It is one of the commonplaces of the genius of Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman that while he might have written for set occasions, he always found ways to transcend them.
Examples of this abound. We can point to the letters he wrote to the editor of the Times in 1841 under the pseudonym Catholicus to protest the launching of the Tamworth Reading Room, which might have taken issue with Lord Brougham and Sir Robert Peel for launching a library to promote the march of mind, but which nevertheless made a permanent contribution to our understanding of the radical limits of merely secular knowledge.
We can point to the Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England (1851), which Newman might have undertaken to respond to the No Popery hysteria that greeted Pius IX's reconstitution of the hierarchy in England during the period known as "papal aggression," but which brilliantly undermined the Whig interpretation of the English Reformation more than a hundred years before the revisionist histories of J. J. Scarisbrick and Christopher Haigh.
Similarly, Newman began the writing of the Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864) to answer Charles Kingsley's aspersions but ended by giving his readers a work of autobiography of incomparable depth, richness, beauty, and charm. The Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1875) is yet another example: Newman might have written it to repulse Prime Minister William Gladstone's "rambling and slovenly" attacks against the probity of English Catholics after the First Vatican Council, but when he put down his pen, he had produced a book on the nature of conscience that entirely transcended any debate that his contemporaries might have wished to have on the advisability of the Church's calling a council to define papal infallibility.
These are just a few examples of how Newman's ebullient mind outsoared the confines of the occasional. Yet one work of his continues to be misjudged by being wrongly relegated to such confines, and that is his Lectures on Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Submitting to the Catholic Church (1850; final edition 1876), which he addressed to his erstwhile friends in the Tractarian Movement, or what he styled the "Movement of 1833." It is true that the lectures largely seek to dissuade the Anglo Catholic party from remaining within the National Church of England, but it is very much more than that.
First and foremost, it is a far-ranging meditation on one of Newman's most abiding and insistent themes, the Church and the World, a theme which he would take up not only in his sermons but in Arians of the Fourth Century (1832), An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), Loss and Gain (1847), Callista (1850), and The Idea of a University (1875). It is a reaffirmation of the unity of the Church. It is an inquiry into the varieties of Erastianism, which, as Newman shows, presents a continual threat to the integrity of the Church's unique mission in the world.
It is a meditation on the nature of history, proof that the best historians are not always those who call themselves historians. "History is at this day undergoing a process of revolution; the science of criticism, the disinterment of antiquities, the unrolling of manuscripts, the interpretation of inscriptions, have thrown us into a new world of thought," Newman wrote in Lecture V, "characters and events come forth transformed in the process; romance, prejudice, local tradition, party bias, are no longer accepted as guarantees of truth; the order and mutual relation of events are readjusted; the springs and the scope of action are reversed."
In revisiting the "romance," "prejudice," "local tradition," and "party bias" of the National Church, Newman fired off a wonderful salvo in that "revolution," though it remains a salvo that some quarters have understandably preferred to leave unanswered. Since the theme that Newman eventually settled upon required him to speak of his own contributions to the Movement of 1833, the book includes elements of autobiography, which, pace his detractors, show how averse he was to anything smacking of self-vindication.
On the contrary, no one comes in for more pointed criticism in the lectures than Newman himself. In this sense, it is a dress rehearsal for the Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864). Elaborating on the Essay on Development and foreshadowing certain aspects of the Grammar of Assent and the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, it irradiates the unity of Newman's work. Lastly, as many who attended the lectures saw, they are a dazzling exhibition of Newman's considerable literary gifts — which can hardly be appreciated or enjoyed if the lectures are discounted in advance as little more than volleys in superannuated controversy.
An excerpt from Difficulties of Anglicans, Volume I by St. John Henry Cardinal Newman:
The Church professes to judge after the judgment of the Almighty; and it cannot be imprudent or impolitical to bring this out clearly and boldly. His judgment is not as man's: "I judge not according to the look of man," He says, "for man seeth those things which appear, but the Lord beholdeth the heart." The Church aims at realities, the world at decencies; she dispenses with a complete work, so she can but make a thorough one. Provided she can do for the soul what is necessary, if she can but pull the brands out of the burning, if she can but extract the poisonous root which is the death of the soul, and expel the disease, she is content, though she leaves in it lesser maladies, little as she sympathises with them.
All I would say to the world is — keep your theories to yourselves, do not inflict them upon the sons of Adam everywhere; do not measure heaven and earth by views which are in a great degree insular, and can never be philosophical and catholic.
Now, were it to my present purpose to attack the principles and proceedings of the world, of course it would be obvious for me to retort upon the cold, cruel, selfish system, which this supreme worship of comfort, decency, and social order necessarily introduces; to show you how the many are sacrificed to the few, the poor to the wealthy, how an oligarchical monopoly of enjoyment is established far and wide, and the claims of want, and pain, and sorrow, and affliction, and guilt, and misery, are practically forgotten.
But I will not have recourse to the commonplaces of controversy when I am on the defensive. All I would say to the world is — keep your theories to yourselves, do not inflict them upon the sons of Adam everywhere; do not measure heaven and earth by views which are in a great degree insular, and can never be philosophical and catholic.
You do your work, perhaps, in a more business-like way, compared with ourselves, but we are immeasurably more tender, and gentle, and angelic than you. We come to poor human nature as the Angels of God, and you as policemen. Look at your poor-houses, hospitals, and prisons; how perfect are their externals! what skill and ingenuity appear in their structure, economy, and administration! They are as decent, and bright, and calm, as what our Lord seems to name them — dead men's sepulchres.
Yes! They have all the world can give, all but life; all but a heart. Yes! You can hammer up a coffin, you can plaster a tomb; you are nature's undertakers; you cannot build it a home. You cannot feed it or heal it; it lies, like Lazarus, at your gate, full of sores. You see it gasping and panting with privations and penalties; and you sing to it, you dance to it, you show it your picture-books, you let off your fireworks, you open your menageries. Shallow philosophers! is this mode of going on so winning and persuasive that we should imitate it?
The Church, though she embraces all conceivable virtues in her teaching, and every kind of good, temporal as well as spiritual, in her exertions, does not survey them from the same point of view, or classify them in the same order as the world. She makes secondary what the world considers indispensable; she places first what the world does not even recognise, or undervalues, or dislikes, or thinks impossible; and not being able, taking mankind as it is found, to do everything, she is often obliged to give up altogether what she thinks of great indeed, but of only secondary moment, in a particular age or a particular country, instead of effecting at all risks that extirpation of social evils, which, in the world's eyes, is so necessary, that it thinks nothing really is done till it is secured.
Her base of operations, from the difficulties of the season or the period, is sometimes not broad enough to enable her to advance against crime as well as against sin, and to destroy barbarism as well as irreligion. The world, in consequence, thinks, that because she has not done the world's work, she has not fulfilled her Master's purpose; and imputes to her the enormity of having put eternity before time. . . .
It is indefinitely . . . difficult, even with the supernatural powers given to the Church, to make the most refined, accomplished, amiable of men, chaste or humble; to bring, not only his outward actions, but his thoughts, imaginations, and aims, into conformity to a law which is naturally distasteful to him. It is not wonderful, then, if the Church does not do so much in the Church's way, as the world does in the world's way. The world has nature as an ally, and the Church, on the whole, and as things are, has nature as an enemy.
The world ... thinks, that because [the Church] has not done the world's work, she has not fulfilled her Master's purpose; and imputes to her the enormity of having put eternity before time.
And lastly, as I have implied, her best fruit is necessarily secret: she fights with the heart of man; her perpetual conflict is against the pride, the impurity, the covetousness, the envy, the cruelty, which never gets so far as to come to light; which she succeeds in strangling in its birth. From the nature of the case, she ever will do more in repressing evil than in creating good; moreover, virtue and sanctity, even when realised, are also in great measure secret gifts, known only to God and good Angels; for these, then, and other reasons, the powers and the triumphs of the Church must be hid from the world, unless the doors of the Confessional could be flung open, and its whispers carried abroad on the voices of the winds. Nor indeed would even such disclosures suffice for the due comparison of the Church with religions which aim at no personal self-government, and disown on principle examination of conscience and confession of sin; but in order to our being able to do justice to that comparison, we must wait for the Day when the books shall be opened and the secrets of hearts shall be disclosed.
For all these reasons, then, from the peculiarity, and the arduousness, and the secrecy of the mission entrusted to the Church, it comes to pass that the world is led, at particular periods, to think very slightly of the Church's influence on society, and vastly to prefer its own methods and its own achievements.
Edward Short. "Editor's Introduction." Difficulties of Anglicans, Volume I(2020).
This article reprinted with permission from the publisher, Gracewing.
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