John Henry Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua is, as the title says, a defense of his own life, but also of the Church against a whole climate of bias in the English-speaking world still quite familiar to Catholics. Charles Kingsley’s attack on Newman’s truthfulness, which got the whole thing going, was formidable. Newman quotes him at length before replying. But Kingsley’s method especially rankled Newman. Once you call into question Catholicism’s fundamental truthfulness, any defense seems like “a sane person being by mistake shut up in the wards of a Lunatic Asylum.” When he explains himself, people say, “How naturally he talks! You would think he was in his senses.”
I’ve been re-reading Newman as a way of being in solidarity with the pope in England, which work kept me from doing in person. Benedict values Newman so much that he bent his own general rule and beatified him personally. But if you judged solely from the paltry coverage in the mainstream media, the pope seems to have been visiting primarily to “express shame and sorrow” to victims of abuse and to give feminist and gay groups opportunities to protest. Not only did Muslim extremists threaten him, but a highly placed British jurist and other public figures suggested he ought to be arrested for crimes against humanity. Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, et al. can jet around the planet, but the pope had better watch out for the International Criminal Court!
Newman carried out the apologetic task brilliantly. But he was reluctant to take the path he did. He protests that he was not the kind of man to lead a movement; he spoke and acted only because no one else did; when he came to the realization after reading the Church Fathers that truth might lay with Rome, he took his time, allowed the initial emotions to subside, and then: “I had to determine its logical value, and its bearing upon my duty.”
For some, these were and are the words of an undeniable genius who talked himself into believing Catholic nonsense. But Newman had always believed in the Primitive Church, i.e., the pure Christianity of the early centuries along with the notion of a church as the living community of believers. For the early Newman, Rome was wrong – not as is thought today – because it held to outdated dogmas, but because it had added falsehoods and dubious practices to the Catholic faith of universal Christianity. Newman’s crisis came when he realized that Anglicans, lacking any settled teaching, were vulnerable on two fronts.
Liberals then, as now, simply rejected Christ’s divinity, miracles, the Trinity, age-old moral principles – anything that did not fit with a rationalizing naturalism. Hence, Newman’s lifelong opposition to liberalism in religion. But the evangelical side, the church of faith without reason, was Protestant in a way that Newman believed Anglicanism was not. Anglicans, he argued, prided themselves on being faithful to universal Christianity. Newman tried to make the Anglican jumble coherent by arguing that the Thirty-Nine Articles – the main principles of Anglicanism – should be interpreted in as Catholic (not necessarily Roman) a manner as possible. But most Anglicans did not see it that way. And he was left with the realization that Rome, whatever superstitions or popular myths it might tolerate, still taught Primitive Christianity, with legitimate “developments.” Though his imagination had been “stained” with anti-Roman myths, he followed the truth into the Church.
Sadly, even many Catholics themselves now think it sufficient to practice a faith with no firm principles and authority. Given what the world is always like, that Catholicism cannot long endure. Newman thought Anglican fideists had “no intellectual basis, no internal idea, no principle of unity, no theology,” and were “already separating from one another. They will melt away like a snow drift.” And then there are today’s liberal Catholics who, like liberals in Newman’s time, “embrace too cold a principle to prevail with the multitude.”
Benedict brilliantly restated these truths in England, which is probably why the press seems to have felt it had to protect readers from them. Anglicanism in Great Britain, as Newman anticipated, is a shambles and the closest thing to a national religious experience England has had recently came after Princess Di died in a Paris car accident with her boyfriend. Except for the London Telegraph, almost nothing appeared in the press about the papal visit that could not have been written by critics ahead of time – indeed, without the pope ever visiting England at all.
All this reminds us of how important it is that we Catholics keep our own lines of communication open and clear. Arguments like Newman’s need to be repeated and refitted to challenges both new and old because, like Christianity and Christ Himself, the Truth is constantly being denied, ignored, neglected, and distorted – not least, at times, by Catholics themselves.
We have been trying to carry forward that task here at The Catholic Thing for more than two years now. If Catholicism is to be anything more than just another “voice” alongside other Christian groups, Jews, Muslims, atheists, strict separationists, postmodern academic tricksters, it has, following Newman, to take its time to think through truth, it’s “logical value,” and bearing on our “duty.”
Which brings us to a related point: It’s that time of year again to ask for your support in this great work. As in the past, if all readers sent us $25, The Catholic Thing can continue to come to you with what we believe is the best Catholic commentary every day. But since many of our brothers and sisters cannot afford even that, others have to make up for them and contribute $50, $75, $100, or more if you can.
As you probably know, one of Newman’s favorite sayings was cor ad cor loquitur, “heart speaks to heart.” Help continue that crucial conversation, a conversation that engages the heart as well as the head. Please do what you can, today, to support The Catholic Thing.