Saturday 8 April 2006

John Henry Newman

[From my review, awaiting publication, of Fr Ian Ker's 'The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845-1961'.]

This immensely timely book begins with the lesser know second part of Newman’s The Idea of a University (1873), the more practical University Subjects Discussed in Occasional Lectures and Essays. Specifically Fr Ker’s concern is with the "curiously self-falsifying" Catholic Literature in the English Tongue, 1854-8. Newman, anticipating T S Eliot’s What Is A Classic? (1944), argues that English literature received its classics long ago, and that those are so Protestant that English literary culture can never produce a Catholic literature.
Fr Ker calls his book not so much a work "of revisionism as of realisation: … of making real the extent to which Catholicism informed and shaped a considerable corpus of literature in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries."
He begins with Newman’s post-conversion "discovery" of what Catholicism was actually like in practice. Newman’s authority, up to and including the reason for his conversion, was ever the Fathers. On becoming a Catholic, he knew very little, in concrete terms, of the Mediaeval and post-Tridentine development of doctrine, even though he had so recently written on that principle.
"This whole post-conversion process of discovering Catholicism was not only of theological significance," writes Fr Ker. During that period, Newman took to writing apologetic satires and novels, including what he himself considered his best book, 1851’s Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England. This "contains some of the finest prose satire in the language," and the delivery of the Lectures themselves "was a significant moment in English cultural history, as for the first time since the Reformation a writer of genius confronted head-on the triumphalism of the "No Popery" tradition."
Like every writer treated in this book, Newman contrasted the ordinariness of religion in a Catholic society with the Protestant fencing-off of religion from everyday life. Writing for Anglo-Catholics in 1850, he points out that a Catholic country was notable for the whole population’s acceptance of the tenets and practice of Catholicism as simply matters of fact, taken for granted by "good and bad, young and old, rich and poor."
Catholic practice might not necessarily be dignified or tasteful (although this reviewer would hope that it might be), but it is always vital, alive. The priests have not the "pompousness" of the Anglican clergy, and do not speak in a "parsonal voice" laden with class implications and calculated to cut off religion from everyday life. The worship does not consist primarily, as that of the Book of Common Prayer does almost entirely, in the reading out of words, and moreover of words that one has to be educated and refined in order to understand.
Newman pursues these themes in the first of what Fr Ker regards as his two underrated novels, Loss and Gain: The Story of a Convert (1848). The hero, Charles Reding, converts to Catholicism, and the book ends with him praying before the Blessed Sacrament, the embodied objective reality of Catholicism. This would have been an inconceivable anachronism in the second novel, Callista (1856), set in the third century. But "the external objective reality of Christianity is very much to the fore," all the same. Callista objects to the Christian doctrine of hell, but the priest Caecilius explains it as "nothing other than the eternal prison of the self cut off from God." The very existence of the human religious impulse requires that its Object also exist. Like Reding, Callista converts in the end.
How does having read either or both of Newman’s novels illuminate those of the better-known novelists? What is the comparable relationship between The Dream of Gerontius and, above all, the works of the already more canonical English poets? And what is the precise place of the Lectures in English cultural and intellectual history, up to and including the present day? Their 150th anniversary went unmarked that this reviewer can recall.
And what are the Postmodern implications of Newman’s Oxonian fascination with the Catholic priest’s apparent classlessness? How does what the Church understands about each of the three degrees of sacramental ordination, and also about the charisms of Religious Brothers and Sisters, at once complement and critique, so as to transcend (and thus uphold) each of aristocratic, proletarian and authentically bourgeois identity? And what has this to say to the pseudo-bourgeois hyper-individualism of the present age?

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