Most Americans may not have noticed the ascent of John Henry Cardinal Newman up the exacting heights of the blessed and toward the officially saintly, a progress that will bring Pope Benedict XVI to England this month. There have been juvenile indiscretions by waggish factota in the Foreign Office, and an uproar from the gay community that Newman should not have been disinterred from the grave he shared with a fellow Oratorian (there is not the slightest evidence that Newman was homosexual in orientation, much less in practice). Yet the pope’s visit to Britain and the cardinal’s beatification, the last stop before canonization (sainthood), approach inexorably.
The canonization process is rigorous and laborious, and far from the hocus-pocus pop-chart rise the Church’s enemies — the sort of people who responded to the late clerical-abuse scandal by urging the Roman Catholic Church to ”rebrand itself” — imply. It will make him the first Englishman since the 17th century to be recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as a saint; pretty thin canonical gruel for a country whose Roman Catholics still whisper hopefully about England as “the dowry of Mary.”
This occasion underlines that Newman must rank among the very greatest Englishmen of any time or faith. Newman’s distinction as a man, intellect, writer, and philosopher would be no less if there were no thought of his possession of saintly and miraculous powers. It rests on his moral and intellectual courage, his genius and worldwide influence as a writer, educator, and theological philosopher, and his personification of many of the most admired characteristics of the English people, as both they and the world perceive them. In his years in the Church of England, Newman did his best to justify its claim to be part of the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church,” and conceived (with Keble, Froude, and other Tractarians) the Via Media, which understood the Church of England as a halfway house between Rome and popular Protestantism, between what Protestants traditionally regard as Rome’s exaggerated claim to authority and the Nonconformist view of spontaneous religiosity.
When attacked by the Anglican bishops for his popish tendencies in Tract 90, Newman agreed to refrain from further controversial tracts. The bishops did not, however, though they had undertaken to do so, refrain from attacking him. At the age of 40, he was effectively cast out, and violently attacked throughout Protestant Britain as a papist agent. He became a Roman Catholic in 1845 at the age of 44, but was at first mistrusted in much of the Roman world as an exotic and tempestuous itinerant, from a country that was apostate and whose Roman Catholic community had endured 300 years of fluctuating but almost unbroken discrimination.
Having, while still in the Church of England, decried its tendency to seek “the channel of no meaning, between the Scylla and Charybdis of yes and no,” foreseeing its long struggle to determine whether it was Catholic or Protestant, which still continues, Newman found himself a party almost of one, isolated and despised. “Blessings of friendship to my door, unasked, unhoped, came. They came and they went. They came to my great joy. They went to my great sorrow. He who gave took away,” he wrote. He went from the pulpit at St Mary’s, Oxford, and the high table at Oriel College, to the Spartan obscurity of Littlemore, and then, after a sojourn in Rome, to the seclusion of Edgbaston in Birmingham and the establishment of the Oratorians in England. “I have not seen Oxford since, excepting the spires as they are seen from the railway,” he wrote nearly 20 years later, in 1864. (He did happily return 14 years after that, and became the first honorary fellow of Trinity.)
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.
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.