A Full Glimpse of Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman

(In light of this being the feast of Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman, a reprisal of this fine piece from Carl Sundell seemed well in order🙂

John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) was a priest of the Church of England who, after much agonizing, found his way into the Church of Rome at the age of 44. A year later he was ordained a Catholic priest, and at the age of 78 became a cardinal; a rare instance of a priest awarded the Cardinal’s red cloth without having first won the Bishop’s purple. Newman’s most famous works include Apologia Pro Vita Sua (the story of his spiritual journey), An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, The Idea of a University, The Grammar of Assent, and Parochial and Plain Sermons. Pope Pius XII believed that Newman one day would be declared a Doctor of the Church. In 2010 Pope Benedict XVI conferred upon him the title of Blessed following the revelation of a miraculous healing through his intercession. A second recorded miracle required for sainthood recently was reported by the Archdiocese of Chicago to the Vatican for investigation.

Inimitable Stylist

G.K. Chesterton judged the quality of Newman’s writing style to be “so successful that it escapes definition.” Certainly Newman’s prose is graceful, penetrating, and memorable. Here are some typically insightful one-liners. “A man would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault.” “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” “It is as absurd to argue men, as to torture them, into believing.” “I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it.” And here is perhaps his most famous quip: “To be deep in history, is to cease to be Protestant.”

On Conscience and the Existence of God

Newman defined conscience in this way: “It is a moral sense and a sense of duty; a judgment of the reason and a magisterial dictate.” (The philosopher Emmanuel Kant would have called it the Categorical Imperative.) The fact that conscience exists in us is undeniably universal (an observation made both by St. Paul in his letter to the Romans and by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica). “But conscience does not repose on itself,” Newman insists, “but vaguely reaches forward to something beyond self, and dimly discerns a sanction higher than self for its decisions.” Thus conscience, like all other created things, points toward a Creator who has endowed the human creature with a sense of right and wrong.

Newman brings home his point. “We are not affectionate toward a stone, nor do we feel shame before a horse or a dog; we have no remorse or compunction on breaking mere human law; yet, so it is, conscience excites all these painful emotions, confusion, foreboding, self-condemnation; and on the other hand it sheds upon us a deep peace, a sense of security, a resignation, and a hope, which there is no sensible, no earthly object to elicit. ‘The wicked flees when no one pursueth.’ Then why does he flee? Whence his terror? Who is it that he sees in solitude, in darkness, in the hidden chambers of his heart? If the cause of these emotions does not belong to this visible world, the Object to which his perception is directed must be Supernatural and Divine.” But then, of course, if a person chooses to behave badly and disobey his conscience, there is the grinning devil to pay.

On the Devil

There is hardly any theological subject on which Newman did not comment. That includes the devil. Newman anticipated by nearly a century C.S. Lewis’s fascination with satanic psychology as evident in the Screwtape Letters. Newman could imagine that devils do indeed corrupt our faith by tempting us to believe that our shepherds are themselves corrupting our faith. The devil wants us to believe in the secret plotting of monks and Jesuits, to “believe in a host of invisible traitors prowling about and disseminating doctrine … believe us to be liars and deceivers, men of blood, ministers of hell rather than turn your minds … to the possibility of being what we say we are, the children and servants of the true Church.”

Newman regarded Satan as a deceptively friendly fellow who hides his malevolence from us, who comes offering bribes of pleasure and power and goods if we but open our eyes to see things his way. But his own person is not evident. He cannot show himself to us as he really is, “hateful, monstrous and abominable. Therefore he keeps himself out of sight.” Indeed, just as Satan is behind atheism, so as to hide our true Friend from us, he likewise hides our enemy … himself. If we do not believe in God, why should we believe in Satan? But if we do not believe in Satan, all the more anonymous and cloaked in darkness he becomes as the one who plots our destruction. Yet, ultimately, that once bright Star of Heaven is confounded by his own pride. Were Satan as clever as we expect he is, he would have sought to prevent the crucifixion, rather than move through Judas to aid and abet so mightily the one event that was intended to redeem us all from the fires of hell. Is it reasonable to infer that Satan’s hatred of mankind is eclipsed by his greater hatred of Jesus Christ, that he should want to see him hanging in agony upon a cross?

The Problem of Evil

As to the problem of evil, which has plagued theologians for centuries, Newman in his Meditations and Devotions offers insights that come as close as any to providing a brief but comprehensive commentary. Addressing the Lord he says, “If Thou sendest evil upon us, it is in love. All the evils of the physical world are intended for the good of Thy creatures, or are the unavoidable attendants on that good. And thou turnest that evil into good. Thou visitest men with evil to bring them to repentance, to increase their virtue to gain for them greater good thereafter. Nothing is done in vain, but has its gracious end. Thou dost punish, yet in wrath Thou dost remember mercy.”

On the Development of Doctrine

When Newman ceased to be a Protestant it was because he had studied history enough to reason that the Church of Rome, for all its alleged “additions” in theology and ritual, was still in form and substance faithful to the early Church; so that, if St. Ambrose and St. Athanasius would suddenly appear among us, they would recognize a Catholic church as the one to enter among all the churches in existence since Luther. For Newman, this Protestant supposition that a Church at its start cannot grow in knowledge and insight about morals and theology was little more than a superstition. What the disciples of Jesus were taught was essential, but it was not necessarily in every respect complete. As Newman remarked, “No prophet ends his subject: his bretheren after him renew, enlarge, transfigure, or reconstruct it.

For Newman, the new flesh put on us by the Gospel was inevitable. The Apostles carried the Old Testament forward into the Council of Jerusalem where they debated among themselves and resolved certain thorny theological questions regarding Jewish dietary laws and circumcision. Then again, as time passed, the heresies began to sprawl throughout Christendom. More clarification was required with the formal institution of an authentic and approved New Testament in the 4th century. Later Councils and fresh statement of the creeds, such as the Nicene Creed, followed and enlarged upon the Apostles’ Creed. Newman cites the 5th century St. Vincentius of Lerins, who likened the growth of the Church to that of the human body. “Let the soul’s religion imitate the law of the body, which, as years go on, develops and opens out its due proportions, and yet remains identically what it was.”

On Mary

A case in point would be the modern veneration of Mary, which is so highly pronounced among Catholics but rather less so among Protestants. Consider the prophetic power of Mary when she said to the angel regarding her life’s mission in Luke 1:48, “From now on all generations shall call me blessed.” The Catholic Church set this veneration in motion from the early Church on, growing it century after century in every nation where Catholics are found, punctuated in the 13th century by the Dominicans who, it is said, instituted the rosary as the most perfect way of calling Mary “blessed.” Newman regarded the so-called pagan accretions charged against the Catholic Church not as sinister add-ons, but on the contrary as natural outgrowths of incipient Christianity; or, to repeat the metaphor of St. Vincentius, the natural development of the Body of Christ through time.

On Justification by Faith Alone

Newman worried about all those Christians who seemed not concerned much about their salvation because they had been led to believe that by faith alone they had been saved. Justification by faith alone was preached by Luther, but is not in Scripture. “St. Paul does but speak of justification by faith, not by faith only, and St. James actually denies that it is by faith alone.” It is indeed one thing to believe, even the devil believes, but not to act righteously is not to be justified; righteousness has to be partnered with obedience in order to achieve justification, and this is why at the end of Matthew 25 Jesus makes it so abundantly clear that if works flow from our faith we are justified and saved, but if works do not flow, we are doomed. Hence those great works of mercy demanded of us, and a cross to bear with Christ, if we have true faith.

On Sola Scriptura

Sola Scriptura (Scripture Only) being the authoritative guide to our salvation was another falsehood that Newman ably refuted. How could Scripture be the sole guide? “… for, if nothing is to be revealed but what everyone perceives to be in Scripture, there is nothing that can be so held, considering that in matter of fact there is no universal agreement as to what Scripture teaches and what it does not teach….” No, Newman held, the Bible was a creation of the Church, which is itself the ultimate authority. While Scripture constitutes a “sole document, basis of proof, record, standard of appeal, touchstone of the faith,” it is not the sole guide, for the Church was founded to be our guide decades before Scriptures were even written and centuries before they were assembled and published as an authoritative document by the authority of the Church. Indeed, is it anywhere in Scripture declared that Scripture is the sole guide to salvation and stands higher in authority than the Church itself? A careful study of Luke’s account of the Council of Jerusalem (in Acts 15) will prove that those in authority over the Church (the apostles present at the council, including Peter, James, and Paul) were asserting their authority over the traditional authority of Old Testament scriptures.

On Private Judgment

Newman also tackled the issue of Private Judgment as a false doctrine of Protestants. “The great question which is put before us for the exercise of private judgment is, – Who is God’s prophet, and where? Who is to be considered the voice of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church?” The role of the apostles as teachers was never doubted by the early Christians, who were expected by their teachers to submit to the rule they had been taught and not reshape it according to their own interpretation or preference. Echoing St. Augustine, Newman insists, “In the Apostles’ days the peculiarity of faith was submission to a living authority; this is what made it so distinctive; this is what made it an act of submission at all; this is what destroyed private judgment in matters of religion. If you will not look out for a living authority, and will bargain for private judgment, then say at once that you have not Apostolic faith.” There is no doubt that the hundreds of Protestant sects, divided as they are against one another, have fallen prey ever since Luther to the self-serving instinct that calls out for “what I think” rather than what the Church lawfully was founded and granted by the authority of Jesus Christ to teach.

On the Authentic Church

Next comes the great question upon which our salvation depends. Is the Catholic Church the true Church of Christ? And if that is so, how do we know it? For Newman the evidence is abundant that only the Catholic Church bears the marks of what a true Church founded by Christ should be. While the Church is criticized for living in the past, that is because all time, past, present, and future, belong to the true Church. While she is criticized for aligning with the rich, that is because the rich, like the poor, need her; and her service to the poor certainly goes without question. When she is criticized for not changing with the times, that is “because she has her source where there is neither place nor time, because she comes from the throne of the Illimitable, Eternal God.”

There is plentiful proof that the historical Catholic Church was, and still is, the Church established by God. There is, first of all, the fact that the original Church preached a gospel of peace, so hateful a doctrine to the Romans who were set on conquering the world. How is it then that this same collection of churches throughout Empire came to become even greater than the empire? “Wherever the Roman Emperor traveled, he found these seeming rivals of his power, the Bishops of the Church. Further, they one and all refused to obey his orders, and the prescriptive laws of Rome, so far as religion was concerned…. They [Christians] did not stir hand or foot in self-defense; they submitted to die, nay accounted death the greatest privilege that could be inflicted on them. And further, they avowed one and all the same doctrine clearly and boldly; and they professed to receive it from one and the same source. They traced it through the continuous line of their Bishops to certain twelve or fourteen Jews, who professed to have received it from Heaven.”

But the historical record does not end there and shows, to the contrary, the organic growth of universal (catholic) faith through the centuries to come. “… the Church so prospered that within three centuries from their first appearance in the Empire, they forced its sovereigns to become members of their confederation; nay, nor ended there, but as the civil power declined in strength, they became its patrons instead of its victims, mediated between it and its barbarian enemies, and after burying it in peace when its hour came, took its place, won over the invaders, subdued their kings, and at length ruled as supreme; ruled united under one head, in the very scenes of their former suffering, in the territory of the Empire, with Rome itself, the seat of the imperial government, as a center.” After all this, could there be any doubt that the Church of Rome had positioned itself to advance and expand the empire of Christ the King throughout the world in ages to come?

On the Papacy

The existence of the papacy was also a proof for Catholicism. It cannot have been without purpose that, after his resurrection, Jesus appeared to Peter and three times instructed him to “feed my sheep.” Then again, Jesus appears, and as if to make no mistake about it, he says in the Gospel of Matthew, “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Scriptural citations aside, there can be no doubt for Newman that the historical progress of history has been identified with the continuing claims and powers of the papacy from earliest times, from long before the Council of Nicaea to the present. If truth is to be truth for a certainty, Newman states, “The Pope has no rival claim upon us; nor is it our doing that his claim has been made and allowed for centuries upon centuries, and that it was he who made the Vatican decrees, and not they him. If we give him up, to whom shall we go?”

And in another place Newman says: “Deeply do I feel, ever will I protest, for I can appeal to the ample testimony of history to bear me out, that, in questions of right and wrong, there is nothing really strong in the whole world, nothing decisive and operative, but the voice of him, to whom have been committed the keys of the kingdom and the oversight of Christ’s flock. That voice is now, as ever it has been, a real authority, infallible when it teaches, prosperous when it commands, ever taking the lead wisely and distinctly in it own province, adding certainty to what is probable and persuasion to what is certain. Before he speaks, the most saintly may mistake; and after it has spoken, the most gifted must obey.”

On Living the Good Life

Perhaps it is fitting to close with Newman’s mediation on living the good life. Too many souls that have not a fully developed spirituality think happiness is pleasure and little else. This is why sinners, who as a rule are so devoted to one pleasure after another, mistake their chronic pleasures for happiness. If peace of mind at least be the earthly approximation to happiness, that peace will be found in virtue, not in pleasures. In a passage of supremely elegant prose, Newman sums up the whole rationale for living and dying well.

I say when anyone, man or woman, young or old, is conscious that he or she is going wrong, whether in greater matter or less, whether in not coming to church when there is no good excuse, neglecting private prayer, living carelessly, or indulging in known sin – this bad conscience is from time to time a torment to such persons. For a little while, perhaps, they do not feel it, but then the pain comes on again. It is a keen, harassing, disquieting, hateful pain, which hinders sinners from being happy. They may have pleasures, but they cannot be happy. They know that God is angry with them; and they know that, at some time or another, He will visit, He will judge, He will punish. They try to get this out of their minds, but the arrow sticks fast there; it keeps its hold. They try to laugh it off, or to be bold and daring, or to be angry and violent. They are loud or unkind in their answers to those who remind them of it either in set words, or by their example. But it keeps its hold. And so it is, that all men who are not very abandoned, bad men as well as good, wish they were holy as God is holy, pure as Christ was pure, even though they do not try to be, or pray to God to make them holy and pure, not that they like religion, but that they know, they are convinced in their reason, they feel sure, that religion alone is happiness.”

By way of closing, Newman wrote many eloquent poems, not least among them the lyrics for the hymn “Lead, Kindly Light.” But perhaps this prayer is the one most worth offering morning and night.

O Lord, support us all the day long,
until the shadows lengthen,
and the evening comes,
and the busy world is hushed,
and the fever of life is over,
and our work is done.
Then in your mercy,
grant us a safe lodging and a holy rest,
and peace at the last.

Anyone seeking a full glimpse of the vast range of Newman’s thought might consult Newman for Everyone, edited by Jules M. Brady, and The Quotable Newman, edited by Dave Armstrong. Another excellent source is John T. Ford’s John Henry Newman: Spiritual Writings.


Previous article
Next articleFriendless Ford’s Nation
Carl Sundell is Emeritus Professor of English and Humanities at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Massachusetts. The author of several books including The Intellectual and the Gunman, Four Presidents, and Shaw versus Chesterton, he has published various articles in New Oxford Review and Catholic Insight. He currently resides in Lubbock, Texas where he is developing a book of short essays for students of Catholic apologetics