In Scenes of Clerical Life the novelist George Eliot managed to capture in one sentence the true import of the religious controversies that were tearing apart the Church of England in the nineteenth century. Speaking of the disruption caused by the arrival of a young Anglican curate with Evangelical sympathies at a staid parish presided over by an equally staid gentleman-vicar, Eliot (herself not a believer) observed: “Religious ideas have the fate of melodies, which, once set afloat in the world, are taken up by all sorts of instruments, some woefully coarse, feeble, or out of tune, until people are in danger of crying out that the melody itself is detestable.”
When Eliot wrote this line in 1857, England had for some decades been the scene of a religious controversy so noisy and bitter that it not only made many of the human instruments seem discordant, but even the melodies themselves. Somewhat paralleling the wider cultural tensions inside the English nation at large between Romanticism, Classicism, and Utilitarianism, English Christianity recognized, alongside the established Church of England, three distinct institutional options for the non-Anglican: the Dissenting churches (Methodists, Puritans, Levelers, Plymouth Brethren, and the like), the Roman Catholic Church, and the Unitarians. But more crucially, these three distinct denominational possibilities also had their own typological reflections inside the Church of England: Methodism continued to live on inside Anglicanism in its Evangelical wing (often called the Low Church); Catholic sympathizers could be found among the Tractarians of the High Church wing (who got their name from the tracts they wrote to push their Catholicizing views); while the Unitarians had noticeable influence on the liberal Latitudinarians (the Broad Church).
And precisely because these in-house clashes all found external embodiments outside the established church, the course of intra-ecclesial debate could easily reach the point where the Church of England would completely break apart. As one acute observer of Victorian religion, A. Dwight Culler, notes, any member of the Anglican communion could always leave it if his own school of theology was not being given due regard, or even if he just simply drew out his own views to their logical extreme:
As a Dissenter rose in social status, he often became an Evangelical, [but] sometimes entire bodies of Evangelicals declared their independence of the church and became Dissenters. Opposite the Liberals, feeding them and receiving from them in turn, were the rationalistic and secular movements of Unitarianism, Utilitarianism, indifferentism, and even atheism; for, however reluctant the Liberals might be to admit this, there was really no point at which, by the brake of their own principles, they could stop. And finally, opposite the High Church party, as events were later to prove, was the Catholic Church. Here, however, there was no friendliness and interchange, and for this reason, that a national or political principle supervened. For the High Church party, as it was then constituted, was wedded to the state, and the Roman religion was wedded to the Pope. It was on this issue that they had parted company three centuries before, and it was on this issue that they could not be reunited now. Thus, in every case there was an enemy without the gates, and it was for this reason that the tensions within the church were particularly high. Each side could see, clearly and plainly before it, whither the other two would lead. Patently the Liberals were running into infidelity, patently the Evangelicals into Dissent, and the High Church party (in its later Tractarian form) patently into the arms of Rome.
Note how this passage explains these tensions in terms of the ideas animating each wing of the Anglican communion, and not according to the ecclesiastical personalities advocating each position. Note also how these Anglican ideas, precisely in their independence from their advocates, have a certain logical tendency to “drift,” as it were, to a more settled and consistent terminus outside the established church. This is something that John Henry Newman, the leader of the High Church Tractarians, understood quite well. In his Tract 73 he pointed out that dogmas, like ideas in general, can exist independently of the human mind—and that this fact has important consequences for how we judge a religion: “By objective truth is meant the religious system considered as existing in itself external to this or that particular mind. . . . To believe in objective truth is to throw ourselves forward upon that which we have but partially mastered or made subjective.” In other words, judge the melody by the melody itself, not by the player or the instrument playing the tune.
Unfortunately, Newman’s own personality—which some contemporaries thought, and many later admirers still think, to be mesmerizing and irrefragably honest, and which perhaps just as many contemporaries and later detractors experience as hypersensitive and jesuitically dishonest—has frequently proved to be too much of a distraction. The result is that his melodies, long set afloat in the world, now strike many as “woefully coarse, feeble, or out of tune,” to the point where people really are “in danger of crying out that the melody itself is detestable.”
Frank Turner, professor of history at Yale University, must be counted among Newman’s most savage detractors. In his thoroughly scathing jeremiad, John Henry Newman: The Challenge to Evangelical Religion, Turner launches a sprawling attack on the man’s integrity. The author admits the task won’t prove easy, which surely must account for the book’s massive size and documentation. Focusing on Newman’s remarkable Apologia Pro Vita Sua, the greatest religious autobiography ever written in English and the only one that can bear being mentioned in the same sentence with St. Augustine’s Confessions, Turner sets out to undermine Newman’s account of his own motivations, the value of his historical scholarship, the fairness of his theological polemics, and, above all, the avowed reasons for his many conversions. The ambition is nothing less than to thoroughly discredit Newman as an apologist for Christian orthodoxy and—what is its counterpart—as a critic of liberalism.
No student of Newman can avoid the fact of his many conversions. He changed his mind—indeed his life—at least five times: from an adolescent flirtation with atheism, to Evangelical and Calvinist-tinged Anglicanism, then, after a short-lived espousal of Liberalism in his early years at Oxford’s Oriel College, on to High Church Tractarianism, and finally ending up in the Roman Church.
Now Newman’s own interpretation of these conversions, which Turner thoroughly rejects, was that he was slowly growing out of the shadows of willful private judgment and into a life of obedience to an ever more clearly perceived objective revelation. And for him part of that obedience to an objective revelation was the dawning realization that such a divinely given and publicly accessible revelation also had to be objectively defined by a divinely appointed and infallible oracle. As he directed his tombstone to read: Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem—“from darkness and simulacra into the truth.”
For Newman, the darkness out of which he had emerged could be described, in large part, as liberalism. This he made abundantly clear in the allocution he delivered in Rome on May 12, 1879, on the occasion of receiving the cardinal’s red hat from Pope Leo XIII. On that day, he declared that “for thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion. Never did Holy Church need champions against it more sorely than now, when, alas! it is an error overspreading, as a snare, the whole earth.” According to Newman, what made liberalism so dangerous was that it stood directly counter to the principle of revelation, obedience to which was for him the very sum and substance of his life:
Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy. Devotion is not necessarily founded on faith. Men may go to Protestant Churches and to Catholic, may get good from both and belong to neither. They may fraternize together in spiritual thoughts and feelings, without having any views at all of doctrine in common, or seeing the need of them.
Moreover, Newman fully realized that the shibboleth of “the Bible alone” would prove insufficient to guard the principle of revelation. Indeed, that was a key motive in his move away from the Evangelical theology in the first place while at Oriel College. Long before the publication in 1860 of Essays and Reviews, the famous collection of radical essays by seven Anglican liberals conceding the Bible’s inconsistencies, he saw how an exclusive reliance on the Bible would leave English Christianity defenseless against the onslaughts of secularism. As he said in a letter in the midst of the controversy unleashed by that notorious book:
The religion of England is “the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible”—the consequence is that to strike a blow at its inspiration, veracity, or canonicity is directly to aim at whatever there is of Christianity in the country. It is frightful to think where England would be, as regards Revelation, if it once got to disbelieve or to doubt the authority of Scripture. This is what makes [Essays and Reviews] so grave a matter—and the responsibility of those who have had to do with it so great.
What makes this observation so fascinating is that Newman had long been anticipating these Anglican liberals. Twenty-two years before the appearance of Essays and Reviews, and of course long before the Modernist crisis hit the Catholic Church in the decades following his death, Newman published his famous Tract 85. There he proved not only to be a brilliant expositor of Scripture, but also a prophetic social critic, for he clearly foresaw the implications for belief once the surface of the text was taken solely on its own terms without a robust prior obedience to Christianity’s revelatory basis. Even Turner notices this, although he draws back from seeing how sharp were Newman’s powers in predicting a coming infidelity within English Protestant Christianity.
Expanding upon the unsystematic character of Scripture, Newman highlighted the inconsistencies in both the Old and New Testaments. These included the two creation narratives in Genesis, the distinctions between God's image and Adam's image, the failure to identify the serpent in the Garden with the devil, the two accounts of Abraham denying his wife, discrepancies between Deuteronomy and Exodus in the history of Moses and in the account of the commandments, and numerous other historical inconsistencies and conflicting dual narratives throughout the Old Testament. Within the New Testament, Newman noted the presence of only a single narrative of the raising of Lazarus, the different texts of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and Luke, accounts disagreeing about who bore the cross on the way to Calvary, discrepancies between Matthew and Acts over the death of Judas, and distinct accounts of the resurrection and ascension. Insisting that one portion of Scripture must supplement another, Newman urged, “As distinct portions of Scripture itself are apparently inconsistent with one another, yet are not really so, therefore it does not follow that Scripture and Catholic doctrine are at variance with each other, even if they too seem to be so.” Newman did not rest his argument at this point, however, but asserted that the logical outcome of any Protestant attempt to deny the scriptural validity of Catholic doctrine must result in “an invalidating of Scripture itself.”
Just as T. H. Huxley, the founding father of modern agnosticism, considered Tract 85 to be a primer of unbelief, so too Turner appears to be blind to the fact that Newman’s acute recognition of the growing intellectual hold of agnosticism and atheism on the Victorian mind did not amount to an endorsement of those views. So with extraordinary insouciance Turner lumps into the same narrative mold agnostics like Huxley and Eliot and Catholic converts like Newman and Henry Edward Manning, simply because they had all abandoned their childhood Protestant faith. Most planes leaving the same airport end up in different cities, but for Turner the departure lounge strangely becomes more crucial than the destination. He really does seem to think that agnostics and Catholics are making the same religious journey, provided they begin their odyssey by first shucking evangelical religion:
The personal religious development of Newman of Oriel, rather than constituting either combat with a critical liberalism or a spiritual pilgrimage concluding in Roman Catholicism, as portrayed in the Apologia, more nearly resembled the typical pattern of Victorian loss of Protestant religious faith. The most fundamental religious experience of Newman’s life was his adolescent conversion to evangelical religion. His reception into the Roman Catholic Church almost thirty years later represented the final step in what had been a long process of separation from that adolescent faith. That the conclusion of the process, which commenced in his mid-twenties, was Roman Catholicism does not make it any less a loss of evangelical faith than if, like others of his and later generations, he had ended in Unitarianism, like his brother Francis, or in agnosticism.
This bizarre thesis becomes even more peculiar when the author drags Friedrich Nietzsche into the business. He too, son and grandson of Lutheran parsons, started off as a pious, dutiful boy and then, to borrow Turner’s words, followed “the typical pattern of Victorian loss of Protestant religious faith.” “Typical pattern” indeed. Nietzsche went much further than that. As everyone knows, he became the most famous despiser of a Christian upbringing since the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate abjured his own boyhood Christianity. For that reason, it would be hard to come up with two nineteenth-century intellects more at variance with each other than Newman and Nietzsche. Not for Turner, though. “Both Newman and Nietzsche,” he says, “were reacting against Protestantism, which each often saw as deeply intermeshed with the wider Enlightenment hopes for human reason about which they were profoundly skeptical.” True enough, I suppose, if one concentrates only on the most abstract and formal similarities. And both men certainly shared one substantive conviction: they each condemned liberal morality as a sham and saw it as mere bourgeois compassion-at-a-distance cloaking an underlying middle-class narcissism. But such similarities hardly make up an insight on which to build this thesis:
Late in the century, Nietzsche acutely quipped: “In England one must rehabilitate oneself after every little emancipation from theology by showing in a veritably awe-inspiring manner what a moral fanatic one is. That is the penance they pay over there.” In rejecting evangelicalism, Victorian Protestants had to demonstrate that they had not changed their religion to relieve themselves of the morality that evangelicalism had so firmly embedded in the culture. Newman’s quarrel with evangelical theology followed this pattern, even though unlike the more widely recognized doubters he was moving toward a more highly defined and articulated set of beliefs and practices. . . . Newman, no less than an honest doubter moving toward liberal Protestantism or some indeterminate spiritual religion, demonstrated the sincerity of his commitment to a religious outlook at odds with evangelicalism by undertaking an extremely strict moral life involving celibacy, physical self-denial, and a highly regulated daily routine. . . . In that respect, Newman’s personal moral rigorism fit, and indeed exceeded, the classic compensatory pattern for the Victorian doubter or unbeliever.
In other words, there is no substantive difference between the moral ideals of secular bourgeois domesticity and Tractarian attempts to revive fasting, auricular confession, and monastic life. (Turner, however, is willing to concede this difference to fasting: for him fasting is an eating disorder of “men encountering some conflict over sexual orientation.”) But despite his attempt to tar fasting as a kind of Freudian anorexia, the real story for Turner always comes down to the mere act of departing from one’s childhood Protestant upbringing, while the different goals toward which those various departures led matter hardly at all. Yet on such a near-total collapse of distinctions depends the entirety of his brief against Newman.
In this overlong book the Catholic Church becomes little more than a field on which Newman can work out his neuroses, playing out on the larger canvas of religious controversy a petty drama first begun at home. To establish his case, Turner must rely on, to coin a term, the Argument of a Thousand Subjunctives. I eventually grew weary trying to count up the number of times the author used words like “perhaps,” “it is possible that,” and “may” to shore up his case. At one point Turner even admits that his hypothesis has become entirely unmoored from fact: “The exploration of this issue, though both speculative and tendentious, is nonetheless invited by the documents.” The “issue,” if the reader can believe it, that Turner feels “invited” to ponder is the connection between Newman’s devotion to the memory of his dead sister Mary (who had died at the age of nineteen when Newman was twenty-six) and his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. But as with so many other empty speculations about the devotional life of those whose convictions we do not share, Turner makes an immense muddle of even his own “argument.”
It seems possible that if Newman could convince himself that Marian devotion did not obscure the distinction between Creator and creature, then his intense affection for his own sister Mary had not challenged the decencies of family relationships. . . . (It is perhaps not insignificant that within the English Church the Virgin Mary was usually referred to as St. Mary.) Indeed, Newman’s sustained criticism of what he regarded as excessive Marian devotion or Marian devotion carried out in bad taste may have been another way in which he protested that his love for his own sister Mary had not exceeded the boundaries of good taste and morality.
If this passage were not ridiculous enough, on the very next page Turner compounds the nonsense, airily speculating that “Newman may have felt that in his escape from an English Church fallen into evangelical heresy he could also remove the beloved Mary from the turmoil and heresy of the Newman family and carry her to the safety of the monarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. There her virginity, which may have mystified and attracted him during her life, . . . stood protected and transformed from an object of temptation into one of safe devotion.” Confronted with this farrago of subjunctive speculation, the reader cannot help but be led to his own speculations: What in Newman could inspire such tabloid-quality scholarship?
To answer this question, we must turn to Newman’s writings themselves, which pose a profound challenge to liberals of every stripe—from Yale history professors to certain post-Vatican II dissenting Catholics. For all liberals, the stumbling block in Newman’s work is his consistently held conviction that the act of faith allows no room at all for dissent or doubt.
Consider two remarkable and unjustly neglected sermons, “Faith and Doubt” and “Faith and Private Judgment,” both delivered within four years of his conversion to Catholicism. In these writings Newman firmly rejects any role for either doubt or private judgment in the act of faith. Of course, he does not deny the darkness that a believer must penetrate in order to gain access to the unseen world. But for him, precisely because faith entails an act of trust it cannot deliberately and openly admit a moment of doubt without undermining and undercutting that trust. The very essence of faith requires a commitment, so that doubting becomes a form of, so to speak, hedging one’s bets, of holding back one’s commitment.
I must insist on this: faith implies a confidence in a man’s mind, that the thing believed is really true; but, if it is once true, it never can be false. If it is true that God became man, what is the meaning of my anticipating a time when perhaps I shall not believe that God became man? This is nothing short of anticipating a time when I shall disbelieve a truth. And if I bargain to be allowed in time to come not to believe, or to doubt, that God became man, I am but asking to be allowed to doubt or disbelieve what I hold to be an eternal truth. I do not see the privilege of such a permission at all, or the meaning of wishing to secure it: if at present I have no doubt whatever about it, then I am but asking leave to fall into error; if at present I have doubts about it, then I do not believe it at present, that is, I have not faith. . . . I may love by halves, I may obey by halves; I cannot believe by halves: either I have faith, or I have it not.
Note that Newman does not adopt this position because he represents the last dying gasp of the old theory that faith primarily means assent to dead propositions. Although Newman would of course agree that a Christian must affirm the truth of Christian propositions, justifying such a view is not the point of these sermons. Rather, Newman here emphasizes the logically and psychologically antithetical relation of trust and doubt:
Take an instance; what would you think of a friend whom you loved, who could bargain that, in spite of his present trust in you, he might be allowed some day to doubt you? Who, when a thought came into his mind, that you were playing a game with him, or that you were a knave, or a profligate, did not drive it from him with indignation, or laugh it away for its absurdity, but considered that he had an evident right to indulge it, nay, should be wanting in duty to himself, unless he did? . . . Give me for my friend one who will unite heart and hand with me, . . . and, if he is critical, as he may have cause to be toward a being of sin and imperfection, will be so from very love and loyalty, from an anxiety that I should always show to advantage, and a wish that others should love me as heartily as he does. I should not say a friend trusted me, who listened to every idle story against me; and I should like his absence better than his company, if he gravely told me that it was a duty he owed to himself to encourage his misgivings of my honor.
Liberal Catholics love to cite as their favorite Newmanian sound bite his line that “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Yet this famous tag line gives no berth whatever to either private judgment or dissent. This becomes especially clear in those passages where Newman makes explicit the link between the private judgment of the Bible so often defended by Protestants and the dissent of liberal Christians. Indeed in this passage his description of the attitude of Protestants toward the claim of the Roman Church to dictate how the faithful shall interpret Scripture sounds remarkably like a description of how liberal Catholics justify, in their minds, forming a party of “loyal opposition,” of “faithful” dissent. He solemnly warns his “mixed congregation” in these unsparing terms:
Such is the only rational, consistent account of faith; but so far are Protestants from professing it, that they laugh at the very notion of it. They laugh at the notion itself of men pinning their faith (as they express themselves) upon Pope or Council; they think it simply superstitious and narrow-minded to profess to believe just what the Church believes, and to assent to whatever she will say in time to come on matters of doctrine. . . . They call it priestcraft to insist on this surrender of the reason, and superstition to make it.
True, Newman took for granted that the faithful had a role in the development of doctrine, that the laity should as a matter of course be “consulted” in moments when that development was reaching a point of being solemnly defined. But he certainly never would have urged the taking of a poll to “consult” the laity to determine doctrine. The point for Newman is that for both lay Christian and bishop revelation is objective and not a matter to twist and bend out of shape, by either the teaching or the learning Church. That is why three of the famous Notes for determining authentic development over against corruption in the Development of Doctrine are “Continuity of Principles,” “Logical Sequence,” and “Conservative Actions upon Its Past.” The Church can only consult the “faithful” if they are, in fact, faithful. The idea of “consulting” Catholics not in a state of grace would have struck Newman as grotesquely beyond the pale.
About the prophetic implications of these insights—for liberal Christianity in general and Anglicanism in particular—Professor Turner has nothing to say. Newman famously encapsulated his views on the consequences of religious ideas when he claimed in the Apologia that “there are but two alternatives, the way to Rome, and the way to Atheism: Anglicanism is the halfway house on the one side, and Liberalism is the halfway house on the other.” He was also convinced that those in the Church of England who resisted “going over” to Rome would sooner or later lapse into liberalism, which in turn would spell the end of Anglicanism. Which is why he could lament in a letter as early as 1831 that most Anglican churchmen were liberals, “and in saying this, I conceive I am saying almost as bad of them as can be said of any man.”
The reason for so harsh a judgment is that Newman could see a coming storm of dissent throughout all of Western Christendom, especially with the rise of an educated Christian public:
We live in a novel era—one in which there is an advance towards universal education. Men have hitherto depended on others, and especially on the clergy, for religious truth; now each man attempts to judge for himself. Now, without meaning of course that Christianity is in itself opposed to free inquiry, still I think it is in fact at the present time opposed to the particular form which that liberty of thought has now assumed. Christianity is of faith, modesty, lowliness, subordination; but the spirit at work against it is one of latitudinarianism, indifferentism, republicanism, and schism, a spirit which tends to overthrow doctrine, as if the fruit of bigotry, and discipline as if the instrument of priestcraft.
Now obviously the future author of The Idea of a University is not here recommending obscurantism or an illiterate laity. But the tension between orthodoxy and obedience, on the one hand, and liberalism and free inquiry, on the other, meant that the Church was entering into a new and dangerous era. “The church party,” Newman ruefully admitted, was “poor in mental endowments,” and relied too much “on prejudice and bigotry.” That hardly meant, of course, that an uneducated faith was wrong. But it did mean that the Church needed great men who “alone can prove great ideas or grasp them,” since moral truths are “gained by patient study, by calm reflection, silently as the dew falls” and do not show well “in the argument of an hour.”
There can, then, be no doubt that Newman believed liberalism to be, at best, a simulacrum of Christianity, and at worst the severest challenge Christianity would ever face. And never more so than when liberals wave the banner of tolerance, pleading with the theological public to be civil and not to attack them with the full arsenal of Christian polemic: “As liberals are the bitterest persecutors,” he warned, “so denouncers of controversy are sure to proceed upon the most startling, irritating, blistering methods which the practice of their age furnishes.” For that reason Newman felt that liberalism would last at least as long as the heresy of Arianism (and in fact could be regarded as a kind of chronic, neo-Arian flu), precisely because as a simulacrum of Christianity it looks so similar to the real thing.
Take, for example, Newman’s famous toast to conscience over the Pope: “I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please—still to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.” Liberals cite that so often for the very good reason that conscience is, in a strictly formal sense, a form of personal (hence private) judgment. Yet, for Newman, conscience was first and foremost the voice of God speaking to the soul, and as such it cannot admit of degrees, hedging, dissent, or private judgment regarding the contents of revelation.
None of which should be taken to imply that Newman would deny the existence of such a thing as what Garry Wills has called “papal sin,” still less episcopal sin. In fact, Newman’s theological analysis of hierarchical sin in the course of Church history throws unexpected light on the lamentable behavior of American bishops in the last three decades.
Just as Christ fulfilled the offices of Prophet, Priest, and King, so too the Church is called to continue those offices by the ministries of teaching revealed truth, sanctifying through the administration of rightly ordered sacraments, and ruling through ecclesiastical discipline and canon law. Although Christ fulfilled all these offices perfectly, doing so on the human plane, where the Church must operate, is, as the folk wisdom already knows, easier said than done. Parents face the same bind too, for they must be to their children simultaneously loving teachers, friends, and disciplinarians—and in a manner that cannot be duplicated by surrogates. As James Gaffney has recently written in an essay on Newman,
An absolutely perfect parent could, presumably, maintain a flawless balance among these different functions. But such parents do not exist. The same might be expected of a flawless church, but that does not exist either. . . . Being protected against dogmatic corruption is one thing. It is quite another thing to be exempted from the foibles and partialities, the knavery and folly of common humanity. . . . Over the broad span of Church history, instances could be found of any one of the Church’s functions working against the others. An obsessively theological church easily loses the fervor of piety. Excesses on the devotional side tempt theology to rationalize superstition. Exaggerated preoccupation with discipline generates repression of freedom both of thought and of spirituality. All of these things had happened, again and again, in the history of Roman Catholicism. In Newman’s view, this was, broadly speaking, simply inevitable.
Given what he said about sin from his days at Oriel until his death, there can be no doubt that Newman would adopt a “conservative” interpretation of the Church’s present crisis, insisting that she return to fidelity, in all its rigor, and to the moral norms for sexual behavior rooted in the New Testament. One of the reasons Newman defended the doctrine of Purgatory in his Essay on Development was because it would in the long run prove more suitable as a goad to moral rigorism than would constant preaching of the doctrine of the Atonement in Evangelical circles. And make no mistake about it, Newman was severe on the topic of sin, as he made clear in his Anglican sermon “The State of Salvation,” preached to what must have been a very uncomfortable congregation:
If we do sin, we cease to be in that state of salvation: we fall back into a state resembling our original state of wrath, and must pass back again from wrath to grace (if it be so), as best we may, in such ways as God has appointed: whereas it is not an uncommon notion at this time, that a man may be an habitual sinner, and yet be in a state of salvation, and in the kingdom of grace. . . . They think that faith is all in all; that faith, if they have it, blots out their sins as fast as they commit them. They sin in distinct acts in the morning—their faith wipes all out; at noon, their faith still prevails; and in the evening—still the same.
What most bothered Newman about this emphasis was that it would eventually lead to the moral laxity of liberal Christianity—which is yet another point on which Professor Turner’s Newman has nothing to teach us.
Turner, the scrupulously liberal academic, no less than the legions of liberal Catholics who deny the sum and substance of the Catholic sacramental system, would have us believe that Newman was either one of them or a charlatan in his piety—or, revealingly, both. But the truth of the matter is quite different. To modern liberalism’s sundry protests, the historical Newman would have reacted with horror, derision, and disgust, for they undermine the very possibility of the orthodox faith to which his life was committed. Turner, for all his scholarly energies, winds up devoting over seven hundred pages trying to fit his subject into an interpretive framework that Newman would have considered the antithesis of everything he stood for. It is the same mistake Newman’s brother Francis made. Just two months before John Henry’s conversion to Rome, Francis wrote his brother, blithely telling him that if he were sincere in his convictions he would already have converted. Newman kept the letter and in the margin scrawled, “That I could be contemplating questions of Truth & Falsehood never entered his imagination!”
Turner quotes both Frank’s letter and John’s marginal remark, all the while missing its point, just as Francis had done. But given Newman’s own keen powers of prophecy, the reader can at least draw this consolation: that Newman even predicted the pointlessness of books like Turner’s. With typical psychological insight, Newman made this telling comparison:
If, for instance, a person cannot open a door, or get a key into a lock, which he has done a hundred times before, you know how apt he is to shake, and to rattle, and to force it, as if some great insult was offered him by its resistance: you know how surprised a wasp, or other large insect is, that he cannot get through a window-pane; such is the feeling of the Prejudiced Man when we urge our objections—not softened by them at all, but exasperated the more.
There can be little doubt that Professor Turner is thoroughly exasperated with Newman. He certainly has written an exasperating book.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J. is Chester and Margaret Paluch Professor of Theology at University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago.