Loss and Gain: The Story of a Convert (Works of Cardinal Newman: Birmingham Oratory Millennium Edition)
John Henry Cardinal Newman
University of Notre Dame Press, 2015
500 pp., 49.88
A Pious Fiction
Although I had not thought about the novel's setting, in a delightful serendipity I happened to take Newman's Loss and Gain(1848) on a recent trip to Oxford. The society of the university is premised on the art of conversation, great minds from across the disciplines interacting with one another. At Dessert at All Souls, I ended up sitting next to a Fellow of the college who is a Norwegian mathematician. A braver soul than I would have attempted to discuss his mathematical research, but I took the coward's way out and opted for my family's roots in his homeland. "I know some Norwegian," I boasted, "I can say the Grace before a meal." To which he wryly replied: "Well, then, you know more Norwegian than me."
Oxford was a different place back in Newman's day. He entered Trinity College as an undergraduate in 1817, was elected a Fellow of Oriel in 1822, and resigned his fellowship one week before he was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1845. Loss and Gain begins with a student at sea in the university's atmosphere of perpetual discussions of controverted doctrinal positions. An elderly don remarks: "This is a place of fashions … and every generation has its own fashion … . Once geology was all the rage; now it is theology."
In 1991, Pope John Paul II bestowed upon John Henry Newman the title of "Venerable"; in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI upgraded him to "Blessed"; and it seems likely that most of us will live to see Newman's canonization complete. As splendid as this might be in the wider scheme of things, it does not seem to bode well for the task at hand: just as one would not instinctively turn to a celebrated novelist for marriage counselling, so it does not appear promising to have one's fiction written by a certified saint.
Alas, Loss and Gain does not decisively dispel such wariness. It is largely made up of speeches advancing theological arguments. Newman knew his classics well, and this volume feels much closer to a Platonic dialogue than a Dickensian diversion. Indeed, the polemical purpose is relentless, and Newman makes sure that everything that is not centered on religious disputes happens offstage. He is vaguely aware that man cannot live by doctrine alone, but only acknowledges this by way of the occasional disclaimer: "They talked awhile on indifferent matters; but on a pause Charles's thoughts fell back again to the Articles."
For the 21st-century reader, this is made worse by the fact that so many of the historical figures and incidents referenced are no longer readily recognizable. Fortunately, that difficulty is in large measure overcome in this new edition by the excellent introduction and notes written by Sheridan Gilley, a leading scholar of Victorian Catholicism.
In any case, this novel is better and more enjoyable than your average textbook will let on. Part of the reason for this is that so many scholars today are incapable of appreciating the drama of faith (or, if they can, they find it more professional and discreet to pretend like they don't). The hero of the tale is Charles Reding, the son of an Anglican clergyman, and there is real pathos in the way that he must disappoint his widowed mother and his sister by abandoning the Church that had been the quiet center of their lives together. Meanwhile, another Oxford man who has already converted pleads with Charles to join him: "Oh, my dear friend, quench not God's grace; listen to His call."
What most makes the book diverting, however, is Newman's satirical presentations of the different Anglican factions and Protestant sects. This begins with an Anglo-Catholic named Bateman who is industriously restoring a church building to its medieval glory. The running joke is that everything he is adding no longer has any purpose or meaning in Anglican worship—niches that will not contain images and so on, culminating in candleholders that will not hold candles. When Bateman is ordained and has a parish of his own, the people will not allow the positive changes to the fabric of the church that he desires, so he must content himself with what he can do by way of compensation: "I have lowered the pulpit some six feet."
In a religious bookstore there are attempts to defend the Church of England with titles such as The English Church older than the Roman, Anglicanism of the Early Martyrs, and Modified Celibacy. A liberal explains that he is not claiming that the English Church should abandon its distinctive doctrinal positions, but only that it should "consider the direct contradictories of them equally pleasing to the divine Author of Christianity." Evangelicals, of course, come in for their share of teasing. There is even a rumor circulating among them that the pope "died a believer."
When a newspaper reports that Charles is about to leave the Church of England, he is bombarded with visitors trying to induce him to join their sect. An Irvingite introduces himself as "a member of the Holy Catholic Church, assembling in Huggermugger Lane." Charles asks another visitor what the tenets of her sect are and she generously responds that they would be happy to adopt "any doctrine to which you may be especially inclined." A Protestant fundraiser confides his hopes for spiritual progress: "I don't despair to see the day when bloody sacrifices will be offered on the Temple Mount as of old." One sect has chosen to present the great cloud of witnesses by depicting "Socrates, Cicero, Julian, Abelard, Luther, Benjamin Franklin, and Lord Brougham." Finally there is the apocalyptic exegete who has discovered that the mark of the beast in the book of Revelation is actually the sign of the cross. (Charles sends him away by suddenly producing a crucifix, which apparently has the same effect on proselyting Protestants as it does on vampires.)
Newman is at his most earnest in denouncing what he sees as the worldliness of the Anglican clergy:
Here are ministers of Christ with large incomes, living in finely furnished houses, with wives and families, and stately butlers and servants in livery, giving dinners all in the best style, condescending and gracious, waving their hands and mincing their words, as if they were the cream of the earth, but without anything to make them clergymen but a black coat and a white tie.
Our hero, however, as was true for Newman himself, sensed that he was called to celibacy long before he knew that he would join the Church of Rome. Here the joke seems to be on everyone, both ministers who do not think they need to give up anything in order to serve Christ and the tendency toward priggishness of priests who know better:
It was a young clergyman, with a very pretty girl on his arm, whom her dress pronounced to be a bride. Love was in their eyes, joy in their voice, and affluence in their gait and bearing. Charles had a faintish feeling come over him; somewhat such as might beset a man on hearing a call for pork-chops when he was sea-sick.
What was gained, of course—in the eyes of both Newman and his protagonist—was nothing less than salvation. The passage of most sustained eloquence is on the beauty of the Mass and the Holy Roman Catholic Church. When Charles finally is received, he has secured the pearl of great price: "the truth flashed on him, fearfully yet sweetly; it was the Blessed Sacrament—it was the Lord Incarnate who was on the altar, who had come to visit and to bless His people."
Nevertheless, the losses are real. One must forsake both family and friends for the sake of the kingdom of God. Other sacrifices can be borne more lightly. When Charles is warned that he will not find men of cultivation and education in the Catholic Church, he cheerfully retorts: "They write English, I suppose, as classically as St. John writes Greek."
The great loss that cannot be discounted is his beloved university. Thus the second longest passage of passionate eloquence is a lament for a little town in the heart of England where the rivers Cherwell and Thames meet:
[T]he spires and towers of the University came on his view, hallowed by how many tender associations, lost to him for two whole years, suddenly recovered—recovered to be lost for ever! There lay old Oxford before him, with its hills as gentle and its meadows as green as ever … . Each college, each church—he counted them by their pinnacles and turrets … . Whatever he was to gain by becoming a Catholic, this he had lost; whatever he was to gain higher and better, at least this and such as this he never could have again. He could not have another Oxford.
As Gilley astutely observes: "The profoundest personality in the work is no human person, but Oxford itself … . Oxford is more vividly depicted than any of the characters."
Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought, Wheaton College, and an Honorary Research Fellow, University of Wales Trinity Saint David. His The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith (Oxford Univ. Press) has recently appeared in paperback.