Apologia Revisited

I was not well and took a day off from work last week.  It was on that day that I started re-reading Apologia.  I first read this book in 2008.  At that time I borrowed it from NUS library.  Many months after I finished the book, to my delight I found a copy (published by Dover Thrift) sold at a low price in a bookstore.  I bought it without hesitation.  I could not remember precisely the notes in the older copy I borrowed from the library, but I think this copy contains some appendices and notes not found in the library copy.  For instance, the correspondence between Dr. Newman and Mr. Kingsley, which prompted Newman to write this book, is included.

Perhaps it is a testimony to Newman’s greatness that when I read Kingsley’s accusations, I felt so upset that I could not bear to finish reading his article.  I felt as if it was someone I know, someone dear to me, that was being accused so harshly.  I felt I want to make a defence for this dear one.  No wonder Newman set out to write his Apologia after the accusation.  It is certainly a testimony to his literary skill that he could touch a reader so.  But I believe it testifies to a greater quality in Father Newman than just his literary skill.  And of course Mr. Kingsley’s tone and choice of words are upsetting.  I would not want to employ such tone and words even to an enemy.

As I wrote much earlier in this blog, Apologia Pro Vita Sua was written by John Henry Newman in 1864 (at that time he was known as Dr. Newman, later on he would be known as Cardinal Newman, and is now on the last step of being called Saint Newman), as a response to a public accusation against him made by Charles Kingsley.  Kingsley accused Newman of being a dishonest man who had lived a dishonest life, and that Newman’s teaching as an Anglican clergy was dangerous and misleading.  He went so far as to say that Newman had lost his human reason.  What was intolerable to Newman is not the slanders and accusations made against himself, but that Kingsley stated that Newman’s dishonesty is a typical example of the Roman Catholic Church’s low regard of truth.

Newman was no stranger to slanders.  As a young Anglican clergy, he co-initiated the Oxford Movement, a movement which aimed to revive the Catholic traditions and beliefs in the Anglican Church.  The movement believed that the Anglican Church is a part of the Catholic Church (i.e. the universal Church entrusted by Christ himself to the Apostles), otherwise how can she be called a Church? Therefore the doctrines, traditions, and practices of the early Church must be revived.  As the name implies, this movement was initiated by some scholars of Oxford University.  Their chief mode of operation was a natural choice for scholars: publishing essays and giving lectures and sermons.  For a young man (Newman was about 30 when he initiated the Movement) to involve in, let alone initiate, such movement within a Church that was established more or less as a protest against the contemporary Catholic Church, was to invite polemics.  But Newman was ready for that.  After all, the Oxford Movement was started to counter what they perceived as secularization and liberalism (in the negative sense) of the Anglican Church.  He was ready for battle.

The Oxford Movement became influential and widely known.  Newman was popular among the undergraduates student in Oxford.  The followers of the Movement were sometimes dubbed Newmanites (or Puseyites, after Dr. Edward B. Pusey, another leader in the Movement), and the term credo Newmanum was sometimes heard.  But they were not popular among the Church authorities, or at least some of the authorities.  Many accused them of misleading the Anglican flock to the Church of Rome.  In Apologia (this title can be translated as ‘a defence of one’s life’), Newman described his religious opinions and convictions in chronological order.  Reading his description, I think it is very clear (of course I do believe he is being honest here) that he never intended to be an enemy within the Anglican Church.  He was very sure that the Anglican Church is a branch of the Catholic Church, that the Church of Rome is full of evil and no longer deserves to be called the Catholic Church, and he showed this conviction in his teaching.  He never dreamt of leaving his Church.

Later on, when his study on the fifth-century-Church and the writings of the Church Fathers led him to gradually lose his conviction, he felt much anxiety.  He feared that his change in opinions would only serve to confuse many people and thus to further the liberalism or anti-dogmatic principles in the Anglican Church.  Over and over again he stated that as his chief anxiety.  His chief anxiety was the Church and the people, not himself.  In the course of 6 years (from 1839 to 1845), his change in opinions slowly gravitated into a conviction that the Catholic Church was after all still the Catholic Church.  When he finally decided to seek to be received into the Catholic Church, his thought is again for the Church of his baptism.  Few months before that he wrote, “Accept this apology, my dear Church, and forgive me …”

Father Newman had many admirers as well as many critics.  He still has, as his canonization process and people’s comments on that process show.  Those who hail the Catholic Church as the true Church deem his conversion a courageous decision to follow Our Lord.  Those who think that the Catholic Church has fallen as low as Lucifer may think that Newman’s too much thinking and reasoning had been his undoing.  And those who no longer believe in God or religion would perhaps wonder why so much fuss was made over nothing.

I normally do not like conversion stories, be it stories of people embracing Christian faith or of people leaving it.  Not that I doubt the sincerity of the conversion (though in some stories I do), but I do not like a tendency commonly found in such stories, that of disparaging one’s previous faith or religion.  Most of the conversion stories I read was written by people who was lukewarm about their initial faith, then suddenly became very passionate about their new faith.  I could not help suspecting whether the passion is not just because it is new, and whether the previous faith seemed shallow just because they never embraced it in the first place.  There are some stories about religious leaders’ conversion, of course.  I once read the famous story of a pastor who converted to the Catholic Church: I did not doubt his sincerity, and his writing cleared away some of my misconceptions about the Catholic Church, but his story did not touch me.  Perhaps one reason is that he seemed so eager to talk about his conversion.  To me conversion is a very private thing, as Newman said, it is something between ourselves and our Maker.  Why should one go on telling people about it?  Of course I do not suggest that one should hide one’s faith.  We Christians believe that it is essential that we should acknowledge our allegiance to Christ.  But there is a difference, I think, of showing allegiance and telling all the little details.

But I found Father Newman different from others.  Apologia touched me deeply.  So far it is perhaps the only conversion story that touched me, save that of St Paul’s.  My initial dislike to conversion story was somewhat lessened by the fact that he was reluctant to tell his story.  He was received into the Church on 1845, and Apologia was written and published on 1864.  If it had not been for Kingsley’s accusations, perhaps it would never have been published.  In the preface Newman states clearly how he disliked the idea of writing “a whole book about myself, about my most private thoughts and feelings”.  Again he says, “It is not at all pleasant for me to be egostitical; nor to be criticized for being so … it is not pleasant to be giving to every shallow or flippant disputant the advantage over me of knowing my most private thoughts, I might even say the intercourse between myself and my Maker.”  Then he states why he decided to write the book, “I am bound now as a duty to myself, to the Catholic cause, to the Catholic Priesthood, to give account of myself” … “I do not like to be called to my face a liar and a knave; nor should I be doing my duty to my faith or to my name, if I were to suffer it.”

Another thing that overcame my dislike was the fact that he was a scholar (an Oxford one, no less!) who spent most of his days reading and writing.  Yes, yes, I am ready to admit my professional prudery.  I highly regard learning and thinking.  But is not it natural to regard them highly?  Is not one who studies and ponders seriously on a matter more likely to understand the matter correctly than others who never sit and think, and resort to spectacular occurrence or their emotion to decide things?  And it is really pleasant to read a book written by a scholar.  For one, it is systematic.  Every citation is given its source.  There are summaries and numbered points.  What can I ask for more?

Apologia touched me deeply.  I would not be so presumptuous as to say that I can understand Father Newman’s feelings, but I can imagine a little what loss he must have felt.  At that time, Oxford University was closely linked with the Anglican Church (or is it still now?).  The university fellows and professors were mostly Anglican clergymen.  There was no place there for a Catholic scholar.  For a scholar whose days were spent reading, writing and teaching, his university must have meant so much to him.  It was the centre of his life: he lived there, he taught there, he learned there, even his parish church is within the university, and he made his living from his position in the university.  His close friends were his fellow scholars, they met regularly to discuss, they wrote essays together (oh, what a life!).  To be cut off from such ties, or more precisely, to cut them off himself, what a pain it must have been!  And it seems that Newman loved Oxford, not only the university, but the familiar building and places.  He used to think that he would live there till his death.  And he loved his parish church and his parishioners.  He lost all that.

Those who hail the Catholic Church as the true Church would say that he lost all that to gain something more precious: to follow his Lord more faithfully.  Yes, it is more precious, but his loss was still a painful one.  Those who agree more with Newman’s critics may say that it is his just desert, that he brought all that misery upon himself.  In a sense he did bring all that misery upon himself, and he admitted that.  But who can fail to sympathize with him for such great a loss? 

The main character in his novel “Loss and Gain” (Newman wrote prose and verse as beautifully as he wrote his essays) is Charles Reding, a young undergraduate in Oxford who converted to Catholicism and lost his place in Oxford.  A whole chapter in the novel is devoted to his farewell to Oxford.  How can one who appreciates even a little the meaning of profession be not touched by such description as I copied below? And how can one but think that this farewell to Oxford was once enacted by the author himself?

“There lay old Oxford before him, with its hills as gentle and its meadows as green as ever. At the first view of that beloved place he stood still with folded arms, unable to proceed. Each college, each church—he counted them by their pinnacles and turrets. The silver Isis, the grey willows, the far-stretching plains, the dark groves, the distant range of Shotover, the pleasant village where he had lived with Carlton and Sheffield—wood, water, stone, all so calm, so bright, they might have been his, but his they were not.  Whatever he was to gain by becoming a Catholic, this he had lost; whatever he was to gain higher and better, at least this and such as this he never could have again. He could not have another Oxford, he could not have the friends of his boyhood and youth in the choice of his manhood. He mounted the well-known gate on the left, and proceeded down into the plain. There was no one to greet him, to sympathise with him; there was no one to believe he needed sympathy; no one to believe he had given up anything; no one to take interest in him, to feel tender towards him, to defend him. He had suffered much, but there was no one to believe that he had suffered. He would be thought to be inflicting merely, not undergoing, suffering. He might indeed say that he had suffered; but he would be rudely told that every one follows his own will, and that if he had given up Oxford, it was for a whim which he liked better than it.”

(Loss and Gain, Part III, Chapter 3, italic mine).

Young Charles could not have another Oxford, and neither could Newman.  In his Apologia he refrained from describing his feeling on leaving Oxford, but these sentences speak volumes:

“On the morning of the 23rd I left the Observatory.  I have never seen Oxford since, excepting its spires, as they are seen from the railway” (last paragraph in Chapter IV).

But many years later there would be a consolation for him.  In 1878 he revisited Oxford for the first time since he left it in 1845, and he was elected an Honorary Fellow of Trinity College, the college which he belonged as an undergraduate.  He came again to Oxford, but not to stay.  He could not have another Oxford, or another chance to have Oxford.

In Apologia I find nothing that prevents me from believing that Father Newman did what he did simply because he chose to obey our Lord.  Many people may not agree with me, and say that he obeyed his own fancy or reason.  Of course people may say that, as I suppose the Jews may say that about St. Paul.  But I think even those who disagree with St. Paul or Father Newman could not deny one thing: that they embraced their faith, both the old and the new, with the same remarkable zeal; and that they accomplished great things.


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