The Mixed Legacy of Cardinal Newman

The Evening Standard (London, England), July 15, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Mixed Legacy of Cardinal Newman


Byline: MELANIE MCDONAGH

NEWMAN'S UNQUIET GRAVE: THE RELUCTANT SAINT by John Cornwell (Continuum, [pounds sterling]18.99) IF EVER there were an Eminent Victorian, it was John Henry Newman. His life almost spanned the 19th century and his effect on his time was profound, though his contemporaries were divided about whether that influence was to the good or bad. He is one of the masters of English prose. His Apologia, or defence of his religious convictions by way of autobiography, remains unique -- those powerfully moved by it included George Eliot -- and his poem about the passage of a soul after death, The Dream of Gerontius, is familiar to English concertgoers in its setting by Elgar.

Yet it's doubtful whether most A-level history students have heard of him. The Pope is to beatify Newman this year, in the unremarkable setting of a disused car factory outside Birmingham; in anticipation, the bishops have got their work cut out explaining to a largely uninterested nation why he matters. He has, undeniably, a continuing influence in academic and church circles, yet much of the recent debate about him centred not on his intellectual legacy but on Peter Tatchell's contention that he was, in fact, gay. It says a good deal more about the secularisation of the culture than about Newman.

This biography may help change all that. The author, John Cornwell, is best known as the author of the controversially named life of Pius XII, Hitler's Pope. This present work has ruffled feathers among conservative Catholics, but it's an achievement -- a summary of Newman's extraordinarily long life (he died in 1890, aged 89) which re-establishes his claim on our attention. It is also shorter than the other major biographies by Sheridan Gilley (excellent) and Ian Ker (thorough). So far as contemporary controversies go, Newman was wonderfully sane on the relation between science and religion -- he was entirely unperturbed by Darwin -- and prescient about the effects of pluralism in Britain.

He was pre-eminently a literary figure, and Cornwell summarises his most important works, notably the Grammar of Assent, on how we arrive at religious faith by instinct and imagination, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, about the essential continuity of Catholicism, and The Idea of a University, which upends our utilitarian orthodoxies about higher education. …

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