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.

Jerry Salyer
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.


  1. This is all most entertaining, in a sad sort of way. Mr. Hillis is most vocal in his opposition to something as innocuous as a wave at a sporting event; but, invoking Bl. John Henry Newman, criticizes a group for objecting to the production of the Vagina Monologues on the campus of a Catholic college.

    What can we look forward to from Mr. Hillis? A response to Prof. Salyer (an excellent writer, by the way) as to why Newman’s writings on education would countenance literature that undermines -- indeed, mocks -- an authentic understanding of the relational nature of the human person, coupled with condemnations of what silly things fans do in stadiums.

    I am sorry that Mr. Hillis has to suffer such things as the Cardinal Newman Center and crowds mimicking the ocean. Perhaps in paradise Mr. Hillis will receive the consolation he deserves: a performance of the Vagina Monologues in Rogers Centre starring Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar -- but with no wave.

    1. Dear Stephen: Thank you for your comments. I fear, however, that you have the wrong impression of my views as expressed here on this blog. First, as to Newman, the argument of my piece was not in any way to suggest that Newman would have approved of the Vagina Monologues. Indeed, I made it very clear that I didn't intend to deal with the issue of the Monologues at all. What I argued was that the Newman Society, to my mind, presents an understanding of Newman that lacks nuance and does not take into sufficient account the profundity and complexity of the man. Jerry (who is, I agree, an excellent writer) argues that my piece is equally guilty of this criticism. I very much appreciated Jerry's critique and I take it seriously, which was why I put it on my blog. And I have every intention of responding to it. I do not, however, intend to respond to it halfheartedly, which is why I'm taking the time to re-read The Idea of a University before writing my response.

      Second, as to my comments on the 'Wave' and baseball more generally, this blog is not just about theology but about my interests more broadly. One of those interests is baseball. I wrote somewhat tongue-in-cheek about the 'Wave' for fun, not imagining that someone would think for a moment that I was genuinely and truly offended by this, as you say, innocuous scene at a sporting event. Do you really think I take the 'Wave' as seriously as I do issues of theology and Catholic identity?

      You appear to have slotted me nicely into a particular group, and that is your prerogative to do. Might I suggest, however, that you take a gander at some of my previous posts before making conclusions about myself and who I am as a person and, more importantly, as a Catholic?

    2. Thank you, Mr. Hillis.

      (1) My comments did not “slot” you into any group -- at least any group of which I am aware. (Is there a “Society for the Propagation of Those Who Simultaneously Dislike Waving and Who Think the Cardinal Newman Society Lacks Nuance”?) Nor did I utter one “conclusion” about you -- directly or indirectly -- as a Catholic. (I really have no clue what you are talking about here.) And no, it’s not the prerogative of anyone to unfairly drop people into pre-categorized boxes. I have not done so with you.

      (2) Of course I do not think your comments on the wave compare to what you have written on other matters that we both agree are not just far weightier, but in another category completely. But that’s the very point -- more specifically, irony -- I’m attempting to highlight through my own tongue-in-cheek comments: you are open and unapologetic on an inconsequential issue like waving (an objection, by the way, to which I agree wholeheartedly) but on the substance of the Society’s criticism which inspired your Newman post, you remain silent. Instead, you turn your sights on the speaker of the opinion -- saying it is not true to the spirit of Newman -- and conveniently set aside the veracity or force of the opinion itself. If someone accused my college of not being true to the founding spirit of my school through some action or inaction, I would respond yay or nay and explain myself. My sole focus wouldn’t be on the one leveling the accusation.

      (3) As you are re-reading the Idea of a University, in order to best respond to Prof. Salyer, I especially look forward to hearing your observations on the Ninth Discourse, specifically Newman’s thesis that “a direct and active jurisdiction of the Church over it and in it [i.e., the Catholic University] is necessary, lest it should become the rival of the Church with the community at large in those theological matters which to the Church are exclusively committed, -- acting as the representative of the intellect, as the Church is the representative of the religious principle.”

      (4) I have, in fact, read your posts through the months. (How else would I know about your love of the Blue Jays?) I have enjoyed many; I have disagreed with a few; I will keep reading. (I would say, however, that your some of your posts reveal a political hermeneutic that cloud your thoughts.)


    3. Dear Stephen (and please call me Greg),

      Thank you for the clarification.

      1) I obviously read more into your comments than were there.

      2) As per your comments on the Vagina Monologues, I will freely admit that I have basically no opinion of them at all, which was why I have not taken a stand one way or the other on the play. You may disagree with me on this point, as you are free to do, but I do not view the performance of this play as being a litmus test to determine an institution's Catholic identity, which is what I think the Newman Society does. Even were I vigorously opposed to the play, I still disagree with the way in which the Newman Society defines Catholic identity and the way in which it is condemning of those who compromise this definition. Their approach seems to me not to be very pastoral nor, indeed, very helpful.

      3) I'm enjoying re-reading Newman's "Idea" and will certainly grapple with the quotation you provide. One of the purposes of this blog is to sharpen my own thinking, and I very much appreciate the opportunity that Jerry and yourself have given me to re-examine my portrayal of Newman's understanding of university education.

      4) I'm very glad you're a regular reader (I didn't know I had any of those). And I'm pleased that you've enjoyed many of my posts. I am, however, genuinely interested in your last comment - "I would say, however, that your some of your posts reveal a political hermeneutic that cloud your thoughts". I don't deny that this is possible; there are many things that unfortunately cloud my thoughts. I wonder, though, whether you would mind expanding on this point. I'm genuinely curious.

      Thank you for the interaction,