On Sept. 19, during his visit to England, Pope Benedict XVI will beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman. If he is one day declared a saint, John Henry Newman will be the first Englishman since the 1700s to be so recognized by the Catholic Church.
Who is Cardinal Newman, and why is his beatification so important for the people of England? Why is his beatification being met with skepticism on the one hand and glorious rejoicing on the other? Why is he still a polarizing figure between different factions in the Catholic Church, and why does the present pope have a soft spot for this most English of holy men?
The young Newman
John Henry Newman was born Feb. 21, 1801, and lived through almost the entire 19th century, dying Aug. 11, 1890. Brought up in a nominally Anglican family, he experienced a religious conversion when he was 15. Anglicans range in their views from “low church,” which is very Calvinist and Protestant, to “high church,” which is Catholic in its beliefs and behaviors. As a keen, newly converted schoolboy, the young Newman was very much part of the low church wing.
Marked out as a brilliant student, he went to Oxford University and soon emerged as one of the brightest minds of his generation. Like many men who graduated from Oxford, Newman was soon ordained into the Anglican ministry and began a career as a priest and academic. He took his place among the elite at Oxford, being elected to the faculty of the prestigious Oriel College, and eventually becoming vicar of the University Church — a high-ranking and influential position. Along with his friends E.B. Pusey and John Keble he began a movement in Oxford that moved many Anglicans closer to a Catholic understanding of the faith.
He traveled to Southern Europe, including Italy, in 1832 and nearly lost his life to typhoid fever. The experience brought him even closer to an understanding of the Catholic faith. Throughout the 1830s, Newman turned his sharp mind to the exploration of the early Church Fathers, and he wrote a series of controversial tracts and preached a series of sermons, which were published, that defended the early beliefs of the Catholic Church and tried to reconcile them with Anglicanism. The Oxford Movement scandalized 19th-century Anglican society — which was predominantly Protestant and very anti-Catholic.
By 1842, he was beginning to realize that his path was toward the Roman Catholic faith. He resigned as vicar of the University Church and went to live in the poor village of Littlemore, where he established a semimonastic community with like-minded high church friends. He lived there in isolation. That he left the gilded halls of Oxford University to live in a converted cowshed in a low-class part of town was considered radically dangerous and bizarre by the English, Anglican establishment. He was pilloried in the press and hounded by negative publicity. Finally, in October 1845 Newman was received into full communion with the Catholic Church.
Newman’s life as a Catholic was to be tumultuous. Vilified as a traitor and turncoat by the Anglican establishment, he was also distrusted by his fellow Catholics. Most Catholics in England at the time were from Irish working-class immigrant stock, and they didn’t know what to do with the high-flying intellectual convert from Oxford.
After his conversion, Newman traveled to Rome where he was ordained as a Catholic priest, and on his return to England he joined the religious order of the Oratorians. Established in Birmingham, he turned his attention to his studies and, apart from four years in Ireland, led a secluded life of prayer, study and writing.
In 1864, the writer Charles Kingsley slandered Catholic priests and hinted that then-Father Newman allowed Catholic priests to be liars. The controversialist in Newman couldn’t resist a comeback, and he published a series of pamphlets outlining his reasons for conversion to the Catholic faith. Written in a heartfelt and popular style, the pamphlets won many over to Newman as a man, and when they were eventually published in book form, his “ Apologia Pro Vita Sua ” became a conversion story classic that holds its own with St. Augustine’s “Confessions.”
Despite early life-threatening illnesses, Newman lived a long life. In the 1870s he published his “Grammar of Assent” — a closely reasoned account for belief in the Christian religion. At last, after decades in isolation — being suspected as a liberal by Catholics and a traitor by Anglicans — his brilliance was recognized by both. In 1878 he was elected a fellow of his old Oxford College, and in 1879 he was made a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII. He lived on for another 11 years. His health declined, and he finally died of pneumonia in 1890. He was buried in a simple wooden coffin in Rednal, near Birmingham, and when his grave was uncovered for purposes of his beatification there was nothing to be found — his remains being totally decayed.
Even during his lifetime, Cardinal Newman was suspected of being both a dangerous liberal and a radical reactionary. He believed that there was no completely watertight argument for the existence of God and that unless a person had the gift of an inner conviction they would not necessarily be led to belief in God by reason alone. In his “Tract 85,” Cardinal Newman draws the obvious conclusion that this “inner light” cannot lead one to doctrinal certainty without the existence of a sure and certain teaching authority in the Church.
For believing that there was no certain proof for the existence of God, and that an inner conviction was necessary, Cardinal Newman was suspect by those who desired a more hard-line, authoritarian certainty of faith. At the same time his realization that a sure and certain Church teaching authority was necessary alienated him from the liberals who would have made all belief totally subjective and reliant on the “inner light.” This is the essential conflict within Cardinal Newman’s thought, and one of the reasons why he is so much a theologian for our modern age.
The clash between subjective, personal opinion and a firm teaching authority is the primary clash in our culture. Cardinal Newman addresses this philosophical and cultural clash by showing brilliantly that personal experience and conviction is necessary, but also that it must be balanced, illuminated and informed by a solid, external and objective teaching authority. The authority on its own does not convince, but the subjective conviction on its own is ephemeral, insubstantial and unreliable. Newman’s progressive thought in this area is the main reason for Pope Benedict’s special affection for Newman (see sidebar below).
One of the reasons Cardinal Newman is beloved of liberals is that he seems to have been hesitant about the dogma of papal infallibility. He was involved with the events of the First Vatican Council, where the dogma was decided. He was opposed to the dogma at first and took sides against the ultramontane position, which was pushing in an aggressive way for a very exalted, far-reaching and watertight definition of papal infallibility. Liberal Catholics have therefore often seen Newman as one of their own. Ultraconservative Catholics, on the other hand, have treated him with suspicion.
However, neither have read Newman closely enough. Very early in his career he argued strongly for the need of an infallible teaching authority. What Newman objected to was not papal infallibility. Indeed, he said later that he had always believed in the doctrine, but that he objected to the extreme definitions being propounded and worried that it would deter people from converting to the Catholic faith. In fact, Newman was neither “liberal” nor “conservative.” He was simply Catholic and wished to hold to the simplicity and profundity of the fullness of the faith. He acknowledged the difficulties, but insisted on a rational and balanced approach.
Newman the saint?
Those were his accomplishments, but what was Cardinal Newman like as a man? He was essentially a shy and spiritually sensitive intellectual. A man of vast intellect, wide reading and gifted with a razor-sharp mind, he had a magnetic personality. He was deeply loyal to his friends, and untiring in his service to others. He disliked conflict and only found himself in the midst of theological, political and cultural upheaval through his unceasing defense of the truth. That he was accused, even in his own lifetime, of being both a dangerous liberal and a nonthinking reactionary not only caused him great pain, but also revealed how little he was understood.
A saint, however, is not a saint because of his intellectual accomplishments. Should he be declared a saint, Cardinal John Henry Newman will undoubtedly be up there with Sts. Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Bonaventure, Edith Stein and Thomas More as one of the intellectual heavyweights. The galaxy of saints, however, also contain stars who are not so bright intellectually. Sts. John Vianney, Joseph Cupertino, Thérèse of Lisieux and many others were not famous for their intellectual prowess or stellar academic accomplishment. If John Henry Newman is a saint, then there is something else about him that we need to consider.
A saint is not simply a person who floats about on clouds of holiness. They are not plaster people with shiny haloes. Instead a saint is someone who has, by God’s grace, become all that they were created to be. St. Thérèse of Lisieux is a saint not because she was a great theologian or because she was a great missionary or a great martyr. She was a saint because she had become all that the little French girl, Thérè se Martin, was created to be. Each saint is therefore a totally unique image of Christ in the world.
Therefore, if Newman is to be a saint we must not compare him to other saints, but we must ask whether, by God’s grace, John Henry Newman had become all that John Henry Newman was created to be. When we look at his life we see that he was gifted with a brilliant mind, a tender heart, a beautiful soul and a love for God. Each one of those characteristics was fulfilled in his life. It is arguable, therefore, that John Henry Newman used his vast intellectual gifts fully to the glory of God. His tender heart of love for his friends was broken and therefore opened in love for them and for their salvation. His love for God was fulfilled in a lifetime of prayer, service and the daily sacrifice of the priest.
Father Dwight Longenecker is a former Anglican priest who is now parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in Greenville, S.C. He is author of several books on apologetics, including “More Christianity.” His website is www.dwightlongenecker.com.
Cardinal Newman Time Line (sidebar)
1801: Born Feb. 21 in London, the eldest of six children
1816: Conversion experience
1821: Graduates Oxford University
1825: Ordained Anglican priest May 29 in Oxford
1833: Oxford Movement begins
1840: Publishes “Tract 90” arguing that Church of England is “Catholic”
1842: Resigns from Oxford University and moves to Littlemore
1845: Received into Catholic Church on Oct. 9 at Littlemore by Blessed Dominic Barberi
1847: Ordained Catholic priest June 1 in Rome
1848: Founds first English Oratory at Maryvale, near Birmingham, moving it to a permanent location three years later
1864: Writes “ Apologia Pro Vita Sua”
1869: First Vatican Council
1870: Publishes “Grammar of Assent”
1879: Made cardinal and chooses the motto cor ad cor loquitur (“heart speaks to heart”)
1886: Health declines
1890: Death by pneumonia on Aug. 11 in Birmingham
1991: Declared venerable by Pope John Paul II
Cardinal Newman Quotes (sidebar)
“Catholicism is a matter. It cannot be taken in a teacup.”
“From the age of 15, dogma has been the fundamental principle of my religion: I know no other religion; I cannot enter into the idea of any other sort of religion; religion, as a mere sentiment, is to me a dream and a mockery.”
“Growth is the only evidence of life.”
“If we insist on being as sure as is conceivable ... we must be content to creep along the ground, and never soar.”
“Calculation never made a hero.”
“Evil has no substance of its own, but is only the defect, excess, perversion, or corruption of that which has substance.”
“One thing I am sure of, that the more the enemy rages against us, so much the more will the Saints in Heaven plead for us; the more fearful are our trials from the world, the more present to us will be our Mother Mary, and our good Patrons, and Angel Guardians.”
Papal visit (sidebar)
The beatification Mass for Cardinal John Henry Newman will be just one of the many important events on Pope Benedict XVI’s itinerary during his visit to England and Scotland. Here are some other highlights:
- State welcome and audience with Queen Elizabeth II, at Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, Scotland, followed by state reception
- Private lunch with Cardinal Keith O’Brien of St. Andrews and Edinburgh
- Celebration of Mass at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow
- Arrival at London Heathrow Airport
- Private Celebration of Mass in the Chapel of the Apostolic Nunciature
- Celebration of Catholic Education, St. Mary’s University College, Twickenham
- Gathering with schoolchildren and students, including the inauguration of the John Paul II Institute for Sport
- Meeting with religious leaders and people of faith, Waldegrave Drawing Room, St. Mary’s University College
- Fraternal visit to Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, Lambeth Palace
- Address to Civil Society, Westminster Hall, Palace of Westminster
- Celebration of Evening Prayer with Archbishop Williams at Westminster Abbey
- Courtesy calls from Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Leader of the Opposition Harriet Harman
- Mass in the Cathedral of the Most Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Westminster
- Prayer Vigil on the Eve of the Beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, Hyde Park
- Celebration of Mass with the Beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, Cofton Park, Birmingham
- Private visit to the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, Edgbaston, Birmingham
- Meeting with the Bishops of England, Scotland and Wales, Seminary Chapel, Oscott College
- Departure for Rome
Cardinal has major influence on Anglicans looking toward Rome (sidebar)
Cardinal Newman’s influence in the modern world has been far greater than many think. His writings have contributed to the conversion of great numbers of Anglicans to the Catholic Church. Over the last 20 years alone, well more than 1,000 Anglican priests and many more laypeople have quietly followed John Henry Newman across the Tiber and “come home to Rome.” In many cases Newman’s writings and life have been either directly influential, or convincing, because they have been disseminated through the teaching of priests who have read him and shared his thought with others.
This is the final importance of Pope Benedict XVI’s beatification of Newman: It coincides with historic events within the Church of England at this time. The Church of England is in meltdown. Newman himself predicted that one day liberalism would so work its way into the Church of England that it would no longer be a valid witness to the Christian tradition. As the Church of England prepares to ordain women as bishops, and as they continue down the path toward homosexual marriage and total subjectivism, there are many who are looking again at the claims of the Catholic Church.
At the same time, Pope Benedict has launched his historic proposal for an Anglican ordinariate. This structure will allow Anglicans who wish to be in full communion with the Holy See to retain important parts of their Anglican patrimony while being in communion with the Roman pontiff. This structure, which Newman could never have foreseen, has been made possible by the courageous step that Newman himself took in 1845 when he was received into the Catholic Church.
Pope Benedict has set in place a new structure for Anglicans to convert to Rome in large groups. He has decided to beatify the greatest of all Anglican converts to Catholicism. As an Anglican convert priest myself, I believe the stage is set for historic events to take place in England. Large numbers of true believers will continue their journey to full communion with the Catholic faith, and they will be aided by the prayers of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman.
Two Great Theological Figures (sidebar)
As a theologian in the modern age, Pope Benedict XVI has taken up the sword of Cardinal John Henry Newman in the battle against the “dictatorship of relativism.” The same clash of minds and hearts that epitomizes Newman’s thought has inspired and motivated Pope Benedict XVI. He, too, calls out for the authentic commitment of the heart that must be balanced and informed by the authentic apostolic teaching authority of the Church.
That a theologian of the magnitude of Pope Benedict has the opportunity to beatify Cardinal Newman the theologian is a great historical joy. In fact, it is telling that this is the first beatification ceremony over which Pope Benedict will have presided. The Sept. 19 Mass will bring together two great minds and two great theological figures in the Church.
Like Cardinal Newman, Pope Benedict also understands being misunderstood. Pope Benedict is essentially a shy and reserved intellectual. He too has been blamed for being a hard-nosed conservative, while in fact he is far more open and truly “liberal” than some conservatives might like.
In a 1990 presentation by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on the occasion of the centenary of Cardinal Newman’s death, the now pontiff clearly expressed his admiration for the 19th-century thinker:
“Newman’s teaching on the development of doctrine ... I regard along with his doctrine on conscience as his decisive contribution to the renewal of theology.”
“The characteristic of the great Doctor of the Church, it seems to me, is that he teaches not only through his thought and speech but also by his life, because within him, thought and life are interpenetrated and defined. If this is so, then Newman belongs to the great teachers of the Church, because he both touches our hearts and enlightens our thinking.”