When St John Henry Newman met Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, he “could not help liking him.” At first glance, this hardly seems surprising. Newman, one the finest English prose stylists, and Pugin, one of greatest English architects, both had exquisite aesthetic sense. Both loved Christian history. Both converted to the Catholic Church. Yet these two geniuses were bound to drift apart. Their understandings of Catholic identity were profoundly opposed, on lines that still define intra-Catholic debate.
For Pugin (pictured), authority was found in antiquity. In life and in architecture, the medieval way was best. Pugin unapologetically described Gothic as “Christian architecture.” Any other style was pagan. “We cannot successfully suggest anything new,” he wrote, “but are obliged to return to the spirit of the ancient work.”
As an Anglican, Newman had likewise looked to the past for guidance. He had rejected the Catholic Church because he believed it introduced novelties not present in the primitive Church. But Newman’s antiquarian faith was shaken when he read an article on the Donatist controversy. The primitive Church did not accord authority only to what was primitive. Instead it relied on “the deliberate judgment, in which the whole Church at length rests and acquiesces.”
This conclusion led to Newman’s conversion. It also created a fundamental opposition between Pugin and Newman (as the critic James Patrick demonstrated in a 1981 article for Victorian Studies). Newman realised that many or even most bishops might waver between truth and falsehood. Rome itself might fall silent for a time. But authority resided in the secure judgment at which the whole Catholic Church eventually arrived — not in the past as such, however glorious.
Newman opposed any system that relied on “taking Antiquity, not the Existing Church, as the oracle of truth.” Just as Newman in his Anglican days had rejected Rome, Pugin sometimes spoke as if the actually existing Church were a counterfeit. He took St Peter’s Basilica as the most notorious instance of a “revived pagan” style. This came dangerously close to implying that since the close of the medieval period, the Church had fallen into apostasy.
Newman feared that a reverence for the Gothic smacked of a nostalgic and nationalistic romanticism, more than of love for the universal Church. “It would be a serious evil, if [the Gothic] came as the emblem and advocate of a past ceremonial or an extinct nationalism,” he wrote. “Our rules and our rubrics have been altered now to meet the times, and hence an obsolete discipline may be a present heresy.”
Newman’s suspicions of “Puginism” were echoed by the Rambler, a magazine with which he was associated: “It condemns the living Catholic Church in a manner which appears wholly inconsistent with belief in her infallibility, and flies back to some past period, when her judges imagine her to have been up to their standard of perfection.” Pugin’s tendency to anathametize those who did not share his views led Newman to a harsh conclusion about his former friend: “He is intolerant and, if I might use a strong word, a bigot.”
In their understandings of history and authority, Newman had the better of the argument. Pugin’s Gothic revival helped many to apprehend the glory and beauty of the Catholic faith. But it also encouraged the nostalgic nationalism and exaggerated ritualism of certain Anglicans. Pugin’s love of the past was too easily turned against an apparently pagan Rome. He remained within the pale of the Church in part because he did not hold to the logic of some of his stronger declarations. Other men, with less sense but more consistency, have started from Pugin’s assumptions and ended up outside the Church.
Yet it would be wrong to dismiss Pugin as a mere nostalgist. His proposals were not simply the product of dusty researches and a fear of the new. His program for Gothic building responded to contemporary exigencies. It embodied a vision of social reform that appealed to many people worried about the state of industrial England.
Like many traditionalists, Pugin was in some ways radically modern. His insistence that architectural style always corresponds to a particular vision of society anticipated the theories of later, self-consciously modern architects. Traditionalism is often more attentive to present needs than to past realities; at times it is the higher modernism.
This is why I am never inclined to dismiss those who want to restore old religious practices or revive extinct political forms. Their views may sometimes be too narrow. Their vision of the past may be too rosy, their view of the present too dim. But they are sometimes better readers of the signs of the times than students of history. They often perceive real problems, even when they propose unreal solutions. And like Pugin, they need not achieve their most fanciful dreams to leave their imprint on society.