John Henry Newman
A very brief history
by Eamon Duffy
There are some positive things to say about this work. Although it assumes that the reader is already familiar with aspects of Newman's life, the detailed chronology at the start of the book is of great help.
There is a myth that has always surrounded Newman: that he was self-absorbed and over-sensitive. But, as psychiatrists put it, you are not really paranoid when you know everyone is after you. Following his conversion to Catholicism, Newman was disowned by many Anglicans.
What must have hurt even more, he was distrusted by Catholics, especially those of the Ultramontane persuasion. In truth, Newman had a great number of friends and, as his Birmingham flock found out, he was capable of immense kindness. I am reliably informed that one of the best books on this topic is Newman and his Contemporaries by Edward Short. Duffy also notes Newman's capacity for friendship, especially as found in his letters. But he is unable to altogether dispel the myth.
Duffy describes Newman's desire to reach out to Anglicans, especially after the publication of his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, very well. He also notes that when Newman converted, he never denied all that he found good and true in Anglicanism. In fact, Newman republished many of his Anglican works after his conversion.
Newman's Plain and Parochial Sermons are severe, as Duffy states, but how splendid they still are. No wonder the foremost promoter of Newman in the German-speaking world, Erich Przywara, chose them as the largest single block in his influential work A Newman Synthesis.
Newman's The Idea of a University has remained the most widely read of his works. And yet, as Duffy observes, it has been misunderstood as simply a defence of liberal education, when it was really intended as a justification for a Catholic university. For Newman, Catholicism cannot be altogether absent from university education because their ultimate purpose is to civilize, to make us better Christians.
Newman was a subtle theologian and his willingness to explore new ways of expressing the truths of faith led him to be wrongly labelled a liberal. The Modernist George Tyrrell went so far as to call him the "Father of Modernists," especially citing his Grammar of Assent. But, as Duffy notes, in this work, Newman's hostility to liberalism found its "most powerful expression."
Unfortunately, Duffy's own liberal sympathies come to the fore quite often.
To dismiss Pope Pius X, surely one of our greatest popes, as "profoundly anti-intellectual" is a disservice to one who exposed that most poisonous of heresies, Modernism. And when St Alphonsus Liguori's wonderful work The Glories of Mary is dismissed by Duffy as a "decadent baroque paradigm” one feels this says more about Duffy’s opinions than Newman’s.
Newman is surely a prophet of the rights of conscience. And yet, how often his name is wrongly invoked by those Catholics who choose to reject the constant teachings of the Church and do so in the name of conscience?
Newman's ideas are far more profound. As Duffy comments, for Newman, our conscience is our "aboriginal Vicar of Christ" on the one hand and so delicate on the other hand that it is easily capable of falling into error. That is why we need the Church to guide us.
It is my firm belief that Newman ultimately got it right on papal infallibility and the Ultramontanes wrong. As Catholics, we are called to love and pray for our pope, whoever he is. However, all that papal infallibility guarantees is that the pope will not define wrongly on matters of faith and morals under a set of specific circumstances. In his day-to-day talks, he is not granted the charism of infallibility. Thus when the pope talks about global warming or borderless nations or when he makes a pastoral suggestion that couples have no more than two children, he is not infallible. W. G. Ward wanted a daily exercise of infallibility by the pope, "a new Papal Bull every morning with my Times for breakfast." That would surely have given most of us acute indigestion.
In conclusion, reading Duffy on Newman led me to respect Newman the theologian. We need to look elsewhere to encounter Newman the saint and prophet for our time.