Newman Neither Baroque Nor Medieval

[The image is of Newman in his study at the Birmingham Oratory.]

Now that John Henry Newman is Saint John Henry Newman, I hope more Catholics will make the effort to get to know him beyond the famous quotes from his works and his hymn texts. 

Reading Newman is indeed an effort for many of us, both because of his style of writing, exquisitely “silver-veined” though it is, and because of the complexity of his thought on nearly any topic.  But it is an effort that brings profound rewards.  For example, reading through one of Newman’s catalogue sentences, as I call them—i.e., those sentences that enumerate example after example and often mix metaphors midstream—is to have one’s vision expanded from either/or to Catholicism’s both/and.

Here is an example of what I mean:

“Catholic Christendom is no simple exhibition of religious absolutism, but presents a continuous picture of Authority and Private Judgment alternately advancing and retreating as the ebb and flow of the tide—it is a vast assemblage of human beings with wilful intellects and wild passions, brought together into one by the beauty and the Majesty of a Superhuman Power,—into what may be called a large reformatory or training-school, not as if into a hospital or prison, not in order to be sent to bed, not to be buried alive, but (if I may change my metaphor) brought together as if into some moral factory, for the melting, refining, and moulding, by an incessant noisy process, of the raw material, so excellent, so dangerous, so capable of divine purposes.”[1]

Imagine how different things would be if many of us, who are too ready to post our essays and comments (which are sometimes tirades and rants) to the blogosphere, were to give this passage of Newman an attentive and prayerful reading before pressing the send button. The process is inevitably “noisy” and “dangerous.” But it seems Christian peace calls for reasonable efforts to make it less tumultuous than it has to be.

At the risk of ignoring my own advice, I cannot resist the possibility of stirring a hornet’s nest by pointing to another facet of Newman’s both/and perspective that has a bearing on what we refer to as the Anglican patrimony. 

Both now and in the nineteenth century, a number of prominent and influential Catholics were and are less interested in history than in reaching for easy and slavish imitations of this or that period.  In Newman’s day, there were immense pressures to conform to what one writer, Michael Higgins, refers to as “the revivified but ultimately ineffectual baroque spirituality of Henry Edward Manning, Wilfrid Ward, and Frederick Faber and the antiquated medievalism of Augustus Welby Pugin and the Anglo-Catholic Ritualists.”[2]  But “Newman understood that true fidelity to the Tradition incorporates change and not slavish imitation.”[3]  He was, as Thomas Merton put it, “too Catholic to be anything but an English Catholic.  His Catholic instinct told him that universality did not demand renunciation of his English outlook and spiritual heritage”[4]–or “English spirituality,” to use Martin Thornton’s term–which Newman discovered to be heavily beholden to both the patristic and the monastic.

Newman’s outlook meant “he did not follow the more romantic converts of his time. Or rather, though he was momentarily influenced by them, it was just long enough to discover with alarm that he could be untrue to himself and to his authentic sense of the English tradition. Having once wavered in the presence of the overcompensation practised by some of his colleagues, for whom nothing was sufficiently un-English, or too aggressively Roman [and F. Faber was a prime example], he drew back in salutary fear from the abyss of exotic and baroque clichés into which he saw himself about to fall headlong. He preserved the simplicity of his English devotion, and the clarity of the English spiritual idiom.”[5]

Some readers will question Merton’s observations because a) they disapprove of Merton for any number of reasons[6] or b) they value Merton’s monastic writings in his so-called earlier period but not the latter.  (And this quote comes from the latter Merton.) But Merton seems to have perceived things accurately in this case.  For it is helpful to remember that the deepest roots of the Oxford Movement were in the re-discovery of the Church Fathers and their place in Anglicanism, no matter how much the medieval romanticism of Sir Walter Scott, for example, or the allure of continental Catholicism’s Baroque spirituality might also have been at play at Oriel College in 1833.  Newman, writing to Pusey years after his becoming Catholic, wrote “I am not ashamed still to take my stand upon the Fathers, and do not mean to budge. … The Fathers made me a Catholic, and I am not going to kick down the ladder by which I ascended into the Church. It is a ladder quite as serviceable for that purpose now, as it was twenty years ago.”[7]  Newman was able to state his reliance on the Fathers so confidently in his letter to Pusey because The Library of the Fathers had been one of the great works of Newman, Pusey, Keble, and other leading lights of the Oxford Movement.   

Where the statements of both Higgins and Merton might call for a bit more nuancing is in the fact that some readers might interpret them as meaning Newman eschewed the Middle Ages and the Baroque.  His perspective was too both/and, though, to allow that.  Manning, Ward, the Pugins, and the Ritualists all have their part to play in the “melting, refining, and moulding” to which Newman refers in the quote above.

Yet, Higgins’s and Merton’s observations remind us that Newman—without using the terms “Anglican patrimony” or “English spirituality”—sensed that there is indeed something simpler and more direct in the English way of praying and worshiping.  It is the same preference as that expressed in the Rule of St. Benedict, such as, for example, “prayer should therefore be short and pure” (RB 20:4).

That Newman chose not to become a Benedictine, by the way, might have to do with the fact that he knew too much about distinctions between religious charisms to try to be a monk and yet live the life to which he was called, which was that of an active pastor and a controversialist—which he knew himself to be by the time he became Roman Catholic.  But as the controversies between Newman of the Birmingham Oratory and Faber of the London Oratory suggest, Newman steered his community as far towards English spirituality as possible, while, of course, remaining true to the essence of the spirituality of the very Italian and rather baroque St. Philip Neri.

Nor is this to forget that St. Benedict was Italian as well, though anything but baroque.  Newman’s understanding of Church history was of so massive a depth and breadth that he was able to take from all of these spiritual classics, however, without reducing them to simplistic clichés and was able to situate them in his own here-and-now, which was 19th-c England. 

That example, it seems, is where Newman can be most instructive to those of us who claim the Anglican patrimony within the Catholic Church.  Our understanding of the Anglican patrimony must be based on an understanding of history profound enough to grasp that fidelity to Tradition rightly regards slavish imitation as stagnant and has to incorporate change that is without fear because this knowledge and love of tradition assures the change is organic.


[1] John Henry Newman, Apologia pro Vita Sua, edited Martin J. Svaglic [Oxford University Press, pp. 224-6.

[2] Michael W. Higgins, “The Cardinal and the Monk: Literary and Theological Convergences in Newman and Merton,” Merton Annual 5 (1997), 224.

[3] Michael W. Higgins, “The Cardinal and the Monk: Literary and Theological Convergences in Newman and Merton,” Merton Annual 5 (1997), 224

[4] Thomas Merton, Mystics and Zen Masters (New York, New York: Delta, 1967), p.129.

[5] Thomas Merton, Mystics and Zen Masters (New York, New York: Delta, 1967), p.129.

[6] Gary Wills, “Shallow Calls to Shallow: On Thomas Merton, Fifty Years After His Death,” https://harpers.org/archive/2019/04/on-thomas-merton-mary-gordon-review/ — accessed 8 April 2019.

[7] Ian Kerr, John Henry Newman: A Biography (Oxford, England: Oxford University, 1989),

583.

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