Newman on the Church and Literature

Cardinal Newman perceives in the 19th century problems for Theology in the secular universities which have only become more acute in the 21st century.

Newman thinks the Church has the duty to defend Theology in the Schools of Science, and even more in those of Liberal arts. Since Literature express man’s passions, affections, motives and designs, it “is to man in some sort what autobiography is to the individual; it is his Life and Remains.” As science is the reflection of Nature, Literature is the reflection of the moral and social order, of natural man. Newman comments that whereas Nature remains fixed in its laws, due to sin man’s moral order is in disarray and literature reflects this condition. He writes: “On the whole, then, I think it will be found, and ever found, as a matter of course, that Literature, as such, no matter of what nation, is the science or history, partly and at best of the natural man, partly of man in rebellion.”

Newman notes that because of the nature of literature the classics of any language deal with the moral evils of man. “If Literature is to be made a study of human nature, you cannot have a Christian Literature. It is a contradiction in terms to attempt a sinless Literature of sinful man.”

“Man is a being of genius, passion, intellect, conscience, power. He exercises these various gifts in various ways, in great deeds, in great thoughts, in heroic acts, in hateful crimes.” Literature describes his wars, his construction, his great ideas as well as his poetry and art. It relates his inner thoughts and introspection. Although there have been great men who excel in virtue the lot of men is sinful and therefore literature cannot show them otherwise. “Not till the whole human race is made new will its literature be pure and true.”

Newman contrasts human literature with Sacred Scripture which also narrates man’s sinfulness, but it does not dwell on the “fertile developments of their thoughts,” their philosophy or fine arts, and it says, with few exceptions, very little of their comforts and recreation.

In the following paragraphs he will suggest that the role of the Church is to purify Literature.

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