Wednesday, June 30, 2004

On June 30, 1851
Venerable John Henry Newman, C.O., delivered the first of the lectures which were eventually published as Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England. ( A thank-you to Lane Core for sending me a reminder of this. )

These lectures are perhaps the finest examples of Venerable Newman's brilliantly sarcastic side. They were delivered at a time when Catholics were being treated even more poorly than usual, due to them having had the 'insolence' to actually reestablish a hierarchy of bishops in England. This resulted in huge meetings featuring speakers denouncing "Popery", burnings of the Pope and the new bishops in effigy, and some attacks on Catholic churches and priests. The Venerable himself had to deal with someone dumping the contents of an entire bag of flour on him from a second story, while the London Oratorians had the more serious problem of an attempt to set fire to their house with firecrackers on November 5, 1850. There was even a rumor spread about that the reason there was a cellar being built in the new house for the Birmingham Oratory was so that people could be tortured and killed without the neighbors knowing ! And, insane though this was, this accusation was actually brought to the floor of Parliament, in a speech which the Venerable quotes. Things got to the point where an Anglican clergyman called from the pulpit for making the hearing of Confessions a capital crime.
In his lectures, the Venerable was attempting to demonstrate just how absurd this sort of nonsense was, and defuse some of the insanity with laughter.
Here are a few samples- the first has to do with the 'murders in the cellars' stupidity:
Coaches, omnibuses, carriages, and cars, day after day drive up and down the Hagley Road; passengers lounge to and fro on the foot-path; and close alongside of it are discovered one day the nascent foundations and rudiments of a considerable building. On inquiring, it is found to be intended for a Catholic, nay, even for a monastic establishment. This leads to a good deal of talk, especially when the bricks begin to show above the surface. Meantime the unsuspecting architect is taking his measurements, and ascertains that the ground is far from lying level; and then, since there is a prejudice among Catholics in favour of horizontal floors, he comes to the conclusion that the bricks of the basement must rise above the surface higher at one end of the building than at the other; in fact, that whether he will or no, there must be some construction of the nature of a vault or cellar at the extremity in question, a circumstance not at all inconvenient, considering it also happens to be the kitchen end of the building. Accordingly, he turns his necessity into a gain, and by the excavation of a few feet of earth, he forms a number of chambers convenient for various purposes, partly beneath, partly above the line of the ground. While he is thus intent on his work, loungers, gossipers, alarmists are busy at theirs too. They go round the building, they peep into the underground brickwork, and are curious about the drains ; they moralise about Popery and its spread; at length they trespass upon the enclosure, they dive into the half-finished shell, and they take their fill of seeing what is to be seen, and imagining what is not. Every house is built on an idea; you do not build a mansion like a public office, or a palace like a prison, or a factory like a shooting box, or a church like a barn. Religious houses, in like manner, have their own idea; they have certain indispensable peculiarities of form and internal arrangement. Doubtless, there was much in the very idea of an Oratory perplexing to the Protestant intellect, and inconsistent with Protestant notions of comfort and utility. Why should so large a room be here? why so small a room there? why a passage so long and wide? and why so long a wall without a window? the very size of the house needs explanation. Judgments which had employed themselves on the high subject of a Catholic hierarchy and its need, found no difficulty in dogmatising on bedrooms and closets. There was much to suggest matter of suspicion, and to predispose the trespasser to doubt whether he had yet got to the bottom of the subject. At length one question flashed upon his mind: what can such a house have to do with cellars? cellars and monks, what can be their mutual relation? monks—to what possible use can they put pits, and holes, and corners, and outhouses, and sheds? A sensation was created; it brought other visitors; it spread; it became an impression, a belief; the truth lay bare; a tradition was born; a fact was elicited which henceforth had many witnesses. Those cellars were cells. How obvious when once stated! and every one who entered the building, every one who passed by, became, I say, in some sort, ocular vouchers for what had often been read of in books, but for many generations had happily been unknown to England, for the incarcerations, the torturings, the starvings, the immurings, the murderings proper to a monastic establishment.

Now I am tempted to stop for a while in order to improve (as the evangelical pulpits call it) this most memorable discovery. I will therefore briefly consider it under the heads of—1. THE ACCUSATION; 2. ITS GROUNDS; 3. THE ACCUSERS; and, 4. THE ACCUSED.

First—THE ACCUSATION.—It is this,—that the Catholics, building the house in question, were in the practice of committing murder. This was so strictly the charge, that, had the platform selected for making it been other than we know it to have been, I suppose the speaker might have been indicted for libel. His words were these:—"It was not usual for a coroner to hold an inquest unless where a rumour had got abroad that there was a necessity for one; and how was a rumour to come from the underground cells of the convents? Yes, he repeated, underground cells: and he would tell them something about such places. At this moment, in the parish of Edgbaston, within the borough of Birmingham, there was a large convent, of some kind or other, being erected, and the whole of the underground was fitted up with cells; and what were those cells for?"

Secondly.—THE GROUNDS OF THE ACCUSATION.—they are simple; behold them: 1. That the house is built level; 2. and that the plot of earth on which it is built is higher at one end than at the other.

Thirdly.—THE ACCUSERS.—This, too, throws light upon the character of Protestant traditions. Not weak and ignorant people only, not people at a distance—but educated men, gentlemen well connected, high in position, men of business, men of character, members of the legislature, men familiar with the locality, men who know the accused by name,—such are the men who deliberately, reiteratedly, in spite of being set right, charge certain persons with pitiless, savage practices; with beating and imprisoning, with starving, with murdering their dependents.

Fourthly.—THE ACCUSED.—I feel ashamed, my Brothers, of bringing my own matters before you, when far better persons have suffered worse imputations; but bear with me. I then am the accused. A gentleman of blameless character, a county member, with whose near relatives I have been on terms of almost fraternal intimacy for a quarter of a century, who knows me by repute far more familiarly (I suppose) than anyone in this room knows me, putting aside my personal friends; he it is who charges me, and others like me, with delighting in blood, with enjoying the shrieks and groans of agony and despair, with presiding at a banquet of dislocated limbs,quivering muscles, and wild countenances. Oh, what a world is this! Could he look into our eyes and say it? Would he have the heart to say it, if he recollected of whom he said it? For who are we? Have we lived in a corner? have we come to light suddenly out of the earth? We have been nourished, for the greater part of our lives, in the bosom of the great schools and universities of Protestant England: we have been the foster sons of the Edwards and Henries, the Wykehams and Wolseys, of whom Englishmen are wont to make much; we have grown up amid hundreds of contemporaries, scattered at present all over the country, in those special ranks of society which are the very walk of a member of the legislature. Our names are better known to the educated classes of the country than those of any others who are not public men. Moreover, if there be men in the whole world who may be said to live in publico, it is the members of a College at one of our Universities; living, not in private houses, not in families, but in one or two apartments which are open to all the world, at all hours, with nothing, I may say, their own; with college servants, a common table,—nay, their chairs and their bedding, and their cups and saucers, down to their coal-scuttle and their carpet brooms,—a sort of common property, and the right of their neighbours. Such is that manner of life,—in which nothing, I may say, can be hid; where no trait of character or peculiarity of conduct but comes to broad day—such is the life I myself led for above a quarter of a century, under the eyes of numbers who are familiarly known to my accusers; such is almost the life which we all have led ever since we have been in Birmingham, with our house open to all comers, and ourselves accessible, I may almost say at any hour; and this being so, considering the charge, and the evidence, and the accuser, and the accused, could we Catholics desire a more apposite illustration of the formation and the value of a Protestant Tradition?

I set it down for the benefit of time to come; "though for no other cause," as a great author says, "yet for this: that posterity may know we have not loosely, through silence, permitted things to pass away as in a dream, there shall be for men's information extant thus much." One commonly forgets such things, from the trouble and inconvenience of having to remember them; let one specimen last, of many which have been suffered to perish, of the birth of an anti-Catholic tradition.
The nascent fable has indeed failed, as the tale about the Belgian sin-table has failed, but it might have thriven: it has been lost by bad nursing; it ought to have been cherished awhile in those underground receptacles where first it drew breath, till it could comfortably bear the light; till its limbs were grown, and its voice was strong, and we on whom it bore had run our course, and gone to our account; and then it might have raised its head without fear and without reproach, and might have magisterially asserted what there was none to deny. But men are all the creatures of circumstances; they are hurried on to a ruin which they may see, but cannot evade: so has it been with the Edgbaston Tradition. It was spoken on the house-tops when it should have been whispered in closets, and it expired in the effort. Yet it might have been allotted, let us never forget, a happier destiny. It might have smouldered and spread through a portion of our Birmingham population; it might have rested obscurely on their memories, and now and then risen upon their tongues; there might have been flitting notions, misgivings, rumours, voices, that the horrors of the Inquisition were from time to time renewed in our subterranean chambers; and fifty years hence, if some sudden frenzy of the hour roused the Anti-Catholic jealousy still lingering in the town, a mob might have swarmed about our innocent dwelling, to rescue certain legs of mutton and pats of butter from imprisonment, and to hold an inquest over a dozen packing-cases, some old hampers, a knife-board, and a range of empty blacking bottles.

Here is one on images:

A Protestant blames Catholics for showing honour to images; yet he does it himself. And first, he sees no difficulty in a mode of treating them, quite as repugnant to his own ideas of what is rational, as the practice he abominates; and that is, the offering insult and mockery to them. Where is the good sense of showing dishonour, if it be stupid and brutish to show honour? Approbation and criticism, praise and blame go together. I do not mean, of course, that you dishonour what you honour; but that the two ideas of honour and dishonour so go together, that where you can apply—(rightly or wrongly, but still)—where it is possible to apply the one, it is possible to apply the other. Tell me, then, what is meant by burning Bishops, or Cardinals, or Popes in effigy? has it no meaning? is it not plainly intended for an insult? Would any one who was burned in effigy feel it no insult? Well, then, how is it not absurd to feel pain at being dishonoured in effigy, yet absurd to feel pleasure at being honoured in effigy? How is it childish to honour an image, if it is not childish to dishonour it? This only can a Protestant say in defence of the act which he allows and practises, that he is used to it, whereas to the other he is not used. Honour is a new idea, it comes strange to him; and, wonderful to say, he does not see that he has admitted it in principle already, in admitting dishonour, and after preaching against the Catholic who crowns an image of the Madonna, he complacently goes his way, and sets light to a straw effigy of Guy Fawkes.

But this is not all; Protestants actually set up images to represent their heroes, and they show them honour without any misgiving. The very flower and cream of Protestantism used to glory in the statue of King William on College Green, Dublin; and, though I cannot make any reference in print, I recollect well what a shriek they raised some years ago, when the figure was unhorsed. Some profane person one night applied gunpowder, and blew the king right out of his saddle; and he was found by those who took interest in him, like Dagon, on the ground. You might have thought the poor senseless block had life, to see the way people took on about it, and how they spoke of his face, and his arms, and his legs; yet those same Protestants, I say, would at the same time be horrified, had I used "he" and "him" of a crucifix, and would call me one of the monsters described in the Apocalypse, did I but honour my living Lord as they their dead king.

My personal favorite section is this amazing send-up, in which the British government is treated the way a typical 'anti-Popery' speaker would have treated the Catholic Church.


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