Stones cry out
Genius is not a rhetorical convention when applied to John Henry Newman, and Ian Ker, the preeminent biographer of this multiple genius, uses select passages of some of the subject’s most important works as evidence that, in the entire history of English letters, he was arguably “the very greatest writer of non-fiction prose in the language.” He cannot be confined to his own century, whose years he virtually spanned (1801–1890), for that would almost satirize him as the “Eminent Victorian” seen through the small lens of the cynical Lytton Strachey. He casts a shadow longer than Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, Mill, and Ruskin. As Ker fairly judges, he was “one of those very few Christian thinkers who may be mentioned in the same breath as the Fathers of the Church.” I was taken aback by a headline in the Sun Sentinel of Florida: “Cardinal Gibbons Overpowers Cardinal Newman.” Now, Gibbons of Baltimore had been a champion of Newman in a famous libel case, and hardly one to assault his friend, but apparently the article in question was referring to a volleyball game between two high schools. While Newman is scandalously neglected in our present academe, the stones of many schools around the globe still cry out, at least through their sports teams.
A thousand years from now, two names of the nineteenth century are sure to be remembered as moral giants too large for their own splendid age, and both made their biggest mistake in estimating themselves. Lincoln’s poorest prediction was spoken in a cemetery: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here. . .” Newman’s was a response to a suggestion that he might be holy: “Saints are not literary men; they do not love the classics; they do not write Tales.” Today, however, we still revere the Gettysburg Address, and Pope Benedict XVI broke his own precedent by personally beatifying the cardinal. When Newman is canonized and declared a Doctor of the Church, as he almost certainly will be, there will be fulfilled the eulogy preached by the angular Cardinal Manning who loved him more than he liked him: “whether Rome canonizes him or not, he will be canonized in the thoughts of pious people of many creeds in England.”
A mind as inventive and experimental as it was eloquent made Newman suspect to plodding thinkers. Even in routine details, he was adventurous: he liked gadgets, was a violinist of near professional accomplishment, installed one of Oxford’s first shower baths in his own room, and did not cast a cold eye on Darwin, mindful that, as with theology, “science which exceeds its limits falls into error.” He is singular in being the only modern voice cited in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, and so he has been called its prophet. Had he not been created a cardinal in his last years by Pope Leo XIII, he would still have been a symbol of unique prodigy. When he received the Red Hat in 1878, Punch magazine flourished: “’Tis the good and grey head that would honor the Hat / Not the Hat that would honor the Head.” The man himself, though, was satisfied by the papal act: “The cloud is lifted from me forever.”