Newman, Peel, & the Tamworth Reading Room
'To know is one thing, to do is another'
On October 13th John Henry Newman will be canonized, the first English person in modern times to be raised to the altar. Newman comes to us as an eminent Victorian and a convert. Some say his canonization has been long in coming because he was prolific and polemical. Whether or not that is the case, we need more Catholics who have lots to say and say it publicly—so long as they aspire to holiness.
We have a fine example of Newman’s polemics in his letters to the Times, signed “By Catholicus,” taking Sir Robert Peel to task for blackballing theology from the Tamworth Reading Room. Peel was twice the Prime Minister of England. Opening its doors in 1841, the Reading Room served as an (almost) free community college for those not destined for Oxbridge.
Peel thought highly of his project, as did other notables. Those availing themselves of the Reading Room, he said, will “in becoming wiser…become better.” Anyone who frequents it will “rise at once in the scale of intellectual and moral existence” and, in time, “will feel the moral dignity of his nature exalted.”
Yet what people read, or did not read, needed supervision. Thus, Sir Robert laid down his “fundamental rule, that no works of controversial divinity shall enter into the library.” Doing so, he said, would save his project from “the asperities of party feeling.” Long live civility!
An obvious problem, though not for the zealous secularist, is that Scripture itself involves controversial divinity. The prophets excoriate the priests of the Baals. Christ debates the scribes and Pharisees. Paul challenges Peter on the matter of mingling with Gentiles.
Sir Robert, though, was himself operating out of a contentious philosophical tradition. David Hume, in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), set the standard. “If we take in our hand any volume of divinity or school metaphysics…let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”
It’s also clear that Peel facilely conflated knowledge with virtue. Newman reminds us of the difference. “To know is one thing,” he pointed out, “to do is another; the two things are altogether distinct.” We can teach about virtue, but becoming virtuous is something more. Every parent soon enough learns this.
Newman, to be sure, was himself an intellectual of the first rank. He recognized that we are to love God with our whole mind as well as with our whole heart. With St. Thomas Aquinas, he understood that reason is the ground of freedom, that both are powers of the soul, and that thus we are made in God’s image. Because we are so fashioned, we are capable of God, capax Dei. So it is that grace can build on our nature and bring us to share in God’s life.
As an intellectual and a believer, Newman’s advice goes far beyond what was on offer at The Tamworth Reading Room. He writes that “if virtue be a mastery over the mind, if its end be action, if its perfection be inward order, harmony, and peace, we must seek it in graver and holier places than in libraries and Reading-rooms.” Newman will be canonized in a church, not a library.
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