20 March 2016

A Must Read

Yes, this book is more than a quarter of a century old; but I am still going to recommend it to you ... well, to those of you who don't already have it, or who don't refer often to it ...

John Henry Newman A Biography by Ian Ker (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1988) (available in paparback).

Blessed John Henry Newman is exactly the man you need to read now. And "Dr Ker's biography is gripping because it allows Newman to speak for himself. An acknowledged master of Newman scholarship, he writes with sympathy and fairness of the polemical masterpieces written during the Anglican half of Newman's life ... Dr Ker has been able to use a goldmine of unpublished papers and correspondence. The letters fascinate not only for their style or for the religious and educational topics central to Newman's mind, but also for the accidental flashes of social and personal history ..." So went the review by the late Henry Chadwick, who was himself one of the last of the great Anglican minds of the twentieth century, before the noble construct which had been Anglicanism collapsed into women bishops, Area Ministerial Training Schemes, and Messy Church.

But why should a modern Catholic read Newman, just one of those cobwebby Victorians, in 2016? Because his world was, to an uncanny degree, our world: the problems he faced were so often the problems we as Catholics face. His was a a world in which hyperultrapapalists were trying to impose a bloated and maximalised and unCatholic model of Papacy upon the Catholic world ... the notion that a Pope can do anything. Nor was Newman sentimental about bishops: he had studied deeply a period of Church History in which the majority of the Episcopate had been heretical. Liberalism and relativism stalked the world hand in hand; Newman's detestation of those errors is expressed in the speech he made when he accepted his Cardinal's hat: if you haven't read it, you ought to be ashamed of yourself. Read it; and never again will you be able to keep your temper when some ignorant fool implies that Newman was a 'Liberal Catholic'.

This great Blessed lived through a Council in which a gang of bullies tried to take control, and he was prepared to entertain the speculation that it had not been a genuinely Ecumenical Council at all. He talked about the problems which could arise if the Magisterium attempted to impose dubious doctrine. He even wished that the pope under whom he lived had not survived so long. He was subtle; but his sophistication had nothing soft or soggy about it. It better resembled a sharpened steel blade.

The best reassurance I can give you about Blessed John Henry's character and hence his readability is that he was not always very 'nice'. He took no prisoners.

Ker's biography is a big book; but you can get into it in sections, subject by subject, through the index at the end.

I conclude with another quotation from Chadwick: "[Newman] is an unsurpassed master of English prose. Deeply sensitive and subtle (some of his contemporaries thought too much so), stamped with high culture so as to give the lie to the venerable myth that unreformed Oxford was intellectually torpid, he was a formidable controversialist, as supreme a master of irony and satire as any in our literature."

Blessed John Henry Newman is fun to read, and so, very often, is this book about him.

Beate Iohannes Henrice, ora pro nobis.


tradgardmastare said...

Just back from Palm Sunday Mass. Procession was to "Majesty". I sung more Catholic hymns in my Presbyterian days on Palm Sunday. Always "Ride on" and "All glory laud.." I do miss them so much. Theses hymns and the others out of CH3 helped define my faith,could be meditated upon and ultimately brought me into full Communion with Rome.

mark wauck said...

Re "the speech he made when he accepted his Cardinal's hat," I believe this is a link to that speech:


Nicolas Bellord said...

I will ask my wife to give me a copy for my forthcoming birthday but in the meantime may I suggest the current must read is:


Nicolas Bellord said...

Mark: Thank you for that link. It is incredibly apposite. More than a century has passed and still we wait for Providence to rescue and save 'His elect inheritance'. Obviously we need patience!

mark wauck said...

BTW, if only an "ignorant fool" would regard Newman as a "Catholic Liberal," then I gladly embrace the title. That Newman was a liberal in the philosophical sense is true beyond dispute, which is not to deny him his measure of greatness. While an exposition of this is beyond a blog comment, let me say this. That Newman rejected the conclusions of liberalism in religion is essentially beside the point--the conclusions flow from the principles and one who accepts the principles is responsible for what follows. The well known fact is that Newman fully accepted the basically empiricist principles of contemporary English thought from his younger years. The "Grammar of Assent" is most usefully viewed as an attempt to reason to Christian conclusions from liberal philosophical premises. Newman is by far not the only highly intelligent person to attempt this feat, but it remains what it is--a hopeless task. "The keen delight: The Christian poet in the modern world" by Harold L Weatherby (sadly out of print) goes into some of these issues of Newman's philosophical ideas, especially the Scotist influence. More for specialists, perhaps, Etienne Gilson's enduring masterpiece (one of several) Thomist Realism and the Critique of Knowledge explains with exemplary French lucidity why such attempts as that of Newman--and all those who would reconcile Christian thought to modern philosophy--must always fail. (Full disclosure: while I translated the book I received only a flat translation fee--no royalties will accrue to me from purchases of the book.)

El Codo said...

What Augustine was to the Classical world and Thomas to the medieval,so is the Blessed to the modern age. He should without any doubt be declared a Doctor of the Church.How blessed is the Ordinariate to have such a Champion.

Jacobi said...


Your own fault. Go to your nearest Gregorian Mass. You would have appreciated the procession at the one I managed to get to today.

Mark you, was a bit stiff during the Gospel.

ps no Ordinariate rites up here in my part of the world!

Ian Coleman said...

I'm not so sure about "Towards a grammar of assent"; to me it displays a very keen appreciation of what might be termed a Kantian perspective - not really what one might expect from an English empiricist tradition. Much, of course, hangs on what one thinks constitute 'liberal philosophical premises'...

Anonymous said...

Fr Strange's book of collected letters isn't at all bad either.

Sig S√łnnesyn said...

Mark: I own a copy of your translation of Gilson's 'Thomist Realism', and I think you have done a superb job! Gilson is one of my intellectual heroes, and my rusty French makes me very grateful for good translations that manage to convey the intricacies of his thought with clarity. Thank you, and congratulations on an impressive achievement!

But I must say I read 'Grammar of Assent' not as an attempt to reconcile Christian and Catholic thought to modern philosophy – I fully agree with Gilson that this is an inherently impossible task – but rather as a cogent alternative to modern philosophy. In other words, I see Newman and Gilson as engaged in very much the same sort of project, that is, to use the Catholic Tradition as the foundation of a fully fledged alternative to classical modernism. I may have projected too much of my own prejudices on Newman's text, of course, but I found 'Grammar of Assent' to be the most compelling rejection of rationalistic empiricism I have ever seen.

Melinda said...

"Fun" is exactly the word. Even when you know "who dunnit" [God], the Apologia still reads as grippingly as a detective story. And although Ker's biography is a long and slow read, it is slow because every page is worth ruminating upon, not because it is dull. Most interesting to me was what a rough time Newman had after becoming Catholic--those whom God loves he tests! Our gratitude is due to all those Anglo-Catholic clergy, including Knox, who are similarly tested and renew the battle for fidelity where perhaps they had hoped they would find rest.

Oliver Nicholson said...

In every sense a Trinity man: "Trinity was never unkind to me..."

mark wauck said...

Sig: "Gilson is one of my intellectual heroes ..."

Yes. "The unity of philosophical experience" is another classic that, in some senses, sets the stage for "Thomist realism." "Being and Some Philosophers" is, of course, a difficult read, but well worth the effort.

Newman undoubtedly seeks to overcome the Liberal critique of Christianity, in its conclusions, but I believe it's well established that he attempts to do so while accepting the philosophical principles that underlie Liberalism--much as a Fr. Marechal sought to overcome the Kantian critique from within. Thus, in "Grammar of Assent" Newman explicitly approves the thought of Francis Bacon, in particular citing Bacon's separation of "the physical system of the world from the theological.” No Thomist could ever write something of that sort. Bacon's worldview is the empiricist worldview, and that is Newman's point of departure. It's true that many Catholic thinkers have strayed, but the defined teaching of the Church is that of Paul in Romans 1:20--the spirit of which Chesterton captures so well in the ending to "The Blue Cross."

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

For those in the market for this sort of thing, there are two well-written biographies of Newman for young people: The Red Hat, by Covelle Newcomb; and Tormented Angel, by Emmeline Garnett. Star ratings from Kirkus Reviews and from my own children.

Bartholomew Masters said...

Re Mark Wauck's comments on Newman's empiricist presuppositions as well as his mention of Weatherby, who, I believe went to his reward as a thomist in the Orthodox Communion: a rare bird:

Readers might find of interest a recent 200 page essay by Peter Damian Fehlner entitled "Newman and Scotus in Dialog", which appears in the recent (2015) Newman-Scotus Reader: Contexts and Commonalities. (The entire volume, actually, is worth looking at with contributions by major Newman and Scotus experts.) Fehlner addresses Weatherby's critiques of not only Newman, but also Scotus and G.M. Hopkins, showing that Newman was in de facto agreement with Scotus on several key points and that neither was a modernist or empiricist. If one can both suspend disbelief and overcome all too common anti-Scotus prejudices (likely this won't apply to the equitable readers of this blog who maintain a scholarly open mind on contested points), Fehlner's essay sheds a good deal of light on both Scotus and Newman and makes a convincing case that none of the three Oxford greats (Scotus, Newman and Hopkins) discussed by Weatherby were (proto-)modernists or given to an empiricist epistemology. Jaki's Apologetics as Meant by Newman also untethers Newman from his British Enlightenment forebears in terms of a more thomistic approach.

mark wauck said...

Fr Hunwicke has graciously given me a forum for my (very brief) critique of Newman. That said, there is another way of putting Newman in perspective, and it's important to do so for our times.

1. Newman's was a prophetic voice, and he never ceased to sound the warning against the spirit of Liberalism. That prophetic voice was particularly important for the English speaking world, where Liberalism is the air we breathe or the water we Catholic fish swim in.

2. There can be no doubt that Newman would be horrified and repulsed at the use to which his reputation has been put in the years since his death. No matter what my views on the philosophical principles he accepted may be, it's important to defend the point that were Newman alive today he would have no truck with the Catholic Liberals who have attempted to appropriate him to their cause.

3. All that said, anyone looking for a solid grounding from which to oppose Liberalism need look no further than the Church's perennial philosophy. Of course, this needn't mean immersing oneself in the study of Aquinas' Summae or works like Gilson's that were intended for an academic audience. There are many classic authors whose works are still widely available and who were steeped in this type of thought. Names like C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and Josef Pieper come immediately to mind, but there are many others for all tastes and backgrounds.

mark wauck said...

This isn't the place to get into a debate regarding Scotus and Newman--a complex topic. For what it's worth, however, another person who has ventured a negative judgment on the value of Scotus' thought for the Christian tradition is Benedict. In his Address at Regensburg--one of his most acute addresses--Benedict goes so far as to compare Scotus' voluntarism to the orthodox Islamic thought of Ibn Hazm and to state that Scotist thought constitutes a threat the faith of the Church:

"In all honesty, one must observe that in the late Middle Ages we find trends in theology which would sunder this synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit. In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which, in its later developments, led to the claim that we can only know God's voluntas ordinata. Beyond this is the realm of God's freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done. This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazm and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God's transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions. As opposed to this, the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy ..."

Bartholomew Masters said...

I have no interest in debating either Scotus or Newman with you. My point was that Newman (and, by inclusion, Scotus because I was referencing an essay that discussed him) were neither empiricists nor modernists. There are plenty of competent scholars as well as the 700 year old tradition of scotistic-Franciscan thought that has always received full approbation from the Papal Magisterium that confirms the point about Scotus. This is a matter of record.

You’ll have noticed I mentioned S. Jaki as well.

With respect the Regensburg Address, at the risk of evoking knee-jerks, which is not my intention, I must say that the great Pope got Scotus wrong (in this address, at least) on the Scotus notion of the will. The texts of Scotus bear this out as well as any manual of Scotistic philosophy and/or theology. The recently deceased Walter Hoeres–the great German philosopher and defender of the traditional Latin liturgical patrimony–wrote Der Wille als reine Vollkommenheit nach Duns Scotus (1962). The book remains useful for getting an idea of what Scotus (and Bonaventure before him) actually thought about the will and how their position is worlds away from the voluntarism condemned by Benedict XVI.

Bartholomew Masters said...

For the record one might also recollect two other addresses of Benedict XVI wherein he mentions Scotus:

General Audience 7 July 2010

"Lastly, Duns Scotus has developed a point to which modernity is very sensitive. It is the topic of freedom and its relationship with the will and with the intellect. Our author underlines freedom as a fundamental quality of the will, introducing an approach that lays greater emphasis on the will . Unfortunately, in later authors , this line of thinking turned into a voluntarism, in contrast to the so-called "Augustinian and Thomist intellectualism". For St Thomas Aquinas, who follows St Augustine, freedom cannot be considered an innate quality of the will, but, the fruit of the collaboration of the will and the mind. Indeed, an idea of innate and absolute freedom - as it evolved, precisely , after Duns Scotus - placed in the will that precedes the intellect, both in God and in man, risks leading to the idea of a God who would not even be bound to truth and good. The wish to save God's absolute transcendence and diversity with such a radical and impenetrable accentuation of his will does not take into account that the God who revealed himself in Christ is the God "Logos", who acted and acts full of love for us. Of course, as Duns Scotus affirms , love transcends knowledge and is capable of perceiving ever better than thought, but it is always the love of the God who is "Logos" (cf. Benedict XVI, Address at the University of Regensburg, 12 September 2006). In the human being too, the idea of absolute freedom, placed in the will, forgetting the connection with the truth, does not know that freedom itself must be liberated from the limits imposed on it by sin. All the same, the Scotist vision does not fall into these extremes : for Duns Scotus a free act is the result of the concourse of intellect and will, and if he speaks of a “primacy” of the will, he argues this precisely because the will always follows the intellect."

It seems as though Benedict XVI changed is position on Scotus and the scotistic tradition.

Beatification Homily: John Henry Newman 19 September 2010

"[Newman] is worthy to take his place in a long line of saints and scholars from these islands, Saint Bede, Saint Hilda, Saint Aelred, Blessed Duns Scotus, to name but a few. In Blessed John Henry, that tradition of gentle scholarship, deep human wisdom and profound love for the Lord has borne rich fruit, as a sign of the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit deep within the heart of God’s people, bringing forth abundant gifts of holiness."

Quite a select and worthy group Newman joined.

In the desire to return the conversation to Fr. Hunwicke’s chosen topic, I’ll refrain from further comment on the point.

mark wauck said...

Also for the record, I was well aware of Benedict's second address, devoted specifically to Scotus. He was being diplomatic toward the Franciscans--still a very important order within the Church--who embrace Scotus as their most celebrated theologian. The short response might be along the lines that if Benedict truly believed what he said, then there would be no point in connecting Scotus even verbally with those who came later. The truth is that Scotus does in fact say extreme things. For example, in his commentary on the Ten Commandments Scotus explicitly states that there is nothing in the commands or prohibitions--e.g. Thou shalt not murder--that follows necessarily from the nature of the acts themselves as they relate to human nature:

"For in the things that they prescribe there is no goodness necessary for the goodness of the ultimate end that turns one towards the ultimate end, and in the things they prohibit there is no badness that necessarily turns one away from the ultimate end. So even if that good were not commanded, the ultimate end could be loved and attained; and if that evil were not prohibited, the attainment of the ultimate end would be consistent with that evil. With the commandments of the first table, however, it is otherwise, since they have to do immediately with God as their object."

The reason Scotus says this is because, like later Calvinists, his main goal was to defend God's absolute freedom, and to suggest that the laws of morality are bound by human nature, to him, would offend against God's absolute freedom.