The saintly John Henry Newman, Prince of the Church of Rome, whose elevation to sainthood took place with would have been thought celerity before the race to canonize John Paul II, wrote his Apologia pro Vita Sua ostensibly in response to an ill-advised comment by Charles Kingsley. I've read and enjoyed reading some of Kingsley's breezy works on history, but must agree that Newman made a fool of him in his reply, and that he was able to do so in large part because Kingsley's remark was stupid and his efforts to defend it even more stupid.
I say "ostensibly" because in addition to a meticulous rebuttal, the Apologia is an extended explanation and defense of Newman's religious beliefs and life, especially regarding his famous, or infamous depending on one's perspective, abandonment of the Anglican Church and conversion to the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Newman was in effect given the opportunity to defend Roman Catholicism and apparently did so with great effectiveness.
I say "apparently" because this seems to be the reaction of those who read this work, but also because I find it difficult, if not impossible, to understand why Newman's conversion was the subject of such controversy. I also find it difficult to understand or appreciate the distinctions between "High Anglicanism" and Catholicism, which presumably were of such significance as to render the conversion so controversial. I suspect this is a difficulty which would be encountered by most who read the Apologia now.
Of course I can recognize that nationalism plays a part in the disputes between these churches. All know that the grotesque Henry VIII had a falling out with the Church of Rome as it would not consent to his divorce of Queen Catherine and its assertion of authority over things sacred and profane Henry and others deemed to be the concerns of the English or of their rulers. Since then the English have been sometimes virulently anti-papist.
The doctrinal differences, though, are beyond my comprehension or at least my patience, and regrettably this work is quite concerned with those differences, as might be expected. It's difficult to believe that such differences were, and evidently are, still taken to be of great importance. Even more difficult to believe is the extent to which these differences motivated seemingly intelligent people to devote extraordinary time, thought and effort to addressing them and the praise of such efforts which resulted.
My attitude is, I suppose, yet another indication of the extent to which traditional religions fail to excite or influence in these times. While I'm not an atheist and don't take quite the savagely joyous delight others do in their decline, I'm unable to consider this failure unfortunate.
I must admit that I feel that Newman was in many respects a most peculiar man. He remarks on the fact that early in his life he came to doubt the reality of the "visible world." Presumably, he felt instead that there was a real or at least more real world that is not visible for some reason. This invisible world would, I would think, strike most people as less discernible and comprehensible than the visible one. To the extent that what is real should be something one can discern and understand, I would think the "visible world" would be more real than an invisible one.
But it would seem that to Newman this was not the case; the less we know of something the more real it becomes according to this curious logic. Or, perhaps, he believed the real is something we "know" of in a sense we can't know anything in the "visible world."
Then there is Newman's statement Christopher Hitchens enjoyed quoting, to the effect that the Catholic Church takes the position that it would be better for the universe and all that's in it to be destroyed than for anyone to intentionally tell a lie, or steal a farthing. I suppose such a contention is to be expected from a person who felt the "visible world" is not real. Who cares if the not-real is destroyed? Such an attitude would make the remark appear less chilling and callous.
But it wouldn't, really, would it? That's because we all know the "visible world" is in fact real, as we treat it as real all the time; it is, actually, the only thing we can treat with at all--we wouldn't "treat" but for the "visible world" because we're part of it.
There is something wrong with someone who believes the "visible world" is not real. It may be the fact that their lives are testaments to the fact that they disregard what they say, or it may be the fact that if they really do believe what they say they disdain the world and all that's in it. This breeds fanaticism, absolutism and intolerance.
Peculiar indeed, from my perspective. But that seems to be one of the aspects of traditional religions, in the West at least. The real and true are someplace else, unrelated to the world in which we live. If they are apart from the world in which we live, then what takes place in that world is unimportant. Those who believe such stuff are better off dead, even according to their own religion.