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.



7 responses

2 05 2010

Eh…So Newman doesn’t resonate with you. He does with me, and I’m Eastern Orthodox.

The second pdf you linked to is horrendous, and at times worth a chuckle. Thanks! I needed a laugh! Clearly it was written by a rabid anti-modernist with little sense for nuance in anything.

1 05 2010
Arturo Vasquez

The Ian Ker article was interesting, and I don’t want to seem that I know more about Newman than he does (I’ve read parts of the biography he wrote), but I think he is missing a point. On the one hand, he is going on about a “well-formed” conscience. I don’t know if there is any point of bringing up the concept of conscience if a “well-formed conscience” always agrees with such and such an authority. Why not dispose of conscience altogether or why even bring it up if it turns out to be an unnecessary appendage?

All the same, it also seems like he is pushing a Goldilocks and the Three Bears “just right” approach to the question. In Newman’s time, Rome was the big bad bully and conscience and reservations about the direction of the Church were necessary to keep one’s integrity. The implication is that if Newman were alive today, he would be a “company man” since Vatican II changed all of the stuff he didn’t like. Maybe so, but it seems that he is just sending Newman to the intellectual taxidermist: he’s the intellectual trophy of the latest guys in power. Newman may have been flirting with dissent in the bad ol’ days of Pius IX, but people would be crazy to do that today, since we live under such an enlightened regime.

Truth be told, I care little for Newman in general, so anybody who wants him can have him. I think his thought plays too big a role in the RC Anglophone universe, and he had some ideas that I don’t particularly care for.

30 04 2010

For your further consideration concerning Newman:

29 04 2010

Khomiakov’s treatment of Newman is exquisite.

29 04 2010

I think that Arturo brilliantly and succinctly nailed the manner in which Benedict is not a straight-forward “conservative” figure here:

29 04 2010
Sam Urfer

Also, I don’t think that it is really proper to read Benedict as a straight-forward “conservative” figure, himself. Partisans of all stripes have this tendency to paint people into boxes, and that ain’t healthy

29 04 2010
Sam Urfer

I like the complex picture of the man and his work more than any party-line version of him. Indeed, the complex man seems more saintly than any blandly sanitized appropriation.

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