Luca Fumagalli

The story of Loss and Gain, a masterpiece of Catholic fiction by John Henry Newman, begins in 1847. At that time, the future cardinal, who had been Catholic for just two years, was staying in Rome, guest of a Cistercian monastery located near the Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, on the outskirts of the city. He was waiting impatiently for the papal document that would authorize him to establish an Oratorian congregation in Birmingham.

Meanwhile, in London, a novel called From Oxford to Rome: And How It Fared With Some who Lately Made the Journey was causing a stir. The book had been printed anonymously, but it didn’t take long to realize that the author was Elizabeth Harris, a former convert to Catholicism who had reverted to Anglicanism. What aroused the indignation of many “papists” was in particular the belief, expressed by Harris, that sooner or later Newman would do the same.

The latter wasted no time in responding with a philosophical novel that was published in 1848 with the title Loss and Gain, initially without his name appearing on the cover.

Divided into three parts, in accordance with Victorian practice, the volume is among the most significant works of the so-called “Catholic Literary Revival” (although at the time of publication the book achieved little success, being limited to Catholic circles in England).

The story, based only in part on Newman’s biographical experience, has a linear plot and speaks of the conversion to the Church of Rome of an Oxford student, Charles Reding, the son of an Anglican clergyman.

In the novel, the little space allowed for action is compensated by the massive presence of dialogues, most of which have a religious background, which are intended to stimulate the reflection of the reader, engaged, alongside the protagonist, in the difficult quest for truth in a world devoted to the most grotesque philosophical-theological liberalism, where the various Christian denominations are generally placed on the same level and the differences reduced to a mere matter of taste. The young Reding is engaged in a difficult effort that involves material and emotional sacrifices, the very high value of which is however underlined by the title of the novel which deliberately recalls the words of the Gospel, “For whoever “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it “(Luke 9, 24).

Newman’s goal is to stimulate the reader’s reflection. Reding, first of all, must free himself from the deafening voices of dozens of almost allegorical characters, each of which represents a particular religious position, ranging from the Anglican High Church to that of more Protestant tendencies, from the Puritan to the radical skeptic, etc.

Moreover, the decision to reply to Harris using the form of the novel, unusual for an academic like Newman, was motivated both by the desire to face the opponent on the same battlefield, and by that of broadening the readership, as if to underline how “going to Rome” – the term with which the Anglicans contemptuously defined conversion to Catholicism, judged to be madness – was a possibility open to everyone, not just scholars.

Loss and Gain also gave birth to the sub-genre of the “conversion novel” destined to have great success among English Catholic writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (reaching its climax with Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited). Newman, for his part, wanted to get away as far as possible from the Puritan model of the “pilgrim’s journey”, in which the homo viator ends his existential adventure by creating a dramatically subjective faith. Rather, he was interested in showing how the truth was in the reality of things, in the dogmas, in the rites, in the structure, in the eternal word of the Catholic Church, the messenger of God, and how, consequently, conversion was the experience of an objective certainty.

The result is not only a doctrinally solid novel, but a text that for subtlety and acumen plays on equal terms with Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice, just as the refined analysis of the relationship between society and religion is on a par with that of Manzoni in The Betrothed. Another undoubted strength of the book is the effective description of the Oxford academic environment.

The conversion path of Charles Reding, who arrives at the university as a convinced Anglican, begins with the discovery that the theological structure of the Church of England is by no means as compact as he had always believed. After looking for valid alternatives, constantly haunted by doubt and skepticism, Reding reaches the Church of Rome, seduced – rationally and not emotionally – by the concept of authority that it embodies so perfectly: he is at home and finally his soul can rest.