John Cornwell's recent article condemning Pope Benedict XVI for hijacking the legacy of John Henry Newman, turning the great English "liberal" into a "conservative," is a prime example of the danger of using such tired and unhelpful categories to characterize the thought of serious people.
Taking certain texts of the great cardinal out of their literary and historical contexts, Cornwell argues that Newman was the leading liberal Catholic thinker of his time. Then he insinuates that, were he alive today, Newman would be radically out of step with the reactionary Joseph Ratzinger who is, curiously enough, beatifying him.
Well just for starters, I wonder how he squares that judgment with Newman's own famous self-assessment in the speech that he gave upon being named a cardinal: "I consider my entire life's work, both as an Anglican and a Catholic, to have been a battle against liberalism in matters of religion!"
If we're truly interested in interpreting Newman's thought accurately, we might begin by unpacking this remark. By "liberalism," Newman meant the view that "there is no truth in matters of religion," that religion, in a word, is a function of subjective whim or feeling. He was absolutely consistent on opposing this kind of religious subjectivism all his career.
When he was still an Anglican and leader of the Oxford Movement, Newman identified one of his central convictions as the "dogmatic principle," which is to say the affirmation of the objective, intellectual content of religion. And in his midcareer "Idea of a University," Newman strenuously objected to the marginalizing of theology from the circle of proper university disciplines, under the false pretext that religion has to do with private emotions.
Now, it is glaringly obvious that this sort of approach to religion -- privatized, subjective, feeling-based, and relativistic -- is prevalent today. And this helps to explain why Joseph Ratzinger, who has identified the "dictatorship of relativism" as the chief spiritual problem of the present day, is happy to make common cause with John Henry Newman.
With this basic clarification in mind, I would like to turn to some of the specific issues that Cornwell raises. Taking as his cue Newman's motto "Cor ad Cor Loquitur" -- heart speaks to heart -- Cornwell presents the great cardinal as something of a 19th century romantic, uninterested in "clever arguments" and seeing religion as "falling in love."
Well, anyone who has even glanced at Newman's masterpiece, "The Grammar of Assent," or his autobiography, "Apologia pro vita sua," would know that he was intensely interested in argumentation and intellectual precision. To be sure, he thought that much more than argument goes into the act of assenting to religious propositions -- that the "heart" is indeed deeply involved -- but this doesn't mean for a moment that he was an anything-goes sentimentalist.
Further, Cornwell's assertion that Newman thought people should "follow conscience wherever it may lead" is, to say the very least, misleading. Newman was fascinated by conscience all his life, but this was because he saw it as "the aboriginal vicar of Christ in the soul." Conscience, for him, is an extremely demanding and constraining power, the voice of someone who both rewards and punishes. The one thing it is not is a warrant to choose according to one's private desire.