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John Henry Newman 1801-1899: To follow truth: Part I.

Those who have been hoping and praying for the Canonization of Cardinal Newman received great encouragement from the message which Pope John Paul sent to Archbishop Nichols of Birmingham on the 22nd of January, 2001, which was the 200th anniversary of Newman's birth. As he pondered the mysterious divine plan unfolding in his life, the Pope wrote, Newman came to an abiding sense that God had created him for some definite purpose: "He has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission."

Newman was born in troubled times, which were faced with the threat of rationalism on the one hand and fideism on the other-the one rejecting authority and transcendence, the other relying too much on a distorted dependence on authority and the supernatural. In such a world, the Holy Father continued, Newman came to a remarkable synthesis of faith and reason, like "two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of the truth." (Here the Holy Father was quoting from his own encyclical on Faith and Reason.) "Lead kindly light amid the encircling gloom, lead Thou me on," Newman wrote in his famous hymn; for him Christ was the light at the heart of every kind of darkness. Christ was the truth he had found.

Yet John Paul describes Newman's search as shot through with pain. He knew many trials in his life; but rather than diminish or destroy him, paradoxically they strengthened his faith in God and his conviction that God does nothing in vain. In the end the Cross was at the heart of his mission, the absolute truth which he contemplated, the "kindly light" which led him on.

Given the superlative terms in which he has described the Venerable John Henry Newman, it is perhaps not surprising that the Pope concludes by praying that this sure and eloquent guide in our perplexity "will also become for us in all our needs a powerful intercessor before the throne of grace." In other words, the Holy Father goes so far as to hope- and perhaps indicate-that the Church may soon officially proclaim the Cardinal's holiness, in other words beatify him. This is a remarkable statement by the Holy Father, and an indication of the great regard in which Newman is held at the Vatican.

Early life

Newman informs us that religion had a serious place in his home, but that he had no formed religious convictions until he was 15. Then "I fell under the influence of a definite creed, and received into my intellect impressions of dogma, which, through God's mercy, have never been effaced or obscured." He had an experience of personal conversion: "I believed that the inward conversion of which I was conscious (and of which I still am more certain than that I have hands and feet), would last into the next life, and that I was elected to eternal glory."

In 1816, he entered Trinity College, Oxford. When it came time for his final examinations, he overworked himself badly, and got only a low second when he had been striving for first-class honours. Nevertheless in 1822 he entered a competition for a fellowship at Oriel College, the most prestigious prize in the university, and, much to his own surprise, won it. This opened the door to almost unlimited opportunities; a friend asked which path he would choose, divinity, with the prospect of becoming a bishop and even Archbishop of Canterbury, or law and becoming Lord Chief Justice. He was admitted to the highest intellectual circle in Oxford. Unfriendly critics said that the Oriel common room "stank of logic." Its members seemed to be always undermining received traditions and institutions. The chief earthshaker was an eccentric logician named Richard Whately, and Newman became his admiring disciple: "He was the first who taught me to weigh my words, and to be cautious in my statements."

Newman had already made a decision about a career: "1822, Jan. 11. My father this evening said I ought to make up my mind what I was to be . . .; so I chose, and determined on the Church. Thank God, this is what I have prayed for."

In June 1824 he was ordained a deacon in the Anglican Church of England, and the following year he was ordained priest. Surprisingly, a colleague and great friend, Hurrell Froude, said of him about this time, "He is a fellow that I like more, the morel think of him, only I would give a few odd pence if he were not a heretic." He was still thought of as the disciple of Whately, who had little regard for dogmatic principles. But from another Oriel fellow, Dr. Hawkins, Newman learned the value of tradition, and he began to find out for himself what the Christian tradition was by going back to the Fathers of the Church. Still Froude's remark had some justification:

"The truth is, I was beginning to prefer intellectual excellence to moral; I was drifting in the direction of liberalism. I was rudely awakened from my dream at the end of 1827 by two great blows-illness and bereavement."

His own illness and the death of his sister Mary brought him to consider what forces were at work in the world around him; an intellectual battle was under way, and there was only one side he could take: he set himself firmly against the intellectual heresy of the age, the liberalism which held that one set of truths is as valid as another and that all are matters of opinion. He thought that the spirit of unbelief might prevail in England for enturies.

The Oxford Movement

By the summer of 1832, Newman had completed a book on The Arians of the Fourth Century; it was published the following year. Worn out by work on it, he was easily persuaded by Hurrell Froude to join him on a trip to Southern Europe. They visited Rome, which made a profound impression on him but which he saw as a city defiled by the idolatrous Roman Catholic religion. In Sicily he fell ill of a fever, and was near death; but he said, "I shall not die, for I have not sinned against light . . . .; On the journey home, he wrote his famous hymn "Lead kindly light," asking for divine guidance.

Within a week of his return, John Keble, also an Oriel fellow and the author of a famous book entitled The Christian Year, delivered a sermon on National Apostasy, and the Oxford Movement was launched. The Whig government which came to power in 1833 was hostile to the Church; speakers in Parliament hoped that "these foolish ordinations" would cease and predicted the disestablishment of the Church. Keble's sermon was a protest against secular government interfering in things spiritual: was the Anglican Church a divinely established institution, or merely a department of government? He had a clear view of what it ought to be: "let us give up a national Church and have a real one."

The movement which now began proposed to strengthen the Anglican Church by emphasizing its dogmatic foundations and its links to the early Christian Church. It aimed at a second reformation, upholding that primitive Christianity which was delivered for all time by the early teachers of the church. It was often called the Tractarian movement, since a series of Tracts for the Times was soon underway, beginning as brief notes and developing into elaborate discussions of theology.


From the beginning, Newman was one of its central figures. He was now vicar of St. Mary's, the University church, and in its pulpit his reputation was made. His special appeal was to the young. J. A. Froude, brother of Hurrell, had a character in one of his novels say of Newman, "I believe no young man ever heard him preach without fancying that someone had been betraying his own history, and the sermon was aimed specially at him." Principal Shairp of St. Andrew's described how Newman was regarded at this time, as "a man in many ways the most remarkable that England had seen during this century... A mysterious veneration had by degrees gathered round him, till now it was almost as though some Ambrose or Augustine of older ages had reappeared."

"We are Catholics without the Popery, and Church-of-England men without the Protestantism," declared Hurrell Froude. Newman thought of Anglicanism as a Via Media or middle way between Protestantism, which had stripped away too much from the faith, and Catholicism, which had added too much. But for Protestantism he had nothing but scorn; he called it an "imbecile, inconsistent thing." He insisted on a visible church with sacraments and rites which were the channels of invisible grace; he considered that the church of the 19th century was the same as that of the 4th, and that his bishop was the successor of the apostles. His Via Media, therefore, was fundamentally Catholic, though not Roman.

Trying to show that the Anglican Church was in harmony with Catholic doctrine, he wrote the controversial Tract 90 in 1841. He claimed that the Thirty-nine Articles, the statements of doctrine drawn up in the 16th century as the essentials of Anglican belief, were not hostile to Catholic principles but only condemned certain abuses in the Roman communion. To his surprise, this Tract aroused a storm of protest. One after another, the bishops of England repudiated the position he had claimed for them and emphasized the Protestant character of their church.


Newman withdrew from the hubbub in Oxford to a chapel he had built at Littlemore, a few miles outside the city, for a period of prayer and reflection. Now he began to see the Church of England as an unsatisfactory halfway house. He considered the bishops to be the successors of the apostles; but they did not act as if they were. In fact, in the fall of 1841 the English and Prussian governments agreed to appoint alternate bishops in Jerusalem, so that an Anglican bishop would become the spiritual leader of Lutheran Protestants who had not renounced their heresies.

To this other blows were added, especially when he reflected on an article by Dr. Wiseman showing that to a controversy of his time St. Augustine had applied not the test of antiquity but the judgment of the Universal Church. Furthermore, Newman had held that the Anglican Church possessed valid orders coming down from the apostles; but the Arians of the fourth century had possessed valid orders, and had been considered heretics then, and were still considered heretics because the Holy See declared them to be such.

The guiding principle in one of Robertson Davies' novels is "To follow truth, As blind men long for light." By inexorably following a line of thought, Newman arrived at a position which he did not want to reach-that the only church possessing genuine authority was the Roman Catholic Church.

But his move to Rome was not made hastily; he still had objections to overcome. One was the imposition of new dogmas on the faithful; a Catholic of the 19th century had to believe certain doctrines which were not held in the 4th century. Newman's s investigation of this problem was the last major task he set himself before he became a Catholic; the result was a book entitled An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, published in 1845, in which he defended such innovations as the logical working out of implications of the truths delivered to the apostles.

Only after a great deal of heart searching, however, did he take the final step: "I am to be received into what I believe to be the one true Church and the one Communion of Saints this evening, if it is so ordered. Father Dominic the Passionist is here, and I have begun my confession to him. I suppose two friends will be received with me. May I have only one tenth part as much faith as I have intellectual conviction where the truth lies! I do not suppose any one can have had such combined reasons poured upon him that he is doing right."

A convert's difficulties

Newman's conversion in 1845 ought to be followed by some such formula as "And he lived happily ever after." But this was not the case at all. For most of the next thirty-three years, he felt himself under a cloud, regarded with suspicion not merely by the Anglicans he had deserted but by the Catholics he had joined-by laymen, priests, bishops, cardinals, and sometimes even the Pope. Wiseman, now a bishop, urged him to write an account of his conversion, but he was reluctant to do so: "Catholicism is a deep matter-you cannot take it up in a teacup." He was slow to make definite plans. In May, 1846, however, he received minor orders, and the following September he left for Rome.

There he found little understanding of the difficulties faced by outsiders: "They are generally somewhat cut and dried here . . .their fault is that they generally do not conceive how educated Englishmen can be Anglicans with a good conscience..."

His initial plan was to found a school of theology in England, but in the face of misunderstandings of his doctrine of development, especially among American Catholics, he had to abandon this idea. Instead he decided to establish an Oratory, in the manner of the 16th-century Italian St. Philip Neri. "If ever there was a saint who set his face against humbug," he said, "it was St Philip."

The Oratorians are not a congregation, but autonomous communities of priests living together with a minimum of rule. He returned from Italy with papal authority to establish an Oratory, and he did so, in the Edgbaston district of Birmingham. In 1849, a group of his followers led by Father Faber established a separate community in London-the Brompton Oratory, still going strong. Here Newman gave a series of lectures in 1850 on The Difficulties of Anglicans, describing the growth of his own disillusionment with the Church of England, and showing that the really religious element in Anglicanism had nothing to do with the Established Church, which he regarded as only a department of government. Yet he did not intend to weaken the hold of the Church of England on the nation, since the real enemy was infidelity, and Anglicanism was a defence against it. His appeal was particularly to those who were already wavering, and who might be moved to join the Church of Rome.

Catholic restoration

In October 1850, Wiseman, who had just been made a Cardinal, issued his famous pastoral letter "from out the Flaminian Gate" announcing the re-establishment of the hierarchy in England. The tone of the proclamation was offensive to the ears of Englishmen; it sounded like papal aggression against them. The outcry of disapproval was largely silenced by a tactful "Appeal to the English People" which Wiseman published on his return from Rome. However, Newman made use of the occasion to prepare a series of Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics, which he thought the best written of all his works. For once he let himself go, and exploited ridicule to the full. He did not make light of the serious objections of Protestants to Catholicism, but he showed that the fairness the British prided themselves on did not apply to religion: only here would the Englishman accept statements without proof and refuse to give an honest hearing to evidence. Explaining Catholicism to the English, he said, was like trying to ex plain the British Constitution to the Russians. Newman's brilliant analysis of the "No Popery" prejudice did a great deal to alter the English view of the Catholic Church.

In the course of these lectures, Newman made an attack on an apostate priest named Dr. Achilli, who had been scandalizing English audiences with tales of his sufferings at the hands of the Roman Inquisition. In an article Wiseman had shown that Achilli had been jailed in Rome for sexual offences, not for controversial religious opinions. Nevertheless, Achilli decided to sue Newman for libel, and the latter found himself involved in a prolonged and complicated law suit in which everything seemed to be against him: Wiseman could not find the evidence he needed, and Newman had to send to Italy for witnesses to support him. When the trial finally took place in June 1852, the evidence of these witnesses should have been enough to demolish Achilli's case, but the judge and the jury were hostile, and the jury perversely found in Achilli's favour. When Newman appeared for sentencing in January 1853, he had to pay a fine of 100 pounds and endure a lecture by the judge on how his morals had deteriorated since he had b ecome a Catholic. Nevertheless, the trial was widely regarded as a victory for him; it did a great deal to shake the anti-Catholic bigotry of the times.


Just before the Achilli affair began, Newman was asked by Dr. Cullen, Archbishop of Armagh, to found a Catholic university in Ireland and act as its rector. So began one of the most disappointing ventures of his life. In a genuine desire to make university education available to Irish Catholics, Sir Robert Peel, then Prime Minister of Britain, set up non-denominational colleges in Galway and Cork in 1846. The liberal wing of the Anglican Church of Ireland wanted to allow Catholics to attend these colleges and endeavoured to create a favourable atmosphere within them. The conservative wing, however, was unalterably opposed to mixed education of Catholics and non-Catholics, and at the Synod of Thurles in 1850 they won out.

As a counter-measure to Peel's colleges, the bishops decided-without any real enthusiasm for the scheme- to set up a university in Dublin. Newman accepted the rectorship with some misgivings, partly because the official invitation was so long in coming; the deciding factor was the strong approval of the Holy Father.

Probably the most important result of Newman's Irish venture was his response to Cullen's invitation to come to Dublin in the spring of 1852 and deliver a series of lectures on education; as W. G. Ward put it, "If the Rector failed, the Christian thinker succeeded." In the midst of his Achilli troubles, Newman found time to write the lectures on The Scope and Nature of Catholic Education, which constitute perhaps the most important definition and defence of a liberal education which have ever been made.

He was expected to deal chiefly with the fatal defect of Peel's colleges, their omission of theology from their curricula. But those who anticipated a defence of the kind of educational institution which Cullen wanted-"a glorified seminary for the laity"-were in for a surprise. Newman gave a classic definition of what a university should be and the kind of education it should provide; his stress was on breadth, not narrowness. A university, Newman declared, should be a home for the whole range of human thought; it should not exclude certain sciences, or entertain suspicions of them, but should welcome all, and encourage them to pursue their own approaches to the truth. It should be a place where different sciences would work out their ideas, state their claims, and resolve their differences. True education, Newman held, is a process of acquiring perspective, enlarging the mind, and developing a knowledge of the relationships of things with each other.

He ridiculed the kind of curriculum which overloads the mind with information, for examination purposes. He objected as well to the idea that education has a utilitarian end; it is not designed to turn out the successful business man or professional man, since its aim is the general culture of the mind. But of course this is useful: "I say that a cultivated intellect, because it is a good in itself, brings with it a power and grace to every work and occupation which it undertakes, and enables us to be more useful, and to a greater number."

In two later lectures, Newman pleaded for an end to the antagonism between scientists and theologians even before the great debate over Darwinian evolution had begun. He saw the university as "the high protecting power of all knowledge and science, of fact and principle, of inquiry and discovery, of experiment and speculation..." Therefore no science should be suspect: "It is the highest wisdom to accept truth of whatever kind, wherever it is clearly ascertained to be such, though there be difficulty in adjusting it with other known truth." In the face of suspicion between individual scientists and individual theologians, Newman laid down three maxims: truth cannot be contrary to truth, truth often seems contrary to truth, and therefore we must be patient with such situations and not hastily proclaim them to be more formidable than they really are. He was confident that free discussion, while absolutely necessary for science, was perfectly safe for religion. (To be continued)+

The author is Professor emeritus of St. Michael's College, University of Toronto.

Picture research: The Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, Toronto.
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Author:Dooley, David
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 1, 2002
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