Thursday, April 4, 2013
A Critique of my Portrayal of Newman
In February the Cardinal Newman Society criticized the university at which I teach for hosting a performance of the Vagina Monologues. This criticism prompted me to write a post on February 25, entitled John Henry Cardinal Newman on University Education, in which I argued that the Cardinal Newman Society's portrayal of Newman is not faithful to the Newman I have read and grown to love. I also published this post in the local student newspaper. Jerry Salyer, an adjunct professor in our department of philosophy, was troubled by my essay and has written a worthwhile critique. I publish the critique below (with his permission) without comment, but will respond to his argument when I am able.
Like Dr. Hillis, I have great respect for Blessed John Cardinal Newman. Also like Dr. Hillis, I am often troubled by what Thaddeus Kozinski of Wyoming Catholic College calls "Socratophobia" – the increasingly-common reluctance to expand one's thoughts beyond what could fit onto a bumper sticker. When Dr. Hillis uses the current controversy as a teaching moment, I applaud; I furthermore heartily second warnings against the modern habit of remaking historical figures in our own image.
All that said, I fear that in his desire to make Newman more appealing to the modern student Dr. Hillis has gotten carried away, and paints a misleading portrait. The Idea of A University makes clear that most of those offended by opposition to the Vagina Monologues would have little use for Newman, either: “It is a miserable time,” says Newman, “when a man's Catholic profession is no voucher for his orthodoxy, and when a teacher of religion may be within the Church's pale, yet external to her faith. Such has been for a season the trial of her children at various eras in her history.” Of one such trial during the medieval period, the cardinal explains: “Scarcely had Universities risen into popularity, when they were found to be infected with the most subtle and fatal forms of unbelief; and the heresies of the East germinated in the West of Europe and in Catholic lecture-rooms, with a mysterious vigour upon which history throws little light.” Newman takes for granted a perennial duty to defend orthodoxy, and describes medieval universities as infiltrated by a “conspiracy of traitors” bent upon subverting Catholic teaching.
Clearly Newman does not hold academic freedom as a sole priority -- which is the impression I fear many readers will get from Dr. Hillis' article.
It's also worth emphasizing that Newman’s erudition and thoughtfulness did not prevent him from taking sides in a kind of culture war between orthodoxy and heresy.: "I look out, then, into the enemy's camp, and I try to trace the outlines of the hostile movements and the preparations for assault which are there in agitation against us. The arming and the maneuvering, the earthworks and the mines, go on incessantly [...]"
We should remember that we are talking about a 19th Century English gentleman, clergyman, and classical scholar. True, I can think of reasons why such a man might have reservations about 21st-Century Catholic activists who use his name; at the same time, we should not gloss over his likely reaction to other types of activists, either.