John Henry Newman

Cor ad cor loquitur part III: Newman's third 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 3: A living reality in this world

"His third conversion, to Roman Catholicism, required him to give up almost everything that was dear and precious to him ... The sacrifice demanded of him by obedience to the truth, by his conscience, went further still. ... The drama of Newman’s life invites us to examine our own, to see them against the vast horizon of God’s plan, and to grow in communion with the Church of every time and place... the Church which Newman loved and to whose mission he devoted his entire life."
(Benedict XVI)

Securus Iudicat Orbis Terrarum
In September 1839, Newman was introduced to the words of St. Augustine, Securus iudicat orbis terrarum: the universal church judges with certainty. This dealt the most decisive blow to Newman’s confidence. He was struck profoundly by the certainty with which the Catholic Church, from the beginning of her history, was able to take radical positions. He understood that the Church’s certainty did not rely on her tradition, doctrine or the piety of her members, but on the conviction of being the real, present, living body of Christ.

This was a moment of illumination for Newman perceived a series of clear consequences from this initial intuition. Just as even the finest bunch of grapes is doomed to wither and rot if severed from the vine, the idea of different independent churches became “unreal”. However, for Newman, to join the Roman Church would mean to give up everything. His ‘anti-popery’ also retained a powerful grip on his mind, and once the moment of exaltation passed, Newman returned to his previous convictions. In the following years, Newman persevered to demonstrate that the Anglican Church was a “branch” of the Catholic Church. But a decisive tremor had struck the core of his convictions, and a seed had been planted.

The need for reality
In 1841, Newman’s leadership of the Oxford movement came to an abrupt end with the publication of Tract 90. Although Newman maintained distance from “Roman” doctrines, basing his work on historical Anglican teachings, the tract was accused of leading Anglicans towards the Roman Catholic Church. He vehemently denied this,but was condemned by the bishops. He was required to end the series of Tracts and the event marked the end of his leadership of the Oxford Movement.

Tract 90 was the first public manifestation of a process which had begun two years earlier in Newman’s life and which related to his need for ‘reality’. The opposition between reality and ‘unreality’ is a constant theme in Newman’s thought and life: reality equates with truth; unreality corresponds to falsehood. For Newman, faith was not indeed an abstract theological discourse but always an “intelligence of reality”. From the summer of 1839, Newman began to question whether or not the Anglican Church had a reality in itself or was just a human construction.

Newman would later recall three “blows” which led him to understand that his idea of the Anglican Church - as the true defender of Catholicism and with a “life” of its own - did not correspond to reality:

1 In 1841, Newman studied the Council of Calcedon, drawing direct parallels with the Reformation. Then there were the heretics, semi-heretics, and Pope Leo; now there were the Protestants, the Church of England, and Rome.

2 The second blow was the Anglican bishops’ repeated condemnation of Tract 90 which, in his mind, completely discredited the Anglican Church’s link to the Church of Antiquity.

3 The third was an agreement between the British and Prussian Government, according to which the post of the Bishop to Jerusalem was to alternate between an Anglican, a Lutheran and a Calvinist - an overt denial of the Catholic nature of the Church of England.

Newman found that even his most convincing arguments in defence of the Anglican Church were starting to look “only ingenious”. He was realising that the Via Media was not the answer and that the truth lay with the Pope.

Newman left Oxford in 1842 to move to Littlemore, a nearby village, where he lived an almost monastic life with some friends. He wanted to escape the controversy which surrounded the Oxford Movement, and was interested in establishing some kind of religious community. He was concerned that younger members of the Oxford Movement were being drawn towards Rome by the Anglican Church’s lack of communal religious life.

Church of St. Mary and St. Nicholas, founded by Newman in Littlemore. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The Church as a living body
Newman was still troubled by two serious difficulties surrounding the possibility of joining the Roman Catholic Church, that is its apparent corruption and superstition, and in particular the presence of practices which were not in the gospel, such as the veneration of the saints and Mary.

He grappled with these objections in his Essay on the development of Christian Doctrine, which would become his most important contribution to Catholic Theology. In this work, Newman addresses the following question: Is the Church what she truly claims to be; not a system of formulas but a “real living body”, tracing its origin back to Christ and fruitfully developing throughout the centuries?

For Newman, a living idea was one capable of influencing people and events, expanding into new ideas or absorbing elements of others – a process which he called development. Newman also realised, however, that any developing, living idea must not lose its fundamental type, and original principles. An idea which loses this “oneness” with its beginning, decays and breaks up. Newman realised that the Roman Church was a living body because he perceived this “oneness” with its principles and beginnings. He perceived the flowering of what had been promised from the beginning, lived out in every century and he saw its widespread influence in the hearts of individuals of every nation.

The idea of the Church as the “living body of Christ” helped Newman resolve his second objection, corruption. Newman now saw corruption as inseparable from a living communion of persons; the Church is comprised of humans, and, therefore, is not perfect.

Irresistible Holiness
As Newman grew to understand the Catholic Church better, sanctity became the clearest proof of Her authenticity, and the creed of the saints became the most efficient sign of the ‘oneness’ of the Church.

At Littlemore, Newman read the lives of the Church Fathers, the English Catholic saints and the great figures of the Counter-Reformation. In all these sources, from different ages, Newman perceived this same "oneness". This helped him overcome his original prejudice that the Catholic Church had been the Antichrist. Among the saints of the contemporary Catholic Church, a key personality was an Italian Passionist priest, Fr. Dominic Barberi, who had come to England following a divine call.

Coming into port after a rough sea
In 1845, Newman could no longer “shut his eyes” to the fact that the Roman Catholic Church was the true and only Church of Christ. It had always been the same Church and body, with the same ethos since the beginning, but it was also a living body and not a sterile doctrinal system. It was not simply a matter of reasoning, Newman’s entire person had been moved:

“All the logic in the world would not have made me move faster towards Rome than I.” (Apologia)

Newman was now certain that God willed his conversion and now Newman had to trust in Him. God has never deserted him since his first conversion, but had led him, step by step. Newman knew that he had to act, despite the consequences.

On the 7th October 1845, Newman wrote to a friend, informing him of his decision to ask Fr. Dominic Barberi to receive him into the Catholic Church. On the evening of the 8th October, Newman knelt before Fr. Barberi and asked him to hear his general confession, prior to receiving him into the Catholic Church.

A living reality in this world
Newman’s initial years as a Catholic were not easy; his conversion provoked a shock inside the Anglican Church and most of his friends and relatives deserted him. Newman was sent to Rome to become a Catholic priest where he met the fathers of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri. He decided to join them and subsequently founded the first community in England, in Birmingham. The Oratory was made up of small and fraternal communities and offered the possibility of combining intellectual and pastoral work. Newman accepted the difficulties of the first years, confident in the One who had led him from the “shadows of religion” to the “truth”.

Birmingham Oratory. Via Wikimedia Commons.

What Newman had long desired, and tried to create through his efforts, was now in front of him, as an objective fact, as something new in reality. The objective fact was tangible first through sanctity, but also through the Sacraments and Communion. Newman was struck deeply by the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament as a clear sign of the objectivity of the Presence of Christ, which creates the Unity of the Church. His surprise recurs in his writings after his conversion:

“A cloud of incense was rising on high; the people suddenly all bowed low; what could it mean? the truth flashed on him, fearfully yet sweetly; it was the Blessed Sacrament—it was the Lord Incarnate who was on the altar, who had come to visit and to bless His people. It was the Great Presence, which makes a Catholic Church different from every other place in the world; which makes it, as no other place can be, holy.” (Loss & Gain)

Moreover, friendship had always been a fundamental part of Newman’s life; all the steps of his inner struggle before his conversion were shared with his intimates and friendship had been the basis of the Oxford Movement. In the Catholic Church, however, Newman found something more than friendship:

“This then is the special glory of the Christian Church, that its members do not depend merely on what is visible […] but they are, one and all [...] “living stones” internally connected, as branches from a tree, not as the parts of a heap. They are members of the body of Christ.” (Parochial and Plain Sermons)

For the Catholic Newman, the best weapon to face the challenges of the age became communion with the church. Newman experienced this communion of souls with people like Fr. Dominic Barberi, or his fellow Oratorians at Birmingham.

Heart speaks unto heart
The following years were marked by further tensions. Newman’s positive attitude towards the laity was deeply opposed by the hierarchy and Newman was denounced to Rome as heretical. Nevertheless, Newman always lived in obedience to his bishops because of his certainty about the nature of the Church. Many Anglicans advocated his return to the Church of England, but Newman re-affirmed his deep certainty:

“I am as certain that the Church in communion with Rome is the successor and representative of the Primitive Church, as certain that the Anglican Church is not, as certain that the Anglican Church is a mere collection of men, a mere National body, a human society, as I am that Victoria is Queen of Great Britain”. (Letter, 23 Aug. 1870)

The last years of Newman’s life were spent peacefully at the Birmingham Oratory, where he assiduously came to the aid of hundreds of poor families and continued to correspond with a host of friends. At the end of his life, his trust in God produced many fruits. The first was in 1864, with the publication of Newman’s religious autobiography, Apologia pro Vita Sua. This described his search for truth and rehabilitated him in the eyes of Anglican and Catholic opinion. Many prejudices against Newman fell away, and in 1878 his old college, Trinity, made him an honorary fellow.

At the age of 78, Newman received an official recognition of the highest level. On 12th May 1878, he received the biglietto of the Vatican Secretary of State, informing him that Pope Leo XIII had elevated him to the College of Cardinals. As cardinal, he chose the motto Cor ad Cor loquitur, “heart speaks unto heart”. The speech he gave in response has become known as the Biglietto Speech.

In conclusion, one can quote a short passage from this speech. This sums up well the leitmotif of Newman’s journey of conversion, and can also be of great to Christians of the 21st century:

“Christianity has been too often in what seemed deadly peril, that we should fear for it any new trial now. On the other hand what is commonly a great surprise, when it is witnessed, is the particular mode by which, in the event, Providence rescues and saves His elect inheritance. Commonly the Church has nothing more to do than to go on in her own proper duties, in confidence and peace; to stand still and to see the salvation of God.”