Newman and the Essay

Blessed John Henry Newman
Blessed John Henry Newman

This morning I picked from my shelves a worn copy of Newman’s classic text, An Essay on Development of Christian Doctrine. It had made its way to me via various libraries, from its original location in the O’Brien Institute, by way of Carriglea Park, and then, more recently, from Synge Street where it resided until threatened with the ‘skip’. It is the 1846 Second Edition. It was published and printed only a short few years after Newman’s conversion to Catholicism. How it ended up in a Christian Brother library begs numerous questions. For the moment I am happy to be its guardian and keeper.

The opening section of the book is a lengthy detailing on Newman’s part of his many expressions of distaste for the Church of Rome. These essentially take the form of extracts from the Tracts.

His predominant feeling appears to have been an expression of an inner conflict, occasioned by his recognition that there was a time when the Church of Rome was not in error and for that reason it remains the ‘mother Church’ to whom filial affection is due. This feeling has to live with his more rational conviction that the Rome of his day was heir to all kinds of deviations, depravities, and the perpetrator of monstrous acts of monarchical power. The Church of Rome, he believed, had become a depraved distortion of its former ‘good’ self.

Yet, in this opening section he also cites an Anglican friend who chides him severely for his prejudices. His friend accuses Newman of indulging in sectarian populism, appealing to base emotional outbursts and irrational contradictions. It is a measure of Newman’s greatness and intellectual integrity that he was able to admit to all of this and put it out there in public view for all to see.

Newman’s is a voice from another age. Yet, there is a humility and integrity in that voice that still carries weight. His scholarship is deep, well-founded and considerable in its scope. One imagines his study, not extensive, I would imagine, but populated with original texts and well-thumbed volumes. What Newman represents above all is the quest for truth. He is unswerving in his devotion to this intellectual search. But his heart is also present and eventually appears to have won out. He’s a kind of English Pascal. I admire him greatly.

In the Introduction proper to the work I find the following (admittedly long) sentence revealing and pertinent:

Or again , it has been maintained, or implied, that all existing denominations of Christianity are wrong, none representing it as taught by Christ and His Apostles; that it died out of the world at its birth, and was forthwith succeeded by a counterfeit or counterfeits which assumed its name, though they inherited but a portion of its teaching; that it has existed indeed among men ever since, and exists at this day, but as a secret and hidden doctrine, which does but revive here and there under a supernatural influence in the hearts of individuals, and is manifested to the world only by glimpses or in gleams, according to the number or the station of the illuminated, and their connexion with the history of their times. Introduction, p. 2. ((1846 edition).

It is not difficult to recognise in that passage some of the currents of opinion that are found today. Perhaps it has always been this way. The search for an ‘original’ Jesus or a ‘pure’ Christianity can prove illusory. We then take refuge in ‘secret and hidden’ teachings, sometimes ascribed to the mystics. Or, nowadays, we appeal to TED talks.

It is in such times that we are brought up short, as we are at the present time, by the intense and honest debates within the Synod on the Family. The questions are perennial. Does the Church possess some inner dynamic of authority and truth that opens up for us the authentic voice of conscience? Newman was very strong on the ‘voice of conscience’.

It is interesting, as the Synod in Rome draws to a close, that it is to this ‘inner forum’ of the voice of conscience that appeal is made. Pope Francis’ ‘ who am I to judge’ can be interpreted by some as opening the floodgates of relativism while for others, including myself, it is a recognition that the judgment of personal conscience is supreme. But this conscience, as Newman would remind us, has to live organically within the lifeworld of the Church. It is not the judgment of the Nietzschean ego.

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