Cardinal Newman: Saint, Theologian, Prose Stylist

In November of last year, the Vatican certified a second miracle attributed to John Henry Newman (1801-90), and on February 13 of this year, Pope Francis gave his approval to this certification. Cardinal Newman had previously been declared Venerable and then Blessed.  This second miracle was needed for Newman to be promoted to the rank of Saint.  It is expected that his formal canonization as a saint will take place before the year is ended.

Many think that Newman, perhaps the greatest Catholic theologian since Thomas Aquinas in the 13thcentury, will receive one more promotion after joining the ranks of officially recognized saints.  They expect that it will not be long thereafter that he will be counted as a Doctor of the Church.

Not long ago I re-read, after first reading it a half-century earlier, Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua, the autobiographical history of his religious opinions up to 1845, the year he left the Church of England and became a Catholic.

The prose style of the Apologia, written in his mid-sixties, is far more subdued than that of his other prose masterpiece, The Idea of a University, written a dozen years earlier.  The Idea abounds in epigrams and other striking verbal formulas.  Frequently, in order to reinforce a thought, Newman reiterates his point in a half-dozen ways, each time expressing it in a new and arresting manner.  The style is rich, perhaps too rich.  It reminds me of good cheesecake: delicious, but a small amount goes a long way.

By the time he wrote the Apologia, Newman had pruned his style of its spectacular elements; the cheesecake analogy no longer applied.  If you come to the Apologia after just having read the Idea of a University, as I first did years ago, you may be disappointed by the lack of fireworks.  The whole thing is written in black and white and shades of gray, not in Technicolor.  How drab it all seems at first.  But stay with it a while, grow accustomed to its melody, and you soon realize you’re in the presence of another prose masterpiece, though a masterpiece of a very different kind.

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The style is graceful, quiet, flowing, mature, like a calm but powerful river. It is a wonderful combination of formality and intimacy, just right for the subject matter: the history of the theological opinions of a man composed of equal parts high intellect and religious passion.

In the earlier work, you get the impression of a writer striving to make an impact on the reader, and succeeding brilliantly.  In the later work, you get just the opposite impression – a writer who has given up straining for effects, who now writes effortlessly, yet has become incapable of writing a bad sentence.  (Of course, it must always be remembered that the greatest art lies in concealing art.)

Well, as I was saying, I recently re-read the Apologia, and I read it for more than its style; I read it as well for its content, its message.  What was Newman’s great theological concern?  Positively speaking, it was to find religious truth.  Negatively, it was to resist something he called “liberalism” in religion.

And what did he mean by religious liberalism?  He meant the anti-dogmatic style of religion; a style that regards religion as a matter purely of sentiment and conduct, not of doctrine. In liberal Christianity, there can be no heresy, because there is really no truth or falsity, at least none we can feel sure of.

There is no objective standard by which we can judge this religion true and that religion false.  Everything is subjective, nothing is objective.  All beliefs are equal.  All religions are equal.  What religion you hold, or whether you hold any at all, is purely a matter of personal preference.  Liberalism is tantamount to a denial that there is a divine revelation.

Newman was convinced, very correctly, that religious liberalism was growing in his day. It was this conviction that led him and his friends to launch what came to be called the Tractarian Movement or Oxford Movement – an attempt to resist liberalism and to reassert the dogmatic principle in the Church of England.

They did this by trying to revive, through both their writings and their personal influence, the beliefs and practices of ancient and medieval Christianity.  They wanted to “Catholicize” Anglicanism – though without “Romanizing” it.  They meant to be Anglo-Catholics, not Roman Catholics.

It was this struggle against liberalism that finally led Newman to Rome. Anglicanism, he decided reluctantly, was a lost cause, hopelessly infected with Protestantism.  And as Newman (who was in the habit of taking long views) saw things, Protestantism eventually led to religious liberalism, and liberalism, in turn, led to what in his day was called either “rationalism” or “infidelity,” i.e., agnosticism and atheism.  In the last analysis, he held, there is no logical resting point between atheism at one extreme and Catholicism – Roman  Catholicism – at the other.

Given that liberalism is today on the rise among Catholics, this is perhaps just the right moment for us to be reminded of Newman.  Let’s hope that his canonization inspires a “back to Newman” movement. And a declaration of the great Cardinal as a Doctor of the Church.

 

*Image: John Henry Newman by John Everett Millais, 1881 [National Portrait Gallery, London]

David Carlin

David Carlin

David Carlin is a professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.