‘Credo in Newmanum’

When the remains of Cardinal John Henry Newman were exhumed on October 2, 2008, as part of the beatification process (he died in 1890), nothing was found but a brass plaque and some bits of wood and cloth. It seems Newman had presciently forestalled any relic hunting by specifying that his grave be filled “with a rich mulch to hasten decomposition.” John Cornwell neatly relates this to Newman’s last printed sermon, “On the Fitness of the Glories of Mary”: “‘Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return,’ was the sentence upon sin; she then, who was not a sinner, fitly never saw corruption.... Pilgrims went to and fro; they sought for her relics, but they found them not.” Cornwell views Newman’s instructions as “an acknowledgment of his own sinfulness, deserving of final physical corruption.” Elsewhere Cornwell quotes Newman on the subject of his personal sanctity: “I have no tendency to be a saint—it is a sad thing to say so. Saints are not literary men.”

What biographies of Newman lack in number, they make up in heft. Wilfrid Ward’s 1912 biography was over thirteen hundred pages; so was Meriol Trevor’s 1962 opus. As the twentieth century moved on, the biographies became shorter, but were still doorstops: Ian Ker’s at 778 pages (1988) and Sheridan Gilley’s at 486 pages (2002). Then there are Newman’s published letters and diaries (thirty-two volumes and counting), plus innumerable specialized studies of Newman as a theologian and broader histories of the Oxford movement. Is there any justification, then, for a new biography of a mere 286 pages? Indeed, there is. Every age views the Great Men of history (Great Women are just beginning to catch up) through the lens of its own interests and prejudices. Certainly Newman speaks to the interests and prejudices of our own era. In terms of the strife in the church between liberals and conservatives, which was he? And was he gay, as some have recently speculated?

Cornwell states his purpose in writing Newman’s Unquiet Grave succinctly: “to offer a shorter, less academic account of his life, accessible not only to Catholics, but non-Catholics and non-Christians as well. While being yet another version of his life, my interest focuses more on his character and importance as a writer than on his holiness.” Without slighting Newman’s sanctity or his theological legacy, Cornwell has achieved his purpose splendidly. The book is sensible, judicious, extremely well written, and filled with aptly chosen quotations, from Newman himself (he was, as one critic put it, “perhaps, the very greatest master of...sarcasm in the English language”), and from friends and foes alike.

Just twenty-one years before Newman’s birth in 1801, the anti-Catholic “No Popery” Gordon Riots had convulsed London. Yet in the decade or so after Newman’s conversion (“perversion”) to Rome in 1845, it seemed as though everybody who was anybody in England was “poping.” Just one example: William Wilberforce, the Evangelical parliamentarian and philanthropist, who earned the sobriquet “The Great Emancipator” because of his relentless fight against slavery, had four sons. The eldest was a “scapegrace,” who squandered the family fortune. The other three were Anglican priests, two of whom, along with two friends from Oxford, also Anglican clergymen, married four sisters, the beautiful daughters of a prominent Evangelical Anglican parson. Of these six brothers/brothers-in-law, five became Roman Catholics, including William junior, the “scapegrace,” and Henry (later Cardinal) Manning. The only Anglican left standing was Sam Wilberforce, by now bishop of Oxford. “The Parting of Friends,” as Newman softly put it in his final sermon as an Anglican, created terrific bitterness. What caused this lemming-like rush to Rome? While Newman was only one prominent member of the Oxford Movement, along with John Keble, Hurrell Froude, and Edward Pusey, it was Newman’s “mesmeric,” “magnetic” personality and writings, one might argue, that created the stampede. As James Froude, Hurrell’s brother, put it, “For hundreds of young men [at Oxford] Credo in Newmanum was the genuine symbol of faith.”

Was Newman gay? Cornwell doesn’t quite answer the question but provides lots of evidence for Newman’s effeminacy (as one contemporary put it, “delicate as an old lady washed in milk”) and gender ambivalence. He found the idea of clerical marriage repugnant, and he was unapologetic about his proclivity for same-sex “particular friendships.” Yet what Cornwell calls Newman’s “lifelong aversion to sensuality” precludes his being considered gay in any full sense of the word, at least in the opinion of this gay reviewer.

The first thirty years of Newman’s life as a Roman Catholic—till created a cardinal at age seventy-seven by the new pope Leo XIII, who was himself seventy-eight—were full of misfortune and disappointment, in part due to an English hierarchy that was conservative and ultramontane (that is, inclined to maximize the pope’s spiritual and temporal power). But there were also the doomed Catholic University in Ireland, “family trouble” within the Oratory of which Newman was superior, and a calamitous libel suit that cost Newman (or his friends) over a million pounds at today’s value. As he himself put it, “everything seems to crumble under my hands, as if one were making ropes of sand.” Yet Newman’s life was redeemed by his writings (Cornwell dubs him “a superabundant literary workaholic”), and with the publication of his autobiography, Apologia pro vita sua, in 1864, he endeared himself to the literate British public, Catholic, Protestant, and agnostic. (George Eliot hailed it as the “revelation of a life—how different from one’s own, yet with how close a fellowship in its needs and burthens—I mean spiritual needs and burthens.”) Cornwell does an exemplary job of analyzing Newman’s style as a thinker and a writer. Newman never considered himself a theologian, but rather a “controversialist.” He knew neither Roman scholasticism nor German philosophy. His approach was literary, “peculiarly English,” as Cornwell calls it; his sources: Holy Scripture, the church fathers, and the Caroline divines. His primary insight was the role of imagination in religious life. “The heart is commonly reached not through the reason, but through the imagination.” In this he stood four-square in the Romantic tradition of Coleridge and Wordsworth.

His other great insight was that of development within continuity (and in this regard he had no problem with Darwin’s theory of evolution). As he famously wrote: “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Cornwell admirably sums up Newman’s style: “His preference…is for feeling, concrete language, irony, satire, the dynamism of metaphor”; and he gives splendid commentary on Newman’s major works from An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845) to The Idea of a University (1852/58), the Apologia, The Dream of Gerontius (1865), and An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870).

Now for the other question: Was Newman liberal or conservative? Certainly he opposed “liberalism in religion,” meaning skepticism and relativism, all his life. Politically, he was on the “wrong” side of every effort in the 1820s and ’30s to extend the franchise and to admit dissenters and Catholics into Parliament or into Oxford and Cambridge universities. Nor was he in favor of mitigating the burden on Irish Catholics of being taxed for a terribly swollen and expensive Irish (Protestant) Church. As Cornwell notes, he did all this more for ecclesiological than political reasons: a parliament composed of laymen, including dissenters, Catholics, agnostics, and atheists, was running the Established Church, not the bishops. Nor did he have as tender a social conscience as his erstwhile Anglican friend, later Catholic opponent, Cardinal Manning. Yet seventy years on Pope Paul VI could say that Vatican II was “Newman’s council.” As Cornwell sums up Newman’s theological legacy: he encouraged a historical approach to theology, championed the laity (“the church would look foolish without them”), and excoriated Roman centralization and creeping infallibilism. Many Catholics know Newman’s cheeky quip: “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.” But how many Catholics know Newman’s comment on the last sad years of Pius IX: “We have come to a climax of tyranny. It is not good for a pope to live twenty years. It is anomaly and bears no good fruit; he becomes a god, has no one to contradict him, does not know facts, and does cruel things without meaning it”?

Literary as he was, Newman will nonetheless move a step closer to sainthood when the present pope beatifies him this month. The gesture is a formal recognition of his long established reputation. The day after Newman’s death, the Times of London opined: “Of one thing we may be sure, that the memory of his pure and noble life, untouched by worldliness, unsoured by any trace of fanaticism, will endure, and that whether Rome canonizes him or not, he will be canonized in the thoughts of pious people of many creeds in England.”


Related: Tacking toward the Truth, by Joseph A. Komonchak
The Upstairs Room, by Mary Frances Coady

Published in the 2010-09-24 issue: 

Frank Oveis was an editor of theological and religious books at Seabury, Crossroad, and Continuum for thirty-four years before his retirement in 2007.

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