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Cardinal Newman: The pursuit of truth for its own sake 

There has not been, to say the least, a paucity of books about John Henry Newman, or of books which touch upon the significance of his contribution to religious understanding. He is, quite simply, the most important Christian expositor in the English language, whose influence on theological and ecclesiological issues has persisted throughout the last two centuries. 

Many studies of his life and thought have demonstrated the finest scholarship, and now, to add to them, is a work of rare insight and careful balance of judgment. John Cornwell does not, it is true, exploit new sources or reveal previously unknown fragments of writing: Newman's legacy is far too manicured for that. What this new study does is to ask penetrating questions of the existing body of information, and, by extremely pertinent cultural cross-reference, and apposite deployment of modern insights into human conditioning, to give the reader a richer interpretation of Newman's extraordinary genius.

The book begins and ends with the question of whether Newman should be raised to sainthood. This is a dangerous area because the remains of all candidates for formal sanctity are exposed for critical examination. In Newman's case, as it happens, this procedure removed itself from the desk of scholarship to his actual grave (which, as it turned out, was empty.) Modern obsessions have intruded: some persistent atheists and anti-Catholics have suggested, often with actual as well as ecclesiastical prurience, that Newman's personal friendships indicate a love which dares to tell its name just about every time you open a newspaper. Such things are of no consequence, and Cornwell very sensibly raises them mostly to acknowledge the context of priorities lamentably predominant in the society to which his book is to be delivered. "I just set out to write a book," he declares, "that would answer the question — why should Newman be of interest to a readership beyond Catholics or 19th-century Church historians?" That aspiration is splendidly achieved.

Newman is not difficult to categorise. It is just that his values are so far removed from modern priorities that many who attempt to understand his subtleties and distinctions will fall at the first hurdle and wander off into the first available exit-route of explanation. Newman himself eschewed sanctity: "Saints are not literary men." He was, however, above all a literary man, a pilgrim of meaning. He returned again and again to the history of his own life, and to his evolving understanding of things, in order to discover larger truths resident in the smaller habitations of individual perception. This persistent introspection was, in his case, neither morbid nor confining — and it essentially lacked the vanity to which are given to those who routinely lubricate the nuts and bolts of their interior being. Newman's prose was clear and beautiful as well as being painstakingly precise. In a rather undersized version, his personal development illustrated the general and dialectical nature of accumulating religious understanding that he described, on a large scale, in his last book as an Anglican, the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845). His concept of change and growth in ideas was not founded in observation of human behaviour, and its organic language is to that extent deceptive. It was based in the drama of ideas in the context of time.

Newman belonged to no party in the Church (Anglican or Catholic), though he was subsequently claimed by most parties. He owed no consistent indebtedness to any particular school of thought. It was not that which raised, for some commentators, a problem in their apparent need to categorise him — it showed simply that he departed from the common assumptions of the ruling passions at an early stage. Newman can be categorised: he was a scholar of ideas who believed in the pursuit of truth for its own sake. This point plainly emerges in Cornwell's analysis of Newman's plans for the Catholic University in Dublin, whose first Rector he became, and whose scheme of liberal education was displayed in The Idea of a University (1852). In this section of his book, incidentally, Cornwell shows the value of his capacity for cultural cross-reference — in this case to the later observations of Edward Said and James Joyce.

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