Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

The Spirit of the Law in Newman's Apologia

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

The Spirit of the Law in Newman's Apologia

Article excerpt

In order to repudiate Kingsley's charge that he was a liar, Newman had to overcome what he called "the bias of the court" the common Protestant assumption that Catholicism itself was not only duplicitous, but also unpatriotic. Accordingly, Newman mounts a shrewd jurisdictional defense in the Apologia. His rhetoric of jurisdiction on the one hand assuages Protestant fears that "Popery" threatens English sovereignty, and on the other appeals to the jury of his countrymen by invoking the higher, nonsectarian jurisdiction of equity.


When John Henry Newman prepared to write his Apologia Pro Vita Sua in 1864, he faced a difficult dilemma. On the one hand, Charles Kingsley had alleged that Newman was a hypocrite and a liar, and that dishonesty was an essential aspect of Catholicism; Newman, who for years had longed for an opportunity to justify himself before the British public, understandably wanted to rebut Kingsley as forcefully as possible. On the other hand, Newman faced a primarily Protestant audience that would not sympathize with overt assertions of the "truth" of Catholicism, especially from a convert who had once preached the truth of Anglicanism. As Leonard Deen notes, Newman solves this dilemma through a masterful use of rhetoric, one that "does not demonstrate the truth of Newman's conclusions, but persuades us of their consistency, and conveys the force of internal conviction with which he holds them" (492). Deen and other scholars of the Apologia's rhetoric, (1) however, have failed to note one of Newman's most effective rhetorical strategies: the exploitation of legal language to secularize the contentious issue of whether Catholicism embodies religious truth. In particular, Newman vindicates the Catholic Church and himself on jurisdictional grounds, using a rhetoric of jurisdiction both to assuage Protestant fears that "popery" threatens English sovereignty and to frame his defense against Kingsley in terms of the nonsectarian authority of equity. This jurisdictional defense culminates in the final pages of the Apologia with the vindication of Saint Alfonso, the eighteenth-century Neapolitan whom Kingsley vilifies as the patron saint of Catholic dishonesty, but whose courtroom "conversion" from worldly lawyer to pious Christian Newman portrays as an ecumenical exemplum of conscience and equity.

The Apologia makes abundantly clear that Newman's gradual decision to convert to Catholicism was a painful "trial" in the sense of a "test of faith." From its opening pages, however, the Apologia also frames Newman's personal dispute with Kingsley as analogous to a legal "trial" in which the public will serve as "judge." In its third paragraph, the Preface to the Apologia speaks of Newman's desire to "acquit" himself "before the world":

      I unexpectedly found myself publicly put upon my defense, and
   furnished with an opportunity of pleading my cause before the
   world, and, as it so happened, with a fair prospect of an impartial
   hearing. Taken indeed by surprise, as I was, I had much reason to
   be anxious how I should be able to acquit myself in so serious a
   matter.... (1-2) (2)

Later in the Preface, Newman voices confidence in his "eventual acquittal, seeing that [his] judges are [his] own countrymen" (8). Even though Kingsley has an initial advantage of being able to appeal to "the bias of the court," Newman declares that he "will vanquish, not [his] Accuser, but [his] judges" (10, 12).

By casting his readers as impartial judges in a court of law, Newman seeks to minimize their religious biases by appealing to them on a secular level. The very word apologia derives from the Greek for defense or a speech in defense, and the Preface alone abounds with legal terminology in addition to that already quoted, such as "pleading," "impartial hearing," "equitable judgment," "proof," and "witnesses." As the Apologia progresses, Newman reminds his readers of their judicial role by evincing a scrupulous concern over the admissibility, as it were, of his evidence. …

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