Newman among the partisans

29 04 2010

I recently found a couple of articles on Newman that sparked again some thoughts on this significant figure of modern Catholicism. They can be found here and here. I have to give credit to the Renegade Trads blog for one of these articles. My own opinion is that Newman’s reputation is both over-inflated and paradigmatic. While I think he was a great prose-writer, I believe as well that he perpetuated many of the scholarly prejudices that have blossomed into the facile Catholicism that we know today. In terms of modern English Catholic prose, he can be compared to St. Augustine in the Latin tongue. He was the first major Protestant intellectual to convert, and his body of work was almost equally extensive. I suppose that it would thus seem fitting that people would want to canonize him. He is an icon of a certain group in the Anglophone world shaking off the prejudices of the Reformation and joining the body of the new “enlightened” Catholicism.

The two articles cited above, however, paint a more complicated picture. Both essays seem to want to exalt the idea of Newman “the liberal”, and do this with rather mixed results. Whether or not one agrees with the slant that these authors take regarding Newman’s legacy, what is abundantly clear and indisputable is that Newman was far from an uncontroversial figure in life. He made many enemies, and played in some dangerous intellectual sandboxes. While, when made a cardinal, he told Leo XIII that he had always fought liberalism, the written record seems to be far more ambiguous.

Indeed, over the course of my life, I have read of liberal avatars of Newman, and conservative avatars of Newman, and portraits of Newman that made him seem like a forerunner to the militant anti-modernists of the early 20th century. Indeed, he must be all of these things and none of them. Some might contest that he was above the fray of these simplistic disputes; that his theological and rhetorical genius is too difficult for most mere mortals to grasp. In medio stat virtus, is the rejoinder often heard in these cases. But, as I have said before, many times what is in the middle is not virtue, but muddledness.

But all of this does speak of a complex figure, one perhaps not captured in the partisan bickering into which modern Christianity has descended. John Cornwell says this towards the end of his essay:

Newman’s legacy hardly sits comfortably with the conservatism of Pope Benedict. It is entirely possible, in fact, that his beatification signals an attempt to sanitise his legacy rather than adopt those aspects that are critical of Rome, which he once compared to a swamp. Just a month ago Benedict cited Newman, without proper quotation, as an enemy to all Catholic dissidents; but no one was more critical than Newman of the Vatican, wrongful assumptions about papal infallibility, and Rome’s over-centralisation.

I think that this is a fair assessment, perhaps not of Newman the man, but at least of his body of work. For Newman could attack the nascent modernism that would be condemned twenty years after his death, and rhetorically enable such dissent with his infamous “toast to conscience”. It could be that of all the people who would rent Dr. Newman’s mantle to take it as their own, none of them are truly faithful to Newman’s ethos of a “loyal opposition”. While the right makes him a crusader for obedience, and the left makes him a long-suffering martyr of conscience, perhaps the real Newman remains elusive.