All tradition is a product of the 19th century

15 02 2019

I recently learned of the impending canonization of John Henry Cardinal Newman, and honestly it makes me more suspect that canonization process has just become a popularity contest. In an institution with one billion people in it, you are bound to find someone attributing a miracle to anything from a dead 19th century cardinal to the face of Jesus appearing in a piece of toast. I am not sure I will ever consider John Paul II or John XXIII to be saints. Maybe they can be removed from the calendar one day or demoted to mythology just like St. Christopher or St. Philomena. In the case of the latter recent “saint”, that would be poetic justice. Read the rest of this entry »

For a truly subversive Newman?

16 12 2010

From Eamon Duffy:

But if Cornwell absolves the Vatican of trying to conceal the potentially embarrassing sexuality of a candidate for sainthood, he is inclined to think that the beatification of Newman may nevertheless represent an attempt by an authoritarian church to tame a troublesome and unconventional intellect, and to neutralize Newman’s usefulness to critics of current Vatican policy. Newman was, by nineteenth-century Catholic standards, a deeply unconventional theologian. Soaked in the writings of the Early Church Fathers, he disliked the rigidly scholastic cast of mind that cramped the Catholic theology of his day. He was one of the first theologians to grasp the historical contingency of all theological formulations. Accordingly, he resisted doctrinaire demands for unquestioning obedience to contemporary Church formulae as if they were timeless truths. He was an ardent defender of the legitimate autonomy of the theologian and of the dignity of the laity as custodians of the faith of the Church. He was scathingly critical of the authoritarian papacy of Pope Pius IX (Pio Nono), who held the office between 1846 and 1878, and he opposed the definition of papal infallibility in 1870 as an unnecessary and inappropriate burden on consciences. “We have come to a climax of tyranny,” he wrote. “It is not good for a Pope to live 20 years…. He becomes a god, [and] has no one to contradict him”…

To resolve this apparent contradiction between a religion of objectively revealed truth and the flux of Christian doctrines and practices, Newman wrote at Littlemore a theological masterpiece, the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845). Its central claim is that the concepts and intuitions that shape human history are dynamic, not inert. Great ideas interact with changing times and cultures, retaining their distinctive thrust and direction, yet adapting so as to preserve and develop that energy in different circumstances. Truth is a plant, evolving from a seed into the mature tree, not a baton passed unchanging from hand to hand. Ideas must unfold in the historical process before we can appropriate all that they contain. So beliefs evolve, but they do so to preserve their essence in the flux of history: they change, that is, in order to remain the same. “In a higher world it is otherwise; but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

I used to make the intellectual mistake of thinking that the Hegelian dialectic, in the triad “thesis-antithesis-synthesis”, was prone to the worst form of institutional crony idealism. The position of the current hegemonic institution is the teleological resting point toward which all of history is driven. That is not a fair reading. Really, the process is not about how the Ideal emerges from the purely contingent, but how the contingent becomes the Ideal. Or rather, how the Ideal is the contingent merely viewed after a process of double negation.
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On canonizations – official and otherwise

5 10 2010

Of late I have slowed down my investigations into “folk Catholicism”. My conclusion is gradually becoming one of not seeing much difference between these unapproved practices and “official” ones. The roots of both are usually the same, and their flavors are remarkably similar. And for many people, they can exist side by side without much anxiety as to how they “fit together”.

In some of the most “folk Catholic” places, particularly in Latino communal settings, it is very common to see statues of John Paul II and Mother Teresa a few feet from Santa Muerte love soaps or las Siete Potencias Africanas candles. Being the Internet-literate Catholic that I am, I was thus a little fascinated by the whole idea of beatifying Cardinal Newman. I suppose I have to reveal my ex-Lefebvrist bias, and state that theologically I don’t trust canonizations in the last forty years. The streamlining of the process and the elimination of the devil’s advocate makes me feel that canonizations in the Church have become far too political (Escriva de Balaguer, I am looking in your direction.) But that distrust is a complicated one, for I know that there are a ton of traditional saints, like my beloved Saint Barbara or St. Expedite, who wouldn’t pass the test of a devil’s advocate today.
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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.

The myth of “interiority”

26 10 2009

india cross

I read the other day a post on the Lonely Goth’s blog concerning the Khrist Bhaktas or Indian devotees of Christ who are not baptized into the Church. Apparently, according to an article linked to on this site, a great number of people who make pilgrimages to Christian shrines and fills the pews on Sunday are not technically “Christians” as we would call them. They are devotees of Christ who do not seek baptism, since “receiving baptism is perceived as relinquishing one’s entire social and cultural patrimony and becoming assimilated to an alien culture”. Some Catholic priests even encourage this type of devotion to Christ, saying that they are there not to baptize people, but to “preach the Gospel”.

“Syncretic, cowardly compromise”, you might be thinking. The funny thing is, however, that Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, that bête noire of integrist Catholicism, when he was working in the Lord’s vineyard in French-speaking west Africa, almost did the exact same thing with many of the Muslim and animist populations. Realizing that many people due to tribal or marital circumstances (polygamy was common in many places) could not seek baptism, he created a class of “believer”, a sort of perpetual catechumenate, for those not quite ready to take the plunge of becoming an “official Christian”. His aim of course was to convert everybody, but he was realistic about what that really meant in practice. By creating a “third way”, he and other missionaries felt that some people were at least leaving the door partially open to the Church, and that such a committment should at the least be acknowledged by the hierarchy.
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