This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
It was difficult enough when John Henry Newman became Blessed. Now that he has attained sanctity, the thing appears impossible. How to historicise, let alone criticise, a saint without self-exposure as secular bigot or, worse, Protestant?
One might have thought that the historians at least could argue about pre-Blessed Newman, as they do about St Edward the Confessor, without turning red in tooth and claw.
A few years ago, the staid and charitable pages of the Journal of Ecclesiastical History burst into bitter song in lamenting or defending Newman’s memory and questioning the spiritual credentials of those who trod either path.
Refusing to begin at the gate of Blessedness does not turn a critic into an anti-Catholic
Partly the arguments have an Evangelical versus Roman ring to them. Mostly they don’t. The centre of dispute does not concern the content of conclusions about Newman so much as the method adopted in reaching them. Historians like to think that they have received training. Theologians like to believe — along with four-fifths of the modern world — that anybody can, in principle, do history, rather like running round the park or boiling an egg.
The past, or at least a past, thus belongs to everybody and, because it belongs to them in particular, Newman’s past belongs especially to the Roman Catholic Church devoted to preserving his memory. As the most intellectual of our recent Popes said in his premature autobiography, tradition is too important to be left to the historians.
One minds about this since it obscures the importance of Newman to historical sensibility and his place in the earthly order. Refusing to begin at the gate of Blessedness does not turn a critic into an anti-Catholic. (Readers are entitled to know that the present writer locates his struggling spirituality at the Anglo-Catholic end of the Anglican candle, without “shivering” at “the thought of the Anglican service” as Newman came to do.)
Nor does criticism deny reality to the concept of holiness in recalling that the terrestrial Newman, long before he conquered the celestial uplands, was often a holy pain in the backside.
There have been hints, even in the Catholic hagiography. Monsignor Roderick Strange repeatedly confessed, even as the Tablet dissolved into tears of joy, that Newman “wasn’t perfect”. Eamon Duffy in his recent celebration goes further and remarks on the self-pity, the brutality arising from self-righteousness, the solipsism. Nobody dwells on the love of Newman’s life, despite their shared grave: it wasn’t that kind of relationship, apparently.
Few comment on Newman’s depression and capacity to depress, amid the encircling gloom. It escapes notice that being led by the kindly light did not encourage him to reflect its kindness.
To re-describe October 1845 in the ecumenism of October 2019 mangles the past by pretending that there is no past to mangle
none of this matters so much as the harm done to the nineteenth century by the twenty-first. Eamon Duffy is the most subtle, funny, charming, wise, and therefore most dangerous, of Catholic apologists. So distinguished an historian — he of The Striping of the Altars, as unchurched undergraduates tend to spell it — would never, needless to say, descend to polemic.
He ascends to it, instead. Gazing down on a landscape configured by his Church’s collective memory, he weaves gossamer over the narrative to bind what Victorian contemporaries thought had been sundered.
Newman’s apostasy of October 1845 (which, out of Roman earshot, is what it was) turns out to have been a delicate sashay away from Error, not really a “conversion” at all but an inevitable journey implicit all along and one that allowed our hero to take his Anglicanism with him to invigorate Catholic theology with the powerful later essays on the Development of Christian Doctrine and the Grammar of Assent whilst inventing his own history in the beguiling Apologia. Protestants are thus right to treat Newman as one of their own.
They certainly did in October 2019. Off they all trooped to the Eternal City to claim joint proprietorship in the Saint, among them the Bishop of Oxford, doubtless chewing Evangelical rivets, and the delightful Vicar of Littlemore, who must have known that Newman would not have given her house-room, let alone an altar. It was all rather inspiring, no less so for its telling us far more about our own century than his.
The idea that he made Catholicism acceptable in late-Victorian England is best received with a smile
Yet the nineteenth century matters; it possesses its own reality, resilience and resonance. To re-describe October 1845 in the ecumenism of October 2019 mangles the past by pretending that there is no past to mangle, merely present projection, a project close not only to the heart of postmodern Paris but also to confessional comfort in Rome and Canterbury. The project expresses itself in the five syllables most feared by trained historians: “teleology”.
Almost a century ago, the Protestant historian Herbert Butterfield railed against making the past “ratify” the present by making it look like the origin of current desiderata. This is what is happening in our present Newmania. The very real, welcome and justified pleasure taken by spiritual people in Newman’s canonisation brings in its train an historical theory that merits scepticism and challenge.
To treat Newman’s biography as a venture in far-sighted ecumenical purpose confuses legacy with intention, posterity with context, and can only work if a wide range of sources become quietly suppressed or placed more noisily on the Index.
The rage, horror and theological bitterness that greeted Newman’s apostasy command as extensive a documentation as do the encomia generated a century and a half later. The idea that he made Catholicism acceptable in late-Victorian England is best received with a smile among those who know the period.
The idea that his enemy, Manning, should be downgraded ignores the latter’s immersion in society, most famously during the great Dock Strike of 1889, when Newman chose rather to correspond with the world from a desk.
Rejoice, certainly. But let the joy be confined in at least one particular. Sanctity should not become the excuse for historical casuistry. For history, notwithstanding the protest of Pope Benedict XVI, is too important to be left to the traditionalists.
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