Declan Kiberd on John Henry Newman: Protholic or Cathestant?

Newman lived his life on the boundaries and was one of the enablers of a modernist literature

John Henry Newman: his Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864) is considered a classic among religious autobiographies. Photograph: The Print Collector/Getty

John Henry Newman: his Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864) is considered a classic among religious autobiographies. Photograph: The Print Collector/Getty

 

Saintliness is, like heroism, never conscious of itself as such. John Henry Newman (1801-1890) would be astonished by his canonisation this month; yet he tried very hard to be holy. In his own time, he feared that traditional forms of Christianity were declining into merely ethical codes. Ethics were important but they were ultimately concerned with how people conducted relationships with one another; for him this was a matter quite different from how they related to God.

The poet WB Yeats took this distinction even further, arguing that if people had more religion they would have fewer morals and that less moralising would be a good thing in a world of finger-pointing. “The moral impulse and the religious kill one another in the end,” he concluded, anticipating today’s exhausting, frustrating collisions between old-time religion and liberal ethics. In Yeats’s church there would be an altar and no pulpit. In Newman’s a real presence, not just a diffused signalling of virtue.

Newman's life proves that those who oppose the spirit of an age often capture its innermost spirit far more fully than those who merely reflect it. They also expose its limitations

Nineteenth-century scholars had thrown fundamental elements of the Christian Bible into question. Newman thought he had an answer: though accepting that the New Testament offered guidance, he recommended a return to the teachings of the early founders of Christianity. Himself an eminent Victorian, he was also an insurgent against the spirit of that age. His life proves that those who oppose the spirit of an age often capture its innermost spirit far more fully than those who merely reflect it. They also expose its limitations.

Victorians believed in scientific method; but for Newman that could only take you so far. There was a wider set of questions, ultimately mysterious: the intervention of a loving God in the life of man, which went beyond all debates around the issue of “justification”. If there had been a Big Bang, who caused it?

Leading the Oxford Movement for a renovated Anglicanism, Newman was recognised as its foremost thinker at that moment when he went over to Roman Catholicism in 1845, unleashing years of controversy and moral panic. Yet his writings have since the Second Vatican Council remained a valuable and clarifying point of connection in ecumenical debates between Catholic and Protestant.

Which is why he may be a saint for our times. His thinking, like that of saints and great artists, offers answers to questions which nobody had bothered to ask, and to needs not yet fully defined. He believed in the priesthood of the laity and suspected specialists in any subject. The opinions of lay persons ought to be considered by the Catholic church as a counter to clericalism.

This was smart thinking given that many brilliant Catholics who chose the religious life could not (officially) reproduce themselves. To Newman it was obvious that the children of Protestant rectories had been a powerhouse for Victorian thought, but Catholicism was relying far too heavily for its intellectual content on the ideas of its converts. It too needed to renovate by a “return to the source”.

He founded a Catholic University in Dublin in 1854 (precursor of UCD) with the hope that it would be a training-ground for a lay intelligentsia not only in Ireland but more generally in the English-speaking world. His lectures on “The Idea of a University” are still invoked as the compelling argument for a liberal arts education in an era when many universities have been reduced by witless philistines to a “business model”. Given that Newman’s audience had memories of dire famine when he gave the lectures in the 1850s, one can only admire the courage of an Englishman telling the parents of a rising generation that the arts were of immense value.

He was as good as his word. When he had gone to Oxford the undergraduate study of literature was of Latin and Greek: but, ahead of his time as ever, he established the curricular study of English and other literatures in Dublin. Despite disapproval from clerical and British authorities, he appointed supporters of Young Ireland to the chairs at the new university (including Denis Florence MacCarthy). If he had been born Irish, Newman said, he would have been a rebel.

His openness to having many subjects of study was based on a firm conviction that the interplay of different disciplines and codes led to an augmented culture. This was quite at variance with Matthew Arnold’s notion that the cultivation of cultural difference could lead to anarchy.

John Henry Newman: he was called a traitor to England when he converted to Catholicism – yet the heir to his country’s throne acclaimed him in Rome last Sunday. Photograph: AP Photo/Catholic Church
John Henry Newman: he was called a traitor to England when he converted to Catholicism – yet the heir to his country’s throne acclaimed him in Rome last Sunday. Photograph: AP Photo/Catholic Church

Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua (Defence of His Own Life 1864) was a comprehensive, playful and scathing demolition of critics of his conversion: but it also became a model of the modern “conversion narrative”. James Joyce, who revered Newman as the foremost stylist in English, used that model as he recorded his unfolding vocation to a life of art in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

In Ulysses Joyce would himself parody the styles of many predecessors in English. His imitation of Newman’s prose is, however, so straight-faced and faithful as to be a homage. It may also contain secret keys to certain episodes of the masterpiece. “There are sins or (let us call them as the world calls them) evil memories which are hidden away by men in the darkest places of the heart…Yet a chance word will call them forth suddenly and they will rise up to confront him…” This passage shows how suppressed day-time experiences erupt into Leopold Bloom’s nightly dreams – as he is submitted to those very indignities which he inflicted on a woman in an earlier episode. It would hardly be stretching things to see Newman, in this context, as an enabler of the Nighttown episode set in the red-light district. But it is a curious consideration – the sources of Ulysses may not always be found where one would expect them.

If Newman were to return to Earth now, he would be amazed that his Apologia is among the English classics

There is, of course, a central irony in all this. For all his prophetic gifts, Newman never foresaw the emergence of a strongly Irish school of letters, much less one grounded in the thought and aesthetic of Catholicism. In his scheme of things, the imaginative satisfactions provided by Catholicism obviated the need for any developed literature at all. His own case proved the point, he felt – for in strict terms his literary autobiography (as far as he was concerned) ended on the day he became a Catholic in 1845. He who had once been an Anglican clergyman was ordained a priest in Rome in 1847.

Newman thought of literature in English as an essentially Protestant phenomenon (with a few exceptional cases such as Alexander Pope). Joyce concurred with that, but only up to a point: for him the great days of English literature were those which witnessed the production of texts based on Catholic models. Chaucer was the English Boccaccio, Shakespeare an “Italianate Englishman”, and Milton’s Paradise Lost a “puritan transcript of Dante’s Commedia”. Thereafter, the literature shrunk to mere Englishness, but Joyce saw himself as restoring (and updating) the cultural codes of a medieval, Catholic Europe.

If Newman were to return to Earth now, he would be amazed that his Apologia is among the English classics; and even more astonished that the university which he founded has produced so many writers who adopted his approach, at once mystical and modern, done in a ludic and deeply playful spirit – not only Joyce, but Austin Clarke, Flann O’Brien, Brian Coffey, Denis Devlin and many more.

Of course, his influence was far wider. It extended to writers like Oscar Wilde who were crossing over towards Catholicism. When Wilde was thrown in jail, a liberal prison governor asked whether he would care for any books to sweeten his solitude: the convicted man at once requested the works of Newman. The dandy element in Newman’s prose and presentation had led enemies to suggest that he was effeminate. For Wilde that cultivation of a multiple self was deeply attractive, as was the use of playful irony against opponents.

Many famous 19th-century persons hesitated for a long time before converting. Wilde waited until the start of the 20th century, although his art is based on the Catholic idea that one is educated by one’s sins, the famous “felix culpa” or “happy fault”. Newman’s best-known poem, Lead, Kindly Light, is a beautiful meditation on how the spirit proceeds in darkness through the uncertain night to a moment of recognition.

One reason why Wilde procrastinated for so long was his reservation about papal infallibility. Though attracted by the high art of Roman liturgy, Wilde would never allow any pope to tell him what he could or couldn’t think. This was a scruple shared by Newman, who said he would drink “to conscience first and the Pope afterwards”. In this respect, also, he anticipated modern forms of Catholicism at their intersection with Protestant notions of self-election, and the related proposition that lay Catholics should be free to make their own choices, on the basis of a conscience properly informed by church tradition.

Canonization: Newman is the first British saint since St John Ogilvie in 1976. Photograph: Arthur Edwards/Getty
Canonization: Newman is the first British saint since St John Ogilvie in 1976. Photograph: Arthur Edwards/Getty

Newman, like Karl Marx, saw Ireland as a laboratory of ideas, a test-case of the modern. Marx believed that the attack on class society had begun with insurrections against landlordism in Ireland and would spread to Britain and beyond. Newman saw his university as producing a new generation of scholars, ready to invigorate Catholicism in those places where it was under stress – most of all that England in which, despite Emancipation, anti-Catholicism had gone underground while remaining at the centre of the cultural establishment.

He made a compelling case in a world of bean-counting for the university as a utopian space, a zone for the free play of all ideas. Yet he was also an artist. By virtue of taking a step beyond his inherited community, he did what was in some ways a very Protestant thing – upholding the right of the individual mind to see the world in its own way.

In the end, however, he made a choice. He stepped out of a comfort zone and took the consequences

His late, great book, A Grammar of Assent (1870), shows how important it can be to believe certain things one cannot understand – or, more precisely, to believe them in order to understand (as the psychologist CG Jung would later express the same idea). Assent may be conscious or unconscious – but it is a condition of being in the world. There was no reason for believers to act defensive and go on the back foot when confronted by secularists who believed all sorts of impossible things.

Newman lived his life on the border between Protestantism and Catholicism, in an agonising boundary situation well familiar to many today – those who sometimes feel that they may be Protholics or Cathestants. In the end, however, he made a choice. He stepped out of a comfort zone and took the consequences. He was called a traitor to England and to its still established faith – yet the heir to his country’s throne acclaimed him in Rome last Sunday. Now Newman is regarded as a saint in the wider Catholic world – and as one of the enablers of a modernist literature.

Declan Kiberd will give a talk on the canonization of the founder at Newman’s Chapel, St Stephen’s Green at 7.30pm on Sunday, October 20th. Prof Kiberd has just been inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

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