Apart from his literary influence, John Henry Newman’s stature as a theologian is inestimable and his contribution to the fields of philosophy and history are not inconsiderable. And, above all, he was a man whose holiness has touched millions. It is for this reason that he was canonized and it is for this reason, beyond all other lesser reasons, that we should celebrate the life and legacy of this great saint.
The following interview of Joseph Pearce by Jan Franczak was undertaken for the Polish Journal PCh24. This is its first publication in English.
Jan Franczak: A year ago Cardinal John Henry Newman was canonized. What is the significance of that canonization both for Great Britain and the rest of the world?
Joseph Pearce: From a British perspective Newman’s canonization signifies the positive and enduring influence of the Catholic Revival which Newman’s conversion in 1845 heralded. In the wake of Newman’s conversion and the seismic shockwaves it sent through the British ecclesial and political establishment, the Revival gained momentum. Without his conversion and its cultural and theological impact, it’s possible that the Revival might never have happened, or at least not on the same scale.
From a global perspective, Newman’s canonization cements his place as one of the most influential theologians of the past two hundred years. His exposition of the development of doctrine within the constraints imposed by Tradition has helped clarify the distinction between the rootedness of authentic development and the rootlessness of modernism. In addition, his great scholarship on the Early Church and on the early heresies has added to the Church’s deposit of knowledge in these areas.
JF: You consider Newman’s conversion in 1845 as one which heralded the Catholic Revival in Great Britain. Why was it so important that, as you said, it sent “the seismic shockwaves through the British ecclesial and political establishment”? Weren’t there any equally important conversions from Anglicanism to Catholicism before? What was so special about this one?
JP: I consider the Catholic Revival to have had its roots in the English Romantic reaction to the scientism of the self-named “Enlightenment” and the secularism of the French Revolution, especially as this reaction was made manifest in the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge and in the neo-medievalism of Walter Scott. In this sense, the Revival took root at the end of the eighteenth century. It was, however, Newman’s conversion in 1845 which announced to the British establishment that the Catholic presence in English culture was once more a force to be reckoned with. Newman was so highly respected as a scholar and a preacher, and as a giant of letters, that his embrace of Rome established the intellectual and cultural bona fides of the Catholic Church. After Newman’s conversion, it was much more difficult for anyone in England to simply dismiss Catholicism as “a religion for foreigners.”
JF: You say “a religion for foreigners.” The Irish, willing or not, were British subjects at that time (part of them still are), but they were Catholics. Could we remind our Polish readers briefly what the situation of Catholics in Great Britain was at the time of Newman’s conversion?
JP: At the time of Newman’s conversion, England’s Catholics had been persecuted through tyrannical laws for over 300 years. From the 1530s to the 1680s, priests were put to death for the “crime” of being priests, and laity were put to death for the “crime” of sheltering priests from the authorities. Then, for a further 150 years, until Catholic emancipation in 1829, other laws persecuted Catholics in terms of property rights, and the right to stand for Parliament, to vote, and to go to university. Through these centuries of persecution, England’s Catholic population was reduced to a very small minority of the population, those who had held to the Faith for three whole centuries of persecution (true heroes!). This was the situation at the time of Newman’s conversion. His conversion made Catholicism not only acceptable but fashionable in some circles of English culture, enabling people to rediscover the Faith of England’s past.
JF: I hope that it was not only for fashion’s sake that people followed Newman’s example but that it was something deeper, too. One of the finest English poets, unrecognized as such during his lifetime, Gerard Manley Hopkins, became a Roman Catholic thanks to Newman. Later he decided to be a priest, too. I’ve found out a simple but a beautiful and moving line, especially if we consider the context, that Hopkins was supposed to have said dying in Dublin in 1889, “I am so happy, I am so happy.”
JP: Nothing survives if it’s merely fashionable. As C.S. Lewis said, fashions are always coming and going—but mostly going! If something is fashionable today, it will be unfashionable tomorrow; if something is up to date today, it will be out of date tomorrow. The fact that the Catholic Revival, which Newman’s conversion heralded, was not merely a matter of fashion is demonstrated in the conversion of Hopkins, whom Newman received into the Church in 1866. Hopkins is arguably the greatest poet of the Victorian age. He saw the “grandeur of God” in all of Creation and expressed it and shone it forth in some of the most beautiful poetry ever written.
JF: If we look at the literary heritage left by some prominent Catholic writers of the Catholic Revival in Great Britain, we can see that most of them were extremely prolific, whether they were converts to Catholicism, like Robert Hugh Benson, G.K. Chesterton, the Scottish writer George Mackay Brown who worked in the second half of the twentieth century, or such cradle Catholics as Hilaire Belloc. The same can be said about Cardinal Newman. He didn’t only write theological treatises but also novels, poems…
JP: Yes indeed. Newman blazed a literary trail that inspired these later writers. Apart from his work as a theologian, philosopher, historian, apologist, and preacher, he also wrote two fine novels and many excellent poems. He was not only a holy soul and a great mind but one of the finest writers of literature in the Victorian age, which was itself a golden age of literature.
JF: Which of Cardinal Newman’s books would you recommend to someone who hasn’t read anything by him yet? Which work would be the best introduction to his thought?
JP: This is a difficult question because Newman’s prose style is difficult for modern readers. It walks on a crystal floor above our heads, as Chesterton said of the holiness of Father McNabb. His autobiographical account of his conversion, the Apologia pro Vita Sua, is, me judice, the finest literary conversion testimony ever written, with the obvious exception of St. Augustine’s incomparable Confessions. His novel, Loss and Gain, is a literary classic, offering a quasi-biographical fictional account of the intellectual and spiritual reasoning behind his conversion. He wrote many fine poems, including The Dream of Gerontius and personal favourites of mine, such as “The Pilgrim Queen.” From a theological perspective, his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine marks him as a potential doctor of the Church.
JF: Does it mean that Newman’s work is only for the chosen ones, for specialists? For example George Mackay Brown, a convert to Catholicism and fine writer and poet himself, complained about the famous Apologia pro Vita Sua you mentioned: “[it] bored me, except for those passages, all exquisite and soaring as violin music, that rise clear above his own dilemmas and difficulties” (For the Island I Sing).
JP: No, it simply means that Newman’s beautiful writing requires effort. Shakespeare is also difficult for the modern reader, but this is not a problem with Shakespeare’s beautiful writing but with modern illiteracy and the modern insensitivity to the beauty of the language.
JF: What kind of influence does Cardinal Newman have on modern literature and modern thought?
JP: As a prose stylist, the critic George Levine judged Newman as “perhaps the most artful and brilliant prose writer of the nineteenth century,” a judgement seemingly echoed by James Joyce, via Stephen Dedalus, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. As for his poetry, his most ambitious poem, The Dream of Gerontius, which inspired an oratorio by Sir Edward Elgar, presents the vision of a soul at the moment of death, and its conveyance by its guardian angel to the cleansing grace of purgatory. “It reminds us at times of Milton,” suggested the critic A.S.P. Woodhouse, “and it strikingly anticipates T.S. Eliot in its presentation of Christ as the surgeon who probes the wound in order to heal.” Newman’s Dream was also greatly admired by C.S. Lewis, who drew on what he called its “right view” of purgatory as one of the inspirational sources for his own purgatorial excursion in The Great Divorce. Newman’s crucial influence on Hopkins has already been noted, and he was also a significant influence on Oscar Wilde, Hilaire Belloc, J.R.R. Tolkien, R.H. Benson, Christopher Dawson, Ronald Knox, Evelyn Waugh, and Muriel Spark. Apart from these literary influences, his stature as a theologian is inestimable and his contribution to the fields of philosophy and history are not inconsiderable. And, above all, he was a man whose holiness has touched millions. It is for this reason that he was canonized and it is for this reason, beyond all other lesser reasons, that we should celebrate the life and legacy of this great saint.
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