Newman the Novelist

Author: Bernadette Waterman Ward

Newman the Novelist

Bernadette Waterman Ward

Callista and the Hunger for God in the Empire

Professor Waterman Ward delivered a paper during the International Symposium on the theme "The Primacy of God in the Life and Writings of Blessed John Henry Newman", organized by the International Centre of Newman Friends at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and held on 22nd and 23rd November [2010]. The following is a shortened version of the text without the footnotes.

Some have proposed Bl. John Henry Newman as Patron Saint of novelists. Though no master of the genre, Newman offers readers a vision of heroic Christian resistance to evil in his novel Callista. Near Carthage in 250, ambitious, comfortable Christians cooperate with pagans — but churches are empty, vocations few. Backslidden Juba jeers when his brother Agellius, faithful but abandoned by his shepherds, heeds their pagan uncle Jucundus to court Callista. She sculpts idols with her brother Aristo, but is virtuous. Callista fondly remembers her Christian slave's talk of a loving, truthful God. She rejects Agellius precisely because he has not sufficient love of either God or herself to seek to convert her first.

Penitent, Agellius falls ill. Cyprian, the historical Bishop of Carthage, hides from persecution with Agellius and tends him, absolving his sin just before locusts awaken local anti-Christian riots. Jucundus imprisons Agellius for safety. Callista, trying to warn him, meets Cyprian, who evangelizes her. While disbelieving paganism, she still doubts Christianity when arrested. Juba rescues Cyprian; a witch punishes this deed. Agellius escapes to Cyprian with news: Callista, charged with Christianity, denies it,but cannot be shamed, threatened or enticed into compromise with untruth. Cyprian manages to baptize her. Her martyrdom saves Juba and inspires Agellius's vocation.

Callista mirrors the perennial struggle with Antichrist in the Church Militant. Newman says: "as the types of Christ went before Christ, so the shadows of Antichrist precede him... every age presents its own picture of those still future events, which, and which alone, are the real fulfilment of the prophecy which stands at the head of all of them" (The Patristical Idea of Antichrist, lecture I, section 2).

Opposing Protestant stereotypes of early Christians, Newman's astonishing knowledge of antiquity brings to life early Christian practice: Masses, catechumens, confessions, bishops, vestments, miracles, images, relics. But the novel shuns anti-Protestant polemic; in fact it parallels ancient Rome with an England conceived almost entirely in post-Christian terms.

Cornelius, "a cockney of the imperial period", boasts of the eternal economic and military grandeur of Rome; we readers know it is declining. Feeling threatened by Christians, he "goes by facts": the great fact of Rome is power, celebrated ceremonially in the carefully named "Secular Games", where youths and maidens propitiate Rome's gods, and 2,000 "gallant" gladiators march to murder in its honor. Behind them frisk brutish Satyrs; the hollow imperial power serves appetite. Cornelius invokes the Roman motto Novum saeculum; a form of that phrase attends the Masonic symbolism on American dollar bills. Our secular age, pursued violently by Freemasons in Mexico last century, abounds in upscale shopping temples to the dollar. There are, however, "satyrs, jumping and frisking" behind: darker worships serving filthier appetites. For a generation, "La Santa Muerte", an idol invoked by the drug and prostitution underworld for murder, has demonically parodied Christian ritual near the Mexican border. 1,200 kilometers north, in suburban Dallas, supermarkets sell its black votive candles near those of the Sacred Heart and the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Newman's Rome celebrates itself, heedless of encroaching barbarians; our secular state preens its tolerance while ruthless anti-Christians, in Holland, Sweden, Britain and France, endanger lives. Aristo jokes that Rome by its taxes eats its own limbs; low birthrates and crippling public spending are not exclusively ancient. Agellius strangles his conscience to compromise with Rome about marriage; how many Catholic healthcare administrators do the same? Agellius agrees to court Callista while legally rejecting permanence and faithfulness, and his polite compromise with Jucundus commits him to self-deception as corrupting as Juba's frank apostasy. Newman pointedly makes Agellius acutely grateful for escaping a sin which involves no more than going along with modern custom.

Is it simply that skillful political satire knows no date? No; Newman argues that the Roman State is only the first manifestation of many Antichrists, such as Antichrists, such as "the prophet Mahomet" (ibid. p.55). Today, as that prophet's avowed followers engage in anti-Christian mass murder, the American Associated Press has spread the term "Taliban Catholics" taunting those who criticize dissent from the Magisterium. 20 Bloggers use the term to equate anti-Christian slaughter to the Church's support of male priesthood or of heterosexual marriage. Newman's 1851 Present Position of Catholics in England records Victorian slanders equating Catholic vows with prostitution and murder pacts. One might ask with Aristo, "Why in the world should you have such frantic dread of these poor scarecrows of Christians?".

Newman answers: the imperial character of the Church. God's truth — patient and unmoving, neither violent or vengeful, unconcerned for its own dignity, has one weapon: every heart longs for its peace. Worldly empires fear Christianity because it is not subject to anyone's domination — London Times, Face-book, or Roman executioners.

Jucundus and Polemo insist on not insisting on any real truth in religion. They condemn Christians' exclusive worship that resists official neutrality. Jucundus grouses: "Swear by the genius of the emperor, invoke the Dea Roma... we are not entrapping you... we don't say, 'You swear by the genius of Caesar, therefore he has a genius, black, or white, or piebald'. No, we give you the meaning of the act; it is a mere expression of loyalty to the empire".

He prefigures United States Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, finding the basis of the American political community in a relativistic "right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life" (Anthony Kennedy, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 1992). Jucundus finds it perverse when Agellius chooses suffering over abandoning the truth. "The truth!" he cried,"... what is truth? ...where did you get that cant? What oriental tomfoolery is bamboozling you?" To "denounce all other rites but your own" is almost treason for the power of the state is finally only the power of death. Rome's Empire of Anti-Christ is disarmed because Christ conquers death.

Offensively, the Catholic Church asserts stable, permanent, universal truth to which some humans have access, and all may. Christian refusal to worship lies puzzles those who think all religion false, or emotional, or subjective. It enrages our contemporaries who think religion so private that it must never be asserted even by praying in public. The compromising tolerance of Antichrist is enforced aggressively. Mere disapproval, like Agellius's "hatred of sin and vulgarity" (cf. Margaret Grennan, "The Novelist" A Newman Symposium: Newman the Man of Letters, Holy Cross: April 1952) is taken as an attack and sometimes only deadly retaliation for it can satisfy the tolerant. The witch Gurta illustrates this ferocity in the chapters about Juba, the rebellious brother of Agellius. Juba despises "unmanly" Agellius for avoiding pagan revelry. Juba wants no limits on anyone's freedom — except those who might limit his own. An oppositional adolescent, he believes he is independent to resist Christianity, which seems to inhibit Agellius, but he craves his brother's company in apostasy. Juba harasses Agellius and insults Cyprian, but risks mob violence to help the bishop escape the mob. Juba denies belief in God like Chesterton's atheist who thinks he believes in nothing but in fact believes anything; he carries amulets and whispers charms. How many today who claim to be superior to religion consult horoscopes for advice, sheng fui for furniture arrangement, and chakras for healing?

Agellius does not need Juba's approval, but Rome cultivates Juba's kind of pride: its appetite for recognition rages against all disapproval. Greedy for acceptance, Juba hesitates to disapprove the bloody witchcraft of Gurta except as a matter of taste and neglects his vaunted disbelief to converse with Gurta about her spirit master. Thinking he is escaping commitment, by little acts, he commits himself to evil, and Gurta is able to send a demon to possess him. Her curse becomes a severe mercy. It enforces humiliations: mad wanderings; licking up the blood of a lamb at an idol's feet; misery like Satan's in Paradise Lost, of seeing irrational creation joyfully obey to God while he suffers outside that harmony. His dead Christian father gave Juba the awareness of the unseen world which Newman calls "faith — a supernatural gift. Faith may be possessed by good and bad, and is most influential; even the bad are made to serve His glory and praise. ... Faith is not easily lost" (Sermon Notes, 27 April, "Faith the Basis of the Christian Empire"). Humbled by the evil he has chosen, unwillingly mastered by it, Juba can no longer deceive himself about the reality or goodness of God.

The demon-ridden, locust-scorched third century of the novel, damaged by human sin, resembles Newman's own century and our own. Newman's perfumed sophist Polemo lampoons vaguely Hegelian nonsense about a sort of world-spirit incarnating itself in a unified world government. Sweet Romantic nostalgia for paganism revived that sophistry to engender 19th-century nationalism and the fascism of the twentieth century, whose legacy lingers. But relativism has cancelled 19th-century confidence in moral progress, for as Newman shows, secular power must forbid truth to compete with opinion and sentiment.

Self-congratulatory postmoderns call truth-claims a vacuous struggle over empty status; but Newman's more vigilant Romans fear the power of desire for a reality that is not empty bullying at its core. Newman calls "Catholic faith" a "principle of empire which had never before existed... the Roman statesman saw he had to deal with a rival" or Christianity would "revolutionize the Empire". Therefore Newman alludes to two historical converts, Arnobius and Firmian, to call readers' attention to the disillusionment with empty religion that historically led Pagan thinkers to Christianity. Even hoglike Jucundus evokes Biblical dismay at the "vanity of vanities". He wishes, echoing St Paul, for something that is "not riot, or revel, or excess, or quarreling". But the Empire of Antichrist inevitably fosters all four.

Aristo is no hog; Newman's perfect gentleman, he cherishes, "The pride of mind, the revel of the intellect, the voice and eyes of genius". Aristo allegorizes pagan gods as symbols of natural or moral realities. Arnobius sneers at this revisionist mythologizing (discredited in our day by Rene Girard). Newman's contemporary, the unbelieving Anglican poet Matthew Arnold, tried to remake Christianity as a new, more believable myth (cf. "A Comment on Christmas", Complete Prose Works, vol. x, ed. Robert Super, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1975). Like Arnold's religion, Aristo's high culture, masks self-deluding narcissism. High culture fails him; he denounces tragedians for their dearth of comfort while his sister peacefully awaits torture. He commends suicide to Callista — symbolically calling for the death of the beautiful, as so many 20th-century artists did — and dishonestly pretends he will kill himself too. He lives on in the narcissistic solitary confinement that Callista escapes.

More than a novelistic character, Callista herself is a sermon illustration: honesty with oneself and the consequent desire for God. Roman guards treat her oddly politely. Callista becomes in turn righteous Paganism; severe charity; spousal longing for the divine Person; self-recognition of human inadequacy; and finally faith unto martyrdom. But around her more live figures move.

Newman evokes novelistic sympathy to serve his greater vision of the power of Antichrist, poised ever against the politically powerless faith that yet resists it. Rome, the earliest Antichrist, is insecure and therefore proud; it must kill those who do not submit to its religion. Callista is secure, and empowered by her humility: "the way to power is weakness, the way to success failure, the way to wisdom foolishness". Agellius and Aristo, Juba and Gurta; and beyond them the Romans, Firmian and Arnobius and Cyprian in reality — even the hog Jucundus in fiction — all recognize the power of desire for stable truth. Truth's grandeur appears scarcely as more than the power to resist evil; but what sacrifice resistance requires Europe saw in the 20th century. The White Rose conspirators studied Newman, for Newman understands deeply what stern self-knowledge, what capacity for sympathy and charity is fostered by resistance to evil (cf. Derman Fenlon, "From the White Star to the Red Rose", Un Ragionevole Fide: Logos e Dialogo in John Henry Newman, Milan: Vita e Pensiero, 2009, pp. 95-117). Newman is not a skilled enough novelist to bring the character Callista to life. However, rare is the storyteller who has such a vision, so rich, so complex, so well-informed, so complete, to communicate: that the longing for God in the human heart is the chief weapon, throughout the whole sweep of history, of the empire of Christ against antichrist. Newman sought realities, not shadows. It is perhaps because he perceives the reality of sanctity so acutely that he cannot fully inhabit his mere creation of a saint in fiction. Finally he is driven to speak of saints in reality; and to do more than speak of them — to embrace the power of their sanctity, to himself join the empire defined by their lowliness, peace and willingness for martyrdom. He calls us to do the same.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
8 December 2010, page 14

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