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Newman regarded the Pope as the Antichrist, beginning with Gregory I c. 600. But he liked the Council of Trent and saw celibacy as of apostolic origin. Newman developed the doctrine of the Anglican church as a Via Media between Protestantism and Popery.

Lesson 10: Reply to a Critic

All historical events are contingent and might easily not have happened, but some contingencies are more intriguing than others. If Charles Kingsley had not written so intemperately, gratuitously accusing Newman, and indeed the Catholic clergy of mendacity, Newman would not have had the occasion to lay before his fellow Englishman the reasons for his conversion to Catholicism, a conversion which had saddened, vexed, puzzled many. And there were a few who thought that Newman had been dissimulating during the long years he remained an Anglican, that he had already gone over to Rome, and hid this in order to take others with him.

With the passage of time, the occasion for the writing of Apologia pro vita sua has faded into oblivion, losing what interest it had. No one cares what Kingsley wrote; everyone wants to read Newman's account of the history of his religious opinion. In the book that eventually was formed from the original pamphlet response, Kingsley all but drops out of the picture. It would be too much to suggest that Newman was on alert for some such occasion as that provided by Kingsley so that he could respond to what he rightly took to be a widespread puzzlement and curiosity about what he had done. Nonetheless, he welcomed the opportunity and responded in a way that made his response utterly transcend the occasion for it.

Structure of the Work

The Apologia is divided into five chapters which follow the chronology of Newman's life.

1. History of my Religious Opinions up to 1833.

2. History of my Religious Opinions from 1833 to 1839.

3. History of my Religious Opinions from 1839 to 1841.

4. History of my Religious Opinions from 1841 to 1845.

5. Position of my Mind since 1845. 

On the face of it, this seems a pretty pedestrian approach. The fourth chapter is by far the longest, as given the dates it covers we should expect. But it is the frankness with which Newman lays bare his mind to the reader that makes the book such compelling reading. It is almost as if he puts himself in the position of observer of his own past life, with privileged access of course, and wishes to place before us the developments and currents of his thought whether or not these put him in a particularly good light.

The great argument of the Apologia is that one can only understand so great a change in a person's life as a religious conversion in terms of all the factors, however seemingly unimportant, that converge upon a given point. Newman is not suggesting that he is laying before us a map of universal cogency, such that a reader might trace the same route and come to the same decision. It is the singularity of each person's case that is stressed by stressing the singularity of Newman's own. This is his story. These are the events in his life, the thoughts, the friends, the study, that led him over time to the momentous decision to enter the Church he had hitherto pilloried and leave the Church whose long champion he had been. To expect that his conversion - or anyone's - could be equated with an argument, a single realization or change of mind, is, Newman is suggesting, a fundamental mistake. Arguments matter, of course, but they are never by themselves decisive. That seems to be his view. Moreover, conversion looks to be the result of the convergence of a great many factors none of which by itself would be compelling.

The Apologia is therefore a disarming book. Readers took to it because they rightly had the sense that he was confiding in them the deepest secrets of his life. If Newman had been a bit of a pariah among his fellow Englishmen, the Apologia changed that.

Chapter 1 takes us through the Mediterranean trip to Newman's return to England and thus Chapter 2 begins with a discussion of what came to be called the Oxford Movement. Theological liberalism - "the theological and biblical speculations of German" - were a threat to the Church. Newman sees the Oxford Movement as a natural evolution rather than the result of some committee decision. Newman saw his own contribution as providing primacy to "personal influence" rather than to abstract theological argument, and he began the Tracts for the Times in that conviction. Individual minds would be expressed and thus the tracts with different authors would not seem to appear ex cathedra. Newman's own position could be summed up in three propositions: First, was the principle of dogma - and liberalism is equated with the anti-dogmatic principle; Secondly, he was confident of a certain definite religious teaching based on dogma, that is, there is a visible church; Third, the episcopal system, bishops as successors of the Apostles. As for Rome, Newman regarded the Pope as the Antichrist, beginning with Gregory I c. 600. But he liked the Council of Trent and saw celibacy as of apostolic origin. Newman developed the doctrine of the Anglican church as a Via Media between Protestantism and Popery. And he interpreted the 39 Articles of the English Church as favorable to that view. Tract 90 was the culminating document and it consolidated Newman's enemies despite the fact that he claimed the support of the great Anglican tradition for his views.

Newman did not think that Liberalism could be countered only with negatives. A positive view of the church had to be developed in manifest contrast to Liberalism. That was his hope for the Via Media. In 1839, an event of crucial importance occurred. "About the middle of June I began to study and master the history of the Monophysites. I was absorbed in the doctrinal question. This was from about June 13th to August 30th. It was during this course of reading that for the first time a doubt came upon me of the tenableness of Anglincanism" (P. 113). The fifth century controversy seem to present a remarkable parallel to that of the nineteenth century. "I saw my face in the mirror, and I was a Monophysite. The Church of the Via Media was in the position of the oriental communion, Rome was where she now is; and the Protestants were the Eutychians" (114). If the Eutyhcians and Monophysites were heretics, he found it difficult to see how Anglicans were not. At this upsettng juncture, a Protestant friend cited the remark of St. Augustine on the Donatist heresy. "'Securus iudicat orbis terrarum.' He repeated these words again and again, and, when he was gone, they kept ringing in my ears. 'Securus iudicat orbis terrarum.'" This decided ecclesiastical difficulties on a simpler basis than antiquity - the judgment of the whole church, the church catholic. This pulverized the theory of the Via Media.

At this point, Newman's reader expects him to announce his conversion. He does not. Rather he recounts the way in which he fought against the tendencies of his thinking. He renewed and sharpened his attacks on Rome, eschewing now doctrinal points, concentrating on supposed aberrations of practice and devotion. He decided to undertake another effort to prove the Catholicity and Apostolic character of the Anglican communion. But he also contemplated resigning St. Mary's and withdrawing to Littlemore. And then in the summer of 1841, at Littlemore, he received three blows "which broke me."

In reviewing his earlier study of the Arian heresy he found something he had overlooked before and which was starker than the realization brought on by the Monophysite heresy. "I saw clearly, that in the history of Arianism, the pure Arians were Protestants, the semi-Arians were the Anglicans, and that Rome now was what it was then, 'the extreme party.'" That was the first blow. The second was the bishops, who one by one began to attack him. The third was the appointment by Canterbury and the Prussian Court of a joint bishop of Jerusalem.

"From the end of 1841, I was on my death-bed, as regards membership with the Anglican Church, though all the time I became aware of it only by degrees" (141). His conversion was four years off, in 1845 and the crucial fourth chapter of the Apologia records Newman's often desperate efforts to avoid the direction in which he was being led. He sought to show that the Anglican church had the note of sanctity, one of the marks of the true church. But he could not avoid the fact that his own view of the church was rejected by its bishops. "The Bishop of London has rejected a man, 1. For holding any Sacrifice in the Eucharist; 2. The Real Presence; 3. That there is a grace of ordination" (150). How could he fail to act? "'Again, sometimes when I was asked, whether certain conclusions did not follow from a certain principle, I might not be able to tell at the moment, especially if the matter were complicated, and for this reason, if for no others, because there is a great difference between a conclusion in the abstract and a conclusion in the concrete, and because a conclusion may be modified in fact by a conclusion from some opposite principle. Or it might so happen that my head got simply confused, by the very strength of the logic which was administered to me, and thus I gave my sanction to conclusions which were really not mine; and when the report of these conclusions came round to me through others, I had to unsay them. And then again, perhaps I did not like to see men scared or scandalized by unfeeling logical inferences, which would not have troubled them to the day of their death, had they not been forced to recognize them. And then I felt altogether the force of the maxim of St. Ambrose, 'Non in dialectica complacuit Deo salvum facere populum suum.' I had a great dislike of paper logic.'" It was not logic that carried him on, anymore than the quicksilver in the barometer changes the weather. "Great acts take time." Gradually, his responded to the practice of devotion to the Blessed Virgin and he worked on the notion of the development of doctrine in the Church. He provides us with contemporary summaries he made of where he stood. And then, finally, this. "' I came to the conclusion that there was no medium, in true philosophy, between Atheism and Catholicity, and that a perfectly consistent mind, under those circumstances in which it finds itself here below, must embrace either the one or the other. And I hold this still: I am a Catholic by virtue of my believing in a God; and if I am asked why I believe in a God, I answer that it is because I believe in myself, for I feel it impossible to believe in my own existence (and of that fact I am quite sure) without believing also in the existence of Him, who lives as a Personal, All-seeing, All-judging Being in my conscience'" (182).

Suggested Reading

Newman, Apologia pro vita sua, edited by Ian Ker. London: Penguin Books, 1994.

Suggested Writing

List the half dozen major events on the way to Newman's conversion as he recounts it in the Apologia.

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