The Blessed John Henry Newman was the natural dedicatee of the title of a series of lectures given by historians at the University of East Anglia, all of whom are, themselves, converts. Newman was a controversial figure during his own lifetime, and although, latterly, as the aura of sanctity has settled on him, there has been something of a lessening of emphasis on that side of him, I am not sure he would have approved. Newman was a formidable controversialist, and loved the heat of battle as much as he claimed to hate it; no man who really hated it would have become embroiled in as many conflicts as Newman. He is a natural patron saint for historians -who also thrive on controversy.
The series of lectures after which this blog is named is designed to bring something of that love of learning and argument to a wider public. The University of East Anglia, now in its fiftieth year, has build up a reputation as one of the leading research-led Universities in the country, and it has had, from its beginning, a Chaplaincy at its geographical heart. It is easy to forget the role played by University chaplains in the life of the university and its students; when, as tends to be the case, things go well, few notice; and when they don't, the Chaplains are always there to help students of all faiths and none. At UEA the Catholic Chaplaincy is part of the Multi-Faith Centre which comes under the aegis of the Dean of Students Office, which provides pastoral support for more than fifteen thousand students. These lectures are designed to show the intellectual contribution which Catholicism makes to the life of the mind.
In his Biglietto speech, when he was made a Cardinal, Newman warned of the dangers to be apprehended from the spread of 'liberalism in relgiion':
Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.
Devotion is not necessarily founded on faith. Men may go to Protestant Churches and to Catholic, may get good from both and belong to neither. They may fraternise together in spiritual thoughts and feelings, without having any views at all of doctrine in common, or seeing the need of them. Since, then, religion is so personal a peculiarity and so private a possession, we must of necessity ignore it in the intercourse of man with man. If a man puts on a new religion every morning, what is that to you? It is as impertinent to think about a man's religion as about his sources of income or his management of his family. Religion is in no sense the bond of society.
Even then, in 1879, Newman saw its success and deplored it:
There never was a device of the Enemy so cleverly framed and with such promise of success. And already it has answered to the expectations which have been formed of it. It is sweeping into its own ranks great numbers of able, earnest, virtuous men, elderly men of approved antecedents, young men with a career before them.
Cassandra-like, he warned:
Such is the state of things in England, and it is well that it should be realised by all of us; but it must not be supposed for a moment that I am afraid of it. I lament it deeply, because I foresee that it may be the ruin of many souls; but I have no fear at all that it really can do aught of serious harm to the Word of God, to Holy Church, to our Almighty King, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, Faithful and True, or to His Vicar on earth. Christianity has been too often in what seemed deadly peril, that we should fear for it any new trial now.
So far is certain; on the other hand, what is uncertain, and in these great contests commonly is uncertain, and what is commonly a great surprise, when it is witnessed, is the particular mode by which, in the event, Providence rescues and saves His elect inheritance. Sometimes our enemy is turned into a friend; sometimes he is despoiled of that special virulence of evil which was so threatening; sometimes he falls to pieces of himself; sometimes he does just so much as is beneficial, and then is removed. Commonly the Church has nothing more to do than to go on in her own proper duties, in confidence and peace; to stand still and to see the salvation of God.
There was accuracy and wisdom combined here. Too often has this part of the speech been ignored. Since the Second Vatican Council there has been much debate about its effects, with some tempted to despair as the 'smoke of Satan' penetrates even the Vatican. But Newman was wiser than the alarmists.
To those who, after the declaration of Infallibility in 1871, were tempted either to triumphalism or despair, Newman counselled caution and patience. He had not, himself, approved of the declaration, but as it had been allowed to happen, he was happy to await the results, knowing that the Holy Spirit would not let the Church fall into the peril which both its proponents and opponents anticipated, with dread. So too, he foresaw, would it be with 'liberalism in religion' which doctrine is now in full possession of the public square.
Too often, at least for my own taste, the Catholic Church has been perceived as the opponent of all change and a reactionary bulwark. Change is an historical inevitability, and the only real question to be asked of it is whether it should be peaceful and in accord with tradition, or whether it should be violent and filled with the novelties of untried ideologies. Historians deal with it, and seek to examine it, its antecedents and results. The Newman Lectures take seriously the Blessed John Henry's comments about what the Church should do, and one of those things is evidenced here - and that is to encourage the life of the mind. In that, the Diocese of East Anglia and UEA are at one.
This year's lectures attracted a large and devoted following, with many Catholics telling us how good it was to see UEA offering something for them. That was good to hear. That the audience also consisted of students, staff and other non-Catholics, was also good. Catholicism has played a great role in history, and these lectures will seek to trace something of it.
This blog is designed to provide a record of the Lectures, but also a place where we can comment on Newman and other related topics, and where out audience can, if it wishes, stay in touch and interact with us.
In his, The idea of a University Newman saw us as communities of thinkers, engaging in intellectual activities which were an end in themselves. To encourage students "to think and to reason and to compare and to discriminate and to analyse" was the purpose of universities then, as it is now.