Haec mutatio dexterae Excelsi! all the stories which have gone about of my being a half Catholic, a liberal Catholic, under a cloud, not to be trusted, are now at an end.
-J. H. Newman’s letter to R. W. Church, 11 March 1879
David DeLaura states in his seminal work on Arnold, Newman, and Pater, Hebrew and Hellene in Victorian England, that “Newman’s role in the still unfinished ‘Modernist’ episode in the Roman Catholic Church . . . has . . . escaped close examination.” The observation is still valid and bears exploration. But it should be noted that the Modernist controversy, which is more or less confined to theology and its liturgical expressions, is only a part of the larger battle which John Henry Newman waged against liberalism in general. The rapid drift in the middle decades of the nineteenth century toward liberalism—toward the egalitarian ethos, secularism, and, ulti- mately, modern democracy—and the way in which that drift marked an unprecedented and frequently unconscious revolution in popular belief and praxis are socio-cultural phenomena well known to students of the Victorian era. In Newman’s prose works we can find his clear (though frequently misunderstood) judgment on liberalism and the role it played in the Victorian transition to modernity. Because Newman usually subordinates temporal concerns to intellectual and spiritual priorities, we do not find in his writings.
Because Newman usually subordinates temporal concerns to intellectual and spiritual priorities, we do not find in his writings much formal analysis of the social developments that were producing the fragmented, atomistic society about which Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, and John Ruskin, among others, wrote. Like Arnold, however, he had insights into the religious and educational developments of the age that foregrounded the anxieties of other Victorians who had more secular concerns. For Newman’s life-long battle against liberalism is also an indirect commentary on what secularism, mechanization, selfish economics, and skepticism were doing to the individual and to society at large. For him the Zeitgeist was no less than the liberal principles conceived in the Enlightenment and made incarnate by the Industrial Revolution, principles he feared from his Anglican days as dangerous to society in general and to religion and education in particular. The Idea of a University and the Apologia Pro Vita Sua are, in part, chronicles of that fear.
Ironically, in the last two decades of his life and posthumously Newman has been increasingly associated with the theological liberalism he had often disavowed…