Newman made Catholicism respected in Britain by his refusal to join the ranks of reactionary Catholics or to be less conspicuously English in his attitudes. He believed in a version of papal infallibility himself, one that is generally accepted as authoritative now: infallibility as the reassertion of permanent truth, not — as the Church’s more vulgar critics like to imply — the imposition of whatever antediluvian caprice that may enter the pontifical mind. Not only the English, but practical traditionalists among Christians everywhere, noted appreciatively his opposition to the infallibilists, who at the First Vatican Council were essentially trying to give Pius IX a consolation prize for the loss of the Papal States in the reunification of Italy, as well as to serve their ecclesiastical political purposes by truckling to the conservatism, if not the vanity, of the pontiff.
Newman, more than Acton or Ripon (the leading lay Catholics of England at the time), or anyone else, de-fanged the widely believed English caricature of the grasping, insidious, alien papist monster. He changed the widespread impression in England of Catholics from a rag-tag of drunken, priest-ridden, proliferating Irish laborers and a few respectable ancient recusant families “at the end of streets and behind high walls; they’re good people but they are Catholics,” to an intellectually distinguished and patriotic pillar of the nation. They were no longer seen as aliens by the majority, nor as outcasts by themselves. He fought the battle of faith on behalf of all Christians, and provided the greatest and most rigorous Christian argument for the existence of God since Thomas Aquinas, indeed he is frequently called “the English Aquinas.” Thus our conscience, God speaking to us, he thought, was “powerful, peremptory, unargumentative, irrational, minatory, and definitive.”
And he wrote not only with burning expressions of faith, surer of God’s existence than “than that I have hands and feet,” and with intellectual arguments of great refinement and elegance, but also with sudden lurches into the secular, as when he quoted “the great man who so swayed the destiny of the nations of Europe in the early years of this century.” Napoleon, the defeat of whose navy at Trafalgar Newman well remembered from the age of four, in 1805, was then invoked, in the last pages of Grammar of Assent
(on the authority of the not always reliable Lacordaire), to the effect that Christ, having “died the death of a miscreant . . . had accomplished (in general veneration) what Alexander, Caesar, and I have not begun to accomplish. Can he be less than divine, to whom our eyes turn as to a father and a God?” The answer, of course, is “yes,” but it was a piquant stroke at the end of a powerful intellectual argument, piled high with the noetic and the illative sense (the power of the judging mind to extract more from its materials than they seem to contain). Newman’s faith was accessible to everyone. “Lead kindly light . . . lead thou me on. . . . One step enough for me,” he wrote while still an Anglican, and becalmed in the Straits of Bonifacio off Sicily in 1833. I believe that he was, with Abraham Lincoln, one of the two most elegant writers of English non-fiction prose of the 19th century. His Idea of a University
, Apologia Pro Vita Sua
, and “The Second Spring” were particularly but not uncharacteristically brilliant.