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On the Feast of Blessed John Henry Newman raise a glass to Pius X

We must not forget the anti-modernists who saved Newman’s reputation

St Pius X, a pope not normally known for his humour, once wrote of Cardinal Newman: ‘Truly, there is something about such a large quantity of work and his long hours of labour lasting far into the night that seems foreign to the usual way of theologians.’ Pius might well be forgiven his tongue-in-cheek slight against my own profession: the date was March 1908, and theologians had been causing him – and Newman’s legacy – a great deal of trouble.

The previous September, Pius had published the encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis (‘Feeding the Lord’s flock’). Its target was ‘the modernists’, a loose and diverse grouping of theologians and others, attempting to update Catholic doctrine in light of modern thought. Branding their ideas ‘the synthesis of all heresies’, the encyclical condemns them for, among much else: employing the historical method, unduly emphasising sentiment over revelation, affirming the ‘evolution’ of dogma, and attempting ‘to diminish and weaken the ecclesiastical magisterium itself by sacrilegiously falsifying its origin, character, and rights’. It concludes with a lengthy set of prescribed ‘remedies’, including the exclusion of modernists and their sympathisers from teaching positions, and the establishment of diocesan ‘Councils of Vigilance’.

In Britain, The Tablet’s editorial greeted Pascendi with talk of ‘glad obedience’ and ‘a deepened sense of gratitude to the Holy Father’. The secular media, however, was less enamoured. The Times gave over its commentary to George Tyrrell, arguably the country’s leading modernist. Tyrrell was predictably scathing: referring to Christ’s commissioning of Peter to his feed his sheep, cited in the encyclical’s title, he acidly remarks: ‘Pius X comes forward with a stone in one hand and a scorpion in the other.’ Pointedly and significantly, alluding to Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, he also enquires whether the roots of modernism might not be found ‘in the spirit that breathes in a certain letter of a certain Cardinal to a certain Duke?’

Though Blessed John Henry was not and could not have been a modernist – he had, after all, been dead for seventeen years – he was revered by many of them (including Tyrrell), and seen as a key intellectual forebear. Furthermore, several of the ideas condemned by Pascendi seemed at least superficially similar to ones held by the cardinal. Not surprisingly, therefore, the encyclical was soon depicted as a deliberate and thinly-veiled attack on Newman himself. At a stroke, this shifted the controversy from being a technical, ‘in-house’ issue concerning theological method and freedom, to being a far wider matter of national pride – and one which engulfed the letters pages of the Times for a number of weeks. As one correspondent put it at the start of November, summing up the mood of many: ‘[it is an] unprecedented evil that, while one Pope has implied a direct approval of the writings of an English Catholic by making him a Cardinal, his successor should reverse the decision by condemning every characteristic proposition for which that writer made himself responsible.’ The suggestion that the great Victorian had been condemned, though scandalous enough in itself, also reopened deeper, and still relevant, questions about the possibility of being (as Newman wrote to Norfolk) ‘at once a good Catholic and a good Englishman’.

Tyrrell was, by this point, in poor health, disillusioned with the Church to which he had converted, and disappointed with several of his fellow-theologians for not having the courage of their (or at least his) convictions. He had been expelled from the Jesuits the previous year, and following his original Times article, now unsurprisingly found himself excommunicated. Seizing Newman as a stick with which to beat the institutional Church, and Pope Pius in particular (whom, incidentally, he believed to have gone over to ‘the powers of darkness’), he wrote a long jeremiad entitled ‘The Condemnation of Newman’. This appeared in the 20 November issue of The Guardian (an Anglican weekly, not to be confused with what was then the Manchester Guardian). Portraying Newman as a lone kindly light amid th’encircling gloom of the nineteenth-century papacy, he asserts:

“It is… undeniable that at Rome, under the influence of the scholastic revival, Newman’s anti-scholastic methods have been steadily distrusted and disliked. That he has not been condemned long ago, that after years of bitter animosity and attack he was raised to the purple by the ultra-scholastic Leo XIII, is certainly not due to the conversion of his adversaries or to any sympathy with his methods on the part of Leo.”

And referring directly to Pascendi, he writes: “if conjecture is right as to the actual fabricators of the document to which [Pius] put his name, they are the lineal descendents of that ‘insolent and aggressive faction’ for whom Newman was ever a heretic.”

Though Tyrrell does not say so here, he would almost certainly have concurred with Ignaz von Döllinger that: “If Newman had written in French, Italian or Latin, then his books would have been placed on the Index long ago.”

And yet, the great irony in all this – and a twist in the tale that should make us highly suspicious of naively ideological constructions of history, then and now – is that Pascendi had in fact been commissioned by a native English-speaking cardinal; indeed, by a consultor to the Index, who actively quoted Newman’s writings and recommended them to others. Far from being a liberal fifth column within the Vatican, this was none other than Pius’ impeccably ultramontane Cardinal Secretary of State, Rafael Merry del Val.

His unlikely name notwithstanding, Merry del Val is surely among the most remarkable churchmen this country has ever produced. The son of a Spanish diplomat, he was born in London in 1865. He lived here until he was thirteen, later returning to begin his ordination studies at Ushaw. Following a meteoric rise within the Vatican diplomatic corps – including, bizarrely, being made a monsignor before he was a priest – he was ultimately appointed Secretary of State by Pius X in 1903, aged just 38. Though a Spanish national, he considered himself to ‘be English to all intents and purposes’, even to the point of dreaming in English. There were rumours of his succeeding Cardinal Bourne as Archbishop of Westminster in 1903.

Though this was not to be – Pius had other plans for him – his gimlet eye remained fixed on English ecclesiastical life, and on its burgeoning modernism especially. It was Merry del Val who commissioned Joseph Lemius, procurator of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, to draft Pascendi; Merry del Val who took a lead role in enforcing its anti-modernist agenda; and – nota bene – Merry del Val who tirelessly championed Newman’s orthodoxy, using the semi-official L’Osservatore Romano to underline the ‘world of difference between what the Cardinal taught and the Modernism which is condemned in the Encyclical.’

Pius himself, in the same letter I quoted above, wrote to Bishop O’Dwyer of Limerick to commend him for showing, in a pamphlet, that ‘the writings of Cardinal Newman, far from being in disagreement with Our Encyclical Letter Pascendi, are very much in harmony with it’. To Tyrrell’s guessing assertions, neither the magisterium nor its closest confidants had then any intention whatsoever of censuring, or casting aspersions upon, Newman’s thought and legacy. The simple fact is that, at this time, nobody – Protestant or Catholic, ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ – had a bad word to say about him.

Today especially, this point is of more than merely historical interest. The significant point is this: had Tyrrell been more successful in arguing for Newman’s condemnation, or Merry del Val and St Pius less proactive in denying it, then a great doubt would surely have been cast over his orthodoxy. So much so, that even his latter-day supporters John Paul II (who declared him Venerable) and Benedict XVI (who broke his own protocol to beatify him personally, and who has previously suggested Newman to be a Doctor of a Church) might have been wary of overturning it. Certainly, there are other questions to be asked about Pascendi, its relevance to Newman’s thought, relation to Vatican II, and its enduring legacy. But let us leave these aside for the moment.

On the special occasion of his Feast Day, Blessed John Henry might forgive us if, just this once and on his behalf, we raise our glasses to a pope first – and afterwards, to his Cardinal Secretary of State.

by Stephen Bullivant


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