John Henry Newman

John Henry Newman
John Henry Newman

John Henry Newman’s life can be divided neatly into two almost equal parts: as an Anglican from 1801 to 1845 and as a Roman Catholic from 1845 to 1890. Newman was born in London on February 21, 1801, to a conventional Anglican family, neither too high church nor too low church. Although it was a religious household, there was little to suggest the extraordinary career Newman would have in his later years.

In 1816 Newman entered Trinity College, Oxford. Thus began what would become almost three decades of educational, pastoral, and intellectual work in that celebrated university. In 1822 Newman won a fellowship to Oriel, at that time Oxford’s most prestigious college.

Becoming vicar of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in 1828, he began to attract a large following who came to listen to his sermons. Preached in a soft, melodious voice, Newman’s sermons appealed to Oxford students and High Street shopkeepers, to intellectuals and common folk. These would be collected in later years in the multivolume Plain and Parochial Sermons.

In Oriel’s senior common room, Newman came into contact with some of the men who would become the most important leaders of the Oxford Tractarian Movement, which was launched in 1833. The immediate catalyst for this religious movement (more commonly known as the Oxford Movement) was the coming to power of a new parliament in 1831.

With the threat of government interference in ecclesiastical affairs, coupled with a poorly educated clergy and lukewarm congregations, some Oxford intellectuals began to speak out in pulpit and on the printed page. The movement’s chief weapon was the published tract, hence the name for its proponents, Tractarians.

Meanwhile, Newman was touring Europe. Falling ill at sea in the summer of 1833, he penned the verses for which he is famous: Lead, Kindly Light. He hastened back to Oxford in time to hear John Keble preach a sermon On the National Apostasy, which for Newman was to signal the beginning of the Oxford Movement, a movement forever associated with the name of Newman. In all, 90 Tracts for the Times were published from 1833 to 1841, of which he wrote 29. It was his Tract 90 that provoked a storm of controversy and ended the series.

Newman’s association with such high church Anglicans as Keble and Edward Pusey was to shape his theological orientation. In his own words, it checked his drifting toward the liberalism of the day. Newman was against liberalism in religion, not in politics.

Liberalism was, to him, “the anti-dogmatic principle,” the principle that “there is no positive truth in religion, but one creed is as good as another, and all are to be tolerated since all are matters of opinion.” Newman’s first book, The Arians of the Fourth Century (1833), is notable for his insistence on the necessity of dogma.

Indeed, it was his study of early church history that provoked his own intellectual and spiritual crisis. What began as a study of the early church fathers, with a view toward justifying the Anglican via media (middle way) between Catholicism and Protestantism, was turning into, first, unease over the Anglican position, and then a positive doubt.

In the spring of 1839 the Oxford Movement was at its height, but Newman himself was on the verge of a change of heart. He penned the tract The State of Religious Parties, which would be (in his own words) “the last words which I ever spoke as an Anglican to Anglicans.”

This article ended with the rhetorical question: “Would you rather have your sons and daughters members of the Church of England or of the Church of Rome?” But from then on, until 1843, he “wished to benefit the Church of England, without prejudice to the Church of Rome.”

The year 1841 saw the publication of Tract 90, which argued that the Anglican 39 Articles could be interpreted in a Roman Catholic sense. The storm of indignation from many quarters that this tract produced eventually led to Newman’s resignation as head of the Oxford Movement. Preferring silence and withdrawal, Newman retired to the village of Littlemore, just outside Oxford, where he continued his reading and study.

By 1843 he made a formal retraction of his verbal polemics against the Roman Catholic Church and resigned the vicarship of St. Mary’s. For two more years, he quietly lived as an Anglican layman. He was received into the Roman Catholic Church in October 1845 by Dominic Barberi, an Italian passionist. He left Oxford for good the following year; it would be many years before he would see the old university again.

In 1846 Newman was in Rome to study, before his ordination to the Catholic priesthood the following year. Returning to England, he would spend most of the remainder of his life in the house of the Oratorians in Birmingham.

If Newman was a controversialist and outspoken theological adversary in his Anglican period, he was no less so as a Catholic priest. In 1850, for example, England was in a no popery period, which was a reaction to the restoration of the English Catholic hierarchy by Rome.

Awarded a papal doctorate of divinity for his Lectures on Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Submitting to the Catholic Church, he was henceforth to be called Dr. Newman until the time he was made cardinal.

Such writings, however, were not Newman’s lifework, although posterity remembers him chiefly for his writings. He preferred to live, until his death in 1890, the simple and obscure life of an Oratorian priest, engaged in liturgical, educational, and charitable activities. Nonetheless, he was an exceedingly effective writer, though only an occasional one.

Except for a few monumental, indeed astonishingly erudite, theological works that were far ahead of their time, such as An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870), and The Idea of a University (published only in 1873), much of Newman’s literary output as a Catholic consisted of responses to those who either maligned or misunderstood him or Catholic teaching.

Thus, his Letter to Pusey (1866) was a defense of Catholic devotion to Mary, the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1875) was a carefully nuanced theology of papal infallibility (defined by the Vatican I Council in 1870), and most famously, his autobiographical Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864) was a response to writer Charles Kingsley’s gratuitous and published attack on the Catholic clergy and Newman in particular. These works had the cumulative effect of establishing Newman as a first-rate intellectual and a modern-day Catholic apologist.

With such accomplishments, one would not have imagined Newman undergoing years of suspicion and setbacks from his Catholic superiors. In an article entitled “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine,” Newman had articulated his vision of a church in which laypeople actively participate even in doctrinal matters, since they have the spirit of truth in them.

Such ideas (which the Second Vatican Council adopted in its teaching on the sensus fidelium, the “spiritual sense of the lay faithful”) were deemed dangerous and heretical. From 1859 onward, Newman was held in suspicion by prelates in Birmingham, London, and Rome. It was only in 1879, when he received the cardinal’s red hat, that he felt that the cloud was lifted from him forever.

Cardinal John Henry Newman died on August 11, 1890, and was buried in Rednal, eight miles out of Birmingham. One paper wrote: “No peer, or prince, or priest, or merchant who ever walked the crowded streets of Birmingham is so missed or mourned as the Roman Cardinal.”

Cardinal Henry Manning, preaching at the London Oratory, declared that “the history of our land will hereafter record the name of John Henry Newman among the greatest of our people, as a Confessor for the Faith.”

Newman’s enduring contributions are difficult to measure. In his Anglican period, he awakened the church to a clearer grasp of Christian doctrine and a more energetic practice of the faith. As a Catholic, he published timely apologias and seminal theological treatises remarkable for their scholarship, balance, and farsightedness. Throughout his long life he sought to live virtuously, honestly, and charitably.

A man of deep prayer and unassuming humility, he once wrote in his private journal: “Those who make comfort the great subject of their preaching seem to mistake the end of their ministry. Holiness is the great end. Comfort is a cordial, but no one drinks cordial from morning till night.” The cause for his heroic sanctity is presently being pursued with the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints.