As anyone who uses Facebook knows, we too quickly explain, meaning explain away, the world and each other. It’s not so simple a place, and we are not such simple beings. I recommend three books that push back against that temptation.
The first is Ryan J. Marr’s To Be Perfect Is to Have Changed Often (Fortress Academic, $96, 234 pp.) a study of John Henry Newman’s thinking about the church from his conversion in 1845 to 1877, when he wrote a new preface to his book on Anglicanism, which he had written as an Anglican trying to remain one. Marr runs the National Institute for Newman Studies in Pittsburgh, and I should mention that he’s a friend.
Newman started, as a convert, as a “moderate ultramontanist.” He emphasized infallibility and papal authority, partly in reaction to his former Anglicanism. The appeal to authority seemed to solve Anglicanism’s intrinsic problems. And it did. Just not so easily as he thought.
He mostly left out the laity and the theologians, Marr argues. His life as a Catholic, not least his experience of ecclesiastical abuses, and the vexing persistence of superstition in the church, opened him to a more “decentralized” idea of authority. The church’s three offices—prophetical, sacerdotal, and regal—support and correct each other, and together undermine any simple appeal to authority. He increasingly pushed back against those (pretty much everyone in charge) who held some form of the ultramontanist view he had held before he realized it didn’t work.
Marr’s book is a revised dissertation, with all the advantages and disadvantages of such a project. (You want references? He’s got billions! You want a question worked out nine levels beyond normal human interest? Got that too!) But the detail helps when the subject is someone like Newman, and when the issues at stake are ones we’re still dealing with today.