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In Thanks for Friends in High Places

This appreciation must be decidedly brief (I hope to do a lengthier one for an upcoming issue of The Christendom Review), but Paul has asked me to note that today the Pope travels to England, his trip culminating on Sunday in the beatification of John Henry Cardinal Newman. He will be declared as blessed with all the company of heaven, and worthy of public veneration.

People come to faith in various ways and in their own time. Newman came to his young (by my lights) at the age of fifteen, when, after reading some books “of the school of Calvin,” put into his hands by a Reverend Walter Mayers, he experienced a revelation: “I received it at once, and believed that the inward conversion of which I was conscious, (and of which I still am more certain than that I have hands and feet,) would last into the next life, and that I was elected to eternal glory.” To his liberation from the doctrine of predestination he thanks the writings of Dr. Thomas Scott, of whom he says, “I almost owe my soul.” Not long thereafter he felt called to the celibate life, setting his mind on it by the age of 28, and, finally, to Anglican orders.

One might think that the consequences of a conversion - with the light of Christ now illuminating the mind – ought to be swift and certain, all difficulties resolved. We know from experience, however, that more often it is not the end of a journey, but its beginning. As regards the recognizable form and substance of Christ’s one Church, I remember waking up one day – within a year of finding faith – to understand where I should be. Newman would require another 29 years of careful investigation before his conscience could clear the way.

It was this care for the dictates of a conscience seeking the Lord’s will that finally endeared him, after the eloquence of the Apologia, to his own countrymen, even those not of his fold, an effect still exerted on the modern reader. But before the Apologia, and especially before the Essay on Development, it was this cautionary nature that got him accused by all camps, Anglican and Catholic, of hesitation, evasion, prevarication – in short, of not knowing his own mind while happily casting the minds of others into doubt and leading them astray. It was almost as though Newman’s character required, before it could be convinced of a point, that he write a book about it.

Ever sensitive to imputations against his honesty, he was hurt by the accusations. After he became Catholic, they continued. Among the Protestants it was that he was unhappy in his new communion and would soon return to the sanity of the Anglican hearth. Among certain militant Catholics of unsubtle mind and a penchant for incomprehension, it was the suspicion that “he is not really one of us.” What kind of Catholic, after all, writes an essay entitled “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine?” It was the Apologia that quieted much of this and, in bringing him back to the attention and affection of his countrymen, brought joy to his heart.

But it was this care for conscience, and this need, which others found vexing, to deliberate at great length before making a move of any consequence that he readily extended to others. At the passing of his old friend, John Keble – whose preaching of the sermon “National Apostasy” is generally credited with beginning The Oxford Movement – unkind things were said of him, Keble, by ex-Anglicans of both the sceptic and Catholic-convert variety, to wit, that in his failure to become Roman Catholic he had been shown a hypocrite. Though a college was in time named after him, Keble was at the end living, so to speak, on the outskirts of his own communion, his High Church Anglicanism much diminished in prestige, as at Oxford that communion was rapidly yielding its influence to the Benthamite and Millsian philosophy, and to a pervasive religious indifferentism. Entering students were no longer required to subscribe to the 39 Articles. Of the unkindnesses uttered against him, Newman wrote to a friend:

“It is grievous that people are so hard. In converts it is inexcusable. It is a miserable spirit in them. How strange it is; - Keble seems to have received all doctrine except the necessity of being in communion with the Holy See…it seems to me no difficulty to suppose a person in good faith on such a point as the necessity of communion with Rome. Till he saw that (or that he was not in the Church), he was bound to remain as he was, and it was in that way that he always put it.”

The nature of the friendship between Newman and Keble is revealed in a letter written by the latter just prior to Newman’s passage to Rome:

Besides the deep grief of losing you for a guide and helper, and scarcely knowing which way to look, you may guess what uncomfortable feelings haunt me, as if I, more than anyone, was answerable for whatever of distress or scandal may occur. I keep on thinking, ‘If I had been different, perhaps Newman would have been guided to see things differently, and we might have been spared so many broken hearts and bewildered spirits.’…And now I wish you to help me. That way of help, at any rate, is not forbidden you in respect of any of us. My dearest Newman, you have been a kind and helpful friend to me in a way in which scarce anyone else could have been, and you are so mixed up in my mind with old and dear and sacred thoughts, that I cannot well bear to part with you, most unworthy as I know myself to be. And yet I cannot go along with you. I must cling to the belief that we are not really parted; you have taught me so, and I scarce think you can unteach me. And having relieved my mind with this little word, I will only say, God bless you and reward you a thousand fold for all your help in every way to me unworthy, and to many others. May you have peace where you are gone, and help us in some way to get peace; but somehow I scarce think it will be in the way of controversy. And so, with somewhat of a feeling as if the spring had been taken out of the year, I am, as always, your affectionate and grateful,--J. Keble.

Many converts no doubt owe much to Newman. Even if his works were not the agent of conversion, his arguments in adumbrated form are everywhere, through generations passing the lips of priests in pulpits and flowing through the pens of lesser apologists. He is now a part of the Church’s pedagogy, and impossible to escape.

In my own case, I had not even heard of Newman until after becoming Catholic. I had known slightly of Chesterton since high school, but he and Newman were excluded from my college anthologies in favor of Ruskin, Carlyle and Mill. A good Jesuit steered me in the right direction, and upon reading Newman for the first time I experienced, not a reconversion, but a continuation of the original. It is for this that I feel a debt to him. His was the kind of writing that, after reading one thing, there was created in me an insatiable demand for the next. I worked literally backwards from the Apologia to the Essay on Development to that great historical and theological mystery story, written in his Anglican days, Arians of the Fourth Century, wherein we become witnesses to the miraculous passage of the orthodox creed through a labyrinthine minefield of heresies, its purity protected by the valiant Fathers of the Ancient Church (to whom Newman had an abiding devotion, and of whom he is a modern descendant), and by the faithful themselves, its victory assured by the Spirit of Truth who made them His knights in battle.

But after years of immersion in his writings, one returns later to notice the quieter, more unsung moments. For a man is not beatified because of his erudition, his silver tongue, or his Ciceronian prose, but because he is holy. This is the part of the man, of any saint, hardest to find (save in the works they do in the world), for we cannot know what the confessor must, and no one can know what only God can see. We have been given glimpses: his unwavering devotion to truth and to the salvation of souls in his writings and priestly conduct, and his bravery on behalf of the afflicted during the cholera outbreak. But these alone are no guarantor, no proof that the Christian virtues have been lived to a heroic degree. Other glimpses are even less so, but affecting nonetheless as evidence of a sensitive heart, such as the story that an old man later identified as Newman, “poorly dressed…in an old gray coat with the collar turned up, and his hat pulled down over his face, as if he wished to hide his features,” was spotted “leaning over the lych-gate of the churchyard that surrounds the Littlemore church, which Newman had built thirty years before; and that the old man was crying.” He had returned after twenty-two years to lay eyes on the place where so many conversations of seemingly grave import to the revival of the Church of England had taken place, and to remember the old friends who had taken part, many now passed away. It was also the place he spent those last years suspended between two churches, before the Essay on Development freed him.

But then there is the testimony of those who knew him best, and whom we must trust in the end. In his last days, the Cardinal was visited by Bishop Ullathorne, who gives us another glimpse:

I have been visiting Cardinal Newman today. He is much wasted, but very cheerful. Yesterday he went to London to see an oculist. When he tries to read black specks are before his eyes. But the oculist tells him there is nothing wrong but old age. We had a long and cheery talk, but as I was rising to leave an action of his caused a scene I shall never forget, for its sublime lesson to myself. He said in low and humble accents, ‘My dear Lord, will you do me a great favor?’ ‘What is it?’ I asked. He glided down on his knees, bent down his venerable head, and said, ‘Give me your blessing.’ What could I do with him before me in such a posture? I could not refuse without giving him great embarrassment. So I laid my hand on his head and said, ‘My dear Lord Cardinal, notwithstanding all laws to the contrary, I pray God to bless you, and that His Holy Spirit may be full in your heart.’ As I walked to the door, refusing to put on his biretta as he went with me, he said, ‘I have been indoors all my life, whilst you have battled for the Church in the world.’ I felt annihilated in his presence.

The “law to the contrary” was the common rule that the lower Dignity should kneel before the higher.

On his deathbed, after receiving the Last Sacraments, he asked that a handkerchief that had been given to him some thirty years before by a “poor, indigent person” (whether man or woman I do not know), a complete stranger, be brought to him that he might put it on. At the time of receiving it the scarf had been accompanied by a message of sympathy and respect (its content again I do not know). It was a time of “great tribulation” for him, and in gratitude he died with it on. It was his last act in the world.

Now the Church this Sunday will take the opportunity to say publicly to this “good and faithful servant” what its Eminences sometimes failed to say during his lifetime: “Well done.” A miracle was required, and one has been reported. The rest of us, who did not know him in life but merely drank from his pen, will echo in our hearts Cardinal Manning’s proclamation at his brother priest’s funeral – “We have lost our greatest witness to the faith” – and with our prayers offer that witness our thanks. Now may he intercede for us in all our journeys.

For we believe that the same man who could thunder a warning to his parishioners that they might be too comfortable with the world - such that, “were you to die tonight you would be lost forever” – meant also for us what we read in his devotions, that

I am created to do something or to be something for which no one else is created; I have a place in God’s counsels, in God’s world, which no one else has; whether I be rich or poor, despised or esteemed by man, God knows me and calls me by name. God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission – I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his…Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away…He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me – still He knows what He is about…I ask not to see – I ask not to know – I ask simply to be used.
We believe, that is, that he lived his motto – Cor ad cor loquitur (“heart speaketh unto heart”) – addressing it not only to his God, or to his friends in life, but to all those, we, who would be his friends “out of time.” That is what he most wanted to do – to speak to your heart – and to make of you first a friend to Christ, and only secondly to himself. This is, in part, what I take from him, what I thank him for this day, and will again on many another.

Comments (23)

Bill, my initial reaction many years ago upon reading your blog, "Apologia", was "here resides the best writer on the internet". And you have renewed my confidence in that judgment with this sublime essay on the qualities of Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman. Other than "thank you", I'm simply at a loss for words. Thank you.

Beautiful, Bill. Thanks for this.

Newman was not very popular in Rome during his time, because he was somewhat of a liberal; and Rome didn't like liberals back then.

It does now, of course.

This was a very good read. Thank you.

George was not very popular at the website during his time, because he was something of a ill-mannered crank.

Which of the following opinions do you consider crankish?

Newman was not very popular in Rome.
Newman was somewhat of a liberal.
Rome did not like liberals then.
Rome likes liberals more now.

George was not very popular at the website during his time

That's true. But admit it, I would have been popular in Rome in the 19th century.

What Jeff C. said.

Okay, I'll grant you that last.

But look, a guy puts some serious effort into producing a very fine essay, and your response amounts to a snarky two-line comment of bare assertions. More ill-mannered than crankish, I suppose.

Still, Lord Acton was a liberal Catholic of that age (though even he remained loyal to Rome); where would you situate Newman in relation to him?

But look, a guy puts some serious effort into producing a very fine essay, and your response amounts to a snarky two-line comment of bare assertions.

Yeah, but Bill Luse and I are always saying snarky things to each other. If I were ever to say something nice about him, he'd probably have a heart-attack. You wouldn't want that, would you?

Still, Lord Acton was a liberal Catholic of that age (though even he remained loyal to Rome); where would you situate Newman in relation to him?

Less liberal that Acton.

The problem with Newman is that he didn't seem sufficiently opposed to liberalism. Moreover, he seemed to maintain an unbecoming affection for the Church of England. I don't think he was a heretic or anything, just a little too sentimental.

This bit from Newman on the Fathers has stayed with me over the years: "The Fathers made me a Catholic, and I am not going to kick down the ladder by which I ascended into the Church. It is a ladder quite as serviceable for that purpose now, as it was twenty years ago." http://www.newmanreader.org/works/anglicans/volume2/pusey/section2.html

Beautiful, Bill, thanks.

Thank you, Bill, excellent. What Jeff C. said.

I have a volume of Newman's letters from the year when he was converting to Catholicism. What shines out from them, as from the pages of the Apologia only more strongly, is the image of a man of extremely tender conscience who truly wants to follow God and do what is right. The pain he expresses in the Apologia at what was said of him is not by any means worked up. That is the kind of person he was. He suffered greatly in his mind in attempting to make his decision, and his private letters all show him the same person at all times.

That quality of being the same through and through, even when being the same causes great suffering, is integrity. I do not think that it is possible for anyone, however much he disagrees with Newman (and I have deep disagreements with him), to read Newman's writings and especially his letters and not be moved to honor that Christian integrity.


Would it be wrong to suggest that a person as brilliant and as intellectually disciplined as Newman, searching might and main, heart and soul over decades for the true Christian church, could land at a result contrary to the truth but by some small defect of will, some little rejection or refusal to permit God's grace to move him, his mind or his will to the Truth?

It seems to me that either (1) the true Christian church is so innately hidden and obscure that even the wisest of men have not the capacity to apprehend it from its evidence; or (2) God intends to leave men of good will in error about so fundamental a matter of salvation and so disguises the truth; or (3) men and their own imperfect desire for truth are responsible for not allowing the truth to penetrate their souls. The first defames the efficacy of Revelation, which God gave us to bring the truth to light. The second defames the efficacy of God's love and redemption of man through His Son.

Sorry, I was at work all yesterday. I want to thank everyone for their kind comments, Bill White for the memorable quote, and Lydia the Protestant for her generous and piercing estimate of the Cardinal's character: "That quality of being the same through and through, even when being the same causes great suffering, is integrity."

As for George, inducing a heart attack is beyond his abilities. I'm in pretty good shape. But he would no doubt induce indigestion should I condescend to a discussion of Newman's "liberalism," a discussion that will have to be deferred until George's understanding of conservative orthodoxy transcends the age of the thumbscrew and faggots ablaze.

Lydia the Protestant

Perfect! That's even better than the essay.

Funny thing though, Bill, “the age of the thumbscrew and faggots ablaze” was also the golden age of Christendom, whereas the age of transcending and condemning the thumbscrew and faggots ablaze, i.e., our own age, is also the age of the utter dissolution of Christendom.

Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Those are very delicate questions, Tony. The thing is, I think it's obvious that there are a lot of people who are earnestly seeking the truth about Christian doctrine who are wrong. This is clear if only from the fact that there are both Protestants and Catholics earnestly and carefully seeking the truth on such matters, and where they disagree, one side _has_ to be wrong. So evidently God does permit error, even earnest error by Christians desiring the truth and seeking it with care.

My only answer to this problem is to reject Calvinism. :-) I can say more about what I mean by that perhaps some other time. Suffice it to say for now that I was put in a rather awkward position a couple of weeks ago when a wonderful young lady, the daughter of some dear friends, earnestly criticized Lewis's _The Great Divorce_ in conversation with me on the grounds that it seemed to imply a second chance after death.

Of course, George, any means to a good end.

I've decided George R. is the Mall Ninja of the Catholic blogosphere.

Of course, George, any means to a good end.

Something like that.

Matt. 7:16-18

By their fruits you shall know them. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?

Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit, and the evil tree bringeth forth evil fruit.

A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can an evil tree bring forth good fruit.

I don't know what a Mall Ninja is, but you must have meant of "the Protestant blogosphere." See how he just proved a point sola scriptura? (Though I know some good Protestants who wouldn't take him.)

To paraphrase a frequent commenter, if George is Catholic, I'm a Klingon.

Lydia, that's fair enough. I don't disagree with you on your first point: they ARE delicate questions. They are, further, questions that we rarely have to solve because they are mostly questions that are in God's hands.

My essential point, though, was this: sincerity and integrity in the intellectual arena cannot be fulsome if the person is withholding either assent to propositions for which the evidence is sufficient (to their mind), or withholding effort to follow up a line of investigation / thought / reasoning out of distaste for where the line appears to be headed. For a great many of the errors we make about moral and religious matters, the errors can indeed be traced to just such sorts of withholding assent or effort. (The other major source is jumping to conclusions before enough information is present, and this implies the moral laziness of refusing to remain in doubt and tension about what is true - a state which demands continuing effort.) If I conclude that a person (who is brilliant, easily smart enough to understand the evidence thoroughly) chooses to accept a belief contradictory to what I hold to be the certain truth, I must needs allow for the possibility that the person might have arrived as such error by a failure to be wholly embracing and accepting of the truth, a sort of failure that marks someone NOT wholly sincere and with NOT complete intellectual integrity. (Which is, of course, a state that I can accurately accuse myself of as well.)

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