Washed in Milk

Terry Eagleton

  • Newman’s Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint by John Cornwell
    Continuum, 273 pp, £18.99, May 2010, ISBN 978 1 4411 5084 4

I once met a young priest in the west of Ireland who told me that he was to be sent on the missions the following day. ‘Where are you being posted?’ I asked. ‘Birmingham,’ he replied. The Irish Catholic church has always scattered its clergy abroad, and there has been a lay branch of this pastoral exodus as well – nurses, for example. There is a sense in which the Dubliners Bono and Bob Geldof are self-advertising versions of Irish missionaries. The English and Scottish Catholic churches have always relied heavily on Irish priests to minister to parishioners who were themselves perhaps only a generation or two away from the farm in Mayo or Meath.

The clergy who took the boat to Liverpool were for the most part the sons of so-called strong farmers, men who owned a comfortable number of acres, in contrast to the impoverished small tenants, cottiers and farm labourers. The social background of these aspirants to the priesthood was pious, conservative and anti-Fenian. They would be trained for the most part at the Maynooth seminary near Dublin, established in the late 18th century in order to keep Irish seminarians securely at home. Many had traditionally obtained their clerical education in Catholic France but that country was now in the grip of a godless Jacobinism, and breeding clerical students on Irish soil was one way of preventing the infection from reaching the nation’s shores. St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, established like most Catholic seminaries at a wary distance from the profane city, was thus a counter-revolutionary institution from the outset, rearing generations of conformist, sexually repressed, authoritarian young men for whom the priesthood represented social respectability as well as a pleasant opportunity to tell people twice their age what to do. At the time when the undergraduate John Henry Newman was delighting in the inexhaustible metaphorical riches of Aeschylus at Oxford, the students of Maynooth were being fed a philistine diet of papist apologetics and garbled chunks of scholasticism.

It was well nigh impossible, given this dismal context, for the 19th-century English Catholic church to produce a major theologian in its own right. This is one reason why England’s most eminent Catholic theologian sprang from a non-Irish, non-Catholic background. Newman, notoriously, was a convert to Rome from Anglicanism, a ‘perversion’ (as some called it) almost as shocking and scandalous as Tony Benn’s defecting to the BNP would be today. Gladstone, whose Catholic convert sister used the pages of Protestant books as lavatory paper, described it as ‘calamitous’. Newman was everything your average Irish cleric was not: erudite, ascetic, patrician, cultivated, liberal-minded. It is one of the choicer ironies of modern Catholic history that he reversed the traditional pattern of Irish clerical migration to Britain in his own person, spending much of his time in the 1850s in Dublin establishing a university there. Gerard Manley Hopkins would teach at the place for a miserable four years, and James Joyce, who considered Newman the finest prose stylist in English, would become a student at its successor institution, University College, Dublin.

Cornwell has some strikingly astute comments about the dissident young Joyce seeing a mirror image of himself in the older guardian of orthodoxy. Had not Newman reneged on his national church, just as Joyce had done? Whereas the English writer had rejected the Church of England as too provincial and embraced the cosmopolitan world of Catholicism, his Irish counterpart dismissed Irish Catholicism as too provincial and embraced the cosmopolitan sphere of art. There is even a sense in which Joyce’s notion of the supremely disinterested work of art is influenced by Newman’s idea of the university.

In Newman’s defection to Catholicism, faith and culture came into conflict, but that is not the way he generally saw the two. This refined English gentleman with Oxford in his bones would be forced to surrender his college fellowship, then to be pitched into a world of (in Cornwell’s words) ‘Counter-Reformation architecture, dog Latin, dreary plainchant, scholasticism, casuistry, the turbulent Irish, the treacherous Spanish’. He had joined a set-up that held that the house in Nazareth in which the child Jesus lived had been transported by angels in three stages to Loreto in Italy. (Today, Our Lady of Loreto is the patron saint of airline pilots.) In Dublin he would find himself drawn into raucous nationalist politics; in England he felt himself travestied, reviled and belittled. All of this Newman’s Unquiet Grave portrays in superbly incisive detail. Yet Newman had the guts of the great Victorians as well as their neuroses. He was not going to let a little thing like his entire social formation as an individual stand in the way of what he saw as the truth.

The furore surrounding Newman’s conversion to Rome may seem strange today. But the theologian was one of the most distinguished minds in Oxford; Oxford was a bastion of Anglican doctrine, defending and preserving it rather as the Vatican did with Catholic dogma; and Anglicanism played a vital role in the maintenance of British state power. It was a key constituent of English identity, along with drinking tea and detesting the French. Newman may have appeared an aloof, monastic figure in an ivory tower, but the ivory tower was an ideological powerhouse, and Newman was one of its most influential executives. Esoteric debates about early church heresies thus had an indirect bearing on issues of political power.

Newman was the son not of a strong Irish farmer but of a well-heeled English banker. His father was later to lose his fortune in the financial crisis that followed the end of the Napoleonic War, and the family suffered the humiliation of a downward social spiral, shifting from one down-at-heel abode to another. Eventually, Newman Senior was declared bankrupt and died in his prime of ‘what they used to call a broken heart’, as Cornwell puts it with the right touch of scholarly scepticism. John Henry himself, however, grew up in a family with servants, a town house, a place in the country, a sense of privilege and not a dark satanic mill in sight. He had memories of golden days picking wild flowers and gazing at magnolia blossoms.

This, too, is un-Irish. Ireland has been blessed with a fine landscape, and God in his providence has arranged the mountains in a ring around the coastline in an egregiously unsuccessful attempt to stop the natives from getting out. Irish writers in the 19th century, however, were not remarkable for their appreciation of Nature as a source of beauty. There is no Irish equivalent of Wordsworth or Keats. Nature in Ireland meant a harsh working environment: the landscape was too scarred with signs of poverty to be a place to picnic in.

The future Blessed John Henry went as an undergraduate to Trinity College, Oxford, and from there to a fellowship at Oriel College, then one of the few lively intellectual centres in a torpid university. Like most eminent Victorians, he had his share of physical ailments: dizziness, headaches, bad teeth, poor eyesight, nervous sensitivity and various other bodily manifestations of the Age of Anxiety. Yet he was also a compellingly charismatic figure, something of a mesmeric influence on those around him. After a brief spell of evangelic fervour he was appointed vicar of St Mary the Virgin, the university church, where with a group of friends he began to publish tracts defending an orthodox version of the Anglican faith against the insidious inroads of liberalism, Dissent, secularism, agnosticism and the interference of the state in sacred matters. It was this current, the so-called Oxford Movement, that finally bore him into the bosom of a somewhat gleeful Rome, for whom he represented quite a trophy. On becoming a Catholic, he founded the Oratory school in Birmingham. Like the young priest in the west of Ireland, he was now a missionary in the Midlands.

Cornwell’s book is richly informative about the process by which Newman’s unflinching logic finally defeated his own personal inclinations. What it lacks the space to do is to place the Oxford Movement, one of the many doomed products of the home of lost causes, against the backdrop of Cobbett’s organic rural past, Carlyle’s feudal monasticism, Ruskin’s affection for the medieval guilds, the fond backward glances of the Pre-Raphaelites, Pugin’s militant Gothicism, Disraeli’s Young England and a host of other Romantic-reactionary currents of the 19th century. Born in 1801, Newman was a contemporary of Keats and Coleridge and a Romantic to his fingertips – a fact Cornwell fails to make enough of. Like his Danish contemporary Søren Kierkegaard, he practised an intensely subjective faith which finds God not – in 18th-century fashion – in the evidence of the external world but in the depths of the self. This was a convenient as well as a sincerely held conviction, since in the wake of Darwin, finding God in the material world was becoming something of a problem.

Militant atheists today regard religious faith as a question of subscribing to certain propositions about the world. Newman countered this theological ignorance, pervasive in his own time too, with the Romantic claim (and this from one of the towering intellects of the Victorian age) that ‘man is not a reasoning animal; he is a seeing, feeling, contemplating, acting animal … It is the concrete being that reasons.’ It is the imagination, he holds, which is primary in matters of faith. Yet this passionate subjectivity was never whimsical subjectivism. How could it be, in a Catholic thinker for whom faith and truth were communal and institutional rather than a matter of private intuition? Newman, like Kierkegaard, recognised that religious faith is a kind of love, and like love engages intellect, emotion, experience and imagination together. There is a ‘notional’ kind of knowledge, Newman argues in An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, by which he means a knowledge of abstract ideas, and there is ‘real’ assent, which involves one’s whole personality.

Cornwell could also have made more of his subject’s political conservatism. Most other Victorian sages from Carlyle to Morris were keenly engaged with the Condition of England question, appalled by the predatory nature of industrial capitalism and unsparing in their moral denunciations of it. With Newman, by contrast, we find a mind loftily aloof from Chartism, bread riots and the Factory Acts, more preoccupied with the Arian heresy of the fourth century than with typhoid epidemics in English slums. Charles Kingsley, the man who provoked him into writing Apologia pro Vita Sua, may have reduced religion to a hearty, towel-flicking affair of manliness and muscularity, but as a Christian socialist he cared more about child labour and insanitary housing than Newman ever seems to have done. It is revealing that Newman’s liberal middle-class champions (though not Cornwell) almost always cast Kingsley as an unqualified villain.

Newman was not entirely a cloistered figure. He had some experience of working among the Oxford poor, and knew his way around the corridors of power. Yet his high religious orthodoxy (he believed that priests were higher than angels, not a view popular in Catholic orphanages) put him askew to an increasingly secular, rationalist and relativist social order in reactionary rather than reformist ways. His brother Charles’s interest in socialism and utilitarianism struck him as possible signs of insanity. He fiercely opposed the 1832 Reform Acts, though more on ecclesiastical than political grounds. He wrote to the Times deploring Robert Peel’s plan for a reading room for working-class men and women in the Midlands. Libraries without religious books he regarded as unacceptable. When Pius IX threw open the papal prisons in a general amnesty, Newman referred to their occupants as the ‘scum of the earth’. (The pope later recovered from this brief fit of enlightenment, declaring it a grave error that the ‘Roman pontiff can and should reconcile himself with progress, liberalism and modern civilisation’.)

There was also, however, Newman the liberal-minded churchman, who thought promulgating the doctrine of papal infallibility to be grossly inopportune (though he also seems to have believed in it). He does not seem to have inquired whether the pope’s definition of his own infallibility was itself infallible. The dogma was really a riposte to Darwin. Religious faith, the Vatican considered, was being suborned by the spread of atheism and scientific materialism, so the pope’s absolute authority needed to be affirmed. Newman also wrote a devastating criticism of centralising Roman authority.

It was in the plan for his Catholic university in Dublin that Newman’s generosity of spirit can be seen at its finest. Catholics in Ireland were barred from Trinity College, Dublin, and the Queen’s Colleges, established by the British government to civilise the natives and render them less troublesome, were secular institutions where no theology was taught. Newman, however, did not insist that theology should rule in the Catholic university. He believed that pursuing any branch of knowledge for its own sake was a religious activity, since the whole of Nature was God’s creation. In The Idea of a University, he speaks up for an ‘intercommunion’ of all the principal academic disciplines and for disinterested scholarly inquiry. The task of a university is to foster intellectual culture for its own sake, which means that it can be the tool of neither church nor state. His book needs to be placed in the hands of the vandals, philistines and soulless bureaucrats who are currently destroying our places of higher learning.

The postmodern interest in Newman, surprisingly enough, is less in the intricacies of the Arian heresy than in the question of whether he was gay. The answer is probably yes, but it is highly unlikely that his relationships with men ever took a physical turn. His physical exertions seem to have been confined for the most part to regular self-flagellation, and there is no evidence he found them any more erotically satisfying than his austere bouts of fasting. He laid in a supply of hairshirts and scourges for his quasi-monastic community at Littlemore on the outskirts of Oxford, but these sound like props for a bondage session only to the incurably suspicious mind. One of his friends dreamed that he found himself at a dinner party next to a veiled lady who charmed him more and more as they talked. ‘I have never felt such charm in any conversation,’ he finally told his companion, ‘since I used to talk with John Henry Newman, at Oxford.’ ‘I am John Henry Newman,’ the lady replied, raising her veil to reveal the familiar face.

Newman decided from an early age that he would never marry (‘Everyone when he marries is a lost man,’ he said), and had an intense emotional liaison for many years with a fellow priest, Ambrose St John. The two were buried in the same grave. Somebody described Newman as ‘delicate as an old lady washed in milk’, while one waspish historian spoke of his Oxford Movement colleagues as his ‘escort of hermaphrodites’. When his intimate male friends married, he behaved like a jilted lover. As for himself, he remarked, he had made his own mind his wife. He associated his love of priestly celibacy and lack of appetite for marriage with his disgust with the world, thus rather perceptively linking his religious and political inclinations.

It was not until the 1960s that Newman really came into his own in Catholic Britain. The great majority of English Catholics were then, as they still are, of Irish working-class immigrant stock; but the mid-20th century saw the emergence of a sizeable Catholic middle class in Britain, empowered by the Education Act of 1944 and for the most part enthused by the Second Vatican Council, which was taking place at the time. A new kind of Catholic – educated, ecumenical, socially progressive, intellectually inquiring and hostile to clerical autocracy – was in the process of being born, and Newman rapidly became their icon. His insistence on scripture, lay participation in the church and the primacy of conscience over papal power prefigured the Vatican Council’s work so strikingly that Pope Paul VI could speak of it as ‘Newman’s Council’. Like many bodies of writing, Newman’s work was lent its most vital significance by events which lay in its future.

Newman was aware that he was regarded in some circles as a saint, but thought he was quite unworthy of the honour. This is just the kind of humility one needs to be canonised, though that is not why he said it. To be canonised, one has among other things to perform a posthumous miracle, and the geographical distribution of miracles (they are less common in the unbelieving north of the globe) tends to work against Anglo-Saxon candidates. One, however, has been reported in the US. One reason Newman doubted he would be canonised was that he thought ‘literary men’ like himself were not the stuff of sainthood. In this splendidly readable biography, which seems to get everything right except the first name of Archbishop McHale of Tuam, Cornwell recognises, as so many others have not, that Newman was first and foremost a writer – that his genius lay in ‘creating new ways of imagining and writing about religion’. It is a rather more illuminating approach to the cardinal than wondering whether he ever got into bed with Ambrose St John.