Blessed John Henry Newman (1801-1890) is unusual among those who have been formally honored by the Church for their virtue in that he is a figure of stature in the secular world. I first encountered him in a literature course in which prose writers of Victorian England were studied. He very much belonged there, since he is acknowledged by everyone of sense to be one of the intellectual lights of England in the 19th century, and in particular one of the great prose stylists. The main thing I remember about Newman from that course was the excerpt from his The Idea of a University which my professor, not a believer but a man of great discernment and intellectual honesty, pointed out as particularly memorable:
Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man.
I was not a Catholic or any sort of Christian then, but I thought that was not only a very fine bit of prose but also real wisdom. In one sentence it exhibits what I later came to see as the persistent shrewdness and balance of the Catholic mind, which does not disparage or dismiss human capacities such as reason, but yet never forgets that they are not sufficient to keep us on the right path.
I imagine most people reading this have at least heard of Newman and have some idea of his significance for the Church; this is surely true for anyone who’s ever been involved or interested in the Anglican tradition. Many of the saints in this series have been ones of whom little is known. Newman is the opposite: not only did he live in the modern era, but he was very well-known and influential in his own time, and continues to be so. So his life is known and studied in great detail. I’m going to give you the briefest biographical summary. A moment on the Internet will turn up a great deal of information; for starters, here is his Wikipedia article.
Newman’s life shows a pattern which has become somewhat familiar since his time: early embrace of evangelicalism, movement into high-church Anglicanism; awareness of the difficulty of reconciling Protestantism with the historic Christian faith; conversion to Rome. He was an intellectual and scholar by nature, and a celibate by choice, and the drama of his life takes place in the world of ideas. Externally there is nothing very exciting to note. He was associated with Oxford University from his late adolescence until 1843, when, recognizing that he could no longer in good conscience remain an Anglican, he went into a sort of limbo that lasted until 1845, when he was formally received into the Catholic Church. He was one of the central figures in the Oxford Movement, which attempted to bring Anglicanism into greater harmony with the Catholic tradition, and in the associated Tractarian Movement, which issued a number of tracts, many written by Newman, making the Catholic case for Anglicanism. In the end many of the people associated with and influenced by the Oxford Movement did convert.
As is often the case with converts, the roughly half of his life that he spent as a Catholic was not altogether smooth sailing. He was apparently regarded with suspicion by many in high places. And although throughout his life he was engaged in fierce intellectual combat with religious liberalism, by which he meant the effort to make human reason the final judge of religious truth, he was himself considered something of a liberal. I think—I am no expert, but this is the impression I’ve gotten—that this was at least in part because his theological approach was founded less on Thomism and more on the Fathers. He was opposed to the solemn definition of papal infallibility (1870), not because he disbelieved it but because he thought such a declaration “inopportune.”
In 1864 the very anti-Catholic Anglican clergyman Charles Kingsley wrote something about Newman which provoked one of Newman’s most well-known works, the Apologia Pro Vita Sua (Defense Of His Life). It is not an autobiography, not even a spiritual autobiography, in any usual sense. Newman introduces it as a “History of my Religious Opinions,” and that’s exactly what it is. We learn about those in great detail, but most of what can be learned about the man himself and his life can only be inferred.
Kingley’s offense was to say that the Catholic Church did not consider truth to be a virtue, and that his source for this charge was Newman. In a well-known passage, in the course of reviewing a book on the history of the Church, Kingsley asserted, with no reference to anything Newman had ever written that might justify the accusation, that
Truth, for its own sake had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy. Father Newman informs us that it need not, and on the whole ought not to be...
These were fighting words, and a fight was what Kingsley got, and got the worst of. Newman objected, and Kingsley responded smoothly that he must have misunderstood Newman’s words, and was glad to be reassured that Newman had not meant what Kingsley thought he meant.
This sly tactic did not work. “Never meant it? I maintain that I never said it,” responded Newman. A lengthy and complex war of words ensued in which Kingsley only dug his hole deeper. In the end Newman’s reputation was enhanced, and Kingsley’s diminished, because it was clear to any fair-minded observer, whatever his view of the Catholic Church, that Kingsley was in the wrong.
The Apologia followed from this controversy, because Newman believed that at the root of Kingsley’s accusation, and his confidence in making it, was a widespread and largely whispered suspicion that Newman had for many years been secretly Catholic, remaining formally Anglican and operating as a subversive within the Church of England. The idea of sneaky malicious Catholics plotting in dark places against everything decent had a powerful hold on the English (and American) Protestant mind in the 19th century, and this gave Newman the chance to bring it into the light and combat it. In the Apologia he described in detail every turn of his thinking, and the action resulting from it, with the aim of showing that he had never done other than act openly in accordance with his evolving convictions.
For someone like me, who came into the Church from the Anglican tradition (growing up as a Methodist, later spending a few years as an Episcopalian), this is a pretty fascinating work, because it follows Newman through the slowly dawning realization that the belief that Anglicanism is in continuity with the Church of the first millennium is untenable. There are some often-quoted passages about that. In 1839, for instance, Newman was studying the Monophysite heresy and concluded
...now here, in the middle of the fifth century, I found, as it seemed to me, Christendom of the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries reflected. I saw my face in that mirror, and I was a Monophysite.
Most of Newman’s other work has more than held its place since his time. A Grammar of Assent is an inquiry into the nature of religious truth and our grounds for holding it. I read it many years ago in inconvenient circumstances, didn’t really understand it, and would like to read it again, as I think it articulates and expands upon some of my own intuitions. There is the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, in which occurs another well-known remark: “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.”
His sermons collected in a huge volume as Parochial and Plain Sermons are full of insight and wisdom. The hymn “Lead, Kindly Light” is a setting of one of his poems. His long poem, “The Dream of Gerontius,” about death and judgment, was set to music by Edward Elgar; if you are a classical music lover and don’t know it, you should seek it out, as it is one of Elgar’s best works. And Newman himself was an amateur musician who played violin and viola.
But to be a capable defender of the faith in controversy, and to have impressive intellectual achievements, is not to be a saint. What of Newman’s personal virtue? I wouldn’t necessarily call his duel with Kingsley saintly. Newman is pretty pugnacious—but then many saints were in defending the faith. The original edition of the Apologia has an introductory section which concludes thusly:
Away with you, Mr. Kingsley, and fly into space! Your name shall occur again as little as I can help, in the course of these pages.
So let us turn to the words of Pope Benedict XVI on the occasion of Newman’s beatification:
While it is John Henry Newman’s intellectual legacy that has understandably received most attention in the vast literature devoted to his life and work, I prefer on this occasion to conclude with a brief reflection on his life as a priest, a pastor of souls. The warmth and humanity underlying his appreciation of the pastoral ministry is beautifully expressed in another of his famous sermons: “Had Angels been your priests, my brethren, they could not have condoled with you, sympathized with you, have had compassion on you, felt tenderly for you, and made allowances for you, as we can; they could not have been your patterns and guides, and have led you on from your old selves into a new life, as they can who come from the midst of you” (“Men, not Angels: the Priests of the Gospel”, Discourses to Mixed Congregations, 3).
He lived out that profoundly human vision of priestly ministry in his devoted care for the people of Birmingham during the years that he spent at the Oratory he founded, visiting the sick and the poor, comforting the bereaved, caring for those in prison. No wonder that on his death so many thousands of people lined the local streets as his body was taken to its place of burial not half a mile from here. One hundred and twenty years later, great crowds have assembled once again to rejoice in the Church’s solemn recognition of the outstanding holiness of this much-loved father of souls. What better way to express the joy of this moment than by turning to our heavenly Father in heartfelt thanksgiving, praying in the words that Blessed John Henry Newman placed on the lips of the choirs of angels in heaven:
Will Newman eventually be declared a saint? I have no idea, but if he is there will be a lot of rejoicing.
Maclin Horton is the proprietor of his own blog Light on Dark Water from which sprang this series. You might want to check out the current series there, 52 Movies or last year's 52 Authors. In this series he has written about St Henrik, St. John Fisher, St Ansgar, St. Mary of Egypt, and St. John Kemble.