Blessed John Henry’s Religious Opinions

A few weeks ago I found myself on an afternoon’s accidental pilgrimage through Rome, walking from the train station on one end of the city to St. Peter’s on the other. Unfortunately or fortunately, the day before I’d made my left leg incredibly sore by jogging up a mountain. All the better, really—a bit of pain makes a pilgrimage count for more, plus it holds out the possibility of getting healed (which, physically at least, didn’t happen). Anyway, it was in the course of this—unplanned, completely, I promise—that I happened to stumble into the Chiesa Nuova, the mother church of the Oratorians of St. Philip Neri, on September 19, 2010, the very day that Pope Benedict XVI was over in England beatifying that order’s second-favorite son: John Henry Cardinal Newman. Or, now, that’s Blessed John Henry to you.

Truth be told, the timing of Ben’s trip completely tanked my professional objectives for my time in Rome, since the entire Vatican press corps was on the papal plane or somesuch. I was still pretty mad at him when I stumbled into the church (only minutes after drinking a libation to Giordano Bruno at the Campo de’ Fiori) and noticed the poster of Newman propped up by the altar. This was the day, I’d forgotten! That a literary man was being put on the path to sainthood (“Saints are not literary men,” Newman once wrote)! And Rome was thumbing its nose at Henry XVIII by celebrating a convert from heathen Anglicanism (ugh, sorry, Anglican friends)! Happening to stumble into that particular church on that particular day really tickled me, and I resolved that when I got home, I would read Newman’s classic autobiography Apologia Pro Vita Sua and, this time, actually finish it.

The most daunting thing about my absolutely adorable 1950 hardcover Modern Library edition of the book (and any other editions, I suspect) is the table of contents.

1. Mr. Kingsley’s Method of Disputation
2. True Mode of meeting Mr. Kingsley
3. History of my Religious Opinions up to 1833
4. History of my Religious Opinions from 1833 to 1839
5. History of my Religious Opinions from 1839 to 1841
6. History of my Religious Opinions from 1841 to 1845
7. General Answer to Mr. Kingsley
Appendix 1: Answer in Detail to Mr. Kingsley’s Accusations
Appendix 2: A Correspondence between Mr. Kingsley and Dr. Newman on the Question: Whether Dr. Newman Teaches That Truth Is No Virtue?
Appendix 3: Charles Kingsley: “What, Then, Does Dr. Newman Mean?” A Reply to a Pamphlet Lately Published by Dr. Newman

I mean, who is Mr. Kingsley anyway? And why should I care to read four long chapters about somebody’s “religious opinions” over the course of some segment the 1800s? I’ve got plenty of my own, thank you. Perhaps, ahem, Dr. Newman, you might have heard out your own sage rhetorical question: “Who would ever dream of making the world his confidant?”

It’s better than it sounds. The whole thing, meticulous play-by-play memoir included, is righteous polemic against public attacks made by this Kingsley that Newman dashed off (276 pages in my edition, 430 with appendices) in a matter of just a few sleepless weeks. The purpose was to tell how his mind and heart came around from publicly attacking the Catholic Church as an Anglican to finally finding his way to Rome and converting. It’s exacting, often beautiful, sometimes almost even funny, and brutal. The man these pages disclose to us is at once a creature of astonishing integrity and earnestness, while also a jerk like only someone who’s running intellectual laps around 99% of people he meets can be.

Newman’s general orientation comes in a manner that grates against an age like ours, when “dogma” has become little other than a term of abuse:

From the age of fifteen, dogma has been the fundamental principle of my religion: I know no other religion; I cannot enter into the idea of any other sort of religion; religion, as a mere sentiment, is to me a dream and a mockery.

Spoiler: he’s not going to be speaking in tongues, going to yoga, or memorizing verses of Rumi. I wish he would. I wish I would. But what Newman discloses instead is the mind of a man who insists on carrying the beliefs he claims to uphold and the church he belongs to to the plainest, fullest conclusions. No gerrymandering doctrine around convenience. The historical and spiritual claims of faith are not mere metaphors, if they are anything at all. And better to hedge against the excesses of human freedom and imagination than endanger fundamental truths revealed and entrusted to us by God. Freedom and progress are important, but not that important.

My reaction usual to reading the writings of saints (or likely ones): I’m glad I don’t live in this guy’s head. All the fun seems to be gone, all the weirdness, and the wiggle-room that makes a religious tradition even remotely habitable. But a life like his, with all sorts of struggles and sacrifices on behalf of convictions, forces the rest of us to ask: Do we actually believe what we say we believe? Do you? Should you? Or is “the truth” more “complicated”?

The section that concludes the book, pre-appendices, is a paean for simplicity and truthfulness, against the temptation to disguise hard facts in pleasanter lies and to think one can or should protect ordinary folks from the exalted and too-complicated things in one’s own marvelous brain. Fitting for a man of tradition and dogma, he concludes the matter with little more than extended quotations from the catechism and sayings about the life of St. Philip Negri, the founder of his order (he was writing, conveniently, on the saint’s feast day).

Catechism: “tell them, what is most true, that the wisdom of the flesh is death. [E]xhort [your] hearers to trust in God, when they are in difficulties and straits, nor to have recourse to the expedient of a lie.”

On Neri: “And he avoided, as much as possible, having any thing to do with two-faced persons, who did not go simply and straightforwardly to work in their transactions.”

Beautiful, horrible. True, impossible. I want my padding—religious truth can hurt! Newman has no sympathy. Since coming to Rome, his “religious opinions” have been utterly satisfied and steady: “I have had no changes to record, and have had no anxiety of heart whatever.” What about the rest of us? I came for healing and got a bitter pill.

Mercifully, after the stop-over at Chiesa Nuova, I crossed the bridge to Vatican City and came upon St. Peter’s Square just as a medium-light rain began to fall. The sun was already low enough that its rays came through, below the rain clouds overhead, illuminating the whole scene obliquely, igniting the great dome and making the stones of the square look as if made of a dull, soothing silver. I ran out into the traffic without looking but made it across. I lent my umbrella to a soaking family. Everyone was magnificently glowing with love-glows, though most didn’t seem to know it, and all that was before stepping into the church, before the mass, which was perfectly unspeakable to the likes of you, internet. After all, who would ever dream of making the world his confidant?

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.