise be tired topics, as in his deployment of the writings of James Joyce and Edward Said to illuminate Newman’s Idea of a University. His book, written to seize the moment of Newman’s beatification, deserves to outlive that moment: the inquiring reader, wanting to know what all the fuss is about, could do a lot worse than start here.

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