No Newman scholar he.

Speaking of smug experts (see the end of the previous post) certain authors have a problem with "keepers of the flame" who seem to read no author other than – and who grandly assume that they are the only ones who can say anything sensible about –  their favourites. (This is a harsh interpretation, but you get the idea). In some cases, such as Ayn Rand, it is no better than the author deserved. Indeed, in Rand's case, it seems to be what she actually wanted. G. K. Chesterton's keeperitis appears terminal but, the infecting organisms seem to be fairly genial, so I may be wrong (about the terminality, of the infection there is no doubt).

John Henry Cardinal Newman is another example. In that case the sheer range of his knowledge makes it hard for keeperitis to take a firm hold. How many people are able to read and write English, French, Italian, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac?* And that is just for starters. Newman read pretty much all of the Fathers, the Anglican Divines as well as the Classics. He shows a detailed knowledge of, for example, the long and somewhat crabbed Theologia Moralis of St Alphonsus Liguori. His ideas are subtle and varied. It is probably too much even for bacillus keeperitiensis to conquer.

That is not to say people don't try. In 2002 Stanley Jaki OSB had the temerity to publish Newman to Converts: An Existential Ecclesiology. It received a favourable review in the Catholic Herald, in the course of which the reviewer passed some unfavourable comments about one of Newman's keepers, Fr Ian Ker. The next week there appeared a letter from Fr Ker, in reply:

I have not read Jaki’s book, nor do I intend to do so, having in his previous writings already sampled his ill-informed and tendentious approach to Newman.

Jaki at least read Fr Ker's books. Fr Ker has merely sampled Jaki's. Then comes the kicker:

Jaki is a recognised authority on religion and science; he is not by any stretch of the imagination a plausible guide to Newman.

How dare this man write about ("my!!!") Newman without a permit! One  might ask, if Jaki is not a plausible guide then what is the problem? If he is not plausible then nobody will believe him. Of course that is not what Fr Ker means. He means it is not plausible to think of Jaki in the club of Newman guides; one cannot believe it. For all the world as though Newman is a hidden mountain which only the experts may dare ascend alone.

As for myself. I have edited a book called Newman and Conversion (1997), papers delivered at a conference dedicated to this very theme.

Well that's alright then. We have the subject covered. Jaki can go back to his grubby laboratory.

Fr Ker's attitude even makes me sympathetic to John Cornwell, another one of those base slanderers of Pius XII. In 2010 Cornwell published an article in the New Statesman which was covered in the Catholic Herald. Cornwell put forward some silly ideas about Newman, opposing him to the asceticism of St John Vianney, and claiming Newman held that expansive meaning for "conscience" where, if it feels good, then it must be right.

The following week the Herald published an op-ed by Fr Ker which eviscerated Cornwell's article. But he could not stop himself from rebuking Cornwall for his presumption:

As the biographer of Newman and the author and editor of more than 20 books on Newman, I can claim to have consulted these “unexpurgated works” to which Cornwell (who is no Newman scholar) appeals in his attempt to present Newman as a dissident theologian of the “spirit of Vatican II” school.

I read Ker's biography of Newman once. He takes the narrative for the period 1833-1845 almost holus bolus from the Apologia. But one of the most interesting things about the Apologia is whether Newman's own recollection of the course of his development is in fact right. Did he forget things? Did he suppress them? Moreover Ker does not explain the puzzling aspects of historical matters such as what is the significance of the tutorships, or how Oxford in the early 19th century worked. The modern University is somewhat mysterious to outsiders.† Its 19th century predecessor is positively opaque.

But Cornwall is "no Newman scholar". Either Cornwall is right or he is wrong. If he is wrong then someone like Fr Ker should be able to point this out – particularly in the space afforded to an article as opposed to a letter to the editor. He does not need to pull rank. It is hard not to feel sympathy with Cornwall as he makes this reply.

Fr Ker well knows that Newman’s mode of “saying and unsaying” allows one to make all manner of conflicting claims about Newman’s viewpoints. While this means that familiarity with all of his writings is essential before making judgments, he surely cannot mean that his, Fr Ian’s, viewpoint alone must prevail in any disagreement with a lay writer. Yet his article implies that that because he is “Newman’s biographer” and that I am “no Newman scholar” I must hold my tongue. I may not be a Newman scholar, but I first began reading Newman in my junior seminary in the 1950s. I studied Newman for several years under the guidance of the late Mgr Henry Francis Davis, who initiated Newman’s Cause in 1958. For the rest of my life I have read and reflected on Newman’s work, I hope carefully and lovingly.

Fr Ker replied to this. But he did not press the point on "no Newman scholar". The debate continued with other writers (John Cornwell no longer appeared although I stopped looking after the issue of 21st May 2010) week after wearying week. You can follow it in the Herald's archive. Or not.



*(And probably a few others I haven't noticed: Newman translated some of St Ephraim's hymns from Syriac. I am not saying he had enough knowledge to translate Ulysses into that language).

†(I read an article recently, decrying the fact that C. S. Lewis did not get a professorship until late in life and attributing this to anti-Christian bigotry. The author seemed to be totally unaware that Oxford has very few real professorships (one or two per subject) and not that many titular professorships. The flip side is that Oxford graduates find other Universities rather puzzling. You mean to say you are allowed to determine the content of your course? How very revolutionary.)