Sunday, September 19, 2010

Blessed John Henry Newman

A great day for the Church and for that multitude of us who revere Cardinal Newman as a thinker, a writer, and a model of holiness.

Nothing that happens in the Church nowadays can be absolutely free of partisan tensions. Newman, certainly, is too central and towering a figure in Catholic history to escape being laid claim to by a wide and contentious assortment of advocates for this or that "brand" of Catholicism. And so it is that we get Garry Wills (writing in that distinguished theological journal the New York Review of Books) calling Newman a "radical"--like Wills himself, get it?--and Pope Benedict "the best-dressed liar in the world." I'm old enough to have had at one time a tempered admiration for Garry Wills, back in his Bare Ruined Choirs days. Lately I find myself hoping that Wills will wake up in his right mind one of these days and instantly regret pretty much everything he's published over the last 25 years -- well, maybe with the exception of Lincoln at Gettysburg and his translation of Martial's Epigrams, two intelligent if wildly different studies in the power of language.

In one sense, Newman certainly was a "radical"; his conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism is a perfect object lesson in Christian radicalism--a return to the roots of truth. But he was no "radical Catholic" in the way Garry Wills would like to think. Yes, Newman championed conscience in his famous toast--but conscience as the Catechism understands it, not as Hans Kung or Joan Chittister or Nancy Pelosi misrepresents it. And yes, Newman expressed reservations about the First Vatican Council's definition of the dogma of papal infallibility--but as a prudential matter, a question of timing and policy, not because he himself did not believe the dogma. (He did believe it, and wrote iron-clad defenses of it.) These are all matters of record for anyone willing to pay attention to the record--Newman's own writings, the standard biographies (Ker, Zeno, Martin), histories of the First Vatican Council. Yet the legend of "Newman the dissenter" is still resurrected from time to time by hero-starved Catholic dissenters, in much the same way that Protestants still talk about the Council of Nicaea as a Catholic hijacking of the New Testament Church, or anti-Catholic secularists still talk about Pius XII's collaboration with the Nazis. Some lies are simply too useful to abandon.

What Newman genuinely offers us today, above all, is not an endorsement of one side or another in the Catholic culture wars, but rather a call to action...oops, let me rephrase that...a warning and an encouragement about the real culture war in which Western civilization is now embroiled. It is the war against moral and epistemological relativism, and Newman gave his whole adult life in a struggle against it. Here is one of his most famous statements on the subject--the "Biglietto Address," the short speech he made in 1879 when he accepted the cardinal's biretta. (Newman's use of the term liberalism here is perhaps unfortunate--even though it was precisely the correct term at the time--because it suggests to modern ears that relativism is tied in some way to a political philosophy. It need not be.)

In any case, Newman's words are startlingly prophetic. And, in their tone of calm Christian hope at the end, they are comforting:

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; and on this great occasion, when it is natural for one who is in my place to look out upon the world, and upon Holy Church as it is, and upon her future, it will not, I hope, be considered out of place, if I renew the protest against it which I have made so often.

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 fraternise together in spiritual thoughts and feelings, without having any views at all of doctrine in common, or seeing the need of them. Since, then, religion is so personal a peculiarity and so private a possession, we must of necessity ignore it in the intercourse of man with man. If a man puts on a new religion every morning, what is that to you? It is as impertinent to think about a man's religion as about his sources of income or his management of his family. Religion is in no sense the bond of society.

Hitherto the civil Power has been Christian. Even in countries separated from the Church, as in my own, the dictum was in force, when I was young, that: "Christianity was the law of the land". Now, everywhere that goodly framework of society, which is the creation of Christianity, is throwing off Christianity. The dictum to which I have referred, with a hundred others which followed upon it, is gone, or is going everywhere; and, by the end of the century, unless the Almighty interferes, it will be forgotten. Hitherto, it has been considered that religion alone, with its supernatural sanctions, was strong enough to secure submission of the masses of our population to law and order; now the Philosophers and Politicians are bent on satisfying this problem without the aid of Christianity. Instead of the Church's authority and teaching, they would substitute first of all a universal and a thoroughly secular education, calculated to bring home to every individual that to be orderly, industrious, and sober, is his personal interest. Then, for great working principles to take the place of religion, for the use of the masses thus carefully educated, it provides  the broad fundamental ethical truths, of justice, benevolence, veracity, and the like; proved experience; and those natural laws which exist and act spontaneously in society, and in social matters, whether physical or psychological; for instance, in government, trade, finance, sanitary experiments, and the intercourse of nations. As to Religion, it is a private luxury, which a man may have if he will; but which of course he must pay for, and which he must not obtrude upon others, or indulge in to their annoyance.

The general character of this great apostasia is one and the same everywhere; but in detail, and in character, it varies in different countries. For myself, I would rather speak of it in my own country, which I know. There, I think it threatens to have a formidable success; though it is not easy to see what will be its ultimate issue. At first sight it might be thought that Englishmen are too religious for a movement which, on the Continent, seems to be founded on infidelity; but the misfortune with us is, that, though it ends in infidelity as in other places, it does not necessarily arise out of infidelity. It must be recollected that the religious sects, which sprang up in England three centuries ago, and which are so powerful now, have ever been fiercely opposed to the Union of Church and State, and would advocate the un-Christianising of the monarchy and all that belongs to it, under the notion that such a catastrophe would make Christianity much more pure and much more powerful. Next the liberal principle is forced on us from the necessity of the case. Consider what follows from the very fact of these many sects. They constitute the religion, it is supposed, of half the population; and, recollect, our mode of government is popular. Every dozen men taken at random whom you meet in the streets has a share in political power  when you inquire into their forms of belief, perhaps they represent one or other of as many as seven religions; how can they possibly act together in municipal or in national matters, if each insists on the recognition of his own religious denomination? All action would be at a deadlock unless the subject of religion was ignored. We cannot help ourselves. And, thirdly, it must be borne in mind, that there is much in the liberalistic theory which is good and true; for example, not to say more, the precepts of justice, truthfulness, sobriety, self-command, benevolence, which, as I have already noted, are among its avowed principles, and the natural laws of society. It is not till we find that this array of principles is intended to supersede, to block out, religion, that we pronounce it to be evil. There never was a device of the Enemy so cleverly framed and with such promise of success.

And already it has answered to the expectations which have been formed of it. It is sweeping into its own ranks great numbers of able, earnest, virtuous men, elderly men of approved antecedents, young men with a career before them.

Such is the state of things in England, and it is well that it should be realised by all of us; but it must not be supposed for a moment that I am afraid of it.

I lament it deeply, because I foresee that it may be the ruin of many souls; but I have no fear at all that it really can do aught of serious harm to the Word of God, to Holy Church, to our Almighty King, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, Faithful and True, or to His Vicar on earth. Christianity has been too often in what seemed deadly peril, that we should fear for it any new trial now. So far is certain; on the other hand, what is uncertain, and in these great contests commonly is uncertain, and what is commonly a great surprise, when it is witnessed, is the particular mode by which, in the event, Providence rescues and saves His elect inheritance. Sometimes our enemy is turned into a friend; sometimes he is despoiled of that special virulence of evil which was so threatening; sometimes he falls to pieces of himself; sometimes he does just so much as is beneficial, and then is removed. Commonly the Church has nothing more to do than to go on in her own proper duties, in confidence and peace; to stand still and to see the salvation of God.

Mansueti hereditabunt terram,
Et delectabuntur in multitudine pacis.
["The meek will inherit the land,
And they will delight in the abundance of peace."]

Blessed John Henry Newman, pray for us.

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