Stanley L. Jaki, Newman's Challenge.
The life and work of John Henry Newman have from their beginnings been marked by "controversy," in that word's specific and general nineteenth-century senses. On the one hand, Newman was deeply involved in the production of controversialist literature, as a promoter of Ritualist Anglicanism and then as a Roman Catholic in a predominantly Protestant country (as Stanley L. Jaki points out in Newman's Challenge, Newman "was wont to identify himself as a mere 'controversialist'" rather than a "philosopher" or "theologian" ); on the other hand, Newman kept positioning himself on the unexpected side of various arguments. In the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Newman himself noted that Joseph Blanco White, a former Catholic priest, expressed astonishment that Newman (then still Protestant) would oppose Sir Robert Peel's new efforts in 1829 on behalf of Catholic emancipation; "his sudden union with the most violent bigots," White observed, "was inexplicable to me." Charles Kingsley's famous attack on Newman's integrity, an attack that ultimately led to the publication of the Apologia, also came about as the result of surprise: Kingsley wrote to Newman that because of his shock at reading one of Newman's sermons, "I finally shook off the strong influence which your writings exerted on me; and for much of which I still owe you a deep debt of gratitude."
Jaki, Distinguished University Professor at Seton Hall University as well as the author of over forty books and the winner of the 1970 Lecomte du Nouy Prize and the 1987 Templeton Prize for Religion, also opens his book on Newman with a narrative about surprise, the surprise that a group of factory foremen in Birmingham experienced when Cardinal Newman refused to agree with them that Catholic workers must attend Protestant Bible readings. But throughout this collection of essays on Newman (all of which, with the exception of the overtly polemical introductory chapter, have been published elsewhere or have been delivered as lectures), Jaki disavows the possibility of surprise, not only painting a pervasively conservative portrait of Newman's own theology and writing, but also assuming time and time again that Newman would consistently side with the most right wing of Catholic ideologues today. These jarring assertions of what Newman would argue at the turn of the twenty-first century, on topics that simply could not have been articulated by the time of Newman's death over a century before, is the strongest indication that this volume is far less about Newman himself than it is about using Newman as a pretext to publicize Jaki's despair that the world is just not adhering to his own deeply conservative beliefs. Typically, each chapter opens with a discussion of Newman (often remarkably cursory) before it uses some quotation to jump into late twentieth-century right-wing polemic: "Newman would be enormously pained," Jaki asserts, by ecumenical dialogue between Roman Catholicism and the Anglican Church (133); "[t]oday he would be immensely saddened, though not surprised" to hear the Anglican Church's recent rethinking of homophobia in religious teaching (224); "Newman would undoubtedly give unbending support to Humanae vitae," the 1968 papal encyclical reaffirming the Catholic Church's condemnation of contraception (159); Newman "would stress that with its decision to ordain women the Church of England has served another proof' of its craven submission to liberal politics (137), and "Newman would pity, with tears in his eyes," conservative Anglicans upset by that decision (139); and, perhaps most bizarrely, "Today Newman would refer to SETI [the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence] as a case of infatuation that can pose the most serious damage to the faith of ill-informed Christians" (260). The strangeness of this positioning of Newman as twentieth-century thinker is brought home by the distorted temporality as Jaki imagines Newman's response to gestures toward the ordination of women by Michael Ramsey, the late Archbishop of Canterbury: "By saying that he would not be surprised if Rome would follow suit, Dr. Ramsey proved that he knew Rome very little, a point which Newman could now illustrate by evoking situations from the past as anticipations of the present" (135). Ramsey, of course, was born after Newman died. Jaki's point is not historical, however, but rather ideological. As central as Newman's writings have been to liberal Catholic thought over the past century, to the extent that he is often considered the "Father of Vatican II" (a Council with which Jaki also evinces disagreement), Jaki's project is no less than a reappropriation of this major figure for the right. The fact that even in the 1960s Pope Paul VI issued Humanae vitae over the majority report of the theologians he had chosen to advise him and who recommended changing the policy on contraception, is probably relevant only insofar as it registers the wide divergence of opinions among Catholics on issues that Jaki takes for granted; Humanae vitae is nonetheless official teaching. But Jaki's attack on Jesuit and Fordham University Professor Avery Dulles (whom Jaki accuses of "subtle evasiveness" ) demonstrates the extent to which he is to the right even of the present day's remarkably conservative Catholic hierarchy; since this volume was published, Dulles has been made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II.
The ostensible argument of this book, that Newman's "chief challenge to Catholics today" lies in his deeply held belief in the supernatural as opposed to the rational (17), is largely true, if one admits the highly arguable point that the value of Newman's writings resides in their application to late twentieth-century theology and politics rather than in their literary or historical context. Newman did in fact, like Jaki, deplore rationalism; in his essay "On the Introduction of Rationalistic Principles into Revealed Religion," he asserts that "a rationalistic spirit is the antagonist of Faith; for Faith is, in its very nature, the acceptance of what our reason cannot reach, simply and absolutely upon testimony." Unlike Jaki, however, Newman immediately begins to shape and qualify what would seem to be an abdication of human responsibility to understand and contextualize revelation:
As regards Revealed Truth, it is not Rationalism to set about to ascertain, by the exercise of reason, what things are attainable by reason, and what are not; nor, in the absence of an express Revelation, to inquire into the truths of Religion, as they come to us by nature; nor to determine what proofs are necessary for the acceptance of a Revelation, if it be given: nor to reject a Revelation on the plea of insufficient proof; nor, after recognizing it as divine, to investigate the meaning of its declarations, and to interpret its language; nor to use its doctrines, as far as they can be fairly used, in inquiring into its divinity; nor to compare and connect them with our previous knowledge, with a view of making them parts of a whole; nor to bring them into dependence on each other, to trace their mutual relations, and to pursue them to their legitimate issues.
With so many caveats, any attempt to predict what Newman's response to a given twentieth-century conflict between reason and faith in the supernatural authority of the Church is less a function of understanding Newman himself more carefully than it is the wishful imposition of one's own political orientation onto him.
Jaki himself is completely comfortable in seeing supernatural, and usually diabolic, forces at work everywhere in the modern world. Newman, Jaki claims, "would certainly find the Antichrist's doing in so-called 'dignity' masses, going on for years before public outrage forces local Church authorities to bear down on defiant culprits" (13). Asserting that "the devil has only one principal aim: to discredit [the] supernatural," Jaki approvingly cites an Anglican bishop's suspicion that "the trend toward the ordination of women was possibly a satanic device within an Anglican Church unable to resist the feminist tide of naturalism" (142). At the same time, he suggests that "By allowing the Church of England to break with a universal (catholic) tradition about the valid recipients of holy orders, God himself has called attention to the pitfalls of ecumenism" (138). In a world filled with supernatural forces, it is apparently difficult to tell whether the instigator of a particular event is celestial or demonic; what Jaki is sure about is that the ordination of women is wrong, and that Newman would agree.
In part because the essays here are all previously published and have largely not been re-edited for this collection (with the exception of the addition of footnotes in some cases), they display a strange stylistic incoherence, despite their consistent attacks on such late twentieth-century betes noires of conservative Catholicism as feminism and liberation theology. In one chapter on Newman's 1870 Grammar of Assent, Jaki claims that "the Grammar has remained Newman's least read and hardly ever digested major work" (203); at the opening of the next chapter, he calls it one "of Newman's three most widely read books" (229). One of these chapters first appeared in the journal Faith and Reason; the other originated as a conference lecture, and the considerations of audience may account for the seeming contradiction, but surely some adjustments for consistency (or at least for explanation of inconsistency) might have gone into their back-to-back republication. Indeed, there seems to be no reason to have two chapters on the Grammar at all other than that Jaki happened to have two of them lying around. This laissez-faire editorial policy continues throughout the book where Jaki irregularly gives the first names of various nineteenth-century figures, sometimes referring to people and events in a mystifying shorthand. Any reader without a solid grasp of nineteenth-century religious and scientific arcana may be baffled; several times, for example, Jaki refers to Newman's conviction on the charge of criminal libel against Giovanni Giacinto Achilli without naming Achilli or giving any of the details of the suit, and he notes obscurely that Newman "would have immensely rejoiced had he known what was to be unearthed only a decade or so after his death. I mean the full facts about that epoch-making moment in the history of science when Buridan, around 1350, postulated inertial motion for celestial bodies" (71). Jaki doesn't bother to explain either what those "full facts" were or what their significance to fin-de-siecle science was.
Some of the best work on Newman and the Oxford Movement over the past two decades has dealt with the internal contradictions of sexuality, a project that goes back to David Hilliard's 1982 article, "Unenglish and Unmanly: Anglo-Catholicism and Homosexuality" and that is explored beautifully by Oliver S. Buckton's excellent Secret Selves: Confession and Same-Sex Desire in Victorian Autobiography (1998). Jaki has no use for this sort of reading, demonstrating scorn for G. C. Faber's remarkably daring 1933 study, Oxford Apostles, and only raising the question of homosexuality in order to deplore not only the work of Dignity (a gay Catholic group) but also the moves toward allowing gay people to serve in the military. He is uninterested in the cultural contradictions that surrounded Newman and his circle, the fact that a movement could be simultaneously deeply conservativizing and deeply homoerotic. It is a sense of contradiction--of Newman's own refusal to fit into anybody's pigeonholes--that this book needs. Indeed, the best chapter of Newman's Challenge occurs right in the middle, the chapter on "Newman's Logic and the Logic of the Papacy." The strength of this chapter lies precisely in the fact that it has to come to terms with surprise and contradiction, with Newman's uncharacteristic (in terms of Jaki's portrait of him) opposition to the formal definition of papal infallibility. Here is an example of a position that Newman takes that Jaki feels is mistaken, and he is forced not only to read Newman's words carefully in order to analyze their relationship to his other positions but also--finally--to wrestle with Newman's engagement with the world that was his contemporary, not ours. The excellent readings that emerge give a hint of what this wildly uneven collection of essays could have been had it been freed of Jaki's consistent polemic. They bring back the possibility of surprise, of a productively new encounter with a major figure of nineteenth-century religion and culture.
Patrick R. O'Malley
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|Author:||O'Malley, Patrick R.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2002|
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