Wednesday, December 7, 2016

What NOT to Read About Newman


My bookish acquaintance, Edward Short, has written a review of a collection of essays written on Receptions of Newman published by OUP late last year. He has certainly persuaded me not to purchase this book (the price would have also swayed my decision, however):

What strikes one initially upon opening Receptions of Newman, a collection of academic essays edited by Dr. Frederick Aquino and Dr. Benjamin King, is that it is dedicated, in part, to Frank Turner, the stridently anti-Catholic author of John Henry Newman The Challenge of Evangelical Religion, which the editors laud for “opening up new historical and philosophical lines of inquiry.” If Hutton and Ker saw admirable integrity in Newman, Turner saw only depravity and imposture. Indeed, for the unaccountably assertive Yale professor, Newman was “a confused schismatic,” who only converted to the Catholic Church to mask his manifold skepticism.

Following suit, the editors begin their introduction by asking, “Was John Henry Newman an agnostic?” The justification they give for inaugurating their volume with this peculiar query does not inspire confidence.

First, Newman’s writings on matters of faith continue to inform the study of theology, philosophy, and history… Second, division over agnosticism show the contradictory ways in which Newman’s readers have understood him… Third, by beginning this introduction with one example among the many subjects on which Newman wrote, the editors want to be clear from the start this this volume is not an exhaustive account of the receptions of his work…
However odd a defense for giving their collection so tendentious a turn, this does at least have the merit of showing readers how the liberal academy currently regards Newman and his legacy. If, after Tract 90, Newman found himself “posted up by the marshal on the buttery-hatch of every College of my University, after the manner of discommoned pastry-cooks, and… denounced as a traitor… against the time-honoured Establishment,” the true Catholic convert is no more welcome today in most of our own colleges and universities. Of course, the false agnostic Newman may be welcome for various purposes, but that is a different story.

Short does find one good essay ($110 for one essay?):

To be fair, there is one excellent essay in the collection by Father Keith Beaumont, entitled “The Reception of Newman in France,” which puts Newman and the Modernists in proper critical perspective. “The regular misquotation of Newman’s brilliantly pithy formula in the Essay on Development, almost always taken out of context, is revealing,” he writes.
Most modernists quoted, often with their own variations, only the last sentence of the relevant passage: “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” But the sentence which precedes is equally important, and determines the meaning of that which follows: “It [the idea] changes with them [new forms which continually appear] in order to remain the same.”
Here, again, is the insistence on semper eadem that Kasper and his liberal friends refuse to acknowledge. This solitary piece, however, for all of its insight, learning, and good judgement, cannot salvage an otherwise deeply misguided collection.  

The distrust of Newman's faithfulness and devotion to his belief in God and his confidence that the Catholic Church is the church Jesus founded all seem to me to come back to Charles Kingsley's accusation that Newman was a liar. Short notes that the contributors to this volume don't believe Newman's Apologia pro vita sua, and thus won't accept Newman's own account of his conversion. They just can't believe that he became a Catholic and rejoiced for the rest of his life that he was a Catholic. His Anglican and agnostic contemporaries couldn't accept it because he was an Englishman and to them Catholicism wasn't English. I presume those writing with such skepticism--although Short comments that the writers in this volume don't acknowledge the Victorian era sources of their arguments--are still relying on that paradigm: Newman was too intelligent, Newman was too intellectually brilliant, Newman was too English to really become a Catholic and believe what the Catholic Church teaches. 

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