Heart to Heart: Newman on the Laity

No Catholic figure, since St. Thomas Aquinas, has matched the creative mind of John Henry Newman. But if he is respected for that today, he is revered for his mind’s identity with his heart, and a heart so great that his heroic virtues have been recognized. He is, as of 1991, the venerable John Henry Newman, and we may rightly ask his heavenly intercession in evidence of his motto, which he took from a phrase of St. Francis de Salescor—ad cor loquitur—heart speaks to heart.

Permit me to indulge one of my most gratifying hobbies, by letting me anticipate the judgment of the Holy See: Unfettered by required authority, I can say that Newman is a saint. And as a truly great and legitimate authority has said that we are living in a culture of death, I look to Newman for a transfusion of life, just as he gave life to his own dying culture. His life spanned, and is nearly a symbol for, the entire spiritual struggle of the nineteenth century, quite as St. Thomas More was for his own magnificent and troubled time.

Newman has already helped us out quite a bit. When John XXIII announced his hopes for the new Council in the encyclical Ad Petri cathedram, in tones, which have a melancholy ring at the shell-shocked end of the century, Newman was the only modern voice quoted among all the apologists, evangelists, Fathers, and popes. Paul VI called Newman’s spiritual journey the greatest of modern times. John Paul II began his pontificate saying that Newman’s genius spoke to him “of deep intellectual honesty, fidelity to conscience and grace, piety and priestly zeal, devotion to Christ’s Church and love of her doctrine, unconditional trust in divine providence and absolute obedience to the will of God.”

Newman predicted a “Second Spring” of the Church. He was a prophet but not a weatherman. Given the supernatural guarantees of Holy Church, it was a sure prophecy; it was less problematic than the Second Vatican Council’s anticipation of a “New Pentecost.” But we must resist the temptation to say bouncily that this Spring has come. Those who detect it in the midst of present clouds may be in the category of those who have announced simultaneously a global warming and a nuclear winter. All we can say for certain is that a Second Spring means there has been a Second Winter; and it may just be that our present time is not even the Second Winter but the tristesse of a Second Autumn.

Toward the end of his life, Newman had that kind of face, and Oscar Wilde called it “that wreck of awful beauty.” If Newman could cast a glance of that face our way, I think he would summon his earthiest Norman English to say that the Church is in a mess. And it would stir his soul, for he relished any opportunity to strike historical parallels.

Springtime is of the saints who have had long winters. So says the almanac of heroic virtue. Holiness is the evidence of virtue lived to the heroic degree as Benedict XIV defined it: “with uncommon promptitude, ease, and pleasure, from supernatural motives and without human reasoning, with self-abnegation and full control over natural inclinations.” It moves virtue beyond that modest state which a secular society tends to think is the most that can be expected.

In The Idea of a University, Newman describes the man living on the natural level of virtue; this gentleman is more worthy than that Hegelian aesthete, or aboriginal “Yuppie,” whom Kierkegaard detested, but he is not the aesthete’s perfect opposite. “It is almost the definition of a gentleman that he never inflicts pain… From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he one day were to be our friend.” And so on. But not necessarily on to heaven; for this kind of fellow will be the model alumnus of the Catholic university typical of our day, but he will not yet be God’s model of a man. He will be all for peace, for comity, and kindliness to endangered animals.

You might say that what distinguishes Newman’s gentleman from Newman’s saint is the mystical ingredient of grace that marks the suburban sentiments of some of the “Glory and Praise” hymnal off from the Te Deum and Dies Irae. For a parable in stone, it is the difference between the academic gothic of the National Cathedral in Washington and the high fabric of Chartres. If you cannot define it, you can sense it in the contrast between the noble pagan and the noble Christian, between the jogger and the ascetic, between Earth Day and Easter, between Al Gore of Washington and Francis of Assisi.

This is the year commemorative of Newman’s conversion, and the spiritual myopia of those days has not improved much into our own. You need only look at what has been done to the liturgy to see that. Clericalism has filled the sanctuaries with lay people performing all sorts of roles contradictory to their baptismal dignity, in a clumsy ballet of amateurish sacerdotalism.

Newman loved the Mass, and with great reverence he explained: “The Mass must not be said without a Missal under the priest’s eye; nor in any language but that in which it has come down to us from the early hierarchs of the Western Church. But, when it is over, and the celebrant has resigned the vestments proper to it, then he resumes himself, and comes to us in the gifts and associations which attach to his person.” It was all part of a sacred and solemn dance, not inflating to the priest nor condescending to the people. His lips would have frozen if required to utter the ICEL translation of the Novus Ordo.

Far worse than the triviality of its language and didacticism, our new clerical servitude of the laity, paraded as a promethean empowerment of the people of God, and its confusion of the anthropology of the sexes, would have made him weep more holy tears than he shed in his own years. For he knew that the music of hell is not dissonance but banality, and he was certain that the politics of hell is not inequality but androgyny.

The heroism of holiness cannot be exotic, for mystery is not mystification. This was a point that Newman never quite succeeded in getting across to neurasthenics like Father Faber who promoted a baroque kind of “in your face” Catholicism which only confirmed his countrymen in their suspicion that his religion was as un-English as it was unworldly. Exoticism is false heroism. It may get attention, as did Mani of the Manichaeans and the guru of the Beatles, but it is not the way of the Son of God who was disdained for belonging to the house of a carpenter. Thus Newman writes in his “Prayers, Verses and Devotions” a clear definition of perfection outside the exotic notion of true heroism:

We must bear in mind what is meant by perfection. It does not mean any extraordinary service, anything out of the way, or especially heroic—not all have the opportunity of heroic acts, of sufferings—but it means what the word perfection ordinarily means. By perfect we mean that which has no flaw in it, that which is complete, that which is consistent, that which is sound—we mean the opposite to imperfect…He then is perfect who does the work of the day perfectly, and we need not go beyond this to seek perfection. You need not go out of the ’round’ of the day.. .. If you ask me what you are to do in order to be perfect, I say, first—Do not lie in bed beyond the due time of rising; give your first thoughts to God; make a good visit to the Blessed Sacrament; say the Angelus devoutly; eat and drink to God’s glory; say the Rosary well; be recollected; keep out bad thoughts; make your evening meditation well; examine yourself daily; go to bed in good time, and you are already perfect.

There is a gentleness in this 1 that surpasses gentility. Newman opens up a domesticity born of familiarity with holy things. So it is important to remember that while he worked hard and was well ordered in his daily regimen, and was certainly a strong man within a natural etherealness, he was appalled by the Evangelicals’ “muscular Christianity” and would have used the term “hearty” as a pejorative, and indeed thought enthusiasm vulgar. The good Tory in him might have been amenable to the advertised moral principles of what journalists call the “Religious Right”; but if he had to hold hands during the Our Father, or attend a Congressional Prayer Breakfast, he would have fainted.

Notoriously, his truly Catholic economy of witness got him into trouble, especially when he spoke “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine.” The lay call to holiness means among other things a summons to the baptized faithful to be faithful to the sacred tradition, and by that faithfulness to show more clearly generation to generation the meaning of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. I do not know if it is ever adequately understood that Newman presumes holiness in the faithful who are consulted. The sacred deposit of the faith is not a pile; it is an endowment, which, while the same for all time, bears new interest with each passing generation. Consultation of the faithful does not consist in Mr. Gallup asking their opinion and coming up with a compromise on difficulty subjects; it is the examination not of whether the faithful believe true things but how they manifest that belief. The faithful are, after all, faithful.

Another of his misunderstood teachings, the development of doctrine, requires “faithfulness to type.” Which is why any encyclical is not a vehicle for mere opinion; and an opinion, even if that of the pope, is accountable to the tradition. And we know that the tradition is sterner and more commanding than nostalgia, for nostalgia is only an affection for the parts of the past you happen to like.

So, too, with conscience, which is a gift more attractive than H.L. Mencken’s definition: he called conscience a mother-in-law whose visit never ends. If obedience to conscience comes even before duty to the pope, it is part of that duty; it comes first in precedence rather than priority; conscience cannot liberate from duty, for only in duty is there true freedom of conscience. The pope’s own duty to his grace of state cannot contradict a conscience that is true to the Holy Spirit. In the famous words of his “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk”: “Conscience has rights because it has duties; but in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations.”

The right use of conscience prevents us masquerading selfishness as authentic personalism; conscience exercised conscientiously prohibits the Heavenly Banquet from degenerating into Cafeteria Catholicism. But that right use is the product of a disciplined interior life. Self-discipline in co-operation with grace saves the self from the indignity of selfishness.

Newman would certainly have been satisfied for example, with the way the encyclical Humanae vitae gracefully indicates the practical application of the development of doctrine, for it makes clear what was always true but which had to be declared true more explicitly. But I expect that he would also have been greatly saddened by the confused way this document was presented, the failure to teach it consistently after it came out, and the neglect of discipline necessary to protect the faithful from misrepresentations of it.

The use of an eclectic commission of advisors was not what Newman meant by consulting the faithful; and the unsteady application of the authentic teaching was not what he expected of the Church’s ordained prophets. Bishops are obliged to represent the economy of tradition as a pastorum et fidelium conspiratio, a breathing together of the shepherds and the faithful; “conspiratio” is not a conspiracy in the idiomatic sense. It is evidence of a common sense of the faith which is a property shared by the laity by baptismal right and not delegated by the hierarchy.

The relationship is similar to the right of a government to establish the tranquility of order by punishing offenders, which right is given by God to the state and not delegated by permission of the Church, though the Church has the complimentary right to offer prudential counsel. All this breaks down into party strivings, divisions, and legalism when it is divorced from the duty to holiness. For then all we are left with is, not rights, but the pedantic and proud crowing for “empowerment.” In his Letters and Diaries the same Newman who is so often misrepresented as the champion of dissent wrote, “It is no trouble to believe, when the Church has spoken; the real trouble is when a number of little Popes start up, laymen often, and preach against Bishops and Priests, and make their own opinions the faith, and frighten simple-minded devout people and drive back inquirers.”

Newman dreaded this deconstruction of the great economy of life in the Church. If the Church is not supernatural, she need not exist. As she is supernatural, she requires a behavior beyond the ways of the world, not to deny the world but to transfigure it in glory.

Newman spoke down to no one, not even from his great mental height. Although he is associated with universities, most of his teaching was to ordinary people: the shopkeepers of Oxford town, the mothers of Littlemore whom he instructed rather improbably in the correct method of bathing infants, immigrants in Birmingham, lads in the Oratory school. He was largely shut out of the great places when he became politically incorrect.

I met a woman whose father had been taught by him in the Oratory school at Birmingham; the boys called him “Jack” behind his back, but they knew it was a great man who sometimes wept when reading to them from Virgil, who edited their school plays, adapting Tacitus for them to recite with the bawdy bits cut out, who ordered the coal and filled out their report cards. There was indeed greatness manifest, not hidden, in all that, and his greatness would have looked incredulously at most of our schools, which are so cynical about the potential of the mind and the demands of the heart. In one of his “Sermons Preached on Various Occasions” he says most decidedly: “Devotion is not a sort of finish given to the science, nor is science a sort of feather in the cap, if I may so express myself, an ornament and set-off to devotion. I want the intellectual layman to be religious, and the devout ecclesiastic to be intellectual.”

Sad to say, even Cardinal Manning did not trust the application of that, even when he materially assented to it. At least he thwarted Newman’s dream of a Catholic presence in Oxford University, and the world was impoverished for it. Most tragic was the defeat of Newman’s vision in Ireland where the local bishops implicated themselves in the failure of his plans for what might have become the greatest Catholic university in the world. He wanted scholars from the nations to teach there, like Orestes Brownson all the way from New York. But the local hierarchy was not altogether comfortable with a man who thought young laymen might be allowed to smoke and play at billiards and become saints.

But on the whole, the bishops wanted to think that because their land had once been a harbor of saints and scholars, it still was. They were unconsoled by Newman’s sharp eye staring through their parochial veil, and his patience and constancy with them were interpreted as manufactured insults. Though Newman was, in some ways, more devoted to Irish nationalism than some of the Irish bishops themselves, and faulted Gerard Manley Hopkins for being less so, he did not enchant the shepherds by suggesting to them that their flocks were wandering on the hills; when he came as a missionary to a land of missionaries, he was not welcomed as such; and his insistence on the universal call to holiness was the horn of an alien invader in an island where inoculation against sin risked insulation from sanctity.

Much of this is spelled out by way of conscious or unconscious cipher in the essays on the Northmen and Normans in England and Ireland, in the Historical Sketches. For Newman pictured his “campaign” in Ireland like that of the role of the Normans sent to Ireland to re-Christianize a land tortured by the conflict between the Danes of Dublin and the Celts of Armagh. In Newman’s instance, the Danes and the Celts were the Irish bishops at odds with themselves, and united only in their opposition to a classically educated laity. Given the pitiful circumstances around them, they understandably wanted to educate the educatable in practical skills, for scientists and physicians were needed where the soil was sullen and the people were sick; Newman encouraged this, and his medical school remains.

It was the bishops’ misfortune to think that cultivation of the imaginative intellect would be at the expense of the cultivation of the land, or that the enlargement of the mind need be a spiritual malignancy. God’s holy elect betrayed themselves when they settled on the word “elitist” as a pejorative. They wanted the university to be a seminary adapted to the routine of laymen, and although it would be for the entire English-speaking world, they were cautious about lay initiatives from abroad or domestic. Such clericalism is disastrous for clerics and laity alike.

While a systematic clericalism may be effective in the short run for providing a political alternative to an oppressive secular government, it sets smoldering a discontent that takes over when political conditions change. Then the Church has to offer more profound spiritual projects than cultural habits when confronted by philosophical secularism. So, in the contemporary case of Poland, for one example, the number of seminarians has dropped by one third in the few years since its liberation; and Ireland now has the lowest per capita rate of ordinations of all the European nations. As with nations, so with the schools of nations; and a Catholic university that pompously proclaims itself “Catholic in ethos” is only signaling that it has lost heart for being Catholic in fact. In the United States, such institutions now are elaborate mausoleums for those who have died in the cultural war.

We cannot rue the lost opportunities of Newman’s campaign without acknowledging their parallels now: the forfeiting of great institutions by those too weak to be their leaders, the naive confidence in bureaucracies and structures as substitutes for the virtue of faith, the clerical suspicion of lay movements moved by prophets, the confusion of vocations with careers, and the nervous refusal to be honest about the looming disaster.

Newman had thought that his campaign in England should be his campaign in Ireland as a beacon for a campaign in all corridors of culture, planting learning and piety once again in apostolic roots deeper than the instincts of counties and clans. His voice today confuses many Catholic leaders in the United States as it did in Ireland, and in his own England. For in England the old-line Catholics, the Recusants, were unsettled by the prospect of disrupting the compromise they had made with the social establishment, not altogether unlike the Kennedy-Camelot compromise of the 1960s, whose illusory romance continues to delude some. Even Newman’s generous friend, the largely self-tutored Bishop Ullathorne of Birmingham, asked him with puzzlement: “Who are the laity?” To which Newman made reply with coruscating bemusement that the Church would look odd without them. For an efficient guide to Newman’s thought on the matter of what an unfoolish Church should look like, Newman directs us to his patron, St. Philip Neri.

He chose Neri’s Oratory for himself, because he did not have a vocation to strictly religious vows. His poverty would not be that of the formally religious kind, and he wanted certain freedoms outside consecrated vows so that he might be more accessible to the culture of the self-consciously independent Victorians. Above all, he venerated St. Philip’s exaltation of holy friendship. We have seen that very concept of friendship disappear in a decaying civilization whose associations are divided almost exclusively between acquaintances and lovers. His private altar at Birmingham is surrounded by pictures of his friends, and the conclusion of the Apologia is almost a liturgical litany of friendship.

Holiness he learned from friends, and holiness he spread among them. It was at the heart of his soul’s naturalness, and he insisted that no spirituality sets a man on the road to holiness if it is not perfectly natural and attractive. An evangelist must attract, and he only repulses those who resist by perverted will. The hardest trials of his life were the loss of friends; such loss was a reminder of what it would be like to lose Christ whom he never lost.

In his deepest spiritual affliction, when he had to give up his Anglican parish and a way of life that outwardly had no tedium, his sermon was not “The Dark Night of the Soul” for he thought it more encompassing to call it “The Parting of Friends.” This was his intelligence of the matter: you are not much of a saint if you are not much of a friend; and the way to befriend others is to befriend Christ. It is one thing to love Christ, and that we must do if we are to be with him forever; but it is another wonderful thing to like Christ, and that we must do if heaven is to be heavenly.

He explained this delicately to a little girl who, upon seeing him robed in the red mantle of a cardinal, grew dazzled and asked him if he was a saint. Breaking the embarrassed silence of the adults standing around, he replied, “My child, cardinals are of the earth, saints are of heaven.” In that moment he made a friend of the girl, and I expect he also made her a friend of the Lord.

*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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