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The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1948

A Note on Newman

page 30

A Note on Newman

No Discussion of nineteenth century literature can omit the name of John Henry Cardinal Newman, no social history of the period can fail to consider the Oxford 'Movement of which Newman was the spearhead, no study of religious developments can neglect the peculiar genius that was his. Far from Newman being neglected, however, the occasion of the anniversary of the beginning of the Oxford Movement saw about ten thousand books and articles to celebrate the event, and the centenary of his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church brought about another deluge.

Newman is one of the eminent Victorians, and it is surprising how many of them were rebels, not in the Bloomsbury sense, but rebels against the Victorian spirit. The Oxford Movement of which Newman was the sharp spear blade, was in part, a reaction against the Victorian spirit of compromise, utilitarianism, and 'liberalism' as an attitude of mind. Newman waged war for nearly half a century against' liberalism that growing rationalism and naturalism which, in religion, leads to the anti-dogmatic spirit and a sort of secularized social gospel. To those who, like Carlyle, declared that the essence of religion was 'wonder', Newman tersely pointed out that 'Wonder is not religion, or else we should be worshipping our railroads'. He perceived a great movement towards unbelief and proposed to meet it on its own ground by reasoned argument. He recognized that the enemies of the church were men of learning and of cultivated argumentative powers and in opposing them he employed the historical method which became preeminent in the nineteenth century.

Although Newman looked to the past he was no mere reactionary. There are several factors that must be considered in any attempt to assess a man whom even many of his contemporaries found difficult to understand. The first point is his intellectual honesty, which would not allow him to agree with extreme positions. He rejected the excessive ultramontanism of people like Talbot and that Inglese italianato, Manning, as Dean Inge calls him; he did not hide his dislike for hierarchical beauracracy which he feared would follow from the militant move towards centralization that was inaugurated in the nineteenth century. He believed it would be inimical to intellectual freedom. A Roman Catholic university should allow the freedom of debate with which the mediaeval schools met the intellectual problems of the day. 'You cannot make men believe by force and repression', he wrote in one of his letters. 'Truth is wrung out by many minds working together freely." Newman held firmly to the inviolability of conscience, in fact e laid far more stress on the argument from conscience proof for Theism than on the traditional proofs. Standard always for moderation, Newman's intellectual honesty made him long a suspect at the papel court. It took the succession of a moderate pope for the clouds under which he lay until he was an old man, to be lifted.

There is something enigmatic about Newman; he had a subtle and complex mind: Much has been made of the 'mystery' of Newman. L'abbé Brémond in 1906 wrote a book which has been translated under the English title, 'The mystery of Newman'. Bremond's study, although one-sided, is valuable in drawing attention to what he calls the 'autocentrism' of Newman. He writes. 'Although the words "I" and "me" are relatively rare in Newman's writings, whether as preacher, novelist, controversialist, philosopher. or poet, he always reveals and always describes himself'. This is the point. Even though Cardinal Newman is the most personal of writers, he is not therefore the most easy to understand.

That he was a highly sensitive man with the temperament of an artist is often stressed—he was also a very good violinist. Some of his books might not have been written at all had he not been provoked or insulted. Chesterton truly says of him that 'He is a naked man, who carries a naked sword'. We might not now have the 'Apologia Pro Vita Sua' had not Charles Kingsley so bullheadedly attacked him. While Newman's attacking page 31 defence also was unsparing, it was, as Dean Inge remarks, 'demanding too much of human nature to expect a master of fence, when wantonly attacked with a bludgeon, to abstain from the pleasure of pricking his adversary scientifically in the tender parts of his body'. Kingsley had chosen an opponent who was a master of irony and a practised controversialist.

The life of Cardinal Newman falls rather neatly into two periods of almost equal length. Born in 1801, he was formally admitted into the Roman Catholic Church in 1845, and he died in 1890. The Anglican period was characterized by his quest for certainty and a justification for that certainty. These he was to find eventually in Rome, having made a religious pilgrimage which he started in his youth when his first definite religious opinions were decidedly 'Calvinistic in character'. The influence of that Puritanism is seen in the early development of a marked ascetic tendency. It is in the Anglican period too that his longest period of happiness lay. He was very fond of Oxford: but Newman was not only of Oxford. There was a time when he virtually was Oxford, such was his tremendous influence, and to have been an undergraduate of an Oxford college was among his most pleasant memories. His election, in 1877, to an Honorary Fellowship at his old College, Trinity College, touched him deeply. He wrote to his Bishop, . . . and to see once more, before I am taken away, what I never thought I should see again, the place where I began the battle of life, with my good angel by my side, is a prospect almost too much for me to bear.

'Most of his deep and enduring friendships were formed too when he was an Anglican priest, so that the sacrifices Newman made in October 1845 were far from being negligible. He entered the Roman Catholic Church as 'into port after a rough sea', and said, in reference to his Apologia ...'that he now had 'no further history of his religious opinions to narrate', yet many profound disappointments lay ahead. He severed forever his connections with the beloved world of his youth, his leadership in the Anglican revival, the pleasant conversations in the common room of his college, his Oriel Fellowship, the violin playing in trios and quartets at musical parties. All this and more he gave up to become an obscure Roman priest, who for years was to be misunderstood, disliked, often deliberately frustrated in his endeavours, and never given the opportunities that suited his particular genius.

It is difficult to assess Cardinal Newman's main contribution. It may be unwise to attempt it for 'a main contribution' is often the result of a partial appreciation. To some he is the originator of the theory of development in dogma, to others he is above all things a religious philosopher in his detailed psychological analysis of the way in which the mind makes an assent, or arrives at a belief. Dollinger considered him to be the theologian who was almost unequalled in his knowledge of the history of the first three centuries of the Church. Again, there are those who see in him little more than a great master of English prose, while many remembered him chiefly 'as the greatest exponent of the views' of the minority at the Vatican Council'. Newman has been compared with the Fathers of the Church, and branded as a heretic. While to the onlooker he may be regarded as a successful failure, there is one essential characteristic which illumines all his writings, his profound sense of the Divine and of 'the mysteries of nature and of grace'. Even as a youth he had something of the mystic's sense of the Unseen: he tells us in the 'Apologia ...' that at the age of sixteen he came to the conviction that there were but 'two and two only absolutely and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator'.

Limitations he said, but it was his profound religious endowment that distinguishes Newman, his insight into perennial problems of faith, his tranquil yet uncompromising belief in the concrete reality of the invisible world, that led to his enriching the common religious experience of Christendom. Brilioth rightly says that 'it is a presumption if any single communion claims him entirely for its own' for few reach so fully as he that elevated ground where those differing expressions of the shifting reflections of revelation through denominational mediums fade away and disappear.