Newman’s Unquiet Grave | by John Cornwell

Newman's Unquiet Grave

Newman’s Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint by John Cornwell
(Continuum, 2010, 288 pages)

John Henry Newman was beatified on September 19, 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI. In 2008, as part of the beatification process, his body was exhumed from its grave at the Birmingham Oratory where he spent the years following his controversial conversion from Anglicanism to the Catholic Church. However, when the grave was examined, his body was gone. Some took this as a sure sign of his sainthood; John Cornwell (and most others quite frankly) believes that it was simply a matter of natural decomposition. Whatever the reason for the body’s disappearance, its exhumation and a renewed interest in the circumstances surrounding his burial provoked the kind of controversy that Newman must have become accustomed to during the course of his life.

In Newman’s Unquiet Grave John Cornwell takes the turmoil surrounding Newman’s exhumation and beatification process as a starting point to investigate his tumultuous career as an important nineteenth century ecclesiastical figure and man of letters. In this respect, the book’s title is potentially misleading. While Cornwell prefaces and closes his book with some reporting of the recent controversies over Newman’s legacy, the bulk of the work is a biographical study focusing on Newman’s writings. Cornwell seemed to give the impression that he would be arguing against the propriety of Newman’s beatification, stating early in the book that “In [Newman’s] own view, his literary vocation would disqualify him from the sainthood” (10). However, the question of whether or not Newman should qualify for ultimate canonization is not the major concern of the rest of the book. Instead, it is a sympathetic portrait of a literary genius who’s “unrelenting literary obsession was the story of his own life: he was the ultimate, self-absorbed autobiographer” (12). Cornwell uses the term “self-absorbed” in a benign way, and his account of Newman’s ongoing interpretation of his own religious and intellectual development offers very helpful and knowledgeable insight into one of the most important figures of the nineteenth century’s intellectual landscape.

As a fellow at Oriel College, Oxford, and the Vicar of St Mary’s, Oxford’s university church, Newman was at the center of academic life at Oxford. He was the major figure of the catholic revival in the Church of England, known as the Oxford Movement. When he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845, he had to give up his position at Oxford and was ostracized from many of his friends. Years later, he would write his Apologia Pro Vita Sua to give an account of his religious development. His other important works include An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, which offers a rationale for the continuing evolution of Catholic doctrine, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, arguing that certainty in religious beliefs is arrived at through a complex process involving far more than bare intellect, and The Idea of a University, setting out a vision for university education which is grounded in religious beliefs but insistent on academic freedom. Cornwell discusses these and other works in significant depth. In addition to shedding light on the British ecclesiastical and political context that gave shape to these works, Cornwell does an excellent job of drawing out the significance of Newman’s legacy for current issues regarding religious doctrine, university education, and the relationship between church and state.

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