April 2011

The Heart of Newman.  By Erich Przy­wara. Ignatius Press. 405 pages. $17.95.

John Henry Cardinal Newman is not a writer who ever fell out of favor or dropped from sight. He has been of interest all along; witness this reprint of a collection first published in 1963. His spiritual autobiography, Apologia pro Vita Sua, ranks with Augustine’s Confessions; and today Missionaries of Charity throughout the world recite daily a prayer penned by Newman in his Meditation and Devotions.

But with the exceptional beatification recently celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI, attention is concentrated in a fresh way on the nineteenth century’s best-known convert to the Catholic faith. Newman’s conversion was, as Joseph Pearce notes in his Foreword, the beginning of the New Catholic Revival in England and marked the end of the isolation borne bravely by recusants since the days of Cromwell. Newman led thousands more into the Church, and deeply influenced even those who did not follow his lead.

He himself became, though, more like the recusants of old — outcast and very much alone. His own sister refused to speak to him after his conversion. And until he was elevated to cardinal by Pope Leo XIII, even members of England’s Church hierarchy continued to consider him half a Catholic.

But this book is not an extended biography; for that you will need to look elsewhere. What Fr. Przy­wara offers us is a collection of what we might call the basic Newman, key selections taken from his sermons, essays, books, and lectures. None of the entries are long, and this makes for perfect reading on a daily basis and for the pick-up, put-down, and pick-up again rhythm that so often characterizes our spiritual reading. While we might all benefit from a thorough reading of The Grammar of Assent or The Idea of a University, most of us will not have the time to do so.

Fr. Przywara has organized the book not according to source but by topic: first, God the Father as the giver of the moral law and our profound need for His help; second, Christ as our Redeemer and Head of the Church; third, our path to eternal union with God. There are, to be sure, topical particulars. What, for instance, does Newman have to say about sin? Plenty, as a matter of fact, in his multiple sermons — including those to mixed congregations. Curious about what Newman says about the development of dogma? You will find the core of it here. If you are looking for that essential kernel, this is the book.

Newman is easy to read; he puts aside the language of the Oxford academic he once was. Whether he is writing about the Apostles or the angels, his language is accessible and his style graceful. (Many think he is one of the finest poets of the Victorian age.) But don’t be deceived: There is a richness and depth that few can equal, and a precision of expression that can bring clarity to the most befuddled reader. Take this example on the nature of our earthly life: “We should remember that [this life] is scarcely more than an accident of our being — that it is no part of ourselves who are immortal; that we are immortal spirits, independent of time and space, and that this life is but a sort of outward stage, on which we act for a time, and which is only sufficient and only intended to answer the purpose of trying whether we will serve God or no. We should consider ourselves to be in this world in no fuller sense than players in any game are in the game; and life to be a sort of dream, as detached and as different from our real eternal existence, as a dream differs from waking; a serious dream, indeed, as affording a means of judging us, yet in itself, a kind of shadow without substance, a scene set before us in which we seem to be, and in which it is our duty to act just as if all we saw had a truth and a reality because all that meets us influences us and our destiny” (Parochial and Plain Sermons).

Or consider, more briefly, his words on the nature of the Church he so loved: “Christianity is dogmatical, devotional, practical all at once; it is esoteric and exoteric; it is indulgent and strict; it is light and dark; it is love, and it is fear…. You must accept the whole or reject the whole; attenuation does but enfeeble and amputation mutilate.”

Newman is also a true friend in that he is direct and uncompromising. To a correspondent who wondered why she had not the gift of faith, he says, “Because you do not come to Him perseveringly for the gift, and do your part by putting aside all those untrue and unreal and superfluous arguings.”

Not everything, of course, of Newman is in this still large collection. He did write, after all, thousands of letters in his life, on occasion thirty a day, until his hands were achy and then numb. But much of the essential is here, each entry giving testimony to his motto taken from St. Frances de Sales: cor ad cor loquitur — heart speaks to heart. His heart to our heart, like the pastor that Newman was.

- Elizabeth Hanink



Valkyrie: The Story of the Plot to Kill Hitler, by Its Last Member.  By Philipp Freiherr von Boeselager. Alfred A. Knopf. 224 pages. $24.95.

Many of Nazi Germany’s top leaders — Hitler, Goebbels, and Himmler — were born Catholic. So were some of their most determined opponents. The best known was Count Claus von Stauffenberg, mastermind of the “Operation Valkyrie” plot depicted in the 2008 Brian Singer film Valkyrie, starring Tom Cruise. But there were others, like Philipp von Boeselager, a highly decorated German officer, who was born to a noble Rhineland Catholic family. As one of the few surviving plotters (von Boeselager passed away in 2008), his recent book, also titled Valkyrie, provides a rare glimpse into the harrowing activities of the anti-Hitler resistance. Von Boeselager’s terse memoirs put the reader right in the middle of the action. With each turn of the page, one cannot help but feel that somehow these men will succeed in their mission, even as the dictator uncannily escapes multiple attempts on his life, often by the narrowest of margins.

While many people during the Nazi era lapsed in their faith, the author’s moral and cultural upbringing proved more enduring. Von Boes­elager explains that the headmaster of his boarding school inculcated the belief that “Christian values, humanism, sense of honor, respect for others, and tradition of intellectual rigor and critical vigilance that had long characterized Jesuit pedagogy were not incompatible with patriotism.” He adds that “none of my classmates later became a Nazi supporter. This fact, which was rather exceptional in my generation, deserves to be noted.” While such statements are reassuring, these memoirs by a surviving anti-Hitler plotter avoid nostalgic platitudes.

To von Boeselager, it seemed that the best way to escape political complications was to join the army. He was too preoccupied at the time with training in a prestigious cavalry regiment to worry much about deeper issues. In this respect, he never accommodates the facts to suit postwar attitudes, even his own. As a young officer, he took pride in his unit’s victorious conduct in the Blitzkrieg against France. For traditional soldiers, it was still an older form of warfare in which opposing sides treated prisoners chivalrously. Von Boesela­ger unapologetically considered the war against the Soviet Union to be a justified combat against communism. The invaders were initially greeted by the local population as liberators. Military chaplains conducted services for people whose churches had been shut down and turned into warehouses. Soldiers even shared rations with the half-starved Russian peasants.

For a time, German army commanders refused to carry out Hitler’s infamous “Commissar Order,” which commanded the summary execution of Soviet political officers. By early 1942 Hitler’s increasingly harsh policies toward “subhumans” became known to von Boeselager while he was convalescing from combat wounds. “Among the soldiers,” he recalls, “there was much discussion of the sermons that Monsignor Clemens August von Galen, the bishop of Mün­ster, had given against euthanasia.” The “mercy killing” of the mentally handicapped was a harbinger of things to come. As the army advanced deeper into enemy territory, rear areas were taken over by the Nazi Party and the SS. While the Russian population was reduced to slave labor, Jews and Gypsies fell victim to roving police units. The incident that annealed von Boeselager’s resolve was his discovery of SS reports that contained curious references to the execution of non-combatants in “anti-partisan” operations. Hitler’s “Final Solution” had begun.

From this point, the emphasis of von Boeselager’s memoirs shifts from ordinary military duties to the organization of a small but dedicated resistance movement. In March 1943, as an aide to Field Marshal Günther von Kluge, the author took part in an abortive assassination attempt led by General Henning von Tresckow. The original plan was to shoot Hitler at the headquarters mess hall during an official tour. But Hitler cut short his visit at the last moment. The plotters scrambled to plant a bomb, disguised as a case of expensive French liqueur, on the dictator’s transport plane, which was taxiing on the runway. This riveting scene appears in the Valkyrie movie. But Hitler’s luck saved him once again when the detonator failed to ignite as the plane cruised at high altitude. This marked the end of further assassination attempts by the von Tresckow circle. The locus of action shifted to Berlin and von Stauffenberg. The author was no longer directly involved, which explains why he eluded the harsh reprisals in the wake of the failed July 20, 1944, assassination attempt.

It may help to contrast von Boeselager’s book with Heinz Gu­derian’s famous Panzer Leader memoirs, a bestseller in 1952. For many German soldiers, the personal oath to Adolf Hitler precluded acts of subversion. Guderian argued that more men at the top should have resisted Hitler sooner and rebuffed him to his face rather than scheme behind his back when things had gone too far. To his credit, he was one of the few who did stand up to the dictator.

Perhaps it was self-justification on Guderian’s part to say that killing Hitler would have had little or no impact on the war or would have made the Führer appear as a martyr. “From every point of view,” he argued, “the results of the attempted assassination were frightful. For myself I refuse to accept murder in any form.” Admittedly, tyrannicide is a point that has not been fully settled by theologians, even after centuries of debate. Were the plotters justified in attempting to kill Hitler, potentially harming bystanders in order to pull it off? Do acts of violent resistance really succeed against totalitarian powers, or do they represent a surrender to the very methods wielded by the enemy?

Even if these points remain uncertain, there can be no denying that the anti-Hitler plotters captured the imagination of later generations and restored a sense of honor to the German nation. Some might say that in the end we are judged not so much for the outcome of our acts as for the fact that we were willing to do something. Yet the most pertinent lesson for readers of Valkyrie is that it is always preferable to preempt the despotism of anti-Christian ideology before it takes over an entire society. Otherwise, when a nation’s leaders sidestep the incremental growth of tyranny, people are faced with the agonizing choices that confronted men like Philipp von Boe­selager.

- Matthew Anger





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