Monday, April 2, 2018

Newman and History: A Book Review

As I read Edward Short's latest study of Blessed John Henry Newman, Newman and History (he kindly sent me a copy) I kept thinking of G.K. Chesterton's comment about the Catholic Church, that it “is larger on the inside than it is on the outside.” Newman found that out as has every other convert and many Catholics who were born into Catholic families and grew up with Catholic education, the Sacraments, piety, and devotion: the world has various ideas about the Catholic Church that are just wrong, but you have to be inside to realize how wrong they are. Newman had been part of that world as an Anglican and Oxford student, tutor, and fellow. The Catholic Church is superstitious, repressive, and mendacious, that view says: its history was false, its practitioners weak-minded, and its doctrine pernicious. He believed all that before he entered into the Church in its fullness; then as Chesterton wrote in his poem "The Convert", "the world turned over and came upright" and Newman knew the truth and entered into the mystery of the "one, true fold of Christ."

But so many of his friends and contemporaries remained in the world and they could not accept that he had accepted all that the Catholic Church teaches. So, as Short reveals in nearly every chapter in this book, they could never understand how a man of such intellect and erudition--a former Fellow of one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford! an ordained Anglican minister! one of them!--could become a Catholic. Newman had to get used to it himself because he was "an English Catholic in a Protestant country" (p. 268) and Catholicism was absolutely foreign to the England. That's why he was continually accused of lying and reports of his return to the Church of England were so common. It's one thing for an Irish peasant to believe all that superstitious priestcraft, but for an Englishman! They had to acknowledge his brilliance and prose style, but that praise is superficial because they could not get inside: their ignorance of and prejudice toward Catholicism stymied them.

Short reveals how Newman tried to make Anglicans and other Protestants in England understand that their mistaken views of Catholicism meant that they did not understand Christian history at all--nor could they really know Who Jesus IS and what He teaches us about the Father and ourselves. Newman also worked to help other converts to become more fully Catholic in the midst of a world, including their families, friends, and entire social milieu, which believed all the worst anyone ever could of Catholics, English, Irish, Italian, or French.

The first, long, and fascinating chapter is "Newman, Gibbon, and God's Particular Providence": although Edward Gibbon, the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire had briefly been a Catholic, his lack of understanding of God and faith and holiness and The Holy Bible means that he cannot supply a reasonable explanation of why the Christian faith grew under the persecution of the Roman Empire. He has to subvert the record of the past, claiming for example that early Christians' credulity (they believed what Jesus had taught and how the Church had handed it down!)  had "extinguished" the light of "philosophy and science". Short then lists the great Fathers of the Church and saints of that era: Origen, Tertullian, St. Irenaeus, St. Clement of Alexandria, St. Athanasius, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil the Great, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Augustine, and St. Leo the Great, concluding, "Only the light of philosophy and science obscured by the Enlightenment could approve so gross a misjudgment." (p. 29) Short wisely quotes Christopher Dawson to help us understand how wrong Gibbon's view of the early Church is.

Short's other allies throughout this volume include G.K. Chesterton, Father Ian Ker, Father Roderick Strange, and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI: they understand Newman's dedication to truth and the reality of God's providence and grace.

The second chapter continues that theme of Newman's contemporaries' problem with Catholicism and superstition ("Newman, Superstition and the Whig Historians") and in the fourth chapter "Newman and the Liberals" Short demonstrates, a la Robert Pattison's tremendous 1991 study, The Great Dissent: John Henry Newman and the Liberal Heresy, how true Newman's Biglietto speech was. He had battled against the theory and practice of "liberalism in religion" and pace Frank Turner (whom Short will also cite in the Receptions of Newman review) Newman knew what liberalism, the anti-dogmatic spirit in religion was, and its consequences for the Church.

In the midst of these three chapters, Short inserts a review of Receptions of Newman, edited by Frederick Aquino and Benjamin King and published by Oxford University Press, in which twenty-first century "admirers" of Newman suggest that he never really accepted the teachings of the Catholic Church at all--among other travesties. They cannot believe he didn't remain as skeptical as they are, just as Newman's contemporaries couldn't.

Chapter 5, "Signs of Contradiction, Signs of Hope: A Talk at Westminster Cathedral" presents Short's argument that Blessed John Henry Newman is the saint we need to convert us today (citing Chesterton's statement that "Each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most."). "Newman's life can be seen [should be seen?] as a continual contradiction of the reigning idolatries of his age, and age which had, for the most part, nothing but contempt for what he held most dear." While Newman's age and ours had and has rejected dogma and our ability to assent dogma, Newman was a dogmatist, defending the truth and our reasonable human acceptance of it without testing each proposition according to our own standards. Short offers Newman as a model of how to contradict another with both charity and rigor and how to remain true to the virtue of hope.

In his chapter comparing Newman's conversion and C.S. Lewis', Short demonstrated the misunderstanding even a Mere Christian could have of Newman. Lewis could not stand Newman's argument that being in Heaven will be like being in church, worshipping and praising God--somehow Lewis thought that Newman was substituting religion for faith in God. But Short does agree with Father Aidan Nichols, OP that Lewis is an ally to the conversion or reversion of England, at least with the beginning of Mere Christianity.

Short's review of a perhaps falsely "hopeful" book about the influence of the Newman-less Oxford or Tractarian Movement continues the dogmatic theme (Chapter 6, "Port Middlebay: Tractarians Abroad"). On the other hand, Short praises Father Ian Ker's selection of passages from Newman as educator, philosopher, preacher, theologian and writer in The Genius of John Henry Newman and Father Roderick Strange's selection of Newman's letters in John Henry Newman: A Portrait in Letters.

There are two more original essays: "Newman and the Law" and "Hagiography, History, and John Henry Newman".

"Newman and the Law" is my favorite chapter in the whole book. Short examines how Newman helped another convert get used to being a Catholic in a Protestant country (Lady Chatterton) since Catholic ways are foreign to "English tastes and English habits" and they take some getting used to. Short references the recusant era in Elizabethan and Stuart England and the brave Jesuit and secular priests, and their brave lay protectors before moving on to Newman's explanation of how the English temperament responded to the imposition of Anglican Protestantism by two means: reverence for the law and loyalty to the sovereign, citing two passages from The Present Position of Catholics in England. First, the law:

Convoke the legislature, pass some sweeping ecclesiastical enactments, exalt the Crown above the Law and the Gospel, down with Cross and up with the lion and the dog, toss all priests out of the country as traitors; let Protestantism be the passport to office and authority, force the King to be a Protestant, make his Court Protestant, bind Houses of Parliament to be Protestant, clap a Protestant oath upon judges, barristers-at-law, officers in army and navy, members of the universities, national clergy; establish this stringent Tradition in every function and department of the State, surround it with the lustre of rank, wealth, station, name, and talent; and this people, so impatient of inquiry, so careless of abstract truth, so apathetic to historical fact, so contemptuous of foreign ideas, will ex animo swear to the truth of a religion which indulges their natural turn of mind, and involves no severe thought or tedious application. The Sovereign is the source and the centre, as of civil, so of ecclesiastical arrangements; truth shall be synonymous with order and good government;—what can be simpler than such a teaching? Puritans may struggle against it, and temporarily prevail; sceptics may ridicule it, object, expose and refute; readers of the Fathers may try to soften and embellish it with the colours of antiquity; but strong in the constitution of the law, and congenial to the heart of the people, the royal tradition will be a match for all its rivals, and in the long run will extinguish the very hope of competition. (Lecture Two: Tradition the Sustaining Power of the Protestant View)

Then, the sovereign:

English Protestantism is the religion of the throne: it is represented, realised, taught, transmitted in the succession of monarchs and an hereditary aristocracy. It is religion grafted upon loyalty; and its strength is not in argument, not in fact, not in the unanswerable controversialist, not in an apostolical succession, not in sanction of Scripture—but in a royal road to faith, in backing up a King whom men see, against a Pope whom they do not see. The devolution of its crown is the tradition of its creed; and to doubt its truth is to be disloyal towards its Sovereign. Kings are an Englishman's saints and doctors; he likes somebody or something at which he can cry "huzzah," and throw up his hat. Bluff King Hal, glorious Bess, the Royal Martyr, the Merry Monarch, the pious and immortal William, the good King George, royal personages very different from each other,—nevertheless, as being royal, none of them comes amiss, but they are all of them the objects of his devotion, and the resolution of his Christianity.

And, finally, from the same chapter, words that will become essential to understanding what happened to Father John Henry Newman in the Achilli trial:

And first of all she addressed herself to the Law; and that not only because it was the proper foundation of a national structure, but also inasmuch as, from the nature of the case, it was her surest and most faithful ally. The Law is a science, and therefore takes for granted afterwards whatever it has once determined; hence it followed, that once Protestant, it would be always Protestant; it could be depended on; let Protestantism be recognised as a principle of the Constitution, and every decision, to the end of time, would but illustrate Protestant doctrines and consolidate Protestant interests. In the eye of the Law precedent is the measure of truth, and order the proof of reasonableness, and acceptableness the test of orthodoxy. It moves forward by a majestic tradition, faithful to its principles, regardless of theory and speculation, and therefore eminently fitted to be the vehicle of English Protestantism such as we have described it, and to co-operate with the monarchical principle in its establishment.

Short deflates narrates this crucial episode in Newman's public life, when he was tried for libel against the former Dominican friar, Giovanni Achilli. He describes the circumstances of the trial, the judge, Newman's defense attorney, and the prosecution. The obvious bias of the prosecution and the judge against Catholics, including documents from the Court of Inquisition in Rome did not go unnoticed by The Times of London, which opined that Catholics could be forgiven if they thought they might not receive justice or fairness in English (Protestant) Courts. Short notes that if Newman had been allowed by the judge to speak, it would have been an even greater cause celebre! In the course of the trial, Newman's conversion (defection) was stated as evidence to discredit him!

The last chapter on hagiography, Catholic devotion to the saints and their lives, demonstrates what Father Ian Ker once taught me to identify as Newman's third way--which is also one of the reasons that so many admirers even can be confused or mistaken when they try to put Newman on one side or another of an issue. The issue in this case was Father Faber of the London Oratory's work on a series of lives of the saints; not English saints, but Italian, French, and Spanish saints. One Catholic convert, a priest named Edward Price, protested that the material in these lives of the saints was dangerous. His comments persuaded Bishop Ullathorne that the series should be suspended because it did not fit the English spirit. Newman agreed in obedience with his bishop but thought that Protestants in England--and perhaps recent converts to Catholicism from Protestantism--needed to understand sanctity and holiness as more than good taste and manners. Short cites Newman's criticism of Henry Hart Milman's A History of Latin Christianity, which of course, attacked Catholic piety and faith in miracles and "miracle workers". Newman mentions all the examples of simple men and women coming to Jesus (and to the Apostles after His Resurrection and Ascension) asking for healing. He points out that there are many who have the same simple faith in his own time and they are not to be discounted or mocked: they are Jesus's little ones. Newman says this without any condescension but with humble recognition of their human dignity.

So in this book, like the previous two published by T&T Clark Bloomsbury (Newman and His Contemporaries and Newman and His Family), Edward Short displays his sympathy for Blessed John Henry Newman as a faithful Catholic Christian and an honest and loving man, based on Short's knowledge of Newman's life, his letters, his sermons, and his works. Excellent.


  1. This is a marvelous blog that has been a regular sustainer of my faith for which I have been most grateful grateful.Even as a studious convert the breadth of the faith here is marvelous. It has enriched me in so many ways. It was father Price's comment that the saints' lives were dangerous which brought me a good morning laugh with my coffee! Thank God! So true! I daily pray the unknown saints of Yorkshire and those buried in Hull and Ousebridge be more recognized for the tenacious English saints they are. Bless you and thank you for this blog.

    1. Thank you very much for your comment. I'm glad you benefit from the stories about the English martyrs and this thrilling era of Church history! Happy Easter!