More than 20 years ago, when I was a traditional Anglican, I remember a Catholic convert waving Cardinal John Henry Newman in my face to try to persuade me that Anglicanism was wrong and that I must follow Newman’s example and join the Catholic Church.
At the time, I spoke to a traditional Anglican priest about this and he said: “Newman’s a liberal.” So, I dismissed the cardinal out of hand. But as I continued to learn more about the Catholic faith, I began to see the brittleness of my previous positions.
We all remember, after Anglicanorum coetibus was published, encountering those who insisted: “I’m Catholic already; just not Roman Catholic” as if the “Roman” was a pejorative word. There was the pervasive notion of “Branch Theory” that circulated among Continuing Anglicans that traditional Anglicans represented a branch of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church similar to the Orthodox churches, and thus had access to to a purer Catholic faith before all those “Roman accretions.” These erroneous views prevented many members of our church families in the Traditional Anglican Communion from crossing the Tiber.
As my conversion deepened, I shed those ideological positions and realized they represented a form of “golden age” thinking, an idea that one could recover a purer faith, a purer Church in the distant past and it was our job to recover that. So, I’m very alert to similar kinds of “golden age” thinking and black-and-white ideological approaches to the Catholic faith among those who are already members of the Catholic Church.
In light of some recent controversies, this piece by Adam A.J. DeVille over at Catholic World Report entitled Newman and the problems of Catholic intellectual history offers some important principles to guide us. He also identifies some of the “golden age” thinking going on among present-day Catholic partisans.
Newman would, I dare say, be appalled by how badly many Christians today view and handle our history—just as they did in his own day. Suspicion fell upon Newman by some Catholics after 1845 because he was a man of the Fathers and not especially of the Scholastics. His patristic formation in, and intellectual debts to, the first millennium seemed to set him at odds with certain Catholics who viewed the tradition as bookended by Thomas Aquinas and Trent.
That dynamic of not just periodization of history but prioritization, even glorification, of select periods, has not changed much in our own day—merely the timeframe. Today among some Catholics it is as though history ends somewhere between 1958 and 1962—with the death of Pius XII and the opening of Vatican II. For others, the Church only comes alive after 1965 when the council ends, the period before it being regarded (as I’ve heard not a few French Canadians claim, including one prominent archbishop) as la grande noirceur.
With every passing year, I am more and more convinced that too many problems within the Church today, and between Christians, are both historiographical in nature. We prefer to write, and read, history in a way that either amplifies or denies the messiness for present felt purposes. We ransack history for ways to condemn or elevate the present depending on our politics, a process often aided by treacly doses of nostalgia and romanticism.
Please read DeVille’s entire piece for how history can be distorted, especially by the role anger plays in interpreting events in a skewed manner.
DeVille includes in his excellent essay a quote from Newman’s Biglietto speech of 1879.
Such is the state of things in England, and it is well that it should be realised by all of us; but it must not be supposed for a moment that I am afraid of it. I lament it deeply, because I foresee that it may be the ruin of many souls; but I have no fear at all that it really can do aught of serious harm to the Word of God, to Holy Church, to our Almighty King, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, Faithful and True, or to His Vicar on earth. Christianity has been too often in what seemed deadly peril, that we should fear for it any new trial now. So far is certain; on the other hand, what is uncertain, and in these great contests commonly is uncertain, and what is commonly a great surprise, when it is witnessed, is the particular mode by which, in the event, Providence rescues and saves His elect inheritance. Sometimes our enemy is turned into a friend; sometimes he is despoiled of that special virulence of evil which was so threatening; sometimes he falls to pieces of himself; sometimes he does just so much as is beneficial, and then is removed. Commonly the Church has nothing more to do than to go on in her own proper duties, in confidence and peace; to stand still and to see the salvation of God.
Now is the time to focus on all the good resources we have to help us live out our Catholic faith—to avail ourselves of the sacraments; to pray the daily offices as lay people, part of our Anglican patrimony; and to live by the Spirit and evidence the fruits of the Spirit. In doing so, we will “stand still and see the salvation of God.”
We have so much to be thankful for as the 10th anniversary of Anglicanorum coetibus approaches. It is not a time to give way to dismay, to confusion, to rash judgment and partisan in-fighting.