Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Yet Another Lying, Dishonest Catholic Convert: John Henry Newman

From the article, "Newman's Liberal Problem", by Edward T. Oakes, First Things 132 (April 2003): 43-50.
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. . . Unfortunately, Newman’s own personality—which some contemporaries thought, and many later admirers still think, to be mesmerizing and irrefragably honest, and which perhaps just as many contemporaries and later detractors experience as hypersensitive and jesuitically dishonest—has frequently proved to be too much of a distraction . . .

Frank Turner, professor of history at Yale University, must be counted among Newman’s most savage detractors. In his thoroughly scathing jeremiad, John Henry Newman: The Challenge to Evangelical Religion, Turner launches a sprawling attack on the man’s integrity. The author admits the task won’t prove easy, which surely must account for the book’s massive size and documentation. Focusing on Newman’s remarkable Apologia Pro Vita Sua, the greatest religious autobiography ever written in English and the only one that can bear being mentioned in the same sentence with St. Augustine’s Confessions, Turner sets out to undermine Newman’s account of his own motivations, the value of his historical scholarship, the fairness of his theological polemics, and, above all, the avowed reasons for his many conversions. The ambition is nothing less than to thoroughly discredit Newman as an apologist for Christian orthodoxy and—what is its counterpart—as a critic of liberalism.

. . . Turner, the scrupulously liberal academic, no less than the legions of liberal Catholics who deny the sum and substance of the Catholic sacramental system, would have us believe that Newman was either one of them or a charlatan in his piety—or, revealingly, both. But the truth of the matter is quite different. To modern liberalism’s sundry protests, the historical Newman would have reacted with horror, derision, and disgust, for they undermine the very possibility of the orthodox faith to which his life was committed. Turner, for all his scholarly energies, winds up devoting over seven hundred pages trying to fit his subject into an interpretive framework that Newman would have considered the antithesis of everything he stood for . . .
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Joshua P. Hochschild, in a review of the book on amazon.com, wrote:

Turner proposes that the supposedly unifying feature of Newman's life-the philosophical critique of liberalism-is in fact an invention of the later Catholic Newman, a myth which Newman used to justify the behavior of his prior Anglican self, and which has been perpetuated by sympathetic Catholic hagiographers. According to Turner, a proper historical examination reveals that Newman's activity in the Oxford Movement was motivated more by political, psychological and personal preoccupations, and an emotional antipathy for Evangelical faith, rather than an intellectual critique of "liberal" ideas. But Turner's judgment is not so much the conclusion of historical research as the direct implication his historiographical assumptions. The integrity of the "continuity thesis" regarding the critique of liberalism must be ruled out by Turner a priori, because his historical method leads him to treat any sign of intellectual coherence as implying a "teleology" and "inevitability" directly opposed to historical "contingency."
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From Philip Blosser's review on the same page:

One cannot help asking how a 724 page book of such unsupportable pretension can get itself published . . . One senses that Newman still poses a colossal challenge for many within the Protestant texbook tradition of ecclesiastical history, whether Protestants of the conservative evangelical variety or the liberal "Christianity-and-water" variety one finds here. To the former Newman is a challenge because of the transparent honesty and programmatic reflection with which he agonized his way out of his evangelical Protestant background and Oxford Tractarian movement--against the overwhelming anti-Catholic cultural biases of his British milieu--into the Catholic Faith. To the latter, he is an offense because of his utterly sincere supernaturalism and belief in objective and absolute truth, which sticks like a thorn in the side of their urbane, self-congratulatory naturalism, subjectivism and relativism. Turner shows utterly no appreciation or sympathy for these dimensions of Newman's convictions. Instead, one finds in this pretended biographer of a dogmatist a haughty contempt for all dogma (tenets of faith proclaimed by the Church as supernaturally revealed). Even Keble and Pusey are portrayed as sickly souls, which is more than any Anglicans worth their salt should tolerate. Turner consistently plays fast and loose with his facts, marshalling his historical data selectively in support of his foregone conclusions. He says nothing, for example, about those numerous eminent (and Protestant) Victorians who sided with Newman in his argument (in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua) against Kingsley's claim that he was insincere. Instead, quixotically tilting at a colossus of a man far greater than himself, Turner tries to belittle and besmirch a mind far greater than his-- a mind described by the Victorian Gladstone as "sharp enough to cut the diamond, and bright as the diamond which it cuts." Turner's volume is ineluctably self-serving, iniquitously malicious, incorrigibly biased, and irreparably flawed. For a thorough critique, see Stanley L. Jaki's review in the New Oxford Review (May 2003), pp. 37-46.
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From George W. Rutler's review in National Review:

. . . This study, which goes up to Newman's conversion, is a rare revival of profound cynicism toward Newman's project. Turner is as genuinely bewildered as any 19th-century Protestant that a man with brains could take Catholicism seriously. "Popery" is almost as fluidly condescending on Turner's lips as when spoken by a Victorian Evangelical.

. . . The book's publicity says Newman's conversion to Catholicism (or, rather, "passage to Rome") was very much a result of "family quarrels, thwarted university ambitions, the inability to control his followers, and his desire to live in a community of celibate males." The book's supremely ironical proposition is that Newman was, either by calculation or self-delusion, "perhaps the most enduring Victorian skeptic."

Turner adds to the cauldron of Newman's alleged neurosis, mendacity, and repressed maladjustment, an obsession with his sister Mary. He reads significance into Newman's constant association with churches and oratories named Mary. That would not seem to be remarkable to someone familiar with the Catholic world, but of that culture the magisterial Turner seems at times quaintly innocent. Newman is drawn as a disruptive and confused schismatic.

. . . There are few bad guys among Newman's foes and few even normal ones among his friends. Charles Kingsley, whose imputation of dishonesty to Newman provoked the greatest autobiography in the English language, was merely "unfair." Turner dips into the bottom of the barrel to quote the yet-unconverted Henry Manning on the "want of truth" in Newman's crowd. Newman's two hostile (indeed, nearly mad) brothers, while acknowledged as peculiar, are cited as voices of reason . . .
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For alternate interpretations of Newman's conversion, see:

Apologia Pro Vita Sua (Newman's famous conversion story and "spiritual" autobiography)

Newman's Conversion Story in His Own Words (Brief; edited by Dave Armstrong)

The Conversion of John Henry Newman (Peter A. Kwasniewski)

The Conversion of Mr. Newman (The Tablet, 25 October 1845)

The Religious Movement (Dublin Review, 1845)

Sermon on the Centenary of Newman's Conversion (Ronald Knox; 1945)


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