The grandeur of Newman's thinking is surely unaffected by occasional scepticism which may hedge the minds of his readers about the reliability of some of his intellectual conclusions. Newman when he was wrong at all, was invariably wrong in the right kind of way. He placed supreme priority, for example, upon the sovereignty of conscience — which he seems to have understood as a species of divinely implanted faculty. It may be far more likely that what people call "conscience" has no such august pedigree, and is merely collected and remembered moral precept instilled through the chance conditioning of social circumstance. Newman was, in all essentials, integrated within empirical modes of thought, and his view of conscience, and of the "illative" sense outlined in the Grammar of Assent (1870), sit rather uncomfortably with empirical observation.
Most of Cornwell's study is independent of the top and tail of the book on the issue of personal sanctity. The book itself is defined by the author's choice of themes and original insights. Cornwell wisely leaves the question of whether Newman should be raised to the altars for settlement by the official procedures. Newman himself was not quite so laconic. And ordering that his coffin should be embedded in soft mulch — to hasten decomposition of the contents — is not the action of one who envisaged the subsequent distribution of relics. He regarded his Cardinal's hat (in 1879) as "a strange turn-up", and had already done all he could to see that no personal cult should attach to his memory.
Towards the end of Cornwell's book there is a particularly helpful introduction of a very modern question: would Newman have approved of the pluralist society of today? Since Newman was a consistent opponent of liberalism in religion, and was more or less indifferent to political action, at least as it affected him personally, there is every reason to suppose that he would extend his antipathy from liberalism in religion to liberalism in the general conduct of public affairs. Cornwell raises the matter shortly after a section on Newman's biglietto speech, delivered when he was in Rome to be made a Cardinal. In it he had repeated his lifelong hostility to liberalism and to the drift of society towards, as Cornwell puts it, "what we would call a pluralist, secular society today". Then, in Newman's words, religion becomes a "private luxury" which must not "obtrude upon others". In Cornwell's subsequent argument he presents a contrast "between pluralism and fundamentalism". The former allows "individuals and groups of individuals to search and choose their own values and beliefs" within a "more or less secular state"; in the latter, "values and beliefs are best imposed, and accepted unquestioningly, top down". The conclusion: "Newman, for all his animosity towards liberalism in religion, clearly would have defended religious pluralism today, and opposed fundamentalism."
It is a very important issue to raise, and Cornwell raises it with admirable intellectual coherence and balance of judgment. But religious pluralism, in modern Western societies — when set in context — has become a marginal affair. It is pluralism in the major preoccupations of moral and political values, the extensively promoted "culture of diversity", which progressively immerses public affairs in a nexus of materialist relativism whose exclusivity is recognised by a kind of consensus. It walks hand-in-hand with the normative and definitely "fundamentalist" concept "political correctness". The fine distinction that Cornwell posits in order to demonstrate Newman's supposed compatibility with modern pluralism is in reality dissolved, by today's practice, in an acid-bath of what he categorises as "fundamentalism". There is nothing very liberal about the present evidences of the "plural society", which is not much more than the enforcement by the power of the State of ever more regulation of individual lives and individual choice of values and courses of action. The concept of a plural society is in reality a sham: everyone is compelled by law into a uniformity of assent, and for moral reasons, in such matters as race, gender, sexual orientation, the curriculae for education.
Seemingly everything is becoming a matter of State prescription and compulsion. It is an enlightened tyranny of welfare materialism. This is a society of compulsory moral uniformity, and it is only in matters judged to be of lesser value — religious choice in a polity that promotes a practical secularism — that evidences of authentic diversity are tolerated. The Catholics have discovered the reality over the issue of gay adoption.
Newman might have found a measure of pluralism conducive in the circumstances of 19th-century bourgeois liberalism, had it developed according to canons then within conceivable calculation. It developed into the 20th-century collectivist state, and at the behest of well-meaning secular Puritans whose dogma of "political correctness" promotes the very antithesis of genuine pluralism. Newman would not have approved. Cornwell's distinction "between pluralism and fundamentalism" is lost. The modern State, as exemplified in Western societies, is characterised by the use of laws to enforce values evidently authenticated by populist democracy on a very large scale. Newman would have been appalled.