11 July 2019, The Tablet

Topic of the week: Newman and the limits of literalism


Your editorial “The saint for our times” (6 July) rightly rescues John Henry Newman from conservative attempts to co-opt him, highlighting his belief in conscience, academic freedom and the role of the laity in the Church, all of which earned him the soubriquet, “Father of Vatican II”.

It was a pity, therefore, that you should select for your quotation in “The Living Spirit” (same issue) the least accurate passage in the Apologia, in which Newman claimed to have had no “anxiety” or even “one doubt” since the day of his reception into the Church. It is on record that he was suffering from great anxiety and concern about the direction the Church was taking in the early 1860s under the papacy of Pio Nono, who famously said “No, No” to all the progressive and liberal ideas listed in his “Syllabus of Errors” (published in the same year as the Apologia).

One of the reasons that Newman’s legacy continues to be contested by conservatives and progressives (and distrusted in some quarters) is that our saint-to-be had an extremely creative way with language. Literary effect sometimes weighed more with him than literal truth. He knew that, of course, hence his disclaimer, “I have no tendency to be a saint .... Saints are not literary men.”

Get Instant Access

Continue Reading

Register for free to read this article in full

Subscribe for unlimited access

From just £30 quarterly

  Complete access to all Tablet website content including all premium content.
  The full weekly edition in print and digital including our 179 years archive.
  PDF version to view on iPad, iPhone or computer.

Already a subscriber? Login