A great Christian, a great EnglishmanCONRAD BLACK
Many may not have noticed the ascent of John Henry Cardinal Newman up the exacting heights of the blessed and toward the officially saintly, a progress that will bring Pope Benedict XVI to England this month.
This occasion underlines that Newman must rank among the very greatest Englishmen of any time or faith. His distinction as a man, intellect, writer and philosopher would be no less if there were no thought of his possession of saintly and miraculous powers. It rests on his moral and intellectual courage, genius and worldwide influence as a writer, educator and theological philosopher, and his personification of many of the most admired characteristics of the English people, as both they and the world perceive them.
In his years in the Church of England, Newman did his best to justify its claim to be part of the "One, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church," and conceived, with Keble, Froude and other Tractarians, the Via Media, which understood the Church of England as a halfway house between Rome and popular Protestantism, between what Protestants traditionally regard as Rome's exaggerated claim to authority and the Non-Conformist view of spontaneous religiosity.
When attacked by the Anglican bishops for the Popish tendencies exhibited in his 1841 pamphlet Tract 90, Newman agreed to refrain from further controversial tracts. Nevertheless, at the age of 40, he was effectively cast out, and violently attacked throughout Protestant Britain as a papist agent. He became a Roman Catholic in 1845 at the age of 44, but was at first mistrusted in much of the Roman world as an exotic and tempestuous itinerant, from a country that was apostate, and whose Roman Catholic community had endured 300 years of fluctuating but almost unbroken discrimination.
Newman found himself a party almost of one, isolated and despised. "Blessings of friendship to my door, unasked, unhoped, came. They came and they went. They came to my great joy. They went to my great sorrow. He who gave took away," he wrote.
Yet over time, Newman made Catholicism respected in Britain by his refusal to join the ranks of reactionary Catholics or to be less conspicuously English in his attitudes. More than anyone else, he de-fanged the widely believed English caricature of the grasping, insidious, alien papist monster. He changed the widespread impression in England of Catholics from a rag-tag of drunken, priest-ridden, proliferating Irish labourers and a few respectable ancient recusant families, to an intellectually distinguished and patriotic pillar of the nation.
Moreover, he fought the battle of faith on behalf of all Christians, and provided the greatest and most rigorous Christian argument for the existence of God since Thomas Aquinas. He wrote not only with burning expressions of faith, surer of God's existence "than that I have hands and feet," and with intellectual arguments of great refinement and elegance, but also with sudden lurches into the secular, as when he quoted "the great man who so swayed the destiny of the nations of Europe in the early years of this century." Napoleon, the defeat of whose navy at Trafalgar Newman well remembered from the age of four, in 1805, was then invoked, in the last pages of Grammar of Assent (on the authority of the not always reliable Lacordaire), to the effect that Christ, having "died the death of a miscreant … had accomplished (in general veneration) what Alexander, Caesar and I have not begun to accomplish. Can he be less than divine, to whom our eyes turn as to a father and a God?"
Newman's faith was accessible to everyone. "Lead kindly light … lead thou me on … One step enough for me," he wrote while still an Anglican, and becalmed in the Straits of Bonifacio off Sicily in 1833. I believe that he was, with Abraham Lincoln, the most elegant writer of English non-fiction prose of the 19th century. ( The Idea of a University, Apologia Pro Vita Sua and The Second Spring were particularly but not uncharacteristically brilliant.) Though often ill-tempered, Newman was not vain. And his writing, a colossal volume of work spanning 70 years, never sought to dazzle the reader. Like the greatest 20th-century writers, such as Joseph Conrad or George Orwell, his prose was spare and simple, stirred to adjectival or polysyllabic climaxes only by the gravity or intensity of his thought.
His effort to found a Catholic university in Dublin was sabotaged by the very parties who had most to gain from it: the narrowminded custodians of insular Irish victim-Catholicism, which are not extinct, even today. Yet the project produced Newman's educational concepts, luminously written, and a beacon for all subsequent educators in every land.
Likewise, his effort to establish an Oratory at Oxford was sabotaged by his fellow Catholics, whose every declared purpose should have motivated them to support such an initiative. Cardinal Manning, his talented but devious rival, who tried to prevent his elevation to the cardinalate, obstructed almost everything he did for 30 years, and then eulogized him in the Brompton Oratory as "my friend and mentor of 50 years."
Despite decades of disappointment, Newman never yielded to public anger, offended or disappointed ego, envy, defeatism or lagging faith. As he told the bishops in his sermon The Second Spring, when the Roman Catholic Church of England was reconstructed on a diocesan basis in 1850, after a lapse of 300 years: "Spring passes into summer and through summer and autumn into winter, the more surely by its ultimate return to triumph over that grave towards which it resolutely hastens from its first hour. We mourn for the blossoms of May because they are to wither. Yet we know withal, that May shall have its revenge upon November, in the revolution of that solemn circle that never stops and that teaches us in our height of hope ever to be sober, and in our depth of desolation never to despair."
For almost an entire century, until his death in 1890, Newman was the unflagging champion of intellectual and intuitive Christian faith, who revealed the inconsistencies of the Established Church, yet was a force for Christian reconciliation, and always dissented from what was trendy and opportunistic. He was as representative of the highest form of the English character as Samuel Johnson or the Duke of Wellington. The same man who opposed the Crimean War, as besmirching British integrity by propping up the Ottomans, who rendered unto the Pope what was his, "could not imagine being or wanting to be anything but English."
When he died in his 90th year, the whole Christian world mourned him. There is a Cardinal Newman School in almost every community in the once-Christian world.
Pope Benedict XVI is one of the greatest intellects who has held that office in several centuries, a man of great philosophical scholarship, rigour and originality, as well as an accomplished writer, linguist, practical administrator and musician. His visit to Britain this month is to render homage to a man he regards as an intellectual giant, endowed with a character of comparably exceptional quality, which he believes, on the evidence of ecclesiastical scrutiny, has been recognized and amplified by divine blessings. Those who share that faith are uplifted by Newman's intelligence and character. Those who do not should at least be aware that in his lifetime and in the 120 years since his death, Newman has carried the British colours in his spheres of endeavour with a brilliance, panache and durability that has put him in, or close to, the company of history's most distinguished Englishmen, the exalted realm of Shakespeare and Churchill. John Henry Newman is being elevated for a rare fusion of genius and virtue that does great honour to his country, but transcends nationality, denomination and religion itself.
Conrad Black, "A great Christian, a great Englishman." National Post, (Canada) September 4, 2010.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post. A longer version of this article was published in Britain's Mail on September 5, 2010.
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