"Was Cardinal Newman a saint?
To be declared a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, a person should be proved to have exercised, during his or her life on earth, a level of virtue described as “heroic”. No doubt, once Pope Benedict XVI has performed the beatification (a last staging post on the path to sainthood) of John Henry Newman in September, much energy will be devoted to debating whether the Cardinal’s virtues did or did not reach that high standard.
What is already certain is that those who wish to write a successful Life of Newman must themselves be possessed of academic virtues of a heroic kind.
In the first place, the biographer must be prepared to read a prodigious amount of material. Newman’s own published works filled thirty-six volumes in the edition that he brought out in his own lifetime, and a further dozen volumes appeared after this death. He sent letters at the rate at which we dispatch emails, and since 1961, thirty-two copiously annotated volumes of correspondence and diaries have appeared, the best of them monuments of formidable scholarship in themselves.
Second, a writer today has to digest without regurgitating the work of a series of gifted biographers, beginning with Newman himself, whose Apologia pro Vita Sua has long been recognized as a classic of spiritual autobiography.
The earliest and still one of the best posthumous biographies was that of Wilfrid Ward, the son of Newman’s Anglican colleague and Catholic sparring partner W. G. Ward. In the twentieth century, distinguished scholars devoted their talents to writing Lives of Newman, whether, like Ian Ker, in a massive and magisterial tome, or, like Owen Chadwick, in a short but shrewd pamphlet.
Third, Newman’s own character is full of paradox. Here is a man who spent the first half of his life trying to persuade the Church of England to be more like the Church of Rome, and the second half of his life wishing that Roman Catholics were more like Anglicans.
Beyond other theologians, he exalted the episcopal office; yet he spent much of his life annoying the bishops of both his Churches. A Catholic of liberal bent, he repeatedly denounced liberalism as one of the greatest evils. Even his most obvious virtues provide obstacles for his biographer. Anyone who writes about him quickly discovers that he is such a gifted writer, and his style is so bewitching, and so superior to one’s own, that one hardly dares to paraphrase his thought, and ends up overloading one’s text with verbatim quotations.
Undeterred by these challenges, John Cornwell has taken on the task of writing a biography of Newman to make his life intelligible to the largely secular public which in a few weeks will watch on television the ceremony of his beatification. He has followed a via media between the hagiography of Meriol Trevor and the mockery of Lytton Strachey, and he has produced a Life which is readable, sympathetic and judicious. His quotations from Newman’s writings are always aptly chosen and are never too long. Altogether, he has succeeded in building up a vivid picture of Newman’s personality.
The title of the book alludes to the attempt made in October 2008 to translate Newman’s mortal remains from his Worcestershire grave to a place where they could be publicly venerated. The excavation recovered fragments of a coffin and an inscribed brass plate, but no trace of any bodily remains – either of Newman himself, or of the close friend beside whom he had been buried, Fr Ambrose St John. The upshot of the attempted exhumation was not to provide a shrine for a relic, but to trigger a media debate about whether Newman was gay.
The question is anachronistic.
Nineteenth-century Anglicans and Catholics did not classify themselves in accordance with forms of sexual orientation. According to the Christian moral code, sexual activity, whether solitary, homosexual or heterosexual, was sinful except in marriage. For men, therefore, who had given up matrimony and obliged themselves to celibacy, sexual activity with either male or female was forbidden, and sexual attraction whether to male or female could be nothing but a temptation. No doubt different people would find themselves beset by different kinds of temptation, but they did not see these temptations as in any way defining their personality.
I do not know whether those who wish to set up Newman as a gay icon believe that he was homosexually active, but any suggestion that he was is absurd.
A man so devout and conscientious would have recoiled from what his Church condemned as one of the worst of sins. Well into the twentieth century, the Catholic Catechism listed “the sin of Sodom” – along with wilful murder, and defrauding the poor of their wages – as a “sin crying out to heaven for vengeance”.
Partly because of this rigorous prohibition of homosexual activity, Victorian Christians felt free to express to members of the same sex affection in language which in our very different climate would appear ambiguous. Cornwell deals sensitively and temperately with this issue, comparing Newman’s attachments with the earlier literary intimacies between Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey. He goes on to show, by listing parallels, that the burial of friends side by side need have no erotic significance. He might have added to his list the recent case of the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, who at her request was buried beside the grave of Ludwig Wittgenstein.
While bringing out many aspects of Newman’s character and personal relationships, Cornwell wisely chooses to focus on his literary output. “Newman’s claim to eminence”, he writes, “consists not in his status as a prelate, not in claims for conventional piety, but his genius for creating new ways of imagining and writing about religion.” And not only, we might add, about religion – as Cornwell’s own treatment brings out.
By common consent, and in the considered judgement of Gerard Manley Hopkins and James Joyce, Newman was the greatest Victorian master of English prose. His extraordinary gifts first appeared in the sermons he gave in the University Church of St Mary in Oxford in the 1820s and 30s. They held his congregation spellbound, and still strike a reader with great force. These parochial and plain sermons are in general superior to the more famous set-pieces of later days, such as the Second Spring sermon of 1850 which celebrated the restoration of the English Catholic hierarchy.
Newman’s first published book was The Arians of the Fourth Century, the fruit of his deep reading of the Church Fathers. From his patristic learning he drew parallels from this period to rebuke the Anglican bishops for kowtowing to heretical governments, and, later, to rebuke the Catholic authorities for failing to consult the faithful in matters of doctrine.
Of the Anglican writings, the one to which Cornwell devotes most attention is The Development of Doctrine, written while Newman was thinking his way out of the Church of England into the Church of Rome. The Christian revelation was held, by Protestant and Catholic alike, to have ceased with the death of the last Apostle; and the Christian faith was proclaimed to be unchanging. How can that be reconciled with the manifest variation in the theological beliefs recorded during the long history of the Church? This was the problem that Newman hoped to solve by presenting a theory of the development of doctrine, and offering a set of criteria for distinguishing healthy from unhealthy growth.
Cornwell exaggerates the merits of The Development, apparently endorsing the astonishing claim that it is as important a work as Darwin’s Origin of Species. Newman’s book gives an interesting conspectus of the history of dogma, and it is full of powerful metaphors carefully worked out: doctrine is a plant growing from a seed, or a stream broadening to a river and becoming ever purer and truer to itself.
But the metaphorical criteria offered will not enable anyone to settle objectively whether the filioque (a clause reflecting differences in Trinitarian doctrine between the Eastern and Western Churches) was a legitimate addition to the creed, or whether Jean Calvin or Ignatius Loyola has a greater claim to be an authentic successor to St Augustine.
Before bringing The Development to a conclusion, Newman had entered the Catholic Church. Cornwell often reminds us that Newman maintained that religious conviction was not just a matter of logic, but also of imagination and emotion.
Nonetheless, Newman’s conversion was a remarkable example of a thinker following an argument wherever it leads. At the time of his conversion, Newman had no friends among English Catholics, found Italian Catholics dirty and superstitious, and disliked Catholic music and architecture. His tastes and emotions were bound up with the language of the English Bible and the traditions of Oxford. Yet he left the Church of England with hardly a backward glance, simply because his studies of church history had convinced him that, unlike the Roman Catholic Church, it was not continuous with the Church of the Apostles and the Fathers.
After his change of allegiance, Newman’s next important work was The Idea of a University. Asked to found a Catholic University in Dublin, Newman gave a set of lectures to lay down the notion of a University “viewed in itself and apart from the Catholic Church”. It is worth taking time to contrast Newman’s ideal with the typical university of today.
Whereas today all the leading world universities see themselves as research centres no less than teaching institutions, Newman thinks that research is not part of the function of a university and should be left to academies. Whereas modern universities encompass within themselves law schools, medical schools, business schools, and sometimes agricultural and engineering schools, Newman insists that a university must be quite distinct from a professional school. Its function is not to prepare students for the exercise of a profession of any kind, but rather to lay a foundation upon which professional training may build.
“That philosophical or liberal education, as I have called it, which is the proper function of a University, if it refuses the foremost place to professional interests, does but postpone them to the formation of the citizen.”
The purpose of a university, for Newman, was to ensure that those educated there had “a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind”. This, surely, is still the central aim of preprofessional undergraduate education. Whatever discipline an undergraduate pursues, or majors in, it is not so much the acquisition of that particular body of knowledge that is important, but the acquiring, through that discipline, of a sense of the aims and methods of science and scholarship.
It is the function of liberal education to make one aware of the boundaries of the domains of the sciences, and give one a grasp of which questions can and which cannot be settled by science. However, even those dons most impressed by Newman’s ideal are likely to disagree with his insistence on the separation of teaching from research. Many would claim that an academic who engages in research will make a better teacher, and that an academic who has pupils will make a better researcher.
The Idea of a University remains a classic; as Cornwell puts it, it has become “a master-class on the ideals of university education across many cultural and political divides”. But the book that established Newman’s reputation as a writer in his lifetime was the Apologia pro Vita Sua, written in response to charges brought against his integrity by the novelist Charles Kingsley.
It is to that work that Cornwell devotes his best chapter. He compares it, appropriately, with the Confessions of St Augustine. The spiritual autobiography of the greatest intellectual convert of the modern world does indeed resemble in many ways the spiritual autobiography of the greatest intellectual convert of the ancient world. Both conversions, as Gerard Manley Hopkins stressed, were slow, lingering processes, quite unlike anything on the Damascus road. Each writer uses a variety of artifices – and in the case of Newman, documentation – to recreate the mentality of former selves long left behind.
Newman resembled Augustine in other respects also. Both men re-edited, late in life, their early works; both were enormously concerned that their Nachlass should be passed on in the appropriate condition. Newman, indeed, went to great lengths to ensure that one kind of Nachlass would not survive: he gave orders that compost be sprinkled in his grave to ensure the rapid dissolution of his body.
His last major work was his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, published in 1870, but drawing on ideas already to be found in his early university sermons.
This book centres on a question of primary importance in the philosophy of religion: how can religious belief be justified, given that the evidence for its conclusions seems so inadequate to the degree of its commitment?
Newman quotes Locke as giving, as the unerring mark of the love of truth, the not entertaining any proposition with greater assurance than the proofs it is built on will warrant. “Whoever goes beyond this measure of assent, it is plain, receives not truth in the love of it, loves not truth for truth-sake, but for some other by-end.”
Newman demolishes this doctrine of Locke’s by showing that there are many beliefs reasonably held which do not depend on evidence or proof. His favourite example of a firm belief on flimsy evidence is our conviction that Great Britain is an island. But there are many others.
"We laugh to scorn the idea that we had no parents though we have no memory of our birth; that we shall never depart this life, though we can have no experience of the future; that we are able to live without food, though we have never tried; that a world of men did not live before our time, or that that world has no history."
Newman’s treatment of the nature of belief makes the Grammar of Assent a classic of epistemology, unmatched in subtlety until Wittgenstein’s posthumous On Certainty. But the book is not adequate as a justification of religious faith in a secular age, since it is addressed only to those who already believe in God and in a final judgment. Faith can only be justified, it argues, from a basis of antecendent probability. Newman, who is often at his best when stating a position against which he intends to argue, states the difficulty candidly:
"Antecedent probabilities may be equally available for what is true and what pretends to be true, for a revelation and its counterfeit, for Paganism, or Mahometanism, or Christianity. They seem to supply no intelligible rule what is to be believed and what not; or how a man is to pass from a false belief to a true. If a claim of miracles is to be acknowledged because it happens to be advanced, why not for the miracles of India as well as for those of Palestine? If the abstract probability of a Revelation be the measure of genuineness in a given case, why not in the case of Mahomet as well as of the Apostles?"
But this means that there is not the parallel which Newman drew between the belief that Great Britain is an island and the religious faith of a Christian believer. For faith to be faith and not mere belief it has to be belief on the word of God. If that is so, then the fact of revelation has to be better known than the content of revelation. But this Newman does not even attempt to prove.
When the First Vatican Council proclaimed papal infallibility in 1870, Newman was distressed. The definition, he thought, was unfortunate and ill-advised, and the dogma had been imposed “very cruelly, tyrannically, and deceitfully”. In his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk he put the best face he could on the Council’s proceedings, concluding “if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts (which indeed does not seem quite the thing) I shall drink – to the Pope, if you please – still, to conscience first and to the Pope afterwards”.
In recent years, this famous remark has been quoted countless times by Catholics who wished to disobey the Pope without leaving the Roman Church.
Looking back on his life during the last years of Pius IX’s reign, Newman may well have felt that his life had been futile: all his projects, small and large, had ended in failure. He had tried and failed to reform the Oxford tutorial system, and he had not succeeded in bringing the Church of England into conformity with its Catholic past.
He had not been able to instil a spirit of brotherly love between the two Oratorian communities of priests that he had founded – indeed, what Cornwell calls the “acidulous piety” of his correspondence with the head of the London Oratory would provide ample ammunition to a Devil’s Advocate, if such an officer still existed.
The University in Dublin fell far short of incarnating the ideals he had spelt out in The Idea of a University. He had become editor of a liberal Catholic journal, the Rambler, but had been forced to resign. And he had been helpless to stem the tide of ultramontane fervour that had triumphed at Vatican I. It was no wonder that he suffered from bouts of depression, which devout biographers have christened “a dark night of the soul”.
The depression turned out not to be permanent, however. In 1877, Trinity, Newman’s old college, made him its first honorary fellow and he returned to his beloved Oxford in triumph. A year later, the new Pope, Leo XIII, made him a Cardinal. His last years were passed in the warmth of personal contentment and the glow of national and international regard. Edward Elgar’s 1900 setting of Newman’s great poem on death, “The Dream of Gerontius”, was a fitting final tribute to a great man.
Posthumously, Newman’s earlier disappointments were at least in part reversed. The colleges of Oxford adopted his model for the tutorial system and observe it to this day. One of his obituarists described him as “the founder, we might almost say, of the Church of England as we see it”, citing the changes resulting from the Oxford Movement. Within the Roman Catholic Church the theologians who steered the Second Vatican Council were all under his influence, so that Pope Paul VI could describe it as “Newman’s Council”. His writings have remained continuously in print and for many years now there has been a campaign to have him canonized.
John Cornwell does not decide for the reader whether Newman was or was not a saint. He stresses his subject’s devoutness and austerity, but he also lays emphasis on the touchy and egotistical element in Newman’s make-up. “My overarching purpose”, he says, “is to show that Newman’s unrelenting literary obsession was the story of his own life: he was the ultimate, self-absorbed autobiographer”.
Newman’s Unquiet Grave is a substantial achievement. Sadly, it bears marks of haste in the writing and editing: misspelt names, mistaken dates and misdescribed locations. Fortunately, it will not be at all difficult to correct these errors when the book is reprinted, as it surely will be many times. But one could wish that the author had had more time at his disposal, not just so that these blemishes could be removed, but because the text itself is that rare thing, a book that the reader wishes had gone on longer.
In an epilogue to the book, Cornwell tells the story of the Boston deacon Jack Sullivan, whose recovery from excruciating spinal deformities was accepted by the Vatican as a miracle, attributable to Newman, inexplicable by natural causes. Cornwell sets out the facts fairly, but his conclusion is that it is arguable that the relief of pain was a placebo effect, and that it was surgery, rather than prayer, that cured the underlying problem:
If Newman is to be canonized, a further miracle is required.
If there is any problem about this, Pope Benedict could appeal to an august precedent for downgrading the importance of miracles in the canonization of a holy scholar. The process of canonization of St Thomas Aquinas lasted from 1316 to 1323, in the pontificate of Pope John XXII.
Though there was no shortage of miracles attributed to him after his death, the devil’s advocate insisted that there were no convincing miracles attributed to him in his lifetime. One story, however, was attested by several eye-witnesses. When Thomas lay dying in the Abbey of Fossanova, they said, he had been unable to eat for days, when suddenly he expressed a wish for herrings. Herrings, his family explained, might be easy to come by in Paris, but were not to be found in the Italian seas. But to everyone's surprise, the next consignment of sardines from the local fishmonger was found to contain a consignment of herrings. The judges in the canonization process seem to have been sceptical whether their untravelled witnesses would be able to tell a herring when they saw one.
But the Pope overruled the devil’s advocate. “There are as many miracles as there are articles in the Summa” he is reputed to have said; and he declared Thomas a Saint."