A Biography

By Ian Ker

Clarendon Press. 516 pp. $24.95

IN THE IMPISH preface to Eminent Victorians, Lytton Strachey complained that the biographies of Victorian worthies, "with their . . . tone of tedious panegyric," tended to read as if they were the undertaker's last service to the departed.

Ian Ker's biography of that eminent Victorian John Henry Newman is monumental, but far from funereal. It is very long, but otherwise it shares few of the flaws of those dreary multi-volume tomes condemned by Strachey.

Nonetheless, Ker, who is the Roman Catholic chaplain at Oxford University, does court the risk of appearing rather old-fashioned. His portrait of the great cleric is leisurely, measured, careful, patient and unsensational. Above all, it disdains the glib psychologizing and motive-mongering that are the usual blights and presumptions of modern biography, especially the biography of any figure whose calling is soulcraft. The result of this modesty is paradoxical, however; for the impact of this book is nothing short of revolutionary.

I suspect that those who are not especially interested in bygone ecclesiastical controversy, even momentous ones, do not know very much about Newman today. And Ker's book is primarily the tale of an intellectual and spiritual pilgrimage, necessarily inward-looking. But it is revolutionary because its overwhelming effect is to end all doubt that Newman was a giant, a major figure in the intellectual and spiritual life of the 19th century and after, a figure who in his own sphere stands with Darwin, Freud and Einstein.

The essential story, perhaps, requires brief recital. When Newman, as a young fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, contemplated the Church of England of the 1830s it seemed to him, as it did to the other gentle polemicists he would recruit for the Tracts of the Times, an institution near spiritual death. (The Tracts were pamphlets, issued over a decade or so, which argued the case for a catholic revival in the English church.) For all the ancient strengths and beauties of that church, which were substantial, for all its benevolent influence in everyday life, it had become a domesticated creature of reformist politics. The only alternative force within the church was Evangelicalism; and it seemed bent on further protestantizing. The foreseeable end of all this, so Newman considered, would be a further distancing from the apostolic tradition, the wellsprings of the early church and authentic catholicity. And that would entail what was, and remained, for Newman the ultimate temptation: utter subjectivism of judgment, the loss of apostolic guidance and authority.

In Newman's view it was imperative to rekindle and nurture ties with the early church; and to that end Newman's earliest scholarly enterprise was a diligent study of the church fathers. On the famous occasion of the Assize Sermon in July 1832, Newman's young ally John Keble preached on "national apostasy," that is, the political manipulation of the church. This became the signal -- or at least the anniversary date from which Newman dated the Oxford Movement -- for the launching of their pamphlet series, Tracts for the Times, and the mission of rescue. That mission continued for the better part of a decade, until the spectacular blowup over Tract 90, Newman's attempt to demonstrate that the Book of Common Prayer's articles of religion were less calvinist and more catholic than anyone had ever supposed.

Those who have read Newman's Apologia pro Vita Sua -- or other classic accounts of the Oxford Movement, of which the best (and one of the earliest) is still R.W. Church's -- are familiar with the sequel. The officialdom of Oxford rose in wrath against Newman and his followers. Meanwhile, Newman himself had begun to be tortured by the suspicion that the Church of England was, indeed, schismatic; that true catholicity lay with Rome. By 1845, Newman had, as the term of the time had it, "gone over" to Rome -- converted to Roman Catholicism. And many others influenced by his preaching and writing soon followed. It was a time of bitterness, backbiting and anger almost inconceivable in our age of ecumenical harmony and, truth to tell, religious indifference.

But it was that most famous of all English conversions, as Ker shows, that initiated Newman's career as the century's greatest apologist for religion. He soon became a sort of mediator between the ancient claims of catholic and apostolic religion and the confusions of spirit arising from science, political reform and revolution. As he had searched for a "via media" for Anglicanism, he now brought precision and learning to controversies that were typically marked by inaccuracy and ignorance. But because the kingdom with which he dealt was by the decree of its founder "not of this world," the Newman of those years has sometimes been represented as a sort of unworldly clerical reactionary.

As Ker shows, however, this is far from the truth. The bitter truth was that, out of envy or shallowness, it became the apparent aim of the authorities at Rome, seconded by the English Roman Catholic hierarchy, to keep Newman in his place. In time his natural allies became the so-called liberal Catholics, rallied by Lord Acton and the Duke of Norfolk to resist the ambitions of Pius IX. That eminent reactionary not only wrote the famous "Syllabus of Errors," swatting vainly at the chimeras of progress and science. He convened the first Vatican council to attempt to buttress the secular power of the papacy, faltering in the wake of the Italian unification movement. The instrument was to be the promulgation of the doctrine of papal infallibility -- a grave mistake, as Newman saw it, not for doctrinal reasons or because it was wrong but because infallibility was sure to be misunderstood in areas in which the church's authority was naturally strong and competent: matters of soul and spirit.

Newman's writings, many of them, were the incidental results of tasks and controversies; but they still carry a powerful jolt of relevance. Beautifully written, searching and eloquent, they deal with nearly every major predicament that religion faces even today -- the relations between education and the church, between intellect and spirit, between science and faith, between scholarship and Biblical literalism. In subtlety and penetration, there is simply nothing better in English.

Ker has established that John Henry Newman (who at last was made a cardinal late in his life) remains the towering prophetic figure of the 19th century, and deserves today to be duly revered in the two worlds he so deeply influenced and enriched. He was the founder of the renewal of catholicity in Anglicanism, without which today it would be far less than it is. And he was the prophet of yet another kind of renewal in the Roman Catholic Church, those reforms wrought in our own time by John XXIII and Vatican II. Whether Ker had this ambitious design in mind when he began I do not know. But this is the clear effect.

The only serious flaw of this book, aside from some lumpy passages that seem a bit overstuffed with quotations, is the exhaustive attention given to Newman's writings. Every time the narrative begins to gather momentum, we seem to be interrupted for lengthy tutorials on this or that written work, some of which bear careful reading and others of which must be impatiently skimmed. This is an immensely dramatic tale, and there ought to have been some way to let the story tell itself without these undramatic interruptions. Yet even on this point one cannot be categorical. This portrait of a soul demands that its highest expressions be examined.

The important point is that this is a work of the largest scope and penetration, which seems to get a lot of very complex history just right. Ker has established -- or re-established -- for our time the true dimensions of this great figure. For both Anglicans and Roman Catholics, indeed for pilgrims of every faith and background, Newman looms as a seer whose vision transcends his or any other time.

Edwin M. Yoder is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.