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May 2002

Book Review

NEWMAN TO CONVERTS: An Existential Ecclesiology, Stanley L. Jaki., Real View Books, Michigan, 2001. Paperback, 530 pp. 21.95 from St. Philip's Books, 82 St. Aldates, Oxford OX1 1RA. Tel: 01865 202182/Fax: 202184.


Newman chose as his epitaph the words Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem. A Platonist might translate them as From illusions and approximations to reality. Newman himself knew it really meant for him: From Anglicanism and Anglo-Catholicism to the One True Fold. However the phrase is translated, it describes a journey. That long journey took up most of his life's energy but his determination to help his fellow-travellers is evident on every page of this important book.

At the altar a priest was saying Mass; and, though I understood nothing of what he was doing, there was something in the grave and silent way in which he moved about, joined to the respectful recollection of the people present, which made me feel that there was a mysterious sacredness about the place very different from anything I had elsewhere experienced. I did not then know that Our Blessed Lord Himself was there, and that His grace was working in my heart. Something which I had not rightly understood had been said to me about genuflecting before coming out; so in my wish to do the proper thing, I knelt down on both knees in the aisle with my back turned to the altar, and my face to the end wall.

With those words Father George Phillips recorded, sixty-five years later, how as a boy of eight, in 1851, be accompanied his mother, the widow of an Evangelical clergyman, to his first Mass because she had been received in to the Roman Catholic from the Anglican Church by John Henry Newman. The discovery of such a testimony about an embryonic stumbling towards a vocation is one of the many moving moments that reward the reader of this magisterial treatment of the letters of Newman in answer to those of a huge number of converts.

It has to be said that the book, at over 500 pages, almost a quarter of a million words and because of its essentially repetitive subject matter, is hard going. Its author, a Hungarian born priest of the Benedictine Order, is a distinguished academic with doctorates in theology and physics whose specialty is the History and Philosophy of Science. He has been Gifford Lecturer at Edinburgh and Fremantle Lecturer at Balliol and is an Honorary member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences [and sadly, therefore, a 'theistic' evolutionist - Ed.] The list of other books by the same author overflows from its position on the verso of the bastard title-page to the very end some 560 pages away! All this shows. Aside from the tendency to turgidity that afflicts so much American academic writing, which can fairly quickly constipate the reader, there are some puzzling infelicities of expression. These include some almost Tolkienesque inversions (e.g. p.424): "In a chronological order will now be taken up the testimonies of other converts who told Newman that they owed their conversions to his writings or example." Or pure academese (p.480): "Even some of those Newmanists are productive of such discourses who certainly cannot be suspected of playing out Newman against the authority of the Church, indeed, are that authority in a very large measure." And there are occasional minor examples of careless editings (e.g. misspellings of English names and places) which are not important in themselves but may irritate British readers at any rate. That said, the organisation of the book is excellent with thorough indices of Names and Subjects, all in a crystal clear typeface, which at an average of almost 400 words a page it needs to be.

Dispelling the liberal myth

No one knows exactly how many letters Newman wrote to potential converts or enquiring Catholics (there are 30,000 items of correspondence in his Letters and Diaries) though a day hardly passed when he did not receive at least one. Professor Jaki suggests that it would be easier to weigh rather than count them - non numerantur sed ponderantur. The same approach is the one he adopts in attempting, and indeed succeeding, to prove his case. He displays the relentless zeal of an attorney determined, at the risk of boredom and irritation, to convince the jury by the sheer weight of evidence produced. His chapters deal with individual converts whose difficulties and religious struggles highlight different aspects of the central problem that faced agonised Victorian Anglicans when they came to realise, as Newman himself had done earlier, that their national Church was founded on sand. Some of the chapter headings illustrate Newman's varying approach to individual difficulties: Conscience-bound; Save Your Soul!; One or None but not Many; Piety's Destination; Absolute Submission; The Primacy of Foundations; Tell me Where You Stand!; A Visible Kingdom; No Perennial Catechumenate…

Despite the variations, the central theme is so simple that it clearly baffles Jaki - as it must any reader of Christian Order: how it is possible that the Newmanists, as he terms them, could ever claim that Newman was a Liberal or, worse, that they should have perpetrated the hoax that he would have approved of what happened at Vatican II. "Newman, insists Jaki,"would categorically denounce as a rank distortion of his life and thought the view that his spirit guided Vatican II."

Indeed, throughout this book Jaki repeatedly switches from a study of the nineteenth century evidence to apply it to the inherent weaknesses of the contemporary Liberal Catholic aggiornamento. He comments scathingly on the "dubious Catholicism cultivated by Catholics who prefer that word [aggiornamento] to be written with a lower case c. On the theological level the same contrasting of catholicism with Catholicism is a symptom of the low levels to which ecclesiology has sunk in post-Vatican II times. There will be no rising from these lowlands until upper case C is found again for writing the words "Catholicism" and "Catholic," and writing them in such a way not merely as a matter of orthography but of orthodoxy and as a reflection of the God-given and God-willed reality of the One True Fold. Newman would not have it otherwise ..."

Conversion not merely an option

The phrase One True Fold is the nub of the argument and would indeed have been a better title for the book. Newman himself, after a long and painful struggle, converted to that One True Fold when his study of the Church Fathers, in particular the controversy of Athanasius and Arius, led him to realise that the four Notes (or distinguishing Marks) of the Church (Unity, Sanctity, Catholicity and Apostolicity) could not be found on the body of the Church of England, despite its claims to the contrary. "Nothing is more day-clear than this, that unless there never was a Church and heretics around it, the Anglican church is ... in the position of one of those early sects." This, it is worth remembering, was what Newman asserted years before the definitive encyclical Apostolicae Curae settled the matter. Once anyone came to realise this truth he was bound to convert, on pain of the risk of damnation involved in turning from the light, whatever the cost in human terms - and in Victorian times, especially for those with any social position, those could be crippling. The alternative, however, was worse: "And how shall we stand in that dreadful day, if we allow fear of losing custom in trade, or fear of losing employment, or living in the Established Church, or the favor of friends and relations to shut our eyes to the truth of that same Catholic Church of Christ for which He died?

Nor would Newman have any truck with the Modernist idea of all churches, indeed all religions, being different paths leading up the same mountain to God at the summit. Conversion for him was not an option for something different but for something which alone was true: "To leave it merely as a branch of the Catholic Church for another which I liked better, would have been to desert without reason the post where Providence put me. It is impossible then but that a convert, if justifiable in the grounds of his conversion, must be an enemy of the Communion he has left, and more intensely so than a foreigner who knows nothing about that Communion at all." What, Jaki wonders, is to be made of this plain-speaking by latter-day Catholic ecumenists, who abhor nothing more than the prospect of making converts and do not tell prospective converts that there is a duty to convert?

Newman's method of gaining converts, however, could never be described as aggressive nor did he encourage his converts to undertake counterproductive proselytising. "To argue and preach out of place is just the way to disgust Englishman with religion," he told the Marquise de Salvo. We cannot beat and force people into belief. Therefore I would say to a person, watch your season, avail yourself of opportunities, do not lose them -but still you cannot do more - you cannot make them."

Once in the Church, Newman told his converts, there was to be no more questioning. He makes clear again to his correspondents what he had already written in his Apologia: the history of the development of his religious views terminated with1845; after that, instead of "developing", he was "in possession". Not for him the "loyal dissent" and "critical attitude" of the "mature" laity and clergy we have witnessed over the last forty years! "Every one who joins the Church must come in the spirit of a child to a Mother - not to criticize anything, but to accept."

There are benefits to be derived, however, from such obedience. In the case of Catholics, Newman wrote to Anthony Hanmer, the pains of Purgatory "will be shortened and lessened in an indefinitely great measure to those who die in the Church - from the communion of the merits of the Saints ... A Catholic is one of a company (are you listening to this, Tablet-takers?), and has a benefit when (inclusive language enthusiasts curl up here like salted slugs!) he dies, which (sorry, ecumaniacs all!) those who do not belong to it have not." To Catherine Ward he explained: "When God gives grace to those outside the Church, it is not to keep them outside, but to bring them into it." Can this be the same Newman who is claimed to be the "guiding spirit of Vatican II"? A more suitable candidate for that appellation is surely the caucus of Modernist German periti, whose country Newman described to Ward as "the seat of the most diabolical infidelity."

Patron Saint of Converts?

It is in his chapter Ominous Background that Jaki most directly challenges contemporary Modernists and their hijacking of Newman as a figurehead for their flagship. "Today, four decades after Vatican II, many Catholics would find Newman's sober views on ecumenism rather upsetting" is an example of this very American author indulging in very British understatement. He neither under- nor overstates, however, a remark made by Yves Congar on leaving a Council meeting of theologians which included members of the Vatican Ecumenical Commission: Ils ne sont plus catholiques - They are no longer Catholic. In one of his most hard-hitting paragraphs, which Christian Order readers will find depressingly familiar, he goes on to pillory attitudes in our contemporary Church to our eternal destiny - surely the litmus paper of authentic Catholic belief:

The destiny is a choice to be made by man between heaven and hell, both lasting through eternity. Today,... that choice has become the target of a systematic theological obfuscation. Hell is not denied, though hardly ever asserted, and heaven is not spoken of enthusiastically. At wake functions, the dead is remembered as having lived a full life, shown fondness for music, kindness towards children, and zeal in civic projects. Hardly a hint is dropped that he has already been judged by God, however merciful, and for eternity. Notorious promoters of ugly sins, who gave not the slightest hint that prior to their death they had had repeated and renounced their systematic promotion of sin are given the full trappings of Church burial if they happen to be Catholics by birth and if the clergy involved are too afraid of being pilloried by the media for being "narrow-minded," should they refuse such a burial."

I make no excuse for the long quotation. It is perhaps the place where Professor Jaki's true feelings break through his hitherto well-maintained academic reserve; where he risks committing that unmentionable sin which tolerant Modernists will not tolerate: being judgmental. Yet one has to ask: is he being any more judgmental than was Newman himself?

Jaki recalls that Jean Guitton reported how Pius XII, a Pope the Modernists either calumniate or dismiss, once whispered to him that Newman would one day be declared a Doctor of the Church. This assessment was reached from a reading only of Newman's books, not of his letters. Now, thanks to Professor Jaki's monumental industry and courage, we have access not only to a selection of the letters of an Englishman who one day soon may be canonised but also a thorough, honest and long-overdue interpretation of them for our troubled times. My one concern about recommending it is that wide acceptance of its central argument - that if Newman is indeed to be canonised it should be as the patron saint of converts - will frighten the ecumaniacs so much that they will try to suppress his cause. On the other hand, if they read this book with an open mind, one or two of them may provide the miracle which his cause still lacks, by themselves making the transition ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem.