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Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England

The one-hundred fifty-fifth anniversary.

Title Page, Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England
Title Page

155 years ago today, Monday, June 30, 1851, John Henry Newman delivered the first of his remarkable Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England. They were delivered weekly thereafter, excepting Aug. 4, and were concluded on Sep. 1. Newman's biographer Wilfrid Ward noted that Newman himself said of these lectures that they were "the best written, in his opinion, of all his works". And they are remarkable not merely because one of the lectures was the cause of Newman's eventual conviction on a charge of criminal libel. (Yes, criminal libel.)

As this summer progresses, The Blog from the Core will feature each lecture on the anniversary of its original delivery in 1851. Here follow some biographical discussions.

From Wilfrid Ward's Life of Cardinal Newman:

.... Newman delivered the lectures sitting at a raised desk, and over his chair hung a picture of St. Philip Neri. It is interesting to record that Henry Edward Manning was present at the first of the series. The peals of laughter audible from outside to which Miss Giberne refers in her diary, showed something in the lectures unlike Newman's ordinary manner. In truth, as those who have read them are aware, they abounded in pungent satire, the more effective because it came not from a controversialist who delighted in strong words and startling statements, but from one who was notoriously reserved in language and self-restrained. In constructive argument, more especially, Newman, alive as he was to all the anomalies and scandals visible in Church history, could very rarely bring himself to employ the positive and confident tone, the strong expressions, the one-sided statements, the would-be demonstrative proofs of many popular Catholic controversialists. His fastidiousness and his accurate sense of fact forbade it. The approach to a breach of this rule in the case of the King William Street lectures was probably one of the things which made their preparation distasteful to him. In the present case such objections to vehement language no longer held. He had satisfied himself that he was face to face not with serious convictions, but with a monstrous and preposterous phenomenon the No-popery prejudice, which had for more than two centuries deformed and disgraced the national mind. He revelled in the strength of his case; and though never off his guard and never forgetting the reservations in his attack which truth required, he let himself go in occasional passages with complete unreserve and great effect....

From Richard Hutton's Cardinal Newman:

.... The Lectures on Catholicism in England, delivered and published in the year of the first great Exhibition, 1851, need not detain me for more than a few lines. They represent very effectively the force of the "Protestant tradition" as it was in 1851, though what was truly enough said then, now enormously exaggerates the force of that tradition, the difference being largely due to Newman's personal influence, exerted partly through the publication of these lectures, though in a far greater degree through the publication of his religious autobiography thirteen years later. The Lectures on Catholicism in England depicted very powerfully the nonsensical and fanatical side of Protestantism, though they did not do justice to the grounds of offence found by sober and accurate-minded men in the teaching of the Roman Catholic Communion. There are passages in these lectures which pass the limits of irony, and approach the region of something like controversial farce, yet farce of no common order of power. Where, for example, could we find a more exquisitely humorous and yet a truer description than Newman gives of the mode in which the re-establishment of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in this country had been received by English Protestants in the preceding year? "Heresy, and scepticism, and infidelity, and fanaticism may challenge" the Established Church, he said, "in vain; but fling upon the gale the faintest whisper of Catholicism, and it recognizes by instinct the presence of its connatural foe. Forthwith, as during the last year, the atmosphere is tremulous with agitation, and discharges its vibrations far and wide. A movement is in birth which has no natural crisis or resolution. Spontaneously the bells of the steeples begin to sound. Not by an act of volition, but by a sort of mechanical impulse, bishop and dean, archdeacon and canon, rector and curate, one after another, each on his high tower, off they set, swinging and booming, tolling and chiming, with nervous intenseness, and thickening emotion, and deafening volume, the old ding-dong which has scared town and country this weary time; tolling and chiming away, jingling and clamouring, and ringing the changes on their poor half-dozen notes, all about 'the Popish aggression,' 'insolent and insidious,' 'insidious and insolent,' 'insolent and atrocious,' 'atrocious and insolent,' 'atrocious, insolent, and ungrateful,' 'ungrateful, insolent, and atrocious,' 'foul and offensive,' 'pestilent and horrid,' 'subtle and unholy,' 'audacious and revolting,' 'contemptible and shameless,' 'malignant,' 'frightful,' 'mad,' 'meretricious,' bobs (I think the ringers call them), bobs, and bobs royal, and triple bob-majors and grandsires to the extent of their compass, and the full ring of their metal, in honour of Queen Bess, and to the confusion of the Pope and the princes of the Church."
Probably the most important of the immediate results of this course of lectures was the action for libel brought by Dr. Achilli against Newman, for the picture painted of him in the fifth lecture on "The Popular Inconsistency of the Protestant View." Dr. Achilli, who professed to be a convert from Romanism, was accused by the Papal Government of a grossly irregular life, and Newman used the offences of which that Government believed him to be guilty as illustrations of the sources from which the Protestant tradition derives its knowledge of the Catholic faith. The charges were flatly denied by Dr. Achilli, who declared that his real sin in the eyes of the Papal Government was his heterodoxy, and though Newman brought a large number of witnesses to support his statements, the British jury, directed by the late Lord Campbell, was not disposed to be satisfied with evidence which ran counter to the Protestant tradition of the day. The general impression even of non-Catholic culture at the time was not favourable to the impartiality of Lord Campbell's charge, but it fell in with the temper of the middle classes of that day, and gave the jury a good excuse for their verdict, that the main accusations had not been justified to their satisfaction. The costs amounted to 12,000, and were paid by a Catholic subscription from all parts of the world; even the soberer view among Protestants was not for the most part in harmony with the verdict or with the attitude of the judge....

And from The Catholic Encyclopedia:

.... In 1850 came the "Papal Aggression", by which the country was divided into Catholic sees, and a Roman cardinal announced from the Flaminian Gate his commission to "govern" Westminster. The nation went mad with excitement. Newman delivered in the Corn Exchange, Birmingham, his "Lectures on the Position of Catholics" (he was seldom felicitous in titles of books), and, to George Eliot's amazement, they revealed him as a master of humorous, almost too lively sketches, witty and scornful of the great Protestant tradition. An apostate Italian priest, Achilli, was haranguing against the Church. Prompted by Wiseman, the Oratorian gave particulars of this man's infamous career, and Achilli brought a charge of libel. Newman, at enormous expense, collected evidence which fully justified the accusations he had made. But a no-popery jury convicted him. He was fined 100; on appeal, the verdict was quashed; and "The Times" admitted that a miscarriage of justice had taken place when Newman was declared guilty. Catholics all the world over came to his relief. His thanks are on record in the dedication of his Dublin "Lectures"....

P.S. The title-page image is a scan from one of my prized possessions: a fine, leather-bound, top-edge-gilt, first-edition copy of the book.

Lane Core Jr. CIW P — Fri. 06/30/06 07:05:20 AM
Categorized as Historical & Literary & Religious & Speeches and Suchlike & The Present Position of Catholics.

   
         
         

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Cor ad cor loquitur J. H. Newman — “Heart speaks to heart”