Over Newman's Dead Body

Newman's Challengeby Stanley L. JakiEerdmans. 321p $20 (paper)

Stanley Jaki possesses impressive credentials for discussing the challenges Newman faced in his day and that he poses to our own. Jaki holds doctorates in theology and physics, has published extensively on the history of philosophy and science, and is laden with honors (Gifford Lectures, Templeton Prize, Lecomte de Nouy Prize and others); he is currently a Distinguished University Professor at Seton Hall University. In the 14 previously published essays collected in this volume, he demonstrates that he has immersed himself in the field of Newman studies and familiarized himself with the whole of Newman’s corpus: sermons, letters, diaries, notebooks, poetry, novels and the books dedicated to history, apologetics and controversy.

Jaki argues that Newman has been systematically misread by many advocates of aggiornamento: ... it is partly by taking cover with profuse references to Newman that champions of the new theology have sown the seeds of strange spiritual flora and fauna wherein nothing old is tolerated and everything new is blithely endorsed. He would hardly be pleased to be invoked as a justification of a theology replete with hollow phrases and catchy words, all larded with quotations from him, quotations at times brazenly truncated, lest the true Newman should appear.


It is not surprising that Newman has been mined by reformers and progressives of every kind. If one removes all references to God, angels, saints, miracles and sin from Newman (as was done with an edition of Idea of a University), one is left with a huge body of insights into the development of ideas, the role of conscience, the power of liberal education and the joy of friendship. The remains of Newman’s thought can be pressed quite easily into the mold of secular humanism. For example, setting aside Newman’s belief that there is another world where it may be otherwise, evolutionary biologists could agree wholeheartedly that to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.

One of the thought experiments that helped Newman to embrace Rome was to imagine where St. Athanasius and St. Ambrose would worship if they found themselves in the London of his day. He was certain they would shun the Anglican cathedral and join themselves to the social outcasts in the Roman churches. Jaki similarly strives to imagine how Newman would see the church and the world if he could re-enter the war of tongues. Undoubtedly, Newman would still choose Rome in our times as he did in his own. Despite the immense changes in science, technology and culture, Rome is where it was, and St. Peter is the same. Jaki makes a good case that Newman would follow Rome’s lead in understanding the controversies that threaten fresh schisms in the church: abortion, sexual ethics, ordination of women, ecumenism, ecclesiology and theological dissent.

One of Newman’s great gifts was that he had a voice that could persuade without irritating. Jaki does not. When developing Newman’s thought, Jaki provides abundant quotations from primary and secondary sources to flesh out his exposition. When dealing with his opponents, Jaki rarely names names and summarizes their positions in peremptory judgments that make no room for the voices of the condemned. He ridicules Transcendental Thomists, for example, as Aquikantians and asserts (without any supporting analysis) that such a joining of traditions is doomed to be as sterile as the union of the horse and the ass. It seems to me that it is somewhat unfair to lump Joseph Maréchal, Otto Muck, Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan (among many others) into one category like this and write off their works as having no value whatsoever. It is rare that any human being is wrong in every respect, and I believe that if Newman were here to speak for himself, he would labor to discover and extract every ounce of gold from his opponent’s positions before discarding the dross.

Because I am in such substantial agreement with Jaki on his reading of both Newman and the signs of the times, I was very saddened to see how he snipes at Avery Dulles, S.J. Jaki calls it a newfangled theological pastime...to draft models’ of the Church, so many offerings in an existential’ smorgasbord of ecclesiology. The models proposed by Dulles are rooted in the complexity of the Scriptures and the tradition of the church, most notably in the mixed metaphors employed by the Second Vatican Council. Like Newman, Dulles freely embraced Rome through an intellectual conversion, and he has placed his strikingly original gifts at the service of the same church that Jaki wishes to defend. As with Newman’s doctrine of conscience, Dulles’s method of models has been employed by others to fragment the faith, but misuse is to be attributed to the interpreters and not to the original authors.

I think that Jaki is essentially correct in his assessment that the challenge of defending the supernatural against the tide of naturalism is the same in our day as it was in Newman’s. Newman would undoubtedly stand with Jaki against the physicists who take on the role of a guru and would laugh with Jaki at a society that banishes God from the public square but demands the innocence of monks and nuns from its citizens: In sum, a society that does not believe in angels has no right to expect its soldiers, policemen, politicians and clergymen to boot, to behave like angels.

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