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Unspinning Newman

Newman to Converts: An Existential Ecclesiology

By Stanley L. Jaki

Publisher: Real View Books (4237 Kinfolk Ct., Pinckney MI 48169)

Pages: 529

Price: $24

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She is author, most recently, of Ancient Faith and Modern Freedom in John Dryden's The Hind and the Panther (Catholic University of America Press).

Newman has been spun as a progressive, a humanist, an ecumenist, and a champion of “interiorized” ecclesiology. But this is not the real Newman. The best way to dispel the myths is to examine the facts, in particular the letters he wrote to prospective converts over the span of 40 years. Were these to be collected in one volume, they would fill some 700 pages, and yet, Fr. Jaki charges, Newmanists have virtually ignored these letters to converts. Why have they done so? This serious charge is fully developed in Fr. Jaki’s Introduction to the vast amount of material gathered here, material bound to be devastating to the leading Newmanists.

The body of the book begins with a chapter on Newman’s conversion and then continues with a series of chapters on the 18 converts to whom Newman wrote many powerful, unforgettable letters. Next comes a chapter on those who received only a few letters from him encouraging their conversion. Then, in a chapter on ecumenism, Fr. Jaki depicts a Newman who has been totally ignored until now, a Newman who expressed negative views about a corporate reunion between Anglicans and Catholics and who valued real conversions more than such far-fetched schemes. To complete the picture, the like of which is nowhere to be found in Newman literature, Fr. Jaki cites a large number of individuals who up to this day have attested to Newman’s role in their conversions. The final chapter, which includes a plea for a juster assessment of Henry Edward Cardinal Manning, provides the gist of the foregoing chapters.

It was a sacrifice for Newman to write these letters to converts, not only because he was pressed for time, but also because it was increasingly painful for him to write by hand. But he neither spared himself nor his correspondents. Although he is now depicted as “gentle and broad-minded,” Fr. Jaki rightly characterizes him as firm, blunt, and even abrasive in these letters where he is “engaged in an existential fight for a soul.” In one moving letter, Newman welcomes a convert “into that which is beyond mistake a real religion…an external objective substantive creed and worship.” Note the attributes of external, objective, and substantive for the doctrine and worship of the Catholic Church. This is the true key to Newman’s ecclesiology. It is anything but interiorized and subjective.

As Fr. Jaki observes, Newman looks at his converts from an uncompromisingly supernatural standpoint and views their losses of family, friends, employment, and social position (entailed by their conversions) as a glorious sharing in their Redeemer’s sufferings. The letters are priceless in that Newman confides to his converts how he experienced the same anxieties and suffered similar losses. But once he realized that “there was one Church to which the promises were made” and he was not in it, he says he knew he had to convert and leave the consequences to God.

Newman responds to the unique needs of each correspondent, and the chapter titles of this book convey the core of his advice in each case. Even so, there is an admirable consistency in the whole correspondence. Newman proclaims throughout that the Catholic Church is “a divine work.” Indeed, he tells one correspondent, “I am now so convinced of the truth and divinity of the Catholic Church, that I am pained about persons who are external to it….” This is his chosen battleground. As he puts it in one letter, he is “quite ready to go into the question of the exclusive divinity of the Roman Catholic Church, which is the basis of argument in my view of the controversy.” He warns prospective converts that they must stop making objections “from odds and ends,” stop “carping” at historical facts, and look instead at the “concrete whole.” The big issue should be whether the Church which Christ established continues in the Catholic Church. If it does, then she is the “Oracle of Truth,” the “Ark of Salvation,” the “One True Fold,” and everything else follows.

Newman glories much in these letters that the Roman Catholic Church clearly possesses the four “Notes” of the Creed — One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. With regard to the last Note, he confides in one letter that what prompted him to convert was the realization that the Catholic Church of his day did not differ from the Apostles’ Church any more than the photo of a man at 40 differs from his photo at 20: “You know that it is the same man.” In another letter he affirms that the reason he is a Catholic is that “our Lord set up the Church — and that one Church has been in the world ever since.” He cherishes this continuity, insisting again that since our Lord intended for His Church to last to the end of the world, it had “to last, the same in kind — else it could not be said to last.” And he writes in still another letter, “I was converted by the manifest and intimate identity of the modern RC Church with the Antenicene and Nicene Church.” This is the real Newman. Anyone who treasures continuity in the Church as much as he does is plainly not the mythical “progressive” who passes for Newman nowadays.

With respect to the Note of “Holy,” Newman remarks that from the very start our Lord warned of the presence of both wheat and tares within the Church. The Apostles themselves recognized this mixture, but never considered the presence of “tares” to “interfere with that Sanctity” which is one of the Church’s four Notes. Fr. Jaki sums it up well when he states that Newman “did not minimize the deadliness of the storm without, just because there was some stench within, a condition, one may add, also typical of Noah’s ark, this hallowed symbol of the Church from patristic times.”

There are no mea culpas for the Church’s past history in Newman’s letters to converts. He does not beat his breast for the “tares” that have appeared in every age, but rather exults in the Church’s unique contributions to civilization: “Again, what church but ours, in its principles, its structure, its large teachings, its consistence, its mode of acting, its vigour, its high courage, its grandeur in history, its saints, fulfills that idea of a ‘pillar and ground of the truth’ which the Apostle makes the definition of the Bride of the Lamb?” Such hearty cheers for the Church might seem “triumphalist” today. Note that Newman does not qualify his magnificat. In another letter, he gives still more hurrahs, calling the Church’s contributions to culture “unparalleled.” This is the real Newman, not the make-believe guru who supposedly inspired “the spirit of Vatican II.”

Newman even celebrates the Church’s visibility as a “kingdom.” He informs his converts that the Kingdom of God is really “a polity, which implies political life, activity, history, progress, development, warfare.” He asks “where” such a global Kingdom, “visible and yet spiritual,” can be found on earth. The answer is, the Catholic Church. He rejoices, too, that the Kingdom of God is a visible “unity.” These are hardly the words of a man who cherishes an “interiorized” ecclesiology and is ashamed the Church ever set sail into history.

Fr. Jaki points out that when Newman writes on conversion, the “existentially essential point” is always salvation. The true motive for entering the Church, he keeps telling his converts, is “to save your soul.” He doubts that he himself would have changed his religion “on any ground short of the absolute necessity of the act, as a condition of everlasting salvation.” There are many references to the Last Judgment and Hell in these letters, as when he says, “how could I have answered at the last day, if, having opportunities of knowing the Truth which others have not, I had not availed myself of them? What a doom would have been mine….” The word doom evokes damnation. The final step of his conversion he recalls as a “sudden summons”: Fr. Dominic Barberi was passing through Littlemore, and he recognized in this visit the “awful suddenness of the Judgment.” It was the very moment of grace. Looking back at this crisis, he ponders with “affright” the possibility of his having missed the call. Not that he regards as impossible the salvation of those outside the Catholic Church, provided they are in “invincible ignorance” of the One True Fold. A “sincere contrition” for them is a “sufficient means to gain heaven.” But it is “unsafe” for anyone to stay outside the Catholic Church who is “aware of the fact” that he is outside.

Newman often returns to the existential point of there being a “moment of grace” to which we must respond with “prompt obedience.” Then grace will be added to grace. He urges those lingering on the last step of conversion not to “trifle” with God, since His grace will not be repeated: “beware lest you be of those who have been called and have not answered.” When a convert asks Newman whether, if he (Newman) had remained an Anglican “till now,” he would still have converted, Newman replies, “most probably I should not…because God gives grace, and if it is not accepted He withdraws His grace….” Then he pictures the tragic consequences of that failure to respond: He would have been left “a worthless stump, to cumber the ground and to remain where I was till I died.” Here he imagines himself as damned, a tree without any fruit. The test that the moment of grace has arrived, he advises, is not “any great vividness of impression” but the “continuance” of an underlying conviction about the Catholic Church in the midst of doubts. Once that conviction arrives, action must be prompt. It is not a little surprising in this day, when Hell is supposedly empty, to hear Newman remind his prospective converts that there is a real peril of damnation, not only by committing sin, but by failing to respond to grace.

What caused many of Newman’s converts to linger long was their desire for more certainty about controversial issues. They would raise objections in their letters to indulgences or papal infallibility. Newman refuses to be drawn into these disputes. He empathizes with them in his replies, recalling that he too wished to have “a clearer view at the time of acting, and for a year before,” but that God granted him “that confidence” only after his conversion. His advice is that one must be guided by “private judgment” until safely inside the Church. For only then, when the “aids and graces of the Church” have been received, is it possible for the convert to have “the true gift of faith.” Only then will the soul find rest.

So whoever waits for utter certainty before acting waits in vain, because the Church’s doctrines can never be fully proven to reason; they can only be perceived as excellent up to a point. The question that remains is simply this: “have I reason enough” to place my faith in the Church? The convert still has to act “in the dark” to some extent when he enters the One True Fold. Yet his trust has merit. “It is an odd sort of faith,” Newman muses, “which only believes what the reason understands.”

Conversion amounts, then, to trusting the word of Christ heard in His Church: “Is not our Lord worthy to be believed?” Newman advises one correspondent to read three saints’ lives and “pray for effectual grace.” He tells another that the issue is not whether one can believe, but whether one “ought to believe.” If the answer is yes, then one makes “acts of will” that are the starting point of faith. To still another, he counsels asking “what God would have me do.”

In one of the last chapters, Fr. Jaki observes that many Catholics today would find Newman’s take on ecumenism “upsetting.” Indeed, Newman justifiably fears that ill-considered ecumenism will cause harm to individual souls. From his supernatural perspective, each soul has an infinite value. Schemes of reunion can jeopardize the salvation of a soul in the sense that someone on the brink of entering the Catholic Church might be tempted to work toward, and wait for, corporate reunion, thus letting the moment of grace slip away forever. It is “mere deceit,” Newman insists in these letters, to minimize the difference between Catholic and Anglican. It is “a dream” to think of “uniting the two religions.” More than once he tells a correspondent that he himself converted when he realized that Catholicism and Anglicanism were really “two different religions” separated by a great gulf. The gulf was as wide as the difference between objectivity and subjectivity, as he explains it, for Catholics believe in a Church that is a living authority, unerring because divine in matters of doctrine, while Anglicans believe in whatever they happen to define as contained in Scripture and the Fathers. That the Catholic Church is a living guide, Fr. Jaki declares, is at the very core of Newman’s existential ecclesiology.

Newman is particularly unsparing of Pusey and the High-Church Anglicanism in his correspondence with his converts, who are mainly High-Church Anglicans. He accuses Pusey of “liberalism in religion,” in that he creates his own eclectic religion ? partly from the early Church, partly from Anglicanism, and partly from Roman Catholicism. There is no obedience in him, but only personal preference. According to Newman, Pusey believes “about twice as much as the Prayer Book contains,” and knows that there is not a single person before him in the last 1800 years “who has ever held his circle of doctrines.” Without warrant he has made himself “the Prophet and Doctor of his Church” and calls “that” the Church of England, which “never was” since its founding in the 16th century. Newman’s blunt comments here reveal his insistence on historical continuity and his abhorrence of doctrinal innovation. Such comments go a long way to exploding the myth of the progressive and ecumenical-minded Newman.

Where the mythical Newman might be supposed to put down devotion to the Virgin Mary as un-English or as an embarrassing distortion of Christianity, the real Newman actually calls it “the ordinary way to heaven.” He instructs a convert positively to desire this devotion: “We should wish at least to hold all that is received, though not de fide; devotion to the Blessed Virgin is the ordinary way to heaven, and the absence of it is at least a bad symptom of the state of our faith.” So when the real Newman finally stands up, he turns out to be more like the revered saints of the past than like the progressive theologians of the present, in whose mold he has been unfortunately cast by many Newmanists, including the most prominent ones.

A review like this can only touch lightly on the treasures found in this book, a book that is essential reading for anyone wanting to see Newman as he truly is, a spiritual son of the Church Fathers and of the medieval Doctors of the Church. Suffice it to note that, as Fr. Jaki points out, Newman’s work with converts has been slighted in the books written on him by Wilfrid Ward, Meriol Trevor, and Ian Ker. Besides this, in the 10 or so Newman conferences held in the last decade in connection with the bicentenary of his birth and the centenary of his death, there was not a single essay on Newman and his converts. Indeed, at the bicentennial celebrations, there was not even a reference to his being a convert. Sapienti sat!

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