Pilgrim of Meaning

Newman's Unquiet Grave: Portrait of a Reluctant Saint by John Cornwell

There has not been, to say the least, a paucity of books about John Henry Newman, or of books which touch upon the significance of his contribution to religious understanding. He is, quite simply, the most important Christian expositor in the English language, whose influence on theological and ecclesiological issues has persisted throughout the last two centuries. 

Many studies of his life and thought have demonstrated the finest scholarship, and now, to add to them, is a work of rare insight and careful balance of judgment. John Cornwell does not, it is true, exploit new sources or reveal previously unknown fragments of writing: Newman’s legacy is far too manicured for that. What this new study does is to ask penetrating questions of the existing body of information, and, by extremely pertinent cultural cross-reference, and apposite deployment of modern insights into human conditioning, to give the reader a richer interpretation of Newman’s extraordinary genius.

The book begins and ends with the question of whether Newman should be raised to sainthood. This is a dangerous area because the remains of all candidates for formal sanctity are exposed for critical examination. In Newman’s case, as it happens, this procedure removed itself from the desk of scholarship to his actual grave (which, as it turned out, was empty.) Modern obsessions have intruded: some persistent atheists and anti-Catholics have suggested, often with actual as well as ecclesiastical prurience, that Newman’s personal friendships indicate a love which dares to tell its name just about every time you open a newspaper. Such things are of no consequence, and Cornwell very sensibly raises them mostly to acknowledge the context of priorities lamentably predominant in the society to which his book is to be delivered. “I just set out to write a book,” he declares, “that would answer the question — why should Newman be of interest to a readership beyond Catholics or 19th-century Church historians?” That aspiration is splendidly achieved.

Newman is not difficult to categorise. It is just that his values are so far removed from modern priorities that many who attempt to understand his subtleties and distinctions will fall at the first hurdle and wander off into the first available exit-route of explanation. Newman himself eschewed sanctity: “Saints are not literary men.” He was, however, above all a literary man, a pilgrim of meaning. He returned again and again to the history of his own life, and to his evolving understanding of things, in order to discover larger truths resident in the smaller habitations of individual perception. This persistent introspection was, in his case, neither morbid nor confining — and it essentially lacked the vanity to which are given to those who routinely lubricate the nuts and bolts of their interior being. Newman’s prose was clear and beautiful as well as being painstakingly precise. In a rather undersized version, his personal development illustrated the general and dialectical nature of accumulating religious understanding that he described, on a large scale, in his last book as an Anglican, the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845). His concept of change and growth in ideas was not founded in observation of human behaviour, and its organic language is to that extent deceptive. It was based in the drama of ideas in the context of time.

Newman belonged to no party in the Church (Anglican or Catholic), though he was subsequently claimed by most parties. He owed no consistent indebtedness to any particular school of thought. It was not that which raised, for some commentators, a problem in their apparent need to categorise him — it showed simply that he departed from the common assumptions of the ruling passions at an early stage. Newman can be categorised: he was a scholar of ideas who believed in the pursuit of truth for its own sake. This point plainly emerges in Cornwell’s analysis of Newman’s plans for the Catholic University in Dublin, whose first Rector he became, and whose scheme of liberal education was displayed in The Idea of a University (1852). In this section of his book, incidentally, Cornwell shows the value of his capacity for cultural cross-reference — in this case to the later observations of Edward Said and James Joyce.

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.

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