John Henry Newman. Wikimedia Commons

Newman: The Journey of a Complete Man

Theologian, poet, philosopher, vicar of the University Church, Oxford, then a convert to Catholicism, he always defended (true) reason. As he taught, you don’t need to see America to know it’s there. A profile of the Cardinal beatified by Benedict XVI.
Tommaso Ricci

It is truly wonderful that, at the beginning of its third millennium, the Church should beatify a man who, almost 150 years ago, promoted the sanity of the whole of mankind, teaching that one doesn’t “necessarily have to go to America and touch land to say that America exists. It is reasonable to believe in its existence.” There is a good dose of humor in the fact that a halo should be given to a man who, in a time brimming with fanatical rationalists, explained that “it would be unreasonable for me not to switch on the light even though I don’t know how electricity works.” He helped to keep awake that trust in the good of the intellect which the following century, the twentieth, was to lose dramatically. That man, priest, theologian, philosopher, novelist, and poet was John Henry Newman.

“We have lost our greatest witness for the faith… The history of our land will hereafter record the name of John Henry Newman amongst the greatest of our people.” Thus began and ended the moving sermon that the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, preached on August 20, 1890, at Brompton Oratory in London (Westminster Cathedral was still being built). But you had to be present and be English to grasp all the echoes, the nuances, and the references, what was said and not said, in that homage to the deceased. In those words dedicated by one Cardinal Henry to another Cardinal Henry, both converts from Anglicanism, was concentrated a crucial chapter of the history of the Catholic Church and an incomparable human adventure.

The Saint of the Times
“Whether Rome canonizes him or not,” wrote The Times the day following Cardinal Newman’s death, “he will be canonized in the thoughts of pious people of many creeds in England.” Such an affirmation seemed astounding in a nation in which, four centuries earlier, another Henry (King Henry VIII) had brought about a devastating schism, which was to transform “Merry Old England” into a bastion of anti-Catholic prejudice. From the time of Elizabeth I, English Catholics had been despised and persecuted like “children of a lesser god.” How had Newman managed to swim against the current and earn the intellectual respect of the British, the first step in a slow, gradual re-conquest of Catholic rights in Britain? (Even now this conquest is incomplete–Tony Blair had first to resign as Prime Minister before converting to the ancient faith.)
The answer lies in the adamantine courage and the crystal clarity of Newman’s spiritually turbulent life. In a Europe in which the only cultural choice permitted was between materialistic-scientistic faith and idealist-immanentist mysticism, in which the existence of Christian faith was tolerated as something residual and irrelevant, and a religious liberalism at the mercy of political power, the young John Henry Newman had been indelibly marked by the evidence of two realities: “Me and my Lord.” With this joyful certainty of the constitutive relationship between the “I” and God, between man and his Creator, he took up the long journey of his existence that was to last 89 years. A diligent and passionate scholar, Newman addressed first of all the piteous spiritual state of the Anglican Church to which he belonged, founded by a sovereign who was a slave to his passions and greedy for the Church’s wealth.

Among Friends
Sustaining that the Church’s dogmatic heritage could not be renounced, and opposing the subjectivist dilution of the mysteries of the faith, Newman took on a true cultural battle in defense of the Apostolic Tradition. For him, the question of the uninterrupted continuity of Christianity from the origins to the present day was crucial. The Apostolic succession and the hierarchical structure were objective guaranteeing factors, to be protected from the anarchic-spiritualist “evangelical” trends, whose fervor he did, however, appreciate. The doctrinal laxity of the Church of England disturbed him, as well as its subordination to the Crown, practically an instrumentum regni of the monarch and Parliament, which, in his view, degraded members of the Anglican clergy from men of God to mere court dignitaries, thus betraying the divine dimension of ecclesial reality.

Newman had, early on, matured his vocation to the Anglican priesthood and to celibacy (the latter a choice already rather outmoded in the widespread liberalizing climate) and had soon made an academic career for himself at Oxford, the cultural center of Anglicanism. Thanks to his historical and theological expertise, his gentle nature, and his rhetorical talent, his sermons always attracted full congregations of his colleagues and students. Many of those attending would later convert to Catholicism, like Henry Manning, quoted above, who, as a zealous Anglican, was recruited to confute Newman who had in the meantime become a Catholic, but Manning ended up being converted himself.

Newman found himself the pivot of the so-called “Oxford Movement,” a group of friends (Pusey, Froude, Keble, and Palmer), all fervent Anglicans worried about the liberal drift in their beloved Church, and all intent on reinforcing the “catholicising” doctrinal elements of Anglicanism.

For Newman in particular this spiritual restoration/renewal was to confer on the Church of England the status of “Via Media” of Christianity, that is, a point of balance between the unbridled centrifugal forces of Protestantism and backward Roman Catholic centrism. But his acumen and intellectual honesty led him onto a different road.

Bitter Discovery
Researching Christian history in the first centuries, when the Church was undivided, and particularly on the Arian crisis, Newman noted the similarity between the Arianism of the 4th century and the religious liberalism of the 19th. With increasing disquiet, he realized that the Fathers (Athanasius, Cyril, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, and Augustine) in their battles with heresies had never proposed solutions “midway” between opposing theological factions, but had defended the reasons of orthodoxy with unbending energy. His bitter discovery was that those giants of the faith would stand with Rome, not with Canterbury. “The Fathers made a Catholic of me,” he would write years later. With that, his laborious, generous, and noble attempt to reconcile the Anglican faith with the pure Petrine Doctrine was shipwrecked. Now, at the age of 44, he had to cross over, leave his academic and pastoral work, abandon his old friends–whom he never stopped admiring (since, for Newman, friendship was something sacred)–and embrace a new family, the Catholic Church. On October 9, 1845, Newman received Baptism from Fr. Dominic Barberi, a priest of the Passionist Congregation founded by St. Paul of the Cross, who had so prayed for and dreamed of the conversion of England. Many young, brilliant people of his circle at Oxford were to follow him in this dramatic step. All of a sudden, Catholicism had regained its appeal in English intellectual circles.

Reaching Rome, however, did not mean peace and serenity for Newman. Anglican extremists accused him of disloyalty and insincerity. And for many years, there was suspicion in the Roman Curia over the “reliability” of his conversion. In answer to the former accusations, Newman, who in the meantime had chosen to become an Oratorian in honor of St. Philip Neri, published, in 1864, his Apologia pro Vita Sua, a wonderful autobiography that recounted his spiritual journey, a kind of modern version of St. Augustine’s Confessions. For the Roman question, it was to take more time–many English converts had taken up rigid positions, then labelled as “ultramontane,” and to them, though respected by all, Newman appeared “too” intellectual, too easy-going, as if still affected by the old Anglican liberalism. Those were very turbulent years for the Catholic faith. Thorough reasoning was often mistaken for untimely academicism, if not surrender. The papacy was being subjected to virulent attacks, and the first Vatican Council had proclaimed Papal Infallibility, which Newman (unlike Manning) did not think opportune, but then defended boldly, giving his own interpretation with the famous, and often misunderstood, toast, first to conscience and then to the Pope. Newman suffered in the silence of the Birmingham Oratory, faithfully, despite all the misunderstandings (“a thousand difficulties do not make a doubt,” he wrote), which were eventually solved triumphantly with his creation as Cardinal by Pope Leo XIII. In his acceptance address, he said, “For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion. Never did Holy Church need champions against it more sorely than now, when, alas! it is an error overspreading, as a snare, the whole earth.”

The beatification, desired by Pope Benedict XVI and celebrated by him, is the confirmation of Newman’s prophetic judgment.