Gasson Lecture Details A Tale of Two Cardinals In Victorian Britain

by Jonathan Gaworski


The president emeritus of Fairfield University, Fr. Jeffrey von Arx S.J., delivered Boston College’s fall Gasson lecture on November 14th. He is additionally slated to deliver the spring Gasson lecture in 2019. His lecture focused on the intertwining lives of two 19th century British cardinals, Bl. John Henry Newman and Henry Edward Manning. Newman, the elegant theologian and essayist, continues to be celebrated as much by English departments for his wordsmithy as by theology departments for his doctrine. Manning, the grim and hard-nosed hierarch, is less remembered, though no less influential during his lifetime.

Both British clergymen share the peculiarity of having converted to Catholicism from Anglicanism and having received the red hat. But there the similarities end. Cardinal Manning was intensely political and spent the bulk of his ministerial energies promoting the rights of the working class and the expansion of the middle class. He proved adept at exploiting the rise of democracy to advance his preferred policies. It was said of Cardinal Manning that he would have become Prime Minister if he had not entered the clergy. By contrast, Cardinal Newman was an utterly apolitical figure absorbed with intellectual pursuits. Newman described himself as having lived indoors all his life. 


Newman and Manning also differed concerning the role of the pope. Manning maintained that the Papal States were necessary to insure the Church’s independence in the midst of the anti-religious convulsions of the European continent. He lamented the invasion of the Papal States by the Piedmontese and saw the unification of Italy as an affront to Holy Mother Church. By contrast, Cardinal Newman viewed the Papal States as a distraction and a liability. He also thought that the dogma of papal infallibility, while orthodox, was inopportunely defined. Without a parallel teaching defining the role and prerogatives of bishops, Newman thought the dogma of papal infallibility placed an undue emphasis on papal power which would hamper the life of the Church.


This disagreement reflects the divergent reasons why Newman and Manning left the Anglican Communion. Manning left Anglicanism in opposition to the interference of the British civil authorities in ecclesiastical matters. Newman left Anglicanism because he thought the Evangelicals were not leading people to holiness.


As a result of their different priorities and interests, Manning and Newman distrusted each other and occasionally their disagreements spilled into public view. Manning felt burned in his dealings with Newman, even when trying to do favors for him. On one such occasion, Manning attempted to promote Newman to the episcopacy. Newman misunderstood Manning’s motives and thought that the appointment was an attempt to stifle his prodigious literary output. Newman turned down the offer and was never consecrated bishop, even after being named cardinal.


For his part, Manning misunderstood Newman’s intellectualism as apathy toward the destitute Irish and the Catholic labor movement. Manning saw social engagement as central to the life of the Church. He founded a middle-class high school system and opened a string of mechanical institutes, the 19th century equivalent of a trade school or community college. Manning’s populism endeared him to the laity. His funeral procession included tens of thousands of Catholics wishing to bid their protector farewell.


Cardinal Newman also sought to promote Catholic education, though his projects largely ended in failure. He opened an oratory to minister to Catholic students at Oxford University. The English bishops, including Manning, strongly opposed Newman’s project since they thought it would divert students from nascent Catholic colleges. In the face of strong episcopal opposition, Newman’s Oxford oratory closed.


As Fr. von Arx emphasized, the legacies of these two cardinals ought not be underestimated. It is sometimes thought that the First Vatican Council promoted the vision and priorities of Cardinal Manning, while the Second Vatican Council advanced Newman’s vision. But this is an oversimplification. The disagreements between Newman and Manning were frequently the result of misunderstandings which ought not be projected onto the Vatican Councils. Newman’s ecclesiology need not be set at odds with Manning’s social engagement. 


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