Newman’s Unquiet Grave
BY JOHN CORNWELL CONTINUUM, £18.99
Newman the Priest
BY GERARD SKINNER, GRACEWING, £12.99
What prompted John Cornwell, author of Hitler’s Pope and other vigorous investigations, to add to the already considerable literature on John Henry Newman? He tells us that in the light of the forthcoming beatification “it seemed timely”. I do not wish to suggest in any way that the author is cashing in on current interest in Newman; he sincerely wishes to bring his own insights to bear on the great man.
As he is a journalist rather than a Newman scholar, and a man highly attuned to the spirit of the modern age, it is not a surprise to discover that Cornwell’s insights centre on “Newman’s character and importance as a writer, rather than on his holiness”.
Some might think that not to discuss Newman’s holiness is like trying to discuss Churchill’s life without mentioning the last war. But it does give the author license to roam around his subject’s character without needing to relate this to an unremitting struggle for virtue in the midst of ordinary human weakness, which is what the example of holy living should show us. Herein lies the book’s originality: to bring together areas of Newman’s personality which could be considered questionable in today’s climate, such as his wish for joint burial with his fellow Oratorian and friend, Ambrose St John, his particular friendships, his early choice of a celibate life, his seeming “repugnance” towards marriage and so on, in order to create a possible “impression of capricious, unstable gender identity”.
This is Cornwell’s way of building up his portrait: a deft use of innuendo, juxtaposition, suggestion, speculation and negative quotations. Thus, referring to Newman’s time as a tutor at Oriel College, he remarks: “It would be anachronistic to view Newman’s reform of tutorials as the policy of a sanctimonious martinet.” So why mention it at all?
He throws in a random paragraph about Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas, Frederick Rolfe and other notorious fin de siècle characters, then informs us solemnly that “attempts to make connections with Newman are ill-conceived” – even though he is constantly sowing such “connections” in the mind of the unwary and ignorant reader.
He makes play with the hostility of Charles Kingsley, the words of T H Huxley (“the slipperiest sophist I have ever met with”) and a remark of Cardinal Manning (“He bamboozles you with his carefully selected words”).
He informs us early on that “Newman’s unrelenting literary obsession was the story of his own life: he was the ultimate self-absorbed autobiographer”; later, that “Newman’s central preoccupation in life, by his own admission, was from the outset his inner life”; and later still, that there is “an element of selfcentredness whenever he speaks of himself”. If Cornwell had actually thought about the nature of holiness he would have realised that the autobiographical writings of holy men and women are always written in the light of their relationship to God. Otherwise the autobiographies of St Augustine or St Thérèse of Lisieux, for instance, are simply unhealthy and neurotic exercises in self-absorption. I rather conclude that the idea of sanctity is beyond the author’s pay grade.
It is instructive that Cornwell places reliance on Geoffrey Faber’s Oxford Apostles, because it supports his own penchant for amateur psychologising. Perhaps he should read Christopher Dawson’s infinitely wiser book, The Spirit of the Oxford Movement which brilliantly sums up the flawed methodology at work: “[Faber] bases his history of the [Oxford] Movement on his interpretation of the character of its leaders and he bases this interpretation not on their own theological and moral conceptions but on the categories of modern psychology ... seen through Freudian spectacles the severe moralism of the Tractarian ethos dissolves into an orgy of morbid emotionalism. The history of the Oxford Movement becomes an essay in sexual psychopathy.” Dawson continues: “A psychology which ignores religious values must inevitably misinterpret the behaviour of men whose whole lives are ruled by religious motives.” This is a neat summary of Cornwell’s whole approach to his subject; indeed, his book even includes a passage entitled “Intimations of homoeroticism in the Oxford Movement”.
There is a confused attempt towards the end to bring Newman into the camp of the Catholic liberals: “What happens when there is a conflict between the Pope’s utterances and one’s individual conscience? The same question might well be asked today in the context of papal decrees on contraception,” opines Cornwell, adding at the end a remark about “the enfeebling of [Newman’s] legacy by the resisters of Vatican II”. There are some factual errors: the Oratorians were not founded in the 17th century, Leo XIII was not aged 78 when he became Pope and the feast of the Immaculate Conception does not celebrate “Mary’s birth without original sin”. But these are small over sights. Newman’s legacy certainly deserves critical examination but it is not well served by this “timely” book. Perhaps it should be left to inhabit its own restless and unquiet grave?
It was with considerable relief that I turned from Cornwell to Gerard Skinner – to discover that Newman was actually a deeply conscientious and hard-working priest, a true “father of souls”. From his time as a curate in the poor parish of St Clements, his work in Littlemore and throughout the long years at the Birmingham Oratory, he spent an enormous amount of time in the unglamorous work of preaching, instructing and confessing his parishioners, quite apart from his unobtrusive practical help towards them.
Skinner reminds us that Newman wrote hundreds of letters on the minutiae of planning and funding the Oratory parish and school, that he hastened to help the local priest during the Bilston cholera epidemic, and that in extreme old age he involved himself in the difficulties of the Catholic women workers at Cadbury’s. But zeal for souls is part of holiness, an unappealing if not incomprehensible subject for modern journalism.