Word has just come down the pike that the canonization of John Henry Newman has been set for October 13, 2019. We say that with caution, because you can bet money on it that most of the people commenting on it, Catholic or non, will say that “Newman will be made a saint,” or words to that effect.
|John Henry Newman|
No, the official line from the Catholic Church is that Newman made himself a saint by cooperating with God’s grace and all that sort of thing. Canonization, which means “adding to the list” (a list is also called a “canon”) is a certification process, not a creation process. The Catholic Church has never “made” anybody a saint. It simply gives its official recognition to something that, after investigation, is believed to be the case.
This, of course, is a segue into a discussion of why Newman joined the Catholic Church in the first place. During our investigation of the Oxford Movement (of which Newman was an acknowledged leader) and the rise of socialism in the early nineteenth century, we were somewhat startled to discover a connection between the two, and at least one possible reason for Newman’s “swimming the Tiber,” as they say.
It has been very much downplayed by the usual biographers, who either want to show that Newman was “always a Catholic at heart,” and others who characterize him as the quintessential traitor to the Church of England, but Newman’s relationship with his brothers, especially Charles Newman, seems to have had much more influence than most people are willing to consider.
It’s not exactly that Newman actually erased Charles from history, although Charles certainly gave his family reason enough to disown him and forget he actually existed. Frank, the youngest brother, made a single reference to Charles in the book he wrote on John Henry, stating that Charles had led “a wasted life, better left in silence.” (Martin J. Svaglic, “Charles Newman and His Brothers,” PMLA, Vol. 71, No. 3, June 1966, 370.) Martin Svaglic claims that “John Henry did his best to keep hidden from public curiosity what he called the ‘aimless, pointless, forlorn’ life of his brother.” (Ibid.)
But what was so bad about Charles that both his brothers seemed to be ashamed of him? That is, aside from the fact that he couldn’t hold a job, was a spendthrift, and engaged in rather baffling and irregular liaisons with members of the opposite sex that may or may not have included some form of marriage. . . . At one point, the woman whom he was married to, or he was keeping, or who was keeping him (his brothers were never able to determine the relationship) sold all his possessions — including his clothing except for a single pair of drawers — and drank it up, beating Charles until he could be persuaded to ask his brothers for more money for her.
Embarrassing, yes, but it does not appear to have colored Newman’s own outlook on life, just on Charles. Charles, however, also had somewhat irregular views on religion and private property. An early follower of the socialist Robert Owen, Charles was also an on-again, off-again atheist as well as generally contemptuous of religion during his theist periods.
|George Jacob Holyoake|
It’s not clear whether Charles’s atheism or his socialism bothered Frank and John Henry more, or whether it was the fact that, for all his demonstrated genius, he was never able to make a success of anything other than sponging off of family and friends, the latter growing fewer every year as his borrowings grew greater.
Charles’s irregular life did have one advantage for John Henry as well as for anyone else who viewed socialism with suspicion. The fact that so obviously talented an individual as Charles was not able to become perfect — or even tolerable — after wholeheartedly embracing socialism prevented the socialists from using him as an example of what socialism could do for people if only they would abandon traditional notions of marriage, religion, and private property.
Eventually tiring of Owenism, Charles invented his own form of socialism that he called “the New Moral World.” What its tenets were, precisely, no one knows to this day, even though he presented them in a series of “unintelligible articles” for The Reasoner, the periodical of the atheist agitator George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906), who has the dubious distinction of being one of the last persons convicted of blasphemy in England, in April 1842. As one biographer of John Henry summed up Charles’s character,
On one tenet of Owenism Charles was always crystal clear: namely, that since character is made by circumstances no man is responsible for his actions and should, therefore, not be punished for them. He never lost hold of this idea. It was his prime defense and it became his last ditch. In the end he declared that he had been born under such disadvantages that he might as well give up all attempt to support himself, and informed his family that he had as much claim in justice on them to support him as if he were bedridden or a cripple. They would have saved themselves and him many years of fruitless worry and greater expense if they could have accepted this attractive, and now widely accepted, socialist principle at the outset of what he miscalled his career, and paid him a dole. (Sean O’Faolain, Newman’s Way: The Odyssey of John Henry Newman. New York: The Devin-Adair Company, 1952, 86-87.)