Appeared in Winter 1989, Vol. XV, No. 4

Almost as if it were a sacred dogma, Cardinal Newman’s reputation is secure and well guarded by many today. This is urgent now because the cause for Newman’s canonization has been steadily advanced in Rome. But his reputation was not always secure – not even in the area – of orthodoxy and sanctity, to say nothing about areas of thought and personality. Cardinal Manning, W. G. Ward, Monsignor Talbot, Cardinal Vaughan, and others complained about Newman’s activities and questionable orthodoxy. “Dr. Newman” was in fact called the “most dangerous man in England.” Newman may have come partially out from under the cloud with his cardinalate, but his reputation suffered again with new intensity with the modernist crisis after his death.

Of course, Newman has always had whole-hearted and unwavering defenders and supporters such as Wilfrid Ward and the Birmingham oratorians of the twentieth century (especially fathers Neville, Tristram, and Dessain). The conflict, polarization, and defensiveness that have always existed between these groups of people have had significant effects, I believe, on the whole biographical tradition for almost one hundred years. Even scholarly works on Newman’s thought have often labored under the burden of having to defend his reputation: they do not exhibit the same kind of freedom and critical acumen that can be found in similar studies of other major nineteenth-century writers. Too often, Newmanians rely on Newman to prove Newman; his word is sufficient. Even supposedly scholarly Newman conventions have often been disappointing. A clerically religious tone has too often dominated these conventions, and papers have rarely departed from the general reverential, uncritical tradition.  I have long urged that Newman is too great a figure to be given such special privilege; he does not need it and would not want it.

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