On an Over-Appreciated Apologist

It came to my attention recently that I had managed to never read anything by John Henry Cardinal Newman. I'm assuming I'm putting the "Cardinal" in the right place, but I think we all know who I'm talking about. As my roommate has a few of his books, I decided to rectify this – and frankly, on my reading so far, I am at a loss to explain how the man has the reputation he does. I don't mean to sound arrogant: he was clearly a much better scholar than I've even dreamed of being, and clearly a very pious man. Still, my initial encounter has not lived up to the hype.

I began with his Apologia pro Vita Sua (English, "A Defense [or, Discussion] of My Own Life"), mainly a defense of his steps in progressing to the Roman Catholic Church. Unfortunately, my initial impression was of a man, very learned, but somewhat self-important and self-righteous. I learned that in writing this he was dealing with a poor situation – including, among other things, wild accusations regarding his integrity or lack thereof, to answer which the book was, at least in part, written – but my own charity did not suffice to continue reading beyond the introduction and first few chapters.

I therefore switched books, and started An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. A certain defensiveness in dealing with his own life, I suppose, is reasonable, even if I found it hard to deal with. What was equally unexpected, and even more surprising, is to find this second book in many ways mainly an exercise in sophistry. I will give two examples.

Newman claims in his 1878 Preface – some thirty years after the original writing – that, "the following pages were not in the first instance written to prove the divinity of the [Roman] Catholic religion," instead letting on that the book merely explains "certain difficulties in its history". On two counts this is absurd. The first is that the book was written almost immediately before his reception into the Roman church, and the volume is written throughout with a tone and manner entirely defensive of all the Roman doctrines. With this context, the fact that Newman's particular interest and line of argument is historical seems to me irrelevant and a poor disguise.

But in case this later addition seems to not bear sufficiently on the work, here is an example of exegetical obfustication, unfortunately the sort of thing which is distressingly common throughout his doctrinal discussions. Newman writes here in defense of the Roman Catholic practice of communion of the laity "in one kind" – that is, with the Cup withheld at Communion from the people of God. He cites various Patristic sources, some of which could reasonably be adduced to support the position (although mainly by demonstrating historical differences of practice). But he also offers the following:

"[St. Basil] seems to have been asked by his correspondent whether in times of persecution it was lawful, in the absence of priest or deacon, to take the communion in one's own hand, that is, of course, the bread; ... [St. Basil] is altogether silent about the cup[:] ...'For all the monks in the desert, where there is no priest, keep the communion at home, and partake it from themselves....'" (Chapter IV.1.9)
The italic is Newman's own emphasis: the bold is my pointing out the spurious argument. By what flying leap does Newman decide that because Basil's correspondent mentions hands, the Cup is no longer in question? Is the Cup now no longer brought to the mouth by the hands of someone, priest or self as may be? As to "altogether silent about the cup" – St. Basil seems, in the passages Newman quotes, to be equally silent about the bread – which could mean that the correspondent asked him only about the bread, as Newman alleges (without any proof), or that St. Basil answers on the subject of the Communion generally.

This method of argument, where a conclusion is assumed, and evidence (however doubtful) is sought out to justify it, dissenting sources being discarded or ignored on the basis that they have been decided against, is unfortunately very common in the Essay. Given his reputation I hesitate to unilaterally castigate the Cardinal, but certainly my first few readings have not given me a favorable impression of him, however scholarly.

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