By Alex Hamilton
[Editor’s Note: Welcome to Blessed Week on Newman’s blog! Ever day this week we’ll be highlighting one of the many Blesseds and Venerables of the Church, holy men and women who are on the path to Sainthood but just aren’t there yet. Questions about the blog? Email Chris Roy at email@example.com]
John Henry Newman was born in London on February 21, 1801 to a modest, middle class family. He had a pleasant upbringing and his vocation to serve God in a special way was evident by his teenage years. At the age of 15, he says, he felt it was the will of God that his “calling in life would require such a sacrifice as celibacy involved” (Apologia Pro Vita Sua pg. 38). Newman grew up reading the Bible and other holy books, even being introduced to the Church Fathers in his adolescence, who would fascinate him for the rest of his life.
Newman matriculated to Oxford in 1816, where he would be a student, tutor, and lecturer for decades to come. Oxford was the heart of England’s intellectual society. Bishop Barron remarks, “what Paris was for Thomas Aquinas and Florence was for Dante, Oxford was for Newman.” It must be stressed how deeply Newman loved Oxford. It always remained in his heart, making his exile from it later in life all the more painful. Oxford was the place of Newman’s deepest intellectual formation and he remained an ‘Oxford man’ his whole life.
John Henry Newman was elected a fellow at Oriel College, in Oxford, in 1821 and ordained an Anglican priest in 1824. During this time he grew in reputation at Oxford for his writing and intellect. Although he was not a particularly charismatic preacher, people would still pack the churches where he preached just to hear his deeply insightful sermons.
The preconditions of Newman’s conversion to the Catholic faith are as unique as he is. In the 1830’s at Oxford, Newman became involved in what is known as the Oxford Movement, or more commonly, the Tractarian Movement. This was a group of Anglican intellectuals who wanted to ‘Catholicize’ the Anglican Church. While Anglicanism is one of the closest forms of Protestantism to Catholicism, especially in outward appearances such as liturgy and sacraments, there remain many fundamental theological differences. Newman thought that left-wing Protestantism had lost its beautiful liturgy and sacraments and was plagued by an individualism that led to subjective theological beliefs based on feelings. He was also critical of the Catholic Church, a right-wing institution that he believed had corrupted the teachings of the Church Fathers. He sought what he called a ‘Via Media’, or a middle way, between Protestantism and Catholicism. It had three tenants. First, the Church was to be grounded in objective dogma. Second, the Church was to be visible, meaning devoted to sacraments. And third, the movement was anti-Roman, meaning anti-Catholic. His involvement in the movement came to an end after he published the infamous Tract 90 (the Oxford Movement published these tracts to communicate their ideas, hence the name ‘Tractarians’). In Tract 90, Newman argued that the 39 Articles of Religion were compatible with the teachings of the Council of Trent. What’s the significance of that? Glad you asked! The 39 Articles were to be sworn to by all public officials and university professors in England, including those at Oxford, in order to hold the position. They are glaringly anti-Catholic. Tract 90 was seen as treason and caused such an uproar up and down English society that Newman had to resign from Oxford. He retired to Littlemore in 1841, where his conversion would come to maturity.
Newman looked into early Church history for evidence of the Via Media, but only found condemnation of it. For example, when he looked back at the Arian heresy of the 4th century, he found three positions. The first was that of the right-wing Catholic Church, saying that Jesus was true God and true man. The left-wing position, Arianism, declared Jesus as only a man, a creature of the Father. The middle position was called homoiousios, which meant that Jesus was of a similar substance as the Father. But the left-wing and middle positions were declared wrong by the Council of Nicaea. Jesus was declared as homoousios, of the same substance, as the Father (where the phrase “not one iota of a difference” comes from, but here there is quite a difference). Newman found that the Catholic Church had held this right-wing position all through the centuries. After a few years of deep prayer and study, he fell at the feet of a local Catholic priest with whom he had formed a friendship and begged to be received into the Catholic Church. Now, there was no going back to his beloved Oxford. John Henry Newman was ordained a Catholic priest in Rome in 1846, and later returned to England to begin the second half of his life. He was shunned by British society for years and branded a traitor. Eventually, he fell back into the country’s good graces, and he spent the rest of his life preaching and writing his most influential works, among them: Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Development of Christian Doctrine, The Idea of a University, and An Essay in Aid of the Grammar of Assent.
If you want a taste for Newman’s raw personality, I suggest you read his Apologia Pro Vita Sua. In it, he tells the story of his conversion with a sincere vulnerability. His conversion was a long, painful intellectual process for the most part. His heart was hardened against the Catholic Church, but he was dissatisfied with the corruptions of theology in the Anglican Church. Amidst his study for authentic Christianity, he found himself in the Catholic Church.
During the time of his conversion, Newman published Development of Christian Doctrine. One of his initial grievances with the Catholic Church was that it appeared different than the Church of the first centuries. Through study and prayer, Newman came to realize that ideas, especially theological ones, are deep, and must be unraveled over time in order to be fully expressed. He uses the analogy of a stream. At its head, a river is rather unimpressive, resembling a small stream. But after hundreds of miles, being joined by tributaries, a river is broad, powerful, and deep. Just so with ideas, taught Newman. He also realized that to mature, ideas needed to be debated by the community of believers, so as to become clearer through contributions. And ultimately, there needed to be an authority, or umpire if you will, who would have the final word. So we see that certain doctrines, such as those about the Trinity or Mary, take time to be unraveled and understood by the Church, as God places greater minds and hearts to explain them to us better each time. Newman is famous for saying, “To live is to change. To be perfect is to change often.”
As a lecturer at Oxford and a rector of a university in Dublin, Newman was deeply engaged in and enjoyed universities. In his work Idea of a University, Newman discusses the most important aspect of a university- faith. He believed that learning about the Faith is fundamentally an intellectual pursuit (now you can see why I like him so much). According to Newman, theology should be the center of university studies. When theology is pushed to the side or ignored completely, it allows for something else to become the core of learning, thereby skewing the true meaning of all areas of study and reality. For example, if the sole purpose of a university is to land a job afterwards, any area of study that doesn’t appear to have direct applicability to a certain job would be deemed as useless. This creates disrespect and disinterest in many majors. Newman was a champion of the liberal arts. He teaches us that we should most savor knowledge which is good in and of itself. Engineering has a direct applicability to labor, but a degree in philosophy teaches one to truly rest and enjoy wisdom itself. We all are called to work, but if we don’t know how to enjoy the fruits of our labor, i.e. leisure, it is all for naught. We are all called to work so as to have order and time to contemplate God, the highest good, which can be aided with a grounding in the liberal arts.
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman is among the most overlooked and underappreciated figures in Church history. His spiritual and philosophical insights came at a time when we needed them most to fight modernism and secularism. He encourages us to relentlessly seek truth and God, even in the face of persecution. John Henry Cardinal Newman was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. John Henry Newman, pray for us!
Alex is a senior, about to graduate with degrees in History and Political “Science”. While he’s not working out or reading about Saints, Church Fathers, etc, you’lll find him…sleeping? He pretty much only does those things