[This essay originally appeared, in abbreviated form, in the Pittsburgh Catholic newspaper, in two parts, October 6 and 13, 1995. Click here to contact the author]
We may complain of Catholic-bashing in the United States these days, but most Catholics would scarcely believe the official oppression their co-religionists had to endure for centuries in England.
For generations after the Reformation, the Penal Laws intended to extirpate Catholicism were very successful. For generations, priests in England had to work in secret, lest they be punished by imprisonment or even death. For generations, Catholics were prohibited from entering either the legal or medical profession, and were barred from all offices of state. For generations, Catholic families could not even send their sons to Oxford or Cambridge. Not until 1829 were Catholics even allowed to vote. (To this day, a Catholic may not succeed to the throne, nor may anyone married to a Catholic.)
Pope Pius IX restored the English hierarchy in 1850, after a lapse of three centuries. When Archbishop Nicholas (later Cardinal) Wiseman, the new primate, returned from Rome, he was burned in effigy in many places, and his carriage was pelted with dung in the streets of Southwark. No less than the Lord Chancellor of the Realm publicly referred to Catholicism as "mummeries of superstition," and a bill was rushed through the Parliament to prohibit any Catholic bishop from using in his title the name of any English city.
Centuries of official oppression had, by the mid-nineteenth century, left the Catholic remnant in England a small band, held in contempt, scorned and distrusted by the majority. [See also "Roman Catholicism in Nineteenth-Century Great Britain".] Then a shocking thing happened. The Reverend Mr. John Henry Newman--a writer unsurpassed in style and clarity, a preacher of unparalleled power and grace--the most famous and, perhaps, the most influential Anglican minister in all of England, did the unthinkable: he joined the Roman Catholic Church.
In his youth, Newman himself would have thought it unthinkable. Born in 1801, he was the eldest son of a nominally Anglican father and an evangelical Anglican mother. From them, and from their society, words like "Romanism" and "Popery" passed easily into his vocabulary, terms of disgust and dismay.
Shy and studious from his earliest days, Newman was blessed with the rare combination of keenest intellect and greatest heart. When he went up to Trinity College, Oxford, his teachers were delighted with a pupil of such prodigious capability who showed so much promise. After taking his degree at Trinity, he won a coveted and prestigious Fellowship at Oriel College, in 1822.
Ordained in the Anglican Church, Newman soon had pastoral duties as well as scholarly. For two years as a deacon, he did parish work among the poor at St. Clement's near Oxford; his ordination as an Anglican priest brought him charge of St. Mary's, the Oxford university church, from whose pulpit he gained his wide reputation as a great preacher. Decades later, men in their old age would still recall the magnetic effect Newman had had on his hearers in their youth, how he had both lifted their minds and stirred their hearts, as no one else had.
During this time, Newman began to study early Church history and the teachings of the Fathers. He discovered many doctrines taught in the ancient Church, especially the sacramental system and apostolic succession, which had been largely abandoned among Anglicans.
This was the first step on his road to Rome. But the way was very long: about this time, 1833, when he wrote his famous verse "Lead, Kindly Light," he was also writing of "the wretched perversion of truth" sanctioned by the Roman Church.
In that same year, he and a handful of his colleagues began a movement to restore the profession of ancient doctrines that had been gradually abandoned as the Anglican Church became ever more Protestantized. Soon dubbed the Oxford Movement, the effort was at first greeted with a mixture of amazement and condescension, as if its proponents were comics or half-wits.
It quickly became evident, however, that they were both serious and intelligent. And Newman's preaching and writing abilities propelled him into prominence among them. Issuing a series of pamphlets, which they called Tracts for the Times, the group's writings eventually enthralled the English population. Tracts appeared on baptismal regeneration, the Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament, and other doctrines regarded among Protestants as "Romish corruptions" of the Gospel.
But Newman and his colleagues, soon called Tractarians, propounded and defended these "Romish" doctrines with vigor and clarity as part of the authentic Christian faith. As people were swayed by them, the attitude of many Anglican authorities changed from bemusement to anger and fear. And Newman found himself in a peculiar situation.
He was convinced by now that the Roman Catholic Church had held onto much original Christian doctrine that the Protestants had abandoned; but, he still believed that Rome had added doctrines and practices that could not be reconciled with the Gospel. The invocation of the saints and the primacy of the Pope were obstacles to him for many years more. But his own influence, his tracts and sermons, had swept away all the obstacles for many others. And the Anglican hierarchy's growing disapproval of the Tractarian's teachings disposed many Tractarians and their disciples to fly to Rome.
So, by the early 1840s, Newman was expending a great deal of energy trying to keep Anglicans from becoming Catholics--though it was his own teaching that sent them that way. He even found himself accused of being a Roman Catholic already, in secret, on a mission to steal away as many Anglicans as he could, by whatever dishonest means available.
For years, Newman had been developing his thesis of the Via Media: this was an idea that had been propounded by some Anglican theologians in earlier times, that the Anglican Church was "the middle way" between the Catholic Church on one hand and the Protestant churches on the other. As Newman and his colleagues drew it out, the Anglican Church had kept, and should continue to keep, the doctrinal heritage of the early Christians, avoiding both the doctrinal heresies of the Protestants and the doctrinal and devotional excesses of the Catholics.
Finally, in Tract Ninety, issued in 1841, Newman explained how he believed the Thirty-Nine Articles--the fundamental document of Anglican theology--could be, and should be, interpreted in a Catholic sense. A storm of fury greeted it: for many, Newman had gone way too far. He was censured by several official bodies and forbidden by his bishop to write any more tracts. As bishop after bishop condemned the tract, Newman reached a crisis: if the Anglican Church he belonged to was not, in fact, a branch of the Catholic Church, he knew he could not remain in it.
He soon retired from an active role in the ministry, eventually resigning his charge at St. Mary's. He took up residence with a few like-minded colleagues in a village near Oxford. From there, he continued a voluminous correspondence, much of it devoted still to keeping men from converting to Rome. He had come himself to the very doorstep now, but he could not condone anybody crossing over to where he could not in good conscience go, yet.
He couldn't remain where he was, either. So, he set about to demonstrate how the doctrines of the Catholic Church were the inevitable result of development through the centuries--not knowing, though, if he would convince even himself. This was the logical next step for him after his failure to restore a Catholic sense to the Anglican Articles.
He applied his analytical genius to distinguish between genuine development on the one hand and mere change or corruption on the other. He then used his encyclopedic knowledge of church history to exhibit how the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church were the growth and flower and fruit of the ancient teachings of the Church of the Apostles and Fathers.
The result was the book-length Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, a sweeping tour of history and theology, a magnificent work of thoughtful prose. And it did succeed. On the very day he reached the point where he had convinced himself of the truth of the Catholic Church, he ceased writing the book. After months of intense labor, having often worked fourteen hours a day late into the night, he knew finally that he could, and must, cross the threshold.
It was the beginning of October 1845. He immediately resigned his Fellowship at Oriel College: he could not have held it as a Catholic. In the next few days, he told his closest associates that he was now determined to join the Catholic Church. Soon, he heard that Fr. Dominic Barberi, a Passionist missionary, was to be visiting overnight in a few days.
Fr. Dominic (who was beatified by Pope John Paul II a few years ago) had already received into the Church some of Newman's acquaintances. The day he arrived, October 8, he found Newman before him, on his knees, asking to be received into the Church. Newman wrote more than thirty letters that day, to relatives, friends, and colleagues, announcing his decision. After a journey of a dozen or more years, John Henry Newman came into "the One true Fold of the Redeemer" (as he himself put it), October 9, 1845.
Others before Newman, it may be, and many since, have read themselves into the Catholic Church; but, it can be said of Newman alone, perhaps, that he wrote himself into the Church.
John Henry Newman had reached the mid-point of his ninety-year life when he joined the Roman Catholic Church. At his confirmation on All Saints Day that same year, ten or more former Anglican ministers, now Catholics, were present at the ceremony--a testament to the influence of Newman and the Oxford Movement. Many more Anglicans, clergy and laity, would follow Newman, though his conversion brought permanent estrangement from most of his relatives. Newman himself received the poet Gerard Manley Hopkinsinto the church.
He spent several years in Rome, studying for ordination to the Catholic priesthood. While there, he became acquainted with the life and writings of St. Philip Neri. By the time he was ordained on May 30, 1847, Newman had decided to follow in St. Philip's footsteps.
St. Philip, a sixteenth-century Italian priest, founded the society known as the Oratorians. (An oratory is a room or building for prayer.) He made the apostolate of personal ministry paramount in his life, working especially with youths and young adults. He sought to re-establish the "family" atmosphere of the small communities of the ancient Church, and gave both academic and spiritual counseling to those in his care. Newman had already taken that approach in his duties both at Oriel College and at St. Mary's. So, he found in St. Philip a kindred spirit; in the saint's life, he found a model of life for himself and his colleagues.
Pope Pius IX charged Newman with founding and heading the Oratory in England. The first house was established in a suburb of Birmingham, an industrial city; there, Newman would dwell, with occasional exceptions, for the rest of his life. He continued to preach and to write. A series of Sunday evening sermons, and several series of lectures, drew great crowds of all stripes, and he effected many conversions. Always a scholar, he did not neglect his pastoral duties, though: when cholera broke out near Birmingham, and the bishop called upon the Oratorians for help in caring for the sick and the dying, Newman himself braved the contagion.
Though always filled with a quiet, unyielding trust in Divine Providence, he was seldom without troubles and disappointments. Appointed the first rector of a new Catholic university in Ireland, he resigned after a few years: the hierarchy's support of the institution waned quickly. Widely rumored to have been chosen to be a bishop, and even publicly congratulated, his appointment was never made. And he was honored with the responsibility of being general editor of a new translation of the Bible, but the project was abandoned before it got started.
Over the years, he gradually retired from a public life: he was heard from only occasionally to defend himself from the accusation that he was considering a return to the Anglican Church. It was an even more serious accusation that brought him back into the limelight.
In a book review, the Rev. Charles Kingsley, an Anglican minister, accused the Catholic clergy of dishonesty, and Newman specifically of having commended dishonesty among the clergy. Upon objecting to the slander, Newman received only more insults. So he embarked upon a mission to clear his name and that of his fellow priests. He wrote a defense of his life, Apologia pro Vita Sua, now considered the greatest spiritual autobiography since St. Augustine's Confessions, written fifteen centuries before. All England had been awaiting Newman's reply, and he riveted the nation's attention to his words by serializing them in newspapers across the country for seven weeks.
Newman's reputation and stature grew steadily from then on. In further works--especially those defending the Church's Marian doctrines and devotions, and Papal infallibility--he gained an international reputation as a powerful defender of the faith. His writings of all kinds were widely praised, among Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
On May 12, 1879, at the age of seventy-nine, Newman received the reward that crowned his life's achievement: Pope Leo XIII made him a cardinal. All of England celebrated the honor. For Newman, more than any other person, had turned around England's view of Catholics and their religion. No more would they be called intellectually inferior or morally depraved, just because they were Catholics.
Cardinal Newman died August 11, 1890, but his reputation and stature still grow. His own ideas so much anticipated those of the twentieth-century Church that he is often called "The Father of Vatican II." He is quoted four times in the Catechism of the Catholic Church [CalTech website].
And, on January 22, 1991, Pope John Paul II signed a decree recognizing Newman's "heroic virtues" and declaring him "venerable," the first step on the path to recognition of sainthood.
The example of his life as a pastor and teacher still inspires many in those callings. Newman Centers, for the spiritual care of students, can be found at colleges and universities around the world; the first was founded at the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia) in 1893. [Penn Newman Catholic Center web site.]
Pittsburgh's Oratory--whose four priests are the chaplains for Catholic students at the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, and Chatham College--was founded at the invitation of Bishop (later Cardinal) John Wright in 1961. The community provides a stable pastoral ministry for the ever-changing student population. And the Pittsburgh Oratorians have for their motto Cor ad cor--Latin for "Heart to heart"--taken from the motto Newman adopted for his coat of arms as a cardinal. [CMU's Newman Club's web site.]
Newman's apostolate of personal influence lives on, too: rare is the English-speaking intellectual convert of the past 100 years who can't give at least some of the credit to Venerable John Henry Newman.
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