Cardinal Newman and the joys of ‘thinking uselessly’

John Cornwell’s biography reminds us what an inspiring thinker Newman was, and shows that he has far more to offer real humanists today than do the likes of Richard Dawkins.

Kevin Rooney

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Why is it that otherwise intelligent people appear to have a licence to be ignorant when it comes to matters of Catholicism? With all the furore about child abuse cover-ups and recriminations over the cost, many people will have missed the primary reason for the pope’s visit to the UK this month: to beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890). (Beatification is the last staging post on the path to sainthood.)

For many, the idea of identifying holy individuals as saints – and particularly the idea of associating these people with ‘miracles’ – is just one of the irrational, mystical and reactionary aspects of Catholicism. But for practising Catholics in England, the beatification of Newman is a big deal: you have to go back more than 300 years to find the last saint from England. That Newman’s beatification has been lost in the noise generated by the ‘Protest the Pope’ movement is ironic, for there are few historical figures who personify intelligent discussion of religion more than Newman, widely acknowledged as one of the most eminent English-speaking Christian thinkers of the past 200 years.

The great betrayal

These days, the Catholic Church has flung its doors open to disgruntled Anglicans seeking to convert, but Newman’s conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism in 1845 was a different matter. It sent shockwaves through the English Anglican establishment. Gladstone called it ‘calamitous’, others a ‘perversion’. It is difficult to overstate the immense influence the protestant Church of England played in public affairs in the nineteenth century, and the extent to which it was bound up with the British establishment and a sense of English identity. Yet Newman, the towering intellectual and theologian based in Oxford – the bastion of Anglican doctrine – walked over to the other side.

In doing so, he gave up a comfortable, privileged life to join a church that was still subject to discrimination and abuse and deemed to be the ‘enemy within’, representing a threat to the authority of both church and state. As Terry Eagleton points out, Newman was not going to let ‘a little thing like his entire social formation as an individual stand in the way of what he saw as truth’.

Newman was seen as a traitor at a time when church issues were not abstract esoteric debates concerning the faithful but rather had an impact on political power. For the British ruling class, Newman’s abandonment of Protestantism in favour of Catholicism was akin to heresy and betrayal. On the other hand, for the working-class Irish who made up the backbone of the Catholic Church in Britain, it was a fantastic morale boost at a time of great hardship (I remember my Irish Catholic father recounting this bit of church history with particular relish).

The ‘outing’ of Newman

The beauty of Cornwell’s book is that it has very little to do with the issue of sainthood and everything to do with Newman’s intellectual legacy and his astonishing literary output of theology, poetry, philosophy and history.

The book’s title – Newman’s Unquiet Grave – refers to the attempted exhumation of Newman’s remains, a standard practice for those chosen for sainthood, to allow the public to visit their remains. The grave is ‘unquiet’ because the exhumation ended up causing a big row about Newman’s sexuality. Newman had chosen to be buried with his long-term close friend and fellow priest Ambrose St John. For some gay rights campaigners and critics of the Catholic Church this fact proves two things: firstly that Newman was gay, and secondly that the exhumation was some kind of elaborate ‘cover up’ of this fact by an anti-gay Vatican. According to gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, ‘Homophobia is at the root of the Vatican’s sordid scheme to exhume Newman… is it too bigoted to concede that one of its revered cardinals and future saints may have been a loved man?’

In fact, no one can know for sure whether Newman was gay. Cornwell places Newman’s love for Ambrose in the context of earlier historical eras, when friends being buried together was not unusual and when the intensely spiritual nature of same-sex relationships was often celebrated. As critic Padraic Conway recently wrote in the Irish Times, it is only in recent decades that society has problematised same-sex love: ‘Our age has lost the ability to imagine deep friendships between people of the same sex.’

In any case, there was no need to ‘out’ Newman, who himself wrote openly and touchingly about his love for Ambrose, especially after Ambrose’s death (in 1875, 15 years before Newman’s death). Whether that love was ever expressed sexually seems irrelevant. To reduce Newman’s life to a facile debate about his sexuality is a sad tribute to a great thinker. In the event, Newman’s remains were never recovered anyway, as they had completely decomposed.

Newman as a writer

Cornwell makes a compelling case that Newman was a writer with a genius for ‘creating new ways of imagining and writing about religion’. Though a beautiful as well as a prolific writer, Cornwell notes that Newman also found it a painful process. Newman wrote to a friend that composing a volume of writing was like carrying and then giving birth to a child: ‘I do not think I ever thought out a question or wrote my thoughts without great pain, pain reaching to the body as well as the mind.’

Yet he overcame the pain to produce material of immense quality on a staggering scale: letters, tracts, polemics, scholarly monographs, essays, histories, discourses, satires, novels, poems and hundreds of sermons and lectures as well as hymns. James Joyce, no friend of religion, thought Newman to be England’s greatest prose writer and had a character in one of his novels describe Newman’s writing as ‘cloistral silverveined’.

What is also clear from Cornwell’s book is that Newman was not just struggling with the pain of writing but with ideas. Twenty-first century militant atheists like Richard Dawkins – who lazily portray religious people as gullible, unthinking sheep who simply follow a set of prescribed beliefs and rules – would do well to read some Newman. Until his old age, Newman was constantly developing and seeking to understand his own belief and faith. ‘We can only set right one error of expression by another’, he wrote.

Cornwell also describes the considerable influence Newman’s writings exerted on religion at the time: ‘As an Anglican, he renewed the spirituality of the Church of England; as a Catholic, he shaped the reforming spirit of the Catholic Church.’ One of the earliest Christian supporters of Darwin’s theory of evolution, Newman emphasised the role of conscience over authority (as part of a contribution to the papal infallibility debate) and the obligation to seek religious truth wherever it might lead. He attacked liberalism and relativism, yet is proclaimed a great liberal by some. He predicted the decline of religion and the rise of atheism across Europe before anyone else. He anticipated the rise of militant secularism underpinned by an authoritarian state, and in words that are as relevant today as 150 years ago he warned of the dangers of religious freedom and conscience being trampled over by an authoritarian state in the guise of pseudo-liberalism.

Cornwell shows how Newman rose to the challenge of new ideas by drafting notes aimed at a rational argument to justify belief in God. Writing in the era of Darwin’s theory of evolution, David Hartley’s Observations of Man – A Materialist Theory of Everything and Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto, Newman responded with Grammar of Assent, a masterful justification of religious belief in a time of scepticism and doubt.

Yet much as I admire Newman, had I been alive at the time I would have been more convinced by the Communist Manifesto than Grammar of Assent; Newman’s chastising of his younger brother for his socialist sympathies suggests we would have been firmly in different camps. Newman’s championing of emotion and imagination in support of religious faith makes for good reading for ‘believers’, but is ultimately unconvincing and the absence of any materialist concept of history is a major flaw in his work.

Previous writings on Newman by Frank M Turner and Anthony Kenny explore these debates more fully than Cornwell’s book. They are worth reading, not least because they demonstrate how much more dignified and intelligent the nineteenth-century rows over faith versus progress were than the degraded spats taking place today. Using Newman’s sexuality as a stick with which to beat the Catholic hierarchy would not just have had Newman spinning in his grave but Marx, too. Despite famously describing religion as the ‘opium of the people’, Marx’s writings engage with the ideas of religion in a thoughtful and nuanced way, in contrast to today’s critics of theism.

On the University

Cornwell describes his biography as ‘a portrait of a man who continues to speak to us from beyond the grave’. This is no more true than in Newman’s work on the role of the university. The Idea of a University is a tour de force which has influenced debates about the role of higher education around the world. At a time when more and more politicians see universities in an instrumentalist way – as a means of simply churning out the workers required by the economy – Newman’s philosophy seems radical: the university should be a place where ‘knowledge is capable of being its own end’, he argued.

Newman passionately believed that university should not be a preparation for the outside world but a place where ideas and subjects should be studied for their own sake. The ideal university, he wrote, is a place ‘in which the intellect may safely range and speculate, sure to find its equal in some antagonistic activity and its judge in the tribunal of truth’. For Newman, the mark of a civilised society was the existence of universities in which students could enjoy the ‘perfection of the intellect’ and the opportunity to ‘think uselessly’. His inspiring vision could not be more at odds with the utilitarian way universities are seen today, viewed as places where everything learned should be ‘relevant’ to the students’ chosen careers.

Newman was such a purist about this that he was even opposed to research taking place in universities. For him, the university was where the student absorbed the disciplines of scholarly learning – universal skills that could be applied to research and professions at a later stage. As Terry Eagleton says, our political and educational leaders could do worse than read Newman on universities: ‘His book needs to be placed in the hands of the vandals, philistines and soulless bureaucrats who are currently destroying our places of higher learning.’


As with so many major historical figures, there is a queue of different interests lining up to claim Newman for themselves. While gay rights campaigners will use Newman to push their campaign for allowing openly gay priests, liberal Catholics are also seizing on Newman’s views in support of their attacks on the church hierarchy. An editorial in the Tablet argues that Newman’s unique history should be used to express a more coherent view of English identity. But all these sectional interests undermine the universalism of Newman’s endeavour. Newman’s writing and ideas belong to everyone – religious and secular alike.

There is plenty to disagree with Newman on, especially from a materialist perspective, but also plenty that is worth grappling with today. His determination to strive for an intellectual justification for religious belief sits alongside his respect for science. His acceptance of the theory of evolution could be a contribution to a more nuanced and intelligent debate between science and religion than that led by today’s New Atheists. His writing on universities could provide considerable intellectual ammunition in a campaign to halt their decline.

But the opportunity to revisit Newman’s inspiring legacy has been drowned out by a loud and philistine protest at the pope’s visit and a facile discussion of Newman’s sexuality. It would be far better if we used the occasion of his beatification to resurrect Newman’s spirit of intellectual enquiry, a task that will be greatly assisted by Cornwell’s book.

Kevin Rooney teaches government and politics at a London school. He is producing the session ‘The Catholic Church: more sinned against than sinner?’ at this October’s Battle of Ideas festival at the Royal College of Art in London.

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