Truth, Disputation and Civility. Newman's Lessons for Our Time
Randal Marlin (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada) | September 18th, 2021
Brave Leader, Big Heart
St. John Henry Newman’s Adventures,
By Juan R. Vélez, with illustrations by Manix Abrera.
Reviewed by Randal Marlin, Adjunct Research Professor, Department of Philosophy, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
In canonizing John Henry Cardinal Newman recently the Roman Catholic Church has drawn timely attention to an outstanding defender of religious rights and freedoms in an increasingly secular world. The time is ripe for discussion of Newman’s contribution to Roman Catholicism and the role it can play in the context of Jesus’s injunction to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
In the past there have been challenges to the participation of Catholics in publicly funded institutions such as universities on the ground that they are not able to think freely but are bound by church authority.
This supposed lack of freedom has been challenged in medieval times by St. Thomas Aquinas, but received renewed emphasis from Newman’s steadfast defense of the supremacy of conscience. If the church respects individual freedom of conscience as a matter of entrenched dogma, the argument against Catholic participation in secular institutions loses its force.
Of course, a book intended for children will hardly gain readership by addressing abstract moral, political and philosophical questions such as this. What it does, though, is provide a delightful introduction to what the world of the intellect can mean, and how exciting it can be.
Children can understand what it means to be pressured and bullied, and what it means not to be respected. They know what courage is, and how studies can be difficult. They also are curious about the wide world around them, and the possible adventures to be had in that world.
The narrative provided by Juan R. Vélez is wonderfully rich in the way it approaches Newman’s life, linking it as he does with things that children will relate to.
Newman was drawn to the service to God at a young age while still a member of the Anglican Church.
The Anglican Church is thus not portrayed as something hostile to Roman Catholicism, but as an institution sharing so many of the same values as the latter, and wherein many find refuge and solace in their relationship with the Christian God.
As a child, John Henry was very gifted intellectually. Author Juan Vélez has researched his subject well, and we learn interesting things about the schooling he received, and the love he had of learning. The same love gave rise to travel, to places in England like Oxford, where he attended Trinity College and later Oriel College, followed by a trip to Rome. There are beautiful illustrations to inspire interest in a young reader.
The book includes accounts of Newman’s controversy with fellow-Anglicans about doctrinal matters as he found himself more and more drawn to Roman Catholicism.
He was a central figure in the Oxford Movement, calling for a more thorough witness to Christian belief, and for less intrusion by the State into religious territory. Newman along with John Keble, Richard Froude and Edward Pusey published Tracts for Our Times, examining the relation between the State and the Church of England, with a view to allowing the Church to have more influence. The movement was very influential, but became divided when Newman suddenly decided to convert to Roman Catholicism. This caused some people in the movement to criticize Newman vehemently and not always fairly.
Vélez is very good at showing, in easy to understand terms, how difficult a situation Newman was in as he was attacked not only by his former Anglican friends but also the bishops within the Roman Catholic Church for not being sufficiently supportive of Catholic temporal power as with ownership of the Papal lands. Newman is one of the greatest examples of a person dedicated to discovery of the truth in matters that are of vital communal concern, but intellectually difficult to sort out. His writing was especially vehement when he confronted deliberate misrepresentation and vilification by his opponents. But accompanying disputations was always respect for the person of the other, with his motto “cor ad cor loquitur,” heart speaking to heart.
There are lessons for young people about being true to one’s own well thought-out and informed conscience. There are lessons about courage and the ability to withstand a powerful onslaught of criticism, while at the same time showing respect for these same opponents, recognizing their need to follow their own consciences.
Perhaps above all there is the lesson about respect for truth. Truth sometimes requires painstaking efforts, but the result is vital for a well-informed conscience.
Knowing the truth and deliberately obscuring and evading it may be a sin against the Holy Spirit.
This is a great, well-crafted book for young people today. It should have a wonderful civilizing effect on young minds. Civility has shown itself to be in declining evidence with the insults we witness to frequently in social media, even at the highest levels of political office. I see this book as an important step toward living in a more harmonious society.
The book ends with a beautiful selection of Newman’s edifying poetry, prayers and meditations, including “Lead, Kindly Light,” on trust and willingness to follow the path ordained by God, whatever it might be.