The theologian inspired high culture that from the middle of the 19th century tried to halt de-Christianisation
Recent decades have witnessed continuing interest in John Henry Newman (1801-1890) and inquiry into the life and work of perhaps the most famous English convert to Catholicism of the last two centuries. Debate has centred around his multifaceted achievement as philosopher, theologian, thinker, academic, novelist, poet, the author of an autobiography, hagiographer, theoretician of universities, preacher, to name the more obvious. However, it is also possible to approach him from another angle and to understand him from another perspective: Newman leads, and often inspired, a distinguished list of members of British high culture from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards who converted to Rome, and this in a country which not only had a strong Protestant inheritance and where Catholicism was very much a minority force but which during the twentieth century, and particularly after the Second World War, underwent a very intense process of secularisation.
In considering this exceptional lineage we encounter a series of intellectuals and writers of high calibre who constituted a special feature of the modern British cultural landscape. From a historical perspective, therefore, Newman, a man of high culture, was a convert amongst converts of the same ilk, and in exploring the key figures of this lineage, of which he was perhaps the premier example, we examine a distinct historical category to which he belonged. A specific categorisation of Newman can take place. We may consider Robert Hugh Benson, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, John Henry Gray, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Siegfried Sassoon, Muriel Spark and Evelyn Waugh. What did they have in common? What was their true historical significance as a group? At the outset, however, some introductory observations.
Firstly, it is necessary to place this lineage in its religious context. Nineteenth-century Britain had a strong Protestant inheritance, albeit one made up of different denominations. In 1851 a special religious census suggested that perhaps a half of the population of England and Wales of ten years and over went to a church service on Sunday 30 March of that year. Nonconformists and Anglicans divided roughly equally, with Catholics making up 4 per cent of this category.
But the 20th century was a period of decline. For example, in 1920 perhaps about 23 per cent of the adult population were active members of the Protestant Churches of Great Britain; this figure had dropped to roughly 18 per cent by 1945; and by 2005 only 3.2 million people in England (well below 10 per cent of the population) attended church on a Sunday. Declines in religious marriages, in Sunday school attendance, or in the importance of religion in politics and party loyalties were further phenomena of the process of de-Christianisation, which appears to have intensified with the advance of the twentieth century.
Secondly, in Great Britain during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries scholars, intellectuals, writers and journalists lived in a country that provided them with a rooted climate of freedom of expression. Such freedom, which enjoyed transversal popularity, went backwards in time and was a vital foundation for the advance of democratisation at local and national levels in the years 1832-1918. This achievement of a liberal democracy, with its avoidance of absolutist, authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, gave the United Kingdom a very special profile in the West. Secret police, political censors, prohibited lists: these, and similar phenomena, well known on the continent of Europe, were conspicuous by their absence in Great Britain.
This freedom was essential for the development of writing in the British Isles and constituted a natural stimulus for it. The huge output of scholarship, the flood of journalism, the outpouring of novels, the massive production of poetry, autobiography, short stories, travel books, diaries and all the rest took place within a context that conferred freedom on those who wanted to write. The vibrancy and vitality of high culture — to which these Catholic converts belonged — in Great Britain over the last two hundred years was fostered by what was in effect a "national" value.
Lastly, this vibrancy and vitality was also a direct result of the achievement of high educational levels. One feature of Protestantism in Great Britain from the Reformation onwards was the impulse it gave to education. The desire that people should have direct access to the Bible led to the wish that they should be able to read and write, and by the first part of the nineteenth century, in part because of this impulse, the British were one of the most literate people in Europe.
An examination of the most prominent members of the lineage of British converts of high culture to Catholicism over the last 150 years well illuminates their heterogeneousness: from working-class, middle-class and upper-class backgrounds (themselves of different hues and colours); politically, on the Left, Centre and Right; of Welsh, Scottish and English origins; ranging from prominence in the public eye to near reclusiveness; members of the priesthood and members of the laity; born into a variety of (sometimes very mixed) religious backgrounds; of markedly varied sensibilities and forms of intellectual and artistic expression; those who had been soldiers and those who had not; those who were connected to aestheticism and those who were not.
However, despite this evident diversity, what unites this group is their commitment to Catholicism and their desire to promote, implicitly or explicitly, Christianity through high culture, to which — and in this sense it is no accident that they were British — they were deeply committed. This was, of course, a precise aim of Cardinal Newman, admiration of whom is a recurrent feature of these writers and thinkers.
And as regards the importance of high culture for Newman let us remember his The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated (1873) which emphasised the importance of training the mind rather than imparting useful knowledge; of the primacy of instruction over research; and of the learning of theology and the value of the tutorial system: almost a manifesto for the production of high culture of Christian inspiration.
Another figure that these Catholic converts carried on from in this sense was Lord Acton (1834-1902), the member of an old Catholic landowning family, for a while a Liberal MP (1859-1865), a writer on religion, politics and history, who became Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge in 1895. In his Lectures on Modern History (1906), which included his inaugural lecture, he expounded ideas about this branch of high culture (for that matter the discipline of history was much developed by the British during the 18th and 19th centuries — one thinks most readily of Gibbon, Macaulay, Carlyle and Froude) with which Newman would certainly have agreed.
In their belief in the promotion of Christianity through high culture these Catholic converts linked up with a series of other Christian writers who had exactly the same aim. One may think most obviously of C. Dickens (1812-1870), whose novels were a clear product of the radical Protestant mindset; Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), a High Anglican and the author of religious poetry of the highest quality; H. Belloc (1870-1953), who was born a Catholic and paralleled, and took part in, many of Chesterton's activities; C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), an Oxford academic and Anglican, who had a particular faith in the communication of the Christian faith to the young, as witness his Narnia novels; his friend, J.R.R. Tolkein (1892-1973), an Oxford academic born a Catholic, who stressed that his most famous work The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) was fundamentally religious and Catholic in character; and above all T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), a convert to Anglicanism (and its Anglo-Catholic wing).
What is particular interesting about Eliot in this sense (and here he carried on from Newman) is that in a series of works (After Strange Gods, 1934; The Idea of a Christian Society, 1940; Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, 1948) he theorised the promotion of Christian culture (and the preservation of the Christian heritage) through the work of members of high culture such as himself.
But the great point about this endeavour is that these members of the British Christian intelligentsia were going against the historical tide. Of this, of course, Eliot himself was well aware, and in his poem The Waste Land (1922) he held up what modernity and its anti-Christian dynamics held in store.
Firstly, as many of these Catholic converts repeatedly pointed out, British and Western society was moving away from its Christian roots: they had to operate in a general culture that was increasingly abandoning religion. Secondly, high culture was itself becoming increasingly secularised. Indeed, what strikes the objective observer of the British artistic intelligentsia 1800-2010 is not only how its members were increasingly non-Christian, but also how it produced groups that were decidedly anti-Christian. Whether one looks at members of the Romantic movement (Shelley, Byron), the Bloomsbury Group, the Auden Group of the 1930s, the 'Angry Young Men' of the 1950s, the adherents to the counter-culture of the 1960s, or the writers of post-modernity today, one encounters writers who believed in the repudiation and the dismantling of the Christian heritage.
In this, of course, they themselves contributed in an important way to the secularisation of British society. From this point of view, the true historical significance of Newman and the most important British Catholic converts who followed in his lineage, considered as a group, is that they were proponents of high culture, in one of the most highly educated and free countries of the world, who as a minority force unsuccessfully strove to halt perhaps the most important cultural development of modern times: de-Christianisation.