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

In Part I, (March, pp. 34-38) Dr. Dooley described Newman's youth and early life, his study of early Christianity, and the subsequent Oxford Movement wih its Tracts for the Times, challenging Anglicans to examine Christian doctrine. Newman's personal search for truth led him to convert to Catholicism in 1845. Following the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England in 1850, Newman was invited to found a Catholic university in Ireland only to be let down by the Irish bishops. Meanwhile, he had delivered his brilliant analysis of what a university should be. He was confident that free discussion was perfectly safe for religion.

Such views were not likely to commend themselves to the Irish bishops; nor was Newman's emphasis on the role of the laity in Catholic education, especially on university faculties. He felt that the bishops regarded their laity as little boys; they had little sympathy with his desire to form a cultivated Catholic laity, and in fact he said, "They regard any intellectual man as being on the road to perdition." Not surprisingly, the public showed little interest in what they thought of as Cullen's lay seminary--as Newman found to his discouragement when he was officially installed as rector in 1854. Yet he entered into his work with energy; he opened a School of Philosophy and Letters, a School of Science, and a Medical School; he founded a scientific journal, The Atlantis, and he built a university church. However, the college enrolment remained pitifully small; years of poverty, famine, and oppression had almost eliminated the class from which students were likely to come, and the absence of state recognition and authority to give degrees kept the remainder away. Newman described his work in Ireland as that of trying to raise the dead. In the circumstances, he was very glad to receive an official request from his Oratory asking for his return; by November 1858, he had severed all connection with the university.



This period was one of disappointment after disappointment for Newman. He suffered one bitter disappointment over Cardinal Wiseman's plan to secure him a titular bishopric and thus give him the same status as the Irish bishops; despite his own objections to ecclesiastical distinctions, he indicated that he would be willing to accept this one if it were offered to him. Assuming the distinction was a foregone conclusion, friends sent him congratulations and presents, but then he heard no more of the matter; the Irish bishops, of course, had intervened to squelch the proposal.

Another disappointment came over a project for a new English version of the Scriptures. Newman accepted the Cardinal's invitation to edit the work, but the project came to nothing because of lack of support from the other bishops.

A third rebuff came in connection with Newman's attempt to mediate between the conservative element among the English Catholics and the liberal wing, the most prominent of whom was Lord Acton, a distinguished historian. The liberals came close to official condemnation because of questionable articles in their publication, The Rambler, and at the request of Wiseman and his own Bishop, Ullathorne, Newman took over the editorship of the review and tried to introduce a more moderate tone into it. He thought that there was a great need for such a journal, "to create a body of thought as against the false intellectualism of the age," but the moderation he sought was not shown by either side, and before he had been editor six months, his bishop asked him to resign. Here was another great opportunity lost; sadly he wrote, "It is discouraging to be out of joint with the time, and to be snubbed and stopped as soon as I begin to act."

It was not he, but the time, that was out of joint. "Your cut and dried answers out of a dogmatic treatise," he complained, "are no weapons with which the Catholic reason can hope to vanquish the infidels of the day." However, the freedom to try fresh approaches was not likely to be forthcoming while the papacy was in a state of siege.

Pius IX

Pius IX had begun his papacy as a liberal and reforming pope; but the liberal rioting which drove him from Rome in 1848, the later seizure of the Papal States, and his dependence on the armies of Napoleon III, had changed his outlook completely. At every suggestion of compromise, he reiterated, "Non possumus"--"We cannot." He seemed to many to have declared war on the political and intellectual tendencies of the contemporary world.

It was not a time when someone who asked, not for new theological doctrines, but new theological explanations in the light of modern research, would receive a sympathetic hearing. The liberal movement in theology on the Continent, led by Dr. Dollinger of Munich, brought a condemnation on itself in 1863 for its minimizing of authority and repudiation of scholastic theology. Newman had no sympathy with attempts to remove Catholic thought from the control of Rome, but a careful analysis of the Pope's Brief to the Archbishop of Munich made him conclude "that, at this moment, we are simply to be silent, while scientific investigation proceeds ...." It seemed impossible, in other words, for him as a Catholic writer to deal with the issues raised by science.

Newman's vindication

Newman's active career seemed at an end. Among the English Catholics, he had met little understanding or sympathy for his ideas; he was treated, he felt, like "some wild incomprehensible beast, a spectacle for Dr. Wiseman to exhibit to strangers, as himself being the hunter who captured it." The fact that his Anglican career had been more productive than his Catholic career was troubling to him. Everything he had started had failed, usually because of lack of support from the authorities. He was generally regarded as a failure because he had not made more converts, but he wrote, "To me conversions were not the first thing, but the edification of Catholics." Finding himself without an audience or encouragement for his writing, and unable to conform to prevailing opinions--"Hannibal's elephants never could learn the goose-step"--he described himself as an emeritus soldier. He seemed to be at the end of a very frustrating career, and in the early 1860s he was doing little more than putting his papers in order an d virtually waiting for death.

Then unexpectedly he received his great opportunity to vindicate himself. In a review of Froude's History of England which appeared at Christmas 1863, Charles Kingsley, an Anglican clergyman and well-known historical novelist, made a slighting reference to him: "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 ..." An exchange of letters followed in which Kingsley gave evasive replies to Newman's demands for evidence that he had made such a statement. Newman then published the correspondence, and Kingsley answered with a pamphlet entitled What, then, does Dr. Newman Mean? Referring to it in a letter, Kingsley said, "I am answering Newman now, and though of course I give up the charge of conscious dishonesty, I trust to make him and his admirers sorry that they did not leave me alone." As one observer commented, "Mr. Kingsley replied in an angry pamphlet, which we do not hesitate to say aggravates the original inju stice a hundredfold."


Newman decided to make a reply. He saw at once that his chance had come, not merely to answer an opponent, but to justify the whole course of his life. In order to destroy Kingsley's caricature of him as a trifler with truth, he had to reveal himself fully and explain his motives honestly: "I recognized what I had to do though I shrank from both the task and the exposure which it would entail. I must, I said, give the true key to my whole life. ..." He set to work therefore, to give an account of his conversion; in only ten weeks, he wrote one of the greatest spiritual autobiographies ever written, his Apologia Pro Vita Sua. "My fingers have been walking nearly twenty miles a day," he said; since the work was appearing in weekly instalments, he had to write under great pressure--once he worked for twenty-two hours at a stretch.

The History of My Religious Opinions which constitutes the major part of the Apologia goes up to 1845: "From the time that I became a Catholic, of course, I have no further history of my religious opinions to narrate. In saying this, I do not mean to say that my mind has been idle, or that I have given up thinking on theological subjects; but that I have had no change to record, and have had no anxiety of heart whatever. I have been in perfect peace and contentment. I never have had one doubt."

His account has generally been admired for its lucidity, its candour, and its ability to carry conviction. Newman was able to render theological questions and disputes in understandable terms. He desired to reveal every particle of truth, and every relevant circumstance. Consequently even those who thought him mistaken in his conversion were convinced of his sincerity. As Father Ryder of the Oratory noted, "People could not resist one who, having utterly discomfited his accuser, took them so simply and quietly into his confidence."

A Catholic college

The success of the Apologia gave Newman a very different position among English Catholics than he had had. "He was recognized," says Wilfrid Ward, "as the great and successful apologist for the Catholic religion, a defender of the Catholic priesthood in a battle which had commanded the attention of all the English-speaking world." Therefore, as he himself put it, he was in spirits to look for fresh work. But the policies of the hierarchy which had hampered him in the past were to hamper him again.

One issue of particular concern to him was the ban on Catholic students going to Oxford; he felt that Catholics were shrinking into themselves, and trembling at freedom of thought instead of boldly going forth to battle against it. A few weeks after the publication of the Apologia, he was offered a large tract of land in Oxford, and, thinking that Catholics would want to use it sooner or later, he bought it. When Bishop Ullathorne heard about this purchase, he surprised Newman by asking him to start a mission, in effect a parish, in Oxford. With his bishop's consent Newman sent out a circular in the fall of 1864 announcing the establishment of an Oratory at Oxford.

In 1855 the civil prohibition against admitting nonAnglican students to the University had been withdrawn, and Cardinal Wiseman had given tacit consent to parents who wanted their sons to go there. He had even expressed sympathy with the idea of opening a Hall or College under Catholic auspices. But that was before he had come under the influence of Henry Edward Manning, a former Anglican archdeacon who had become a Catholic priest and was well on the way to establishing himself as Wiseman's heir-apparent as Archbishop of Westminster. Manning was vehemently opposed to the idea of encouraging Catholics to go to Oxford. So was W. G. Ward, perhaps the most influential layman in England, who acted against the scheme "with the zeal of a Crusader."

Just when Newman was talking with enthusiasm of being in a position where he could do some real work for the Church, Ullathorne received a secret instruction from the College of Propaganda in Rome to the effect that if Newman showed signs of intending to reside in Oxford, he should not be allowed to do so. A disconsolate letter to a friend revealed Newman's bitterness: "For twenty years I have honestly and sensitively done my best to fulfil the letter and spirit of the directions of the Holy See and Propaganda, and I never have obtained the confidence of anyone at Rome .... I have lost my desire to gain the good will of those who thus look on me. I have abundant consolation in the unanimous sympathy of those around me. I trust I shall ever give a hearty obedience to Rome, but I never expect in my lifetime any recognition of it."

It was a further blow to him when, on Wiseman's death in 1865, Manning was made Archbishop of Westminster in his stead. Any possibility of Newman's being given responsible work to do now seemed at an end. Manning was to become a great Archbishop and a great Cardinal, but Newman and he seldom saw eye to eye. In fact he once called Newman "the most dangerous man in England." He did offer Newman a titular bishopric, but the latter declined it--"He wants to put me in the House of Lords and muzzle me."

Newman's thoughts were still running on death, so much so that he composed a beautiful dramatic poem, The Dream of Gerontius, on the death of a Christian and the judgment of his soul. Set to music by Elgar, it is now famous as an oratorio, and has proved one of the most enduring of Newman's works. Despite his expectation of death, however, he still had a quarter century more to live--time to engage in two major controversies, write a very important treatise on a subject on which he had been meditating for years, and finally receive the recognition which had so long been denied him.

Defending Catholicism

The first controversy was with an old friend, E. B. Pusey, one of his former colleagues in the Oxford Movement. Pusey's Eirenicon, a proposal for Christian unity, which began to appear in 1865, was largely an attack on Catholic extravagances in belief and devotion. In reply Newman wrote a pamphlet, his Letter to Pusey. Though he had found Pusey's tone unfair, his own was mild and conciliatory. He stressed that the doctrines held by Catholics were developments of early beliefs, and that the extravagances of which Pusey complained might be objected to by many Catholics as well as by Protestants. The reception of this work revealed the respect in which Newman was held by non-Catholics. In a long review of it in The Times, R. W. Church, later Dean of St. Paul's, praised Newman's candour, and his "English habit of not letting off the blunders and follies of his own side." He described Newman's own difficult position as evidence of blind Roman dogmatism and authoritarianism: all the official encouragement was given to extremists like Manning, none to him.

When he was prohibited from going to Oxford in 1867, Newman considered that his writings and opinions must have been misrepresented at the Vatican. His own bishop confirmed that they had: "I have no hesitation in saying it, as my complete conviction, that you have been shamefully misrepresented at Rome, and that by countrymen of our own." So he made an appeal to Rome, sending two emissaries to vindicate his orthodoxy and assert his loyalty. They found the climate of opinion in Italy far more favourable to him than that in England. After one major difficulty had been cleared up, concerning a passage in his writings which had been questioned but which he could easily defend, his reputation was completely cleared. Still, Propaganda was unalterably opposed to Catholics going to Oxford. His influence was renewed, but there was no way of him turning it to account.

Papal infallibility

Shortly after this, he again opposed the current of Catholic opinion, this time over the question of papal infallibility. To Newman, who knew so well how the earlier Councils of the Church had conducted their deliberations, the Vatican Council convoked in 1867 seemed much too hurried in its treatment of this question. Catholics were eager to show their support for Pope Pius IX, who had become a prisoner in the Vatican. But the Council seemed to be demanding that a dogma be formulated as a declaration of loyalty to a pontiff who reigned in difficult times. Newman thought that in the circumstances an extreme definition might be accepted--W. G. Ward had been saying in the Dublin Review, for example, that almost any utterance of the Pope might be regarded as infallible. When the definition did come, however, it proved to be much more moderate than Newman had expected, and he had no difficulty in accepting it and defending it. An occasion to defend it came when Gladstone, after his defeat in the election of 1874, began to attack the Vatican decrees of 1870 as showing that Catholics had surrendered their right to think for themselves. Newman replied with his Letter to Norfolk, published in 1875. Gladstone had quoted with great glee some provocative statements by Manning; Newman, asserting the reasonableness of the papal claims, again showed how a moderate reply could disarm criticism.

Faith and reason

The relationship between faith and reason had been examined by Newman in his Oxford University sermons; for years he had been thinking about a work on the subject, and it finally appeared in 1870 under the title A Grammar of Assent. "Its aim," it has been said, "is to justify the right of the man in the street to be certain of things he cannot prove scientifically or logically." Religious assent, Newman holds, has never been a deduction from what we know; it has always been an assertion of what we are to believe. Religious truth is not scientific demonstration but an accumulation of probabilities sufficient for certitude. Newman's description of the process by which the mind comes to give its assent to a proposition was described by a distinguished philosopher, Etienne Gilson as "an epoch-making contribution to the history of Christian thought." Concluding his introduction to a reissue of this work, Gilson said, "More than eighty years after its first publication, the Grammar of Assent has preserved intact it s power of suggestion, its actuality and its fecundity as a method of investigation whose potentialities are far from being exhausted."

Even before his reply to Gladstone, Newman had written, "What am I? My time is out. I am passe....I can do nothing now. It is the turn of others." He was content to follow the peaceful routine of the Oratory, which allowed him time for meditation and devotions, and for his extensive correspondence: if not otherwise, he could reach the hearts of men through personal letters. Yet he was still haunted by the sense of failure. In 1874 he had written, "I have so depressing a feeling that I have done nothing through my long life, and especially that now I am doing nothing at all." Reflecting that he was a superannuated defender of the faith, he concluded, "It is enough for me to prepare for death, for, as it would appear, nothing else awaits me--there is nothing else to do."

When Leo XIII succeeded Pius IX in 1878, however, the English Catholic community felt that it was a suitable time to seek some acknowledgement of Newman's services to the Church. The Duke of Norfolk suggested, and the Pope agreed, that Newman "should receive the highest mark of recognition which the Holy See could give him--the Cardinal's hat." When Newman heard of it, he said, "The cloud is lifted from me forever." Even here there were problems, since cardinal priests are ordinarily required to reside in Rome; his letter saying that this was impossible for him to do at his advanced age was interpreted by Cardinal Manning as a definite refusal of the honour.

Eventually, however, the misunderstanding was corrected, and in the spring of 1879 he journeyed to Rome. Old and weak he was, but at the ceremony when he was officially notified that His Holiness had deigned to raise him to the rank of Cardinal he was still able to deliver a magnificent speech reviewing his life-long battle against liberalism in religion. He accepted his distinction as a means of destroying the calumnies against him; England accepted it as a national honour. Expressions of respect came to him from all sides; they were clear evidence that, even if he had not been allowed to do the work he wanted, he had made an impression on many people, and had succeeded better than he had thought.

Life of prayer

The recollections of those who knew him during his last years emphasized that his was a life of prayer. One of the Oratorian Fathers wrote, "Each year, when Holy Week came round, he spent some hours in watching at the Sepulchre, as constantly in his last years as before; and the early morning of his last Good Friday on earth found him in the Chapel of Repose thus employed. He was then in his ninetieth year."

The death he had so long expected came to him finally on August 11, 1890. On the memorial tablet to him were inscribed words which he had himself chosen: "Ex Umbris et Imaginibus in Veritatem"--"Out of Shadows and Shades into Truth."

Cardinal Newman has an enduring place in English letters because of his Apologia, whose eloquent style has been called "the man himself, the spirit made audible." His contributions to educational theory, seemingly outdated by every new experiment, continue to impress us by their wisdom; we realize more and more that any university which is not going to be, as he put it, "a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill," but an Alma Mater, is going to follow some of the principles he laid down. His philosophic thought, apparently outdated and overshadowed by the Thomistic revival, has also come in for reconsideration; Father Martin D'Arcy, emphasizing the sound foundation of his thought in reality, went so far as to say that modern Catholic thought has advanced along lines he laid down. His personal approach to the search for truth bears resemblances to that of Pope John Paul II; in fact he had a major influence on the Second Vatican Council.

Special importance

His special importance, perhaps, is as a later-day Augustine, who recognized the major enemy to the Church in his time and fought it relentlessly. He knew that the battle was going to continue long after he was dead and gone: "One evening he was talking quietly about the progress of unbelief. He anticipated a time when the world at large would assume that Christianity had been disproved. Those who persisted in believing in it would neither be listened to nor reasoned with. What would be said to them amounted to this: "It has been disproved, we cannot disprove it again.'"

Late in life, he wrote, "From the time that I began to occupy my mind with theological subjects I have been troubled at the prospect, which I considered to lie before us, of an intellectual movement against religion so special as to have a claim upon the attention of all educated Christians." This concern did not drive him to doubt the truths of religion, but to test and perfect the proofs in its behalf. "Half the controversies that go on in the world," he said, "arise from ignorance of the facts of the case." His constant emphasis was on the necessity for Catholics, especially laymen, to join knowledge to faith; inquiring minds among them had to be given an adequate preparation for the intellectual battle.

While we praise him for his intellectual insight, we must not forget his spiritual strength. Difficult as the warfare against unbelief seemed to be, difficult as he found it to convince his ecclesiastical superiors that it should be fought in the way he recommended, he never lost hope in ultimate victory.

In truth the whole course of Christianity, from the first, when we come to examine it, is but one series of troubles and disorders. Every century is like every other, and to those who live in it seems worse than all times before it. The Church is ever ailing, and lingers on in weakness, "always bearing about in her body, the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in her body."

Religion seems ever expiring, schisms dominant, the light of Truth dim, its adherents scattered. The cause of Christ is ever in its last agony.... meanwhile, thus much of comfort do we gain from what has been hitherto--not to despond, not to be dismayed, not to be anxious, at the troubles which encompass us. They have ever been; they ever shall be; they are our portion. "The floods are risen, the floods have lifted up their voice, the floods lift up their waves. The waves of the seas are mighty, and rage horribly; but yet the Lord, who dwelleth on high, is mightier."

David Dooley is Professor Emeritus of St. Michael's College within the University of Toronto.

Picture research: The Congregation of the Oratory of S. Philip Neri, Toronto. Illustrations by Ronnie Napoleon Pereira.

P.S. The editor of the Chrisopher Dawson Centre for Christian Culture newsletter, Edward King of Ottawa, informs us that a new edition of The Spirit of the Oxford Movement is now available from St. Augustine's Press Inc., Chicago Distribution Center, 1103 South Langley Ave., Chicago, ILL., 60628, tel (800) 621-2736, Fax (800) 621-8471; and also from the Saint Austin Press, 296 Brockley Rd., London, England S4E 2RA. Dawson's volume is by far the most insightful commentary on the importance of the Oxford Movement.
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Author:Dooley, David
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2002
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