John Henry Newman: A talk delivered to the Basilian Lay Associates

JOHN HENRY NEWMAN, whose life spanned most of the nineteenth century—1801-90—was and remains a fascinating character. Much of his charm is found in his remarkable talent for friendship, and his great influence on both Protestants and Catholics arose from his ability to collect around him talented men who influenced his thinking, and vice versa. It’s a power he still wields through his writings, which bring his person to life in the mind of the reader. Muriel Spark, an eminent poet and novelist of a generation ago, said that he was more alive to her than many of her contemporaries and, in a felicitous phrase, that his “voice never fails to start up, radioactive from the page, however musty the physical book.” He is, in fact, considered the finest prose writer of the nineteenth century, so much so that a speaker cannot resist quoting abundantly. Consider this single sentence (!) from his Apologia:

To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; and then their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship; their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long-standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken, of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the Apostle’s words, “having no hope and without God in the world,”—all this is a vision to dizzy and appal.

What was the source of Newman`s power over people and also, it must be admitted, his ability to excite antagonism among many of his contemporaries? For one thing, he was a man of absolute, uncompromising integrity; one cannot imagine him lying, equivocating or even dissembling. This integrity manifested itself in his total commitment to Jesus Christ and his Church—which for Newman during the first half of his long life meant Anglicanism. One has only to read the sermons he preached during the 1830s in the University church of Saint Mary the Virgin, Oxford, to witness his austere, one might say relentless presentation of the truths of the faith and the demands it makes on believers. Consider this statement from a sermon preached on 21 February 1836:

What have we ventured for Christ? What have we given to Him on a belief of His promise? . . . This is the question, What have we ventured? I really fear, when we come to examine, it will be found that there is nothing we resolve, nothing we do, nothing we do not do, nothing we avoid, nothing we choose, nothing we give up, nothing we pursue, which we should not resolve, and do, and not do, and avoid, and choose, and give up, and pursue, if Christ had not died, and heaven were not promised us.

These demanding sermons filled Saint Mary`s week after week with a congregation that, we are told, hung on his every word. But joined to this austere approach to the faith was a strong attachment to his friends. These were the qualities that made him the central figure of what we know as the Oxford Movement, which has been succinctly described as “ the famous effort of Newman¸ [John] Keble, [Edward] Pusey, and others, to renew the Anglican Church by reviving ‘high church’ or ‘Catholic’ doctrines and practices within it.”
A bit of history is required to comprehend what this means. The difficulty that faced Newman and his colleagues was the fact that Anglicanism was the state religion of Great Britain. Consequently, ultimate control of the church was in the hand of the King, that is to say, effectively in the hands of Parliament, a Parliament that by 1829 contained Catholics and eventually even dissenters and Jews, who could not but be antagonistic to the Anglican establishment. Was such to be the highest religious authority of the nation, to name bishops and adjudicate theological issues? Rejecting this arrangement as intolerable necessarily raises a further question: What then is the ultimate source of authority in matters of religion? Newman and his associates responded to the difficulty with an appeal to the early Church and also to a seventeenth-century tradition within Anglicanism that had fallen into obscurity, namely the conviction that the bishops had their position, not from Parliament, but directly from God through ordination. We have here, then, the doctrine of apostolic succession, viz., that in an unbroken chain of ordinations beginning with the Apostles and continuing across the centuries contemporary bishops can claim to be their successors and as such teach with apostolic authority. This power is clearly independent of and superior to any act of Parliament. To publicize their news and to attract support for them, Newman began in the autumn of 1833 the Tracts for the Times. Number one was a clarion call to action:

CHRIST has not left His Church without claim of its own upon the attention of men. . . . There are some who rest their divine mission on their own unsupported assertion; others, who rest it upon their popularity; others, on their success; and others, who rest it upon their temporal distinctions. This last case has, perhaps, been too much our own; I fear we have neglected the real ground on which our authority is built,—our APOSTOLICAL DESCENT.

We find here an attitude towards ordination that can be supported from the Anglican form of public worship as found in the Book of Common Prayer. For the fact is that the Anglicanism of the time had two conflicting traditions: on the one hand, the Prayer Book that was largely Catholic in origin and, on the other, the Thirty-nine Articles that are thoroughly Protestant. Consider, for instance, number 22, “Of Purgatory”:

The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.

In Newman’s day, the emphasis had been so strongly placed on the Articles that Anglicans proudly identified themselves as Protestants. It was a shock, then, to be confronted with a small but growing group who claimed that Anglicanism was Catholic; not Roman Catholic but authentically Catholic nonetheless. Thus, the doctrine of the via media developed, which saw Anglicanism as a “middle way” between the mediaeval corruptions of the Romanists—or “papists” as we were derisively called—and the anti-sacramentalism of the Protestant Reformation. It was an appealing theory, however novel for the time, but, alas, nothing more than a theory. The basis of the position was, as I have noted, the doctrine of apostolic succession. Imagine Newman’s chagrin when he turned to the bishops for confirmation of his ideas, only to have it repudiated by those whose authority he viewed as God-given. It was as if Newman asked the bishops for an authoritative statement only to receive this response: “We have no such authority.”

A series of such events led Newman to abandon public life: the pulpit of Saint Mary’s, his college fellowship and his leading role in the Movement. As he found himself gradually moving away from Anglicanism, a stark alternative faced him: scepticism or Catholicism. For to lose one’s faith in one form of religion will not automatically bring him to embrace another. Furthermore, Newman was very much aware of the limitations of reason to the point that some have viewed him as having been more sceptical than religious. They based their interpretation on his frequently and trenchantly expressed conviction that reason was inadequate on its own to establish any position, religious or secular:

It is indeed a great question whether Atheism is not as philosophically consistent with the phenomena of the physical world, taken by themselves, as the doctrine of a creative and governing Power.

. . . man is not a reasoning animal; he is a seeing, feeling, contemplating, acting animal.

Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man.

It is as absurd to argue men, as to torture them, into believing.

The relationship between faith and reason was a topic that engrossed Newman his life long, reaching a climax in 1870 when he published An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. The book is a subtle examination of the motives and influences that can bring a man to recognize the truth of revelation. Conscience, of course, has a prominent place, but so also does Newman’s demonstration that an accumulation of probabilities can produce certainty. There is an autobiographical element to the book for when, in the 1840s, as he gradually abandoned the beloved via media, the question arose: Could he love equally any other church? Although his participation in the Oxford Movement had softened his aversion to Roman Catholicism, he was unable to overcome his distaste for its mediaeval, seemingly corrupt practices. Retiring to Littlemore, a quiet village outside Oxford, he pondered this matter during the years 1841-45. The result of this period of intense study was a book that, if he had published nothing else, would have gained him a place among the seminal figures in European thought: An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. In it he catalogued the principles that govern the legitimate growth of doctrine and further illustrated them from the history of Catholicism. The effect was to bring him into the Church on 9 October 1845, which he described as being “like coming into port after a rough sea.” When he was asked to account for his conversion, he refused, for the study and prayer of years could not be condensed into a slogan. One statement, however, captures the man and his highly personal mode of thought:

. . . were the two Saints [Athanasius and Ambrose], who once sojourned in exile or on embassage at Treves, to come more northward still, and to travel until they reached another fair city [i.e., Oxford], seated among groves, green meadows, and calm streams, the holy brothers would turn from many a high aisle and solemn cloister which they found there, and ask the way to some small chapel, where mass was said, in the populous alley or the forlorn suburb?

In short, Newman wanted to be with them.

Newman has been credited with anticipating the Second Vatican Council, and rightly so. For, in his opening address to the assembled bishops, Pope John XXIII described his purpose in calling the Council in terms that are in direct continuity with Neman’s Essay. First, let us consider Newman’s account of the power of a great idea to continue intact as it encounters a series of challenges with the passage of time: “It changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” And now John XXIII:

It is necessary first of all that the Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers. But at the same time, she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world which have opened new avenues to the Catholic apostolate.

That is to say, “we change in order to remain the same.” Another instance of Newman’s importance for the Council—and so for us today—is an article he wrote that was notorious in its day, “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine.” In it, he honoured the role of all the baptized in the proclamation of authentic Catholic teaching: “. . . the sense of the faithful is not left out of the question by the Holy See among the preliminary acts of defining a doctrine.” This insight was also confirmed by the Council:

Christ is the great prophet . . .. Until the full manifestation of his glory, he fulfils this prophetic office, not only by the hierarchy, . . . but also by the laity. He accordingly both establishes them as witnesses and provides them with the appreciation of the faith (sensus fidei).

The traditional expression of this fact was enunciated by Vincent of Lérins in the fifth century: “What has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.” This is an admirable sentiment, but clearly impossible to implement, especially since the “always” includes the future as well as the past. The hierarchy, then, comes into play, for their role authoritatively to articulate this universal faith. In short, they are servants, not masters in the proclamation of the Gospel.

Received in 1845 and ordained in 1847, Newman retired in relative obscurity to the Birmingham Oratory that he had founded. The Catholic Church in England was ill-equipped to exploit his talents, and he had a series of frustrating projects that came to very little, particularly in Dublin, where he had been commissioned to found a Catholic university. Despite continual harassment from the Irish the bishops he devoted four years of his life to the task, and out of it came his brilliant series of lectures, The Idea of a University. A little later, he regained the attention and the esteem of the English public. In 1864 a popular Anglican minister, Charles Kingsley, wrote to the effect that Catholic priests were all liars, citing Newman as an instance. After an exchange of letters and pamphlets, Newman ended the controversy by publishing over a ten-week period his Apologia pro vita sua. (I may note that in Latin apologia means “defence,” not “apology.”) The English intelligentsia were enthralled by this brilliant and touching spiritual autobiography, a surprising event in that the book is limited in scope and presumes a sophisticated readership, one that can shudder with Newman when he wrote that “I saw my face in that mirror, and I was a Monophysite.” In the year before the Apologia, Newman’s spirits were at a low ebb, so low that he wrote in his journal, “O how forlorn and dreary has been my course since I have been a Catholic! here has been the contrast—as a Protestant, I felt my religion dreary, but not my life—but, as a Catholic, my life is dreary, not my religion.” Dreary or not, he became more and more honoured and venerated by Catholics as the champion of the Church and by Protestants as an eminent national figure. I may conclude by noting that, had he published nothing more than his Essay on Development, the Apologia and the Grammar of Assent, he would still be numbered among the most influential religious thinkers in the history of Western civilization.