The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

John Henry Newman

I've taken a break from
Lux Mundi to read Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua. I had hoped to find in Newman a kindred spirit--his journey from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism being an inverse reflection of my own from the RC Church to Anglicanism. I also hoped to gain some insight into the birth of Anglo-Catholicism. I must confess, I found Newman somewhat disappointing on both points.

First, I found Newman surprisingly lacking in charity for those with whom he disagreed, both in his pre-conversion and post-conversion stages. He describes himself, for example, as having not only
confidence in our cause, both in itself and in its polemical force, but also, on the other hand, I despised every rival system of doctrine and its arguments to. As to the high Church and the low Church, I thought that the one had not much more more of a logical basis than the other; while I had a thoroughgoing contempt of the controversial position of the latter.
(Norton Critical Edition at 47).

Additionally, Newman describes himself "not distressed at the wonder or anger of dull or self-conceited men, at propositions which they did not understand," and enjoyed "playing" with his intellectual inferiors. (Id. at 48). He further describes himself as being "open, not unfairly, to the [] charge of fierceness," and gives several examples:
In the Lyra Apostolica, I have said that, before learning to love, we must "learn to hate;" though I had explained my words by adding "hatred of sin." In one of my first Sermons I said, "I do not shrink from uttering my firm conviction that it would be a gain to the country were it vastly more superstitious, more bigoted, more gloomy, more fierce in its religion than at present it shows itself to be." I added, of course, that it would be an absurdity to suppose such tempers of mind desirable in themselves....In consequence of a passage in my work upon the Arian History, a Northern dignitary wrote to accuse me of wishing to re-establish the blood and torture of the Inquisition. Contrasting heretics and heresiarchs, I had said, "The latter should meet with no mercy; he assumes the office of the Tempter, and, so far forth as his error goes, must be dealt with by the competent authority, as if he were embodied evil. To spare him is a false and dangerous pity. It is to endanger the souls of thousands, and it is uncharitable towards himself." I cannot deny that this is a very fierce passage; but Arius was banished, not burned; and it is only fair to myself to say that neither at this, nor any other time of my life, not even when I was fiercest, could I have even cut off a Puritan's ears, and I think the sight of a Spanish auto-da-fe would have been the death of me. Again, when one of my friends, of liberal and evangelical opinions, wrote to expostulate with me on the course I was taking, I said that we would ride over him and his, as Othniel prevailed over Chushan-rishathaim, king of Mesopotamia. Again, I would have no dealings with my brother, and I put my conduct upon a syllogism. I said, "St. Paul bids us avoid those who cause divisions; you cause divisions: therefore I must avoid you." I dissuaded a lady from attending the marriage of a sister who had seceded from the Anglican Church
Id. at 49-50.

These acts do not, exactly, prepossess one--or at any rate me--in Newman's favor.

Newman's secession to Rome is really not surprising; he showed a strong attraction to authority, even when an Anglican, describing himself as "simply the servant and instrument of my Bishop" based on the latter's being "set over me by the Divine Hand." (Id. at 52). His attraction to Rome was only held in check by his firm conviction, at first exultant, later sorrowful, that "the Pope is the antichrist," a position the origin of which Newman does not do much to elucidate.

More fundamentally, his understanding of the Via Media seems to me lacking in his Anglican stage:
It is an expressive title, but not altogether satisfactory, because it is at first sight negative. This had been the reason of my dislike to the word "Protestant;" [in the idea which it conveyed,] it was not the profession of any particular religion at all; and was compatible with infidelity. A Via Media was but a receding from extremes,therefore I had to draw it out into a definite shape[,] and [a] character; before it had claims on our respect, it must first be shown to be one, intelligible, and consistent. This was the first condition of any reasonable treatise on the Via Media.... Even if the Via Media were ever so positive a religious system, it was not as yet objective and real; it had no original any where of which it was the representative. It was at present a paper religion. This I confess in my Introduction; I say, "Protestantism and Popery are real religions ... but the Via Media, viewed as an integral system, has scarcely had existence except on paper." I grant the objection and proceed to lessen it. [There I say,] "It still remains to be tried, whether what is called Anglo-Catholicism, the religion of Andrewes, Laud, Hammond, Butler, and Wilson, is capable of being professed, acted on, and maintained on a large sphere of action, or whether it be a mere modification or transition-state of either Romanism or popular Protestantism." I trusted that some day it would prove to be a substantive religion
(Id. at 64-65).

It's curious that this onetime adherent of Via Media who authored a full length exposition on the subject was unable to view it as anything less than a win for his ecclesiastical faction; Newman apparently saw no value in the Church's containing protestants and Catholics in a dynamic tension that produces a harmony--a reflection of the total of Christian thought and belief. In his desire for a settled, authoritarian Church with one faction triumphant, he is all too familiar to modern Anglicans.

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