Cardinal NewmanNewman’s
Unquiet Grave: the reluctant saint
| by John Cornwell | Continuum | £18. 99

the Priest: a father of souls
| by Gerard Skinner | Gracewing | £12. 99

prompted John Cornwell, author of Hitler’s
Pope and other vigorous investigations, to add to the already considerable
literature on John Henry Newman? He tells us that in the light of the
forthcoming beatification that “it seemed timely”. I do not wish to suggest
that the author is cashing in on current interest in Newman; he sincerely
wishes to bring his own insights to bear on the great man. As he is a
journalist rather than a Newman scholar, and a man highly attuned to the spirit
of the modern age, it is not a surprise to discover that Cornwell’s insights
centre on “Newman’s character and importance as a writer, rather than on his

Some might
think that not to discuss Newman’s holiness is like trying to discuss
Churchill’s life without mentioning the last war. However, it does give the
author license to roam around his subject’s character without needing to relate
this to an unremitting struggle for virtue in the midst of ordinary human
weakness, which is what the example of holy living should show us. Herein lies
the book’s originality: to bring together areas of Newman’s personality which
could be considered questionable in today’s climate, such as his wish for joint
burial with his fellow Oratorian and friend, Ambrose St John, his particular
friendships, his early choice of a celibate life, his seeming “repugnance”
towards marriage and so on, in order to create a possible “impression of capricious,
unstable gender identity”.

This is Cornwell’s
way of building up his portrait: a deft use of innuendo, juxtaposition,
suggestion, speculation and negative quotations. Thus, referring to Newman’s
time as a tutor at Oriel College, he remarks: “It would be anachronistic to
view Newman’s reform of tutorials as the policy of a sanctimonious martinet”.
So why mention it at all? He throws in a random paragraph about Oscar Wilde,
Lord Alfred Douglas, Frederick Rolfe and other notorious fin-de-siecle characters,
then informs us solemnly that “attempts to make connections with Newman are
ill-conceived” – even though he is constantly sowing such “connections” in the
mind of the unwary and ignorant reader.

He makes
play with the hostility of Charles Kingsley, the words of T.H. Huxley (“the
slipperiest sophist I have ever met with”) and a remark of Cardinal Manning
(“He bamboozles you with his carefully selected words”). He informs us early on
that “Newman’s unrelenting literary obsession was the story of his own life: he
was the ultimate self-absorbed autobiographer”; later, that “Newman’s central
preoccupation in life, by his own admission, was from the outset his inner life”;
and later still, that there is “an element of self-centredness whenever he
speaks of himself.” If Cornwell had actually thought about the nature of
holiness he would have realised that the autobiographical writings of holy men
and women are always written in the light of their relationship to God.
Otherwise the autobiographies of St Augustine or St Therese of Lisieux, for
instance, are simply unhealthy and neurotic exercises in self-absorption. I
rather conclude that the idea of sanctity is above the author’s pay-grade.

It is
instructive that Cornwell places reliance on Geoffrey Faber’s Oxford Apostles – because it supports
his own penchant for amateur psychologising.  Perhaps he should read Christopher Dawson’s infinitely wiser
book, The Spirit of the Oxford Movement
which brilliantly sums up the flawed methodology at work: “ [Faber] bases his
history of the [Oxford] Movement on his interpretation of the character of its
leaders and he bases this interpretation not on their own theological and moral
conceptions but on the categories of modern psychology… Seen through Freudian
spectacles the severe moralism of the Tractarian ethos dissolves into an orgy
of morbid emotionalism. The history of the Oxford Movement becomes an essay in
sexual psychopathy.” Dawson continues: “A psychology which ignores religious
values must inevitably misinterpret the behaviour of men whose whole lives are
ruled by religious motives.” This is a neat summary of Cornwell’s whole
approach to his subject; indeed, his book even includes a passage entitled,
“Intimations of homoeroticism in the Oxford Movement.”

There is a
confused attempt towards the end to bring Newman into the camp of the Catholic
liberals: “What happens when there is a conflict between the Pope’s utterances
and one’s individual conscience? The same question might well be asked today in
the context of papal decrees on contraception” opines Cornwell, adding at the
end a remark about “the enfeebling of [Newman’s] legacy by the resisters of
Vatican II.” There are some factual errors: the Oratorians were not founded in
the 17th century, Leo XIII was not aged 78 when he became Pope and
the dogma of the Immaculate Conception does not celebrate “Mary’s birth without
original sin”. Gremlins have changed “Littlemore” to “littletons” whenever it
is mentioned. But these are small oversights. Newman’s legacy certainly
deserves critical examination but it is not well served by this “timely” book.
Perhaps it should be left to inhabit its own restless and unquiet grave?

It was with
considerable relief that I turned from Cornwell to Gerard Skinner — to
discover that Newman was actually a deeply conscientious and hard-working priest,
a true “father of souls.” From his time as a curate in the poor parish of St
Clements, his work in Littlemore and throughout the long years at the
Birmingham Oratory, he spent an enormous amount of time in the unglamorous work
of preaching, instructing and confessing his parishioners, quite apart from his
unobtrusive practical help towards them. Skinner reminds us that Newman wrote
hundreds of letters on the minutiae of planning and funding the Oratory parish
and school; that he hastened to help the local priest during the Bilston
cholera epidemic; that in extreme old age he involved himself in the difficulties
of the Catholic women workers at Cadbury’s. But zeal for souls is part of
holiness, an unappealing if not incomprehensible subject for modern journalism.

Jack Carrigan writes from Buckinghamshire,
in the UK.