A CENTURY AGO, an old priest, defeated, deserted, humiliated, published an account of the religious opinions which had made him become a Catholic almost twenty years earlier. It became an immediate best-seller and made him respected and influential. Fifteen years later he was created a Cardinal.
JOHN HENRY NEWMAN was a prophet in his own time. He was called "the most dangerous man in England" and it was whispered that he was leading a lay revolt against the clergy. Today his ideas are relevant to our contemporary problems, particularly that of an embattled Christianity in an increasingly irreligious society.
IN THIS ARTICLE, a leading authority on Newman's life and thought, analyses his significance to Catholicism today.
CATHOLICS arc shy of prophets. They find them more disturbing than the kind of saint whose mission of love is fulfilled within the society where he finds himself. Yet some of the great Fathers were prophetic types. Europe has lived on the insights of St. Augustine for a very long time.
Newman is our contemporary because was a prophet. The prophet is one whose vision begins to transform society, so that in a sense he transcends it. His danger is the megalomania born of isolation. But Newman's tone is never that of a fanatic. His life was a long patience of ordinariness, a submission to the needs of others, whether clever Oxford men or Birmingham fac.tory workers. His humour and gentleness should reassure anyone who thinks of him only as a formidable intellectual.
But he was a prophet. Born with the new century after the Revolution, he was one of the first to see how the ideas of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality would work out. His prophetic vision goes unrecognised only because it is primarily religious, not political. He was concerned with ideas—never a popular concern in England.
He foresaw the world in which we live now—"a world simply irreligious". He saw that this would be a new experience for the Church. Paganism is not the same as irreligion, which is disbelief in anything beyond this world of space and time. Man is the measure of all.
A work to do in England When he was 32 and travelling alone in Sicily, Newman recovered from a near-fatal fever with the conviction that he had "a work to do in England". The heart of this mission was the idea of the Church as an autonomous spiritual community in a world indifferent or hostile to its message, In a society where for centuries Christianity had been taken for granted, the Church was regarded as a sort of moral Civil Service. Newmairwas taken as a reactionary claiming tyrannical powers of coercion for the clergy, and hated accordingly.
Hostile world When he came into the Catholic Church in 1845 its English members were very conscious of being a body in a hostile world --but a world of other Christians. Now that Newman had entered the true body they thought there was nothing for him to do except to call others into it. But Newman had secured his base in order to work more effectively in communication with the unbelieving world he saw developing.
Because he was a thinker and a teacher he bent all his energies to the task of educating the faithful to meet this new challenge with courage and understanding. All his Ventures, the Oratory included, were intended to assist in building up the mind of the Church in all its members, high and low. His aim. was an intellectual and imaginative aggiornarnentu. If he had succeeded, Pope John's would be less difficult to achieve.
But everything that Newman tried to do seemed to fail. The year before Kingsley's casual attack he touched bottom in a seven-year series of defeats, desertions, humiliations. Thinking it over in 1863, in his private journal, he saw that his educative efforts had been resented as criticisms of existing ipstitutions.
He was accused of disloyalty and heresy—he was deleted to Rome in 1860 for an article he wrote in Acton's magazine the Rambler: "On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine". He felt that his work was rejected by his fellow Catholics and this seemed to frustrate the whole purpose of his existence.
It is a measure of the man that he was able to accept this
inward desolation and go on with his everyday work as a priest. But he stopped writing. He was over 60, white-haired, prematurely aged. People said his mind was going, that he dared. not say Mass.
Newman as Ecumenist Then came the Apologia and the beginning of Newman's real popularity in England, which was to culminate in 1879 when a committee of influential laymen secured the Cardinalate fur him from Leo X111. Why was it such a success?
The Apologia is "existentialist". Schillcbeeckx distinguishes between "essentialists" at the Council, who seek to preserve an unchanging scheme of faith and "existentialists" whose approach is historical and personal rather than analytic and legal. Newman's mind was one of the earliest to develop in this way. He told the story of his own thinking; he did not demonstrate Catholicism by logical argument. Because he used this method with such skill and charity he told the truth without hurting anyone's feelings. The Apologia was an "ecumenical" book—to Use another modern term. It introduced Catholics and Protestants to each other. Until then even the elite of England had called the Pope Antichrist and Catholics idolaters. Now they recognised them as Christians.
And Catholics, besides realising that Anglicans thought themselves more orthodox than Rome, assimilated the idea of the development of doctrine, a novelty in an age when even theologians could assume that the Apostles had been familiar with the full range of CounterReformation apologetics.
Scientific age Newman drew his conclusions from a triple palimpsest of history: fifth, sixteenth and nineteenth century crises shadowing each. other. To the apocalyptic vision of the Fathers and the personal conscience of the reform period. he added the enlarged perspective of an historical and scientific age.
All contribute to the final part of the book, where Newman draws a tragic picture of the human condition, with which no atheist could quarrel, and then reveals the manner of the Church's presence in it. After the preceding section, a logbook of his last polar journey of the spirit, this conclusion breaks like fountains in magnificent display.
Wide influence But the success of the Apologia gave Newman such wide influence that his Catholic opponents were frightened into repressive measures. Loyally fighting the ghost of Gallicanism, Mgr. Talbot, a convert who had become a papal chamberlain, cried to Archbishop Manning : "Dr. Newman is the most dangerous man in England!" He saw Newman as the potential leader of a lay rebellion against the clergy. "His spirit must be crushed."
Newman was now too famous to he crushed openly. But his renewed efforts to assist in the intellectual formation of the laity were blocked by secret diplomacy. As a result there was a 30 year delay in university integration. Those who defend Newman's opponents should also be ready to defend their policy and their tactics. Sincerity is not enough.
Centro of unity Why did Newman meet with such suspicion and misunderstanding? The answer is linked with his insight into the nature of the Church. He had drawn his idea of it direct from Scripture and the Fathers, not secondhand from processed Roman manuals, There is an expression of it, post-dating his conversion, in his sermon Order. the Witness and Instrument of Unity (1853). The Church is a sacramental society of episcopal groups. Newman came into communion with Rome in 1845 because he believed that Peter's successor was "the divinely appointed centre of unity" for these communicating circles.
Here we touch modern theology. Newman's thinking is "ecclesial". This word has been coined to avoid the clerical overtones of the word "ecclesiastical". It is intended to express the idea of the Church as a society of persons—the People of God—whose cohesive force is as much sacramental a juridical. Christ incorporates his people through the sacraments and all are responsible (in differing functions) for his mission to the world. The relevant symbol is of concentric circles rather than the pyramid of power.
Pyramid image But it was the pyramid image which dominated people then. In 1877 Newman wrote a new preface for his Anglican book on The Prophetical Office of the Church. He distinguishes between the three offices of Prophet. Priest and King which the Church inherits from Christ and shows how they modify each other in different situations. The Prophetical office, expressed in teaching and theology, should regulate the Sacerdotal (worshipping) and Regal offices, because understanding must inform both devotion and government. But in Newman's time the Church was suffering from an excess of Regalism, the result of historical processes too complex to detail here. The emphasis on legal authority had reduced the sacraments from ecclesial to private events and the lay people to passive obedience.
This was a relic of the selfcontained Christian world of the middle ages, when the State had become identified with the lay rulers and the Church with the clerical hierarchy -significant word! This attitude survived on both sides of the Reformation. In Anglican England Newman, as a young man, had "gone into the Church" when he took Holy Orders. Today. in any secular discipline, a "layman" is one who is not in the know. He accepts the direction of experts.
'Crypto-rebel' To men Whose minds were formed in this mould Newman, working for a responsible, eccleNinny active laity, was inevitably suspected as a crypto-rebel. Almost to the end of his life the tide of opinion in the Church ran against him. Yet he was able to reassure many who were disgusted by the exaggerations of the extreme infallibilists at the first Vatican Council.
In time, the balance would he corrected. Newman had unshakeable faith in the Church— the whole Church.
In England Newman has too long been regarded as an eccentric, an amateur theologian. He did not write technical treatises, though he was familiar with them. He wrote for all to read.
Now that the day of irreligion has come we can see how deep was his base in Scripture and the Fathers, how wide his sympathy, even for those who caught the plague of "infidelity". For he did not condemn people, only ideas. No wonder that many besides Council theologians find inspiration in the new approaches he opened up.
His spirit was not crushed.