One hears that the cause of John Henry Newman’s canonization is about to move forward thanks to a miracle that occurred in Philadelphia. May it be so. In the post-Conciliar Church, just about every faction laid claim to Newman as its forerunner. Indeed, Vatican II was often discussed in terms of his influence. Of course, as Captain Queeg urged, individual arguments should be dealt with one at a time. Newman’s thought is rich enough and passed through so many phases that there are nuggets enough for everyone. Nonetheless, I have always found it somewhat strange that Catholics who regard themselves as liberal should seek a champion in Cardinal Newman. Liberalism, as we learn in the Apologia pro vita sua, was the great foe against which he fought.

Of course “liberal” is one of those words which are very difficult to tie down. This makes it all the more important that the meaning one has in mind be made clear. Newman did this in the famous first Note to the text of the Apologia. And he did far more than this. He listed eighteen characteristics of Liberalism. This Note has been often discussed, and rightly so, but it should not be forgotten that Newman preferred to contrast Liberalism with a figure, a person, a friend, who exemplified the opposite character. The quintessential non-liberal is John Keble, a man of whom Newman says that he was the first he heard spoken of at Oxford with reverence and not merely admiration. He recalls someone pointing him out in the street and saying in awed tones, “There’s Keble!”

Keble was a man who guided himself and formed his judgments, not by processes of reason, by inquiry or by argument, but, to use the word in a broad sense, by authority. Conscience is an authority; the Bible is an authority; such is the Church; such is antiquity; such are the words of the wise; such are hereditary lessons; such are ethical truths; such are historical memories; such are legal saws and state maxims; such are proverbs; such are sentiments, presages, and prepossessions. It seemed to me that he ever felt happier, when he could speak or act under some such primary or external sanction; and could use argument mainly as a means of recommending or explaining what had claims on his reception prior to proof.

The first time I read this passage, I looked over both shoulders to see if I was being observed. Has there ever been a description less applicable to the “modern mind?” Kant would have recognized in Keble the very opposite of the Man of the Enlightenment, summing up everything that modern philosophy sought to sweep away. Newman’s lifelong foe thus turns out to be modernity itself.

As we draw ever closer to the brink, it becomes increasingly difficult for the Christian to ignore that his faith puts him in fundamental opposition to the assumptions of modern culture. Since the beginning of modern philosophy believers have been seeking to strike some deal with outlooks and theories diametrically opposed to Christianity. Sometimes this negotiating seemed harmless enough, but that day is long past.

Not that the Church herself ever compromised with positions inimical to moral law and the faith. Nor were Catholics alone in seeing, for example, the legalization of divorce as the death knell of society. Nonetheless, believers have had to live for centuries in radically corrupted regimes. This has taken its toll, as believers’ opposition to divorce faded into a vague acceptance. And so it is with other societal assaults on morality.

This drama is now played out with respect to abortion. Predictably, there are believers who want to strike a deal with the culture of death. They will be tolerant of fellow citizens who take human life. They are learning that this culture will not be tolerant of them.

The long experience of the race is dismissed; tradition has become synonymous with the disproved and false. Abstract theories abound urging us down one wild and untried path after another under the manic banner of Change. In the Apologia, Newman is wary of “paper-logic,” of arguments unconnected with lived experience. Nowadays it is almost a recommendation for a proposal that no sane man has ever tried it before.

We are of course meant to see the connection between the portrait of John Keble and the sinuous path taken by Newman toward the Catholic Church. In the trying times that lie before us it is comforting to think that we will have the even stronger advocacy of Newman. A sign of our readiness to do battle will be that the character of John Keble becomes increasingly congenial to us.

Ralph McInerny (1929-2010)

Ralph McInerny was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.