Apologia pro Vita Sua by John Henry Cardinal Newman

I'll be spending 2013 reading biographical materials: autobiographies, biographies, diaries and letters. Over the course of the next twelve months, I'll be reading and discussing three items in each of those four categories. It isn't just that the people who are the focus are important, and that their stories are fascinating, but biographical material itself poses its own questions – how is the life of a real person constructed in narrative? What is included? What is left out?

To begin, I'd like to look at John Henry Cardinal Newman's spiritual autobiography, Apologia pro Vita Sua ("A Defense of His Life"). When someone writes the story of his/her life and offers it to public view, I wonder – why did this person feel the need to write about his/her life? If the person was still alive when the book was published (as in this case), what point is chosen as an end point? In what way is the person's life, not yet lived to completion, seen and presented as a whole?

Newman (1801-1890) early in his adult life had been a bright light in the Anglican Church and an important member of the Oxford Movement. The Oxonians were highly critical of what they saw as an increasing liberalism within the Anglican Church, a liberalism that was losing sight of the church's tradition; they felt that a renewed emphasis on ritual practice similar to that found in the Roman Catholic Church would reinvigorate the Anglican church, and so emphasized the similarities and continuities of the two denominations in the larger context. Though still disturbed by what they saw as corruption and tyrannical control by the Pope, the Oxonians worked for a return to many of the traditions from the time when the Church of England was part of the Church of Rome. Over the course of a few years, Newman and other Oxonians published a series of tracts (Tracts for Our Time) in which they outlined their ideas, which were largely welcome, at least until Newman wrote Tract 90, in 1841.

In that tract, Newman looked at the "39 Articles," a key statement of principles in the Anglican Church, to determine if there was anything in those articles which blocked greater union with the Catholic Church. He found nothing standing in the way. He found criticisms of errors in the Roman church of the 16th century, but nothing that would make ecumenism impossible. Though his bishop did not forbid the publication of this tract, it became clear to Newman that his views were not welcome to his superiors, who, he felt, somewhat betrayed him. No further tracts were published, and Newman chose to retreat from his parish duties and the public eye to sort his own position out.

Once he had decided that the via media ("middle road") he once thought possible between the two denominations was no longer practicable, he made the decision to join the Roman church and became a priest in that denomination in 1845. As he was a public figure of some note in Anglican theological circles, such a defection was taken hard. A fellow Anglican priest, Charles Kingsley, began attacking Newman in the press. Kingsley stated that Newman had always secretly been a Catholic, and that he used his position at Oxford and afterwards as a member of the Oxford Movement to advance a secret Catholic agenda, thereby undercutting the Anglican church.

Newman responded to Kingsley's charges in his own series of articles, but then decided to expand his scope into what eventually became this book. As the title suggests, this is composed as a defense of his life. Part of the book is devoted to specific charges made by Kingsley, and part is devoted to setting the story straight by describing his spiritual journey in the 1830s and 1840s as Anglican priest and theorist, and finally as Catholic theologian. As someone raised Catholic, I was always aware of the importance of Newman to English Catholics, and to Catholics at colleges and universities – most public universities in the US have a Newman Center which serves as something of a parish center for Catholics on campus. And I was glad to have the chance to learn more about Cardinal Newman and why he became a Catholic. But this book is likely to be a bit difficult for most non-Catholics, and even for some brought up in that tradition.

On the level of pure enjoyment, however, I found Newman's sharp statements about Kingsley something of a guilty pleasure. For example: In accusing Kingsley of bad faith in attacking him and suggesting that he was dishonest, as he had never consulted with Newman to learn his mind, he responds to an hypothetical question: How was Kingsley to know that Newman was genuine and not some slick operator? Newman states that Kingsley "should know by that common manly frankness, if he had it." In other words, Kingsley is an ill-mannered punk who doesn't give Newman the benefit of the doubt. And elsewhere, Newman suggests that Kingsley is not attacking out of malice, but because of his limited intellect. "He appears to be so constituted as to have no notion of what goes on in minds very different from his own, and moreover to be stone blind to his ignorance." At times, it felt like the O’Reilly Factor produced for Masterpiece Theatre.

If you do not have an interest in Anglo-Catholicism, the occasional sharp retorts may provide little enjoyment for you. But if you have such an interest, this is a very well written book dealing with one man’s spiritual journey.

For other spiritual autobiographies, you might try St. Augustine's Confessions, and Thomas Merton's The Seven-Story Mountain.


About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.

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