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The lie that Newman was cold and aloof needs to be hit on the head

There are so many stories about his warmth and charity it is hard to know where to begin

By on Thursday, 2 September 2010

One line repeated on the radio recently was that Newman did not speak to other members of his community for 20 years (CNS photo/courtesy of the Catholic Church of England and Wales)

One line repeated on the radio recently was that Newman did not speak to other members of his community for 20 years (CNS photo/courtesy of the Catholic Church of England and Wales)

A lie, said Winston Churchill, “can be halfway round the world before the truth has its boots on”. John Henry Newman wrote that “nothing has such vitality as a lie – and I have often been astonished how it is capable of being cut in pieces, like some reptiles, yet without substantial injury to its power of action”. 

There will be media lies, undoubtedly, about the Pope and the Church, which are being saved up to coincide with the papal visit, and which will be believed until, as usual, they are disproved, which will be after the Pope is back in Rome.

There have also been lies flying around about Cardinal Newman. One of them, which needs to be knocked on the head now, well before the beatification, is that he was personally cold and aloof, and didn’t speak to other members of his community for 20 years.

This lie was repeated on the radio recently by a normally sensible Catholic journalist. Its source is mysterious: there is, of course, no evidence for it at all, and the notion that anyone could live in so small a community without speaking to any member of it is intrinsically ludicrous. As for Newman’s supposed aloofness, this can only be given credence by anyone totally ignorant of his life.

There are so many stories about his warmth and charity it is hard to know where to begin. But here is one. The workers at the nearby Cadbury chocolate works (mostly women) were expected to attend daily Bible classes. The local parish priest forbade Catholics to attend. An appeal was made to Newman to overrule him.

Although he had been ill, and was only a year from his death (he was nearly 90 years old), and although the snow was thick on the ground, he drove straight to Bournville to see the Cadbury brothers (who were Quakers). The brothers were “charmed by the loving Christian spirit with which he entered into the question”; as a result, they set aside a room for Catholic prayers.

There are many such stories. The most moving, to me, is that told by Bishop Ullathorne of Birmingham, who had come to take his leave on his retirement. As “I was rising to leave”, wrote Ullathorne, “[Newman] said in low and humble accents, ‘My dear Lord, will you do me a great favour?’ … He glided down on his knees, bent down his venerable head, and said, ‘Give me your blessing.’ What could I do with him before me in such a posture?” After he had reluctantly given his blessing to one so much his ecclesiastical and (he was certain) spiritual superior, the bishop recalled: “He said, ‘I have been indoors all my life, while you have battled for the Church in the world.’ I felt annihilated in his presence: there is a saint in that man!”

Is it possible that a man of such humility could be so aloof as not even to speak to his fellow Oratorians? I really hope that all those who have helped spread this lie will now look for some opportunity to say that they were mistaken.

  • Mark

    “…after the Pope is back in Rome”? Don't you mean after the Second Coming?

  • J (j)

    It has not been uncommon in the history of Christianity for spiritual fathers, especially monastic fathers, but at any event men of great holiness, to live in “community” with their brothers while yet performing the plan-of-life of a hermit and avoiding conversation. To say nothing of women.

    What does this “lie”, even if it were true, detract from the holy Fr. Newman's reputation of extraordinary or heroic holiness? To this observer, he may even be more impressive for it.

    (e.g. Benedict, Cuthbert, Scholastica, Antony of Egypt, the Athonites, Stylites, the Desert Fathers and on and on…)

  • signum_magnum

    How about during the Cholera epidemic in Bilston when Fr. Newman and his fellow Oratorians were to be found caring, comforting and consoling the dying? And this at risk of contracting cholera themselves, something Fr. Newman (who did not have robust health) did not even think about. As for not speaking to his fellow Oratorians, I am suprised that a Catholic journalist would show his ignorance so publicly.

  • Leonard

    The “Father of Lies,” always will lie. That is what he does. The ignorant and foolish will usually believe the lie before the Truth. Jesus was crucified in part because the Romans believed the lies of the Jewish leaders of the day. It is good to know that John Henry Neuman was not cold and aloof. Discerning Catholics always need to hear and obey the Truths that the Catholic Church proclaims and regard with skeptical, suspicion whatever the media says, always.

  • Dave Harte

    Hi there – the Bournville story is a nice one. What's the source for that?

  • W Oddie

    John Henry Newman by Ian Ker, pp 744-5

  • W Oddie

    The point is that it isn't true, and that the story is told only to illustrate how proud and aloof he was, not as an example of heroic holiness. A pastor can't go in for monastic silence; neither can the superior of a non-silent community

  • Paul

    A few years back I found a copy of Newman's semi-autobiographical novel “Loss and Gain” in a second-hand bookshop. It is a wonderfully sensitive novel -almost a tear-jerker in the nicest sense of the phrase. The passion and compassion of the central character, and the text itself, points to an author of real sensitivity. Sadly it's out of print, but for those who find reading Newman's Apologia heavy work it's a wonderful alternate.

  • Paul

    The Bournville story is wonderful. Perhaps it's a pity that Newman did not try to get the local PP to understand that Catholics have nothing to fear from scripture -now that would have been a miracle!

  • trevor adams

    does all this criticism amount to anything? I am more concerned that the canonisation on English soil makes him not one jot more beatified than if it was done in Rome at less cost in all respects. Most people do not deny his beatification but are merely indifferent to the whole thing including booking the Pope to have a three day excursion to bolster a flagging church on the pretext that it is part of his mission rathr than a Nichols ego trip.Let us stop these stunts in future orwill the next be the canonisation of Thomas W olsey or even Henry VIII ?