On the path towards sainthood


BIOGRAPHY: PÁDRAIC CONWAYreviews Newman's Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint, by John Cornwell, Continuum, 273pp, £18.99

IN THE Irish College in Rome, there is a striking marble monument to Daniel O’Connell. It shows O’Connell at the bar of the House of Commons refusing to take the anti-Catholic oath. The words placed on O’Connell’s lips – “I at once reject this declaration, part of it I believe to be untrue, and the rest I know to be false” – are a more dramatic version of what he actually said. They were composed by John Henry Newman. This fact is given added piquancy when we recall that the contemporary thanks Robert Peel, MP for Oxford University, received from John Henry Newman, fellow of Oriel College, for his efforts in the cause of Catholic Emancipation was to be called “a rat”. Consistency was no hobgoblin of this mind.

The removal of the O’Connell monument in 1927, from the Church of S Agatha dei Gothi to the current Irish College on the Coelian hill, led to shock on the part of the college authorities when nothing was found behind the monument; the urn containing O’Connell’s heart had disappeared. One can sense the fellow-feeling, across the generations, between the Irish clergy in Rome at that time and the Oratorians in Rednal in October 2008, standing over the empty tomb of John Henry Newman.

There is a long, if ambivalent, history of Irish reviews of English biographies of Newman. Reviewing Wilfrid Ward’s two-volume offering, in the Irish Ecclesiastical Recordin February 1912, Canon John F Hogan was admirably direct: “The fact is that Dr Newman came to Ireland, like a great many British Chief Secretaries, full of the idea that Irish people did not know what was good for them and that if they wished to make any advance . . . they should leave everything that concerned them in his own hands”. Hogan goes on to talk about both Newman’s deficiencies in relation to practical business and his capacity to take mortal offence. It is a tribute to Hogan’s own range that he can nonetheless conclude his review with the statement that Ward has “placed Catholics under a deep obligation for this beautiful and inspiring biography”.

What Hogan does detect, correctly, in Ward is a tendency present in many early biographies of Newman which could be summed up in the phrase: “Great man – pity about the seven years with the Paddies”. This tendency to see Newman’s Dublin sojourn as nothing but an embarrassing failure persisted into the middle of the last century when it was corrected by the scholarship of UCD figures such as Roger McHugh and, pre-eminently, by the Jesuit Fergal McGrath. Apart from highlighting, correctly, the significance of the Dublin origins of The Idea of a University, they emphasised the success and continuity of elements as diverse as Newman’s medical school and the Literary and Historical Debating Society in the new University College Dublin.

Diarmaid MacCulloch has written that the best argument for Newman’s canonisation is the fact that he survived all the mean-spirited things done to him after his conversion by his fellow Catholics and still died loving the Roman Catholic Church. It is Newman’s imminent beatification that, as well as giving the work under review its subtitle, has brought certain dimensions of his life and thought into relief.

Newman was buried in the same grave as his confrere Ambrose St John, a fact which has led to too much lurid and ill-informed speculation and controversy. The Tabletgot it right, it seems, when it said that anachronistic speculation as to whether Newman was gay makes it look like we want to define him by the sin against chastity which he was most likely to commit, when in fact he was most unlikely to commit any.

The notion of miracle as deployed in the canonisation process is a comparatively recent one, being dependent on an equally recent understanding of what constitutes science and the laws of nature. But a source as orthodox as the 1911 Catholic Enycyclopediastated that “the glory of God and the good of men are the primary or supreme ends of every miracle”. And of the life of every saint, one might add. More’s the pity, then, that speculation about individual pathologies and not these gospel themes should dominate consideration of the lives of the would-be saints.

Apart from the intervention of a gremlin who has rendered Littlemore throughout as “littletons”, the main flaw in this otherwise most valuable book is the suggestion that Newman’s primary significance is as a writer or “literary man”. This is to miss the point that Newman’s writing was entirely at the service of its message: he aspired to greatness not as a writer but as an apostle, a witness to the reality of God in people’s hearts and lives. The Irish theologian Joseph S O’Leary put it best when he said: “all of Newman’s writings proceed from a single apologetical intent; to miss it is to reduce them to a quaint collection of Victoriana”.

There is no doubt that a more conservative interpretation of Newman currently holds sway. Nonetheless, as the doyen of Newman’s theological interpreters, Nicholas Lash, has rightly pointed out: it is only second-rate scholarship that attempts to appropriate a figure like Newman to a partisan point of view. Nothing is as subversive of the current, bizarre attempt to vindicate what might be called the McQuaid “nothing new under the sun” interpretation of Vatican II as to recall Newman’s influence on the Council. His confrere, the late Stephen Dessain, put it well when he wrote: “At the Second Vatican Council the tides of clericalism, over-centralisation, creeping infallibility, narrow unhistorical theology and exaggerated mariology were thrown back, while the things Newman stood for were brought forward – freedom, the supremacy of conscience, the Church as a communion, the return to Scripture and the fathers, the rightful place of the laity, work for unity, and all the efforts to meet the needs of the age, and for the Church to take its place in the modern world”.

The Irish theologian George Tyrrell, reflecting on Newman’s being made a cardinal by Leo XIII, expressed the fear that the eminence of Newman’s position might distract from the distinctiveness of his thought. There could be no more salutary thought to keep in mind as we contemplate his progress towards sainthood.

Pádraic Conway is director of the UCD International Centre for Newman Studies and a vice-president of the university. He is co-editor of the forthcoming Karl Rahner: Theologian for the Twenty-First Century(Peter Lang)