John Henry Newman. Photo from The Oxford Oratory.

Cor ad cor loquitur part II: Newman's Second Conversion

For the occasion of the canonisation of John Henry Newman on 13th October, we re-propose extracts from the Newman exhibition, which developed Pope Benedict XVI's reading of Newman's life as a threefold journey of conversion. A journey for us all.
Giuseppe Pezzini and Michela Young

Part 2: Faith as awareness of reality

“The second step in Newman’s lifelong journey of conversion was overcoming the subjective evangelical position. In this connection I find a formulation from one of his early sermons to be especially significant today: ‘True Christendom is shown... in obedience and not through a state of consciousness. Thus the whole duty and work of a Christian is made up of these two parts, Faith and Obedience; ‘looking unto Jesus’ (Heb. 2,9) and acting according to His will. I conceive that we are in danger, in this day, of insisting on neither of these as we ought...’”
(Cardinal Ratzinger)

Newman was sixteen when he started his studies at Trinity College, Oxford. The university’s thrilling academic atmosphere, climate of intellectual challenge and debate immediately fascinated him.

In his first years at Oxford, Newman’s faith struggled from his shyness, his ‘mistrust for material phenomena’, the subjectivism of his Evangelical background, and the liberal philosophy of the time. He initially isolated himself from people by closing himself within his personal relationship with God. He was at risk of developing a dualism i.e between the relation with God and the relation with reality.

Trinity College, Oxford. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Gradually, however, Newman became increasingly conscious that all his life was a dialogue between himself and his Creator within reality. The first way in which we see Newman’s faith acquiring a firmer grasp of reality is his trust in God within the circumstances of life. A significant moment is his preparation for his final examinations. He writes to his sister: “I will not therefore ask for success, but for ‘good’.”

Newman was developing a more mature faith- not just belief, or feeling, but trust in God’s love within circumstances. In fact, even eventually failing the examination became an occasion for Newman and his family to remind each other that every aspect of life is in God’s hands who, alone, knows what is best. Newman returned to Oxford and, despite his poor results, he stood for a fellowship at Oriel College; he was elected fellow on 12th February 1822.

The limits of Evangelicalism
Newman’s character began to emerge through time spent at Oriel, and through the friendships, discussions and arguments he participated in. He started to overcome the “real isolation of thought and spiritual solitariness, which was the result of his Calvinistic [Evangelical] beliefs”. (Mozley, Autobiographical memoirs)

As well as the intellectual challenge to his Evangelicalism, there was also a practical one. In 1824, Newman became a deacon and began his ministry at St Clement’s Parish in Oxford. He came to recognize there was something in evangelical doctrines which left him detached from the world. It seemed to him that Evangelicalism tended to reduce Christianity to subjective introspection and to make Christ unreal. The more Newman encountered the real lives of his parishioners - visiting them at their own homes, taking care of the sick and reawakening the faith of many - the more it seemed to him that evangelicalism simply did not work.

This was a crucial moment for Newman, who began to search for a faith that could not be reduced to subjectivity, capable of dealing with the full reality of human existence. While Evangelical preachers discussed doctrines such as the Atonement and Justification by Faith, Newman wanted to present Christ in his sermons not in an “unreal way – as a mere idea or vision”, but as “Scripture has set Him before us in His actual sojourn on earth ”. He changed his mind about some Evangelical theological doctrines and rediscovered the Church Fathers.

Newman lived his faith concretely as an active clergyman. He was aware of his pastoral mission from the moment he was ordained a deacon. Equally, he regarded his tutorial work at Oriel as not just an academic undertaking, but as a pastoral role. This view was not, however, shared by all. Newman’s attempt to shape this role was opposed by Oriel’s Provost, Edward Hawkins, who relieved Newman of his duties in June 1830. Newman now had more time to study the Early Church Fathers.

St. Clement's Parish, Oxford. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Rejection of Liberalism
As Newman realised the limits of Evangelicalism, he found himself beginning to drift towards an intellectual tendency to only believe and accept that which may be rationally understood. Whilst Evangelicalism disconnected faith from reality, Liberalism reduced faith to opinion:

“Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another. (...) Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.” (Biglietto Speech)

However, the sudden death of his younger sister disturbed Newman and rendered him unsatisfied with liberal approaches. He refused a religion in which each man attempts to judge for himself, and the Church’s creed is reduced to a subject of debate. He foresaw that a society which is tolerant of all faiths as mere matters of opinion would destroy Christian faith and society. Newman did not deny the need for evidence, even for believers, but he realised that reason is more than ‘proving’ and that faith requires a certain disposition of heart.

Newman’s study of the Church Fathers, slowly, but steadily, brought about a profound renewal in his mind. He discovered what he himself called the “Catholic”, by which he meant the universal dimension of the Church. He also discovered the importance of what he called “Apostolicity”, or the rootedness of the Church in an unbroken tradition going back to the time of the Apostles themselves. He considered, however, that the Church of England had lost this sense of “Catholicity” and “Apostolicity” and had become, instead, a merely national and essentially “Protestant” church.

Lead thou me on. One step enough for me!
Towards the end of 1832, Newman embarked on a Mediterranean cruise with his close friend H. Froude, visiting Greece, Malta, Naples, Rome and Sicily. It was the first time Newman had experienced the reality of Catholicism. He was particularly struck by Rome, the city of Martyrs and Apostles, and remained impressed by the piety of the people and the beauty of the churches. His feelings were, however, mingled with disgust for what he called the superstition of Catholics.

On the 25 March 1833 Newman attended Mass in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. Although he was scandalised by the level of attention shown to the Pope, which he considered to be idolatrous, his views on the Church of Rome were starting to change. He now began to draw a distinction between the Catholic Church – the one, true, Apostolic Church – and the errors which had crept into the Roman Church.

Newman was also struck by the parallel between the situation unravelling in England and the miserable state of the church in Italy. Newman thought that the church had “lost its hold on the common people”. He became increasingly troubled by events in England, where there were political and ecclesiastic changes and Parliament interfered ever more in the life of the Church. It was a critical and dramatic moment for Newman. On the one hand, during his visit to Rome, he saw something great and real that attracted him; on the other, he was critical of many aspects of the Roman Church and he was concerned about his own nation and Church.

When Froude returned home, Newman decided to visit Sicily again, alone. Newman fell back into the ‘spiritual solitariness’ of his youth and, travelled across Sicily in search of picturesque landscapes and the beauty of nature. In Sicily, however, Newman fell seriously ill with fever and he nearly died. In his delirium, he was struck by two recurring thoughts:

“I shall not die, for I have not sinned against the light” (Apologia)

“I was sure that God had some work for me to do in England” (Autobiographical Writings)

Following his recovery, Newman returned home, now fully aware that God was leading him to undertake a great task. Newman referred to his trip to Sicily as a turning point in his life. In Sicily, the journey of his ‘second conversion’ was over: through his direct engagement with reality - the conversations at Oriel college; his ministry as pastor and tutor; his readings of the fathers of the church; his ‘third great’ illness - God had made Newman understand that he was called to live his relationship with God within reality. From now on, Newman would involve himself completely in this task.

Whilst sailing back to England, Newman wrote the famous hymn Lead Kindly Light:

“Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home – Lead Thou me on!”

Newman had now learnt to trust God fully in the circumstances of reality.

The Oxford Movement and the Via Media
Together with some friends, Newman founded the Oxford Movement as a response to the Liberalism and Evangelicalism of the time. The understanding of Christianity that Newman had gained through his second conversion had practical repercussions. Newman felt that the Church of England had become complacent and secularised by Liberalism, and that much of the truth it had inherited from the Apostles “had either been forgotten, or looked down upon”. Moreover, the State, ever more hostile towards the Church, was starting to treat it like a government entity. The Liberal Government of the day was attempting to change practices in the Established Church and had reorganised the dioceses of Ireland.

Together with Keble, Froude and other friends and colleagues, Newman decided to act, and started publishing a series of essays called ‘Tracts for the Times’. During the following 8 years, 90 tracts were published and spread throughout the country in order to confront Liberalism and rediscover the Catholic origins of the Church of England, including reintroducing catholic practices such as the centrality of the Eucharist:

“we were up-holding that primitive Christianity which was delivered for all time by the early teachers of the Church […] That ancient religion had well-nigh faded away out of the land, through the political changes of the last 150 years, and it must be restored. It would be in fact a second Reformation:— a better reformation”. (Apologia)

The Oxford Movement was animated by a true love for the Church and by the living bonds of affection between Newman and his friends. Newman rediscovered the Catholic theological and liturgical tradition and vigorously proposed the Via Media, an intermediate path between the errors of Protestantism and those of Rome. The Via Media comprised three fundamental beliefs:

1 Dogma: faith is knowledge of something real, objective.

2 Church sacraments: the relation with God happens within the real life of the Church, in the sacraments and in the rites of the Church.

3 Anti-popery: the Roman Church had been corrupted, but the Anglican Church was one of the “branches” that had grown out of the original undivided Church.

The great adversary of the Oxford Movement was rationalism. In his attack against rationalism, Newman associated the Oxford Movement with “a growing tendency towards the character of mind and feeling of which Catholic doctrines are the just expression” (Tract 73), which we would now call Romanticism. Writers such as Scott and Coleridge were responding to a “general need of something deeper and more attractive” than the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Newman saw that a “sense of the beautiful” was “cherished and elicited by the Catholic doctrines” and that they corresponded to a “moral need” which people experience.

The Tracts sold in large numbers, and their teachings became widespread. Churches were crowded with people who wanted to hear the Tractarian doctrines, and even media supported them. As Newman put it: “the Anglo-Catholic party suddenly became a power in the National Church, and an object of alarm to her rulers and friends”.

In the spring of 1839, Newman’s position in the Anglican Church was at its height. He had supreme confidence in the validity of the Via Media and he remained in the Anglican Church with pride. He remained in Oxford, convinced of the truth of Catholicism but also scandalised by the corruption of the Roman Church. In April 1839, he published a bold article in which he challenged ‘Popery’ directly:

“The current of the age cannot be stopped, but it may be directed; and it is better that it should find its way into the Anglican port, than that it should be propelled into Popery, or drifted upon unbelief.” (Essays Critical and Historical)

He later recalled that this article was to contain the last words which he ever spoke as an Anglican and, in retrospect, it could be interpreted as a valediction addressed to his friends.