Though often ill-tempered, Newman was not vain, and his writing, a colossal volume of work spanning 70 years, never sought to dazzle the reader. Like the greatest 20th-century writers, such as Joseph Conrad or George Orwell, he wrote prose that was spare and simple, stirred to adjectival or polysyllabic climaxes only by the gravity or intensity of his thought. His effort to found a Catholic university in Dublin was sabotaged by the very parties who had most to gain from it, the narrow-minded custodians of insular Irish victim-Catholicism, which are not extinct, even today. Yet it produced Newman’s educational concepts, luminously written and a beacon for all subsequent educators in every land. His effort to establish an Oratory at Oxford was sabotaged by his fellow Catholics, whose every declared purpose should have motivated them to support such an initiative. Cardinal Manning, his talented but devious rival, who tried to prevent his elevation to the cardinalate, obstructed almost everything he did for 30 years, and then eulogized him in the Brompton Oratory as “my friend and mentor of 50 years.” (On Newman’s death, Manning privately called him “a great hater,” an exaggeration as well as an unseemly critique, given the time and the source; Cardinal Manning, a great archbishop, traduced by Strachey, presumably meant that Newman had prevailed against all Manning’s obstructionism.) The Brompton Oratory was Newman’s greatest physical monument, though he rarely visited it, died before it was completed, and did not like it. He personally chose, in Italy, the statues of the saints that adorn it, but found Birmingham, and the comparative ordinariness of the Midlands, oddly congenial.
Despite decades of disappointment, Newman never yielded to public anger, offended or disappointed ego, envy, defeatism, or lagging faith. As he told the bishops in his sermon “The Second Spring,” when the Roman Catholic Church of England was reconstructed on a diocesan basis after a lapse of 300 years: “Spring passes into summer and through summer and autumn into winter, the more surely by its ultimate return to triumph over that grave towards which it resolutely hastens from its first hour. We mourn for the blossoms of May because they are to wither. Yet we know withal, that May shall have its revenge upon November, in the revolution of that solemn circle that never stops and that teaches us in our height of hope ever to be sober, and in our depth of desolation never to despair.”
For almost an entire century he was the unflagging champion of intellectual and intuitive Christian faith, who revealed the inconsistencies of the Established Church, yet was a force for Christian reconciliation, and always dissented from what was trendy and opportunistic. He was a bridge to the universal and premier church, but always an Englishman. He was as representative of the highest form of the English character as Samuel Johnson or the Duke of Wellington. The same man who opposed the Crimean War, as besmirching British integrity by propping up the Ottomans, who rendered unto the pope what was his, “could not imagine being or wanting to be anything but English.” When he died in his 90th year, the whole Christian world mourned him. There is a Cardinal Newman School in almost every community in the once-Christian world.
Pope Benedict XVI is one of the greatest intellects to hold that office in several centuries, a man of great philosophical scholarship, rigor, and originality, as well as an accomplished writer, linguist, practical administrator, and musician. His visit to Britain this month is to render homage to a man he regards as an intellectual giant, endowed with a character of comparably exceptional quality, which he believes, on the evidence of ecclesiastical scrutiny, has been recognized and amplified by divine blessings. Those who share that faith are uplifted by Newman’s intelligence and character. Those who do not should at least be aware that, in his lifetime and in the 120 years since his death, Newman has carried the British colors in his spheres of endeavor with a brilliance, panache, and durability that has put him in, or close to, the company of history’s most distinguished Englishmen, the exalted realm of Shakespeare and Churchill. John Henry Newman is being elevated for a rare fusion of genius and virtue that does great honor to his country, but transcends nationality, denomination, and religion itself.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. He can be reached at [email protected]. Versions of this article have appeared in the Mail on Sunday and the National Post of Canada.