|John Henry Newman|
Even before John Keble’s famous sermon “National Apostasy” which triggered the Tractarian movement, Newman had immersed himself in the study of the Fathers of the Church and had in 1833 produced his first major work, The Arians of the Fourth Century. This led, in turn, to a study of the heresy on the other end of the theological spectrum from Arianism, the Monophysites. But he became deeply troubled as he got further and further into his studies, perceiving similarities between the Monophysites and his Anglican Church when it came to questions of ecclesial authority. He then came across a quote from Saint Augustine that shook him to his core “'Securus judicat orbis terrarium!” “The decision of the entire world is definitive.” In other words: When the Church reaches a consensus, the answer is established. Newman saw that the position claimed by the Church of England to be a via media, a sort of bridge between Catholicism and Protestantism, wasn’t tenable. You either stood with the Church or outside it. From this point on his commitment to Anglicanism was in its death throes.
While he had come to this understanding sometime around 1839, and while he ceased priestly ministry in the Church of England after 1843, it was only in October 1845 that Newman himself made the leap into the Catholic Church. Several of his Littlemore associates had already preceded him.
Newman’s choice for Roman Catholicism shocked family and friends alike. Many of his old associates turned their backs on him. It was impossible for him to stay at Littlemore since the cottages belonged to the Anglican parish, and he and his associates moved to Oscott, the seminary of Bishop Nicholas Wiseman who was the Vicar Apostolic (Catholic Bishop) of the Midlands district. (England at the time had no established Catholic hierarchy but was guided by four—and then later eight—regional bishops known as Vicars Apostolic.) That October, the first anniversary of his being received into the Catholic Church, Newman went to Rome where he was received by Pius IX and ordained a Catholic priest by Cardinal Giacomo Filippo Fransoni. Pius awarded the Doctorate of Divinity to the distinguished convert. He was hereafter known as “Doctor Newman” even in Protestant circles. Newman wanted to be a religious priest and looked at several Orders, most notably the Dominicans. In the end, however, he settled on the Oratorians, who are secular priests (without religious vows) living a collegial life with some common prayer and meals while collaborating in ministry. It is a life highly suited to the apostle and to the scholar but no so much to the mystic.
Newman returned to England in late 1847, and after some moving around finally settled at Edgbaston in Birmingham where the magnificent church of the Immaculate Conception and a large and commodious house for the Oratorian community were built. The Church became famous for its superior music and Newman’s preaching drew a large audience, both Catholic and Anglican.
Newman wasn’t long in England before the Catholic Church in England had to face a major crisis. We will have to deal with this in a future posting but in summary in September 1850, Pope Pius IX established a Catholic hierarchy in England. While the Pope was careful not to give his bishops the titles of the pre-Reformation Sees, titles still held by the Bishops of the Church of England, to give any English title was seen to be an affront to Her Majesty, the Queen. The Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, was a particularly nasty anti-Catholic and rather than come to some understanding of the situation chose to fan the flames. The somewhat high and mighty attitude of Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman, the first Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, didn’t help. Wiseman, like so many hierarchs, was a natural at pontificating and not only at the Liturgy. The brouhaha reached such a point that Newman was called in to rescue the situation with a series of lectures explaining Catholicism to the public. Though in the end the arch-Protestants (they had never liked Newman when he was a High Church Anglican) did not accept his explanations, Newman was able to bring an objective understanding of Roman Catholicism into the eye of the English public. You would think the Catholic party would be appreciative; it never was.
Newman was part of a flood of converts from Anglicanism to Catholicism. While his conversion was the occasion that triggered many others to follow, they didn’t convert to the same Catholic Church. Newman never lost that Anglican reserve that made him uncomfortable with the more exotic flowerings of Latin Catholicism whereas many of the converts—and most especially Henry Edward Manning, the Anglican Archdeacon of Chichester who followed Newman into the Catholic Church in 1851—went full fig into the most outrageous Ultramontane Catholicism. (Ultramontane refers to those Catholics who were determined not only to be more papal than the Pope, but more I-talian in their enthusiasm for baroque Catholicism and sentimental piety. It really wasn’t a pretty thing then and it isn’t now as we see in the vagaries of neo-traditionalism and the excesses of the Burke/Cordileone/Morlino burlesque.) Newman wasn’t trusted by the zealots because he was a strong advocate of using one’s intellectual abilities to define one’s theology rather than blindly getting on the popular bandwagon as it rolled along a road of Italianate extravagances.
In 1854 the Catholic Bishops in Ireland invited Newman to come to Dublin and establish a Catholic University. They really didn’t understand his basic philosophy of Education. Newman believed that the University should be a place free of direct control of the Church where there was sufficient latitude for research, publication and open debate. His ideas were drawn from the great Medieval universities of Europe where Revelation was cherished and Tradition maintained but also where there was an intellectual freedom to explore questions without being bound to pre-determined answers. This view did not make the Bishops happy and Newman resigned after four years and returned to the Birmingham Oratory.
Later in life Newman somewhat romanticized his Anglican years as a time of his universal popularity and esteem and his Catholic years as a time of being bitterly misunderstood. There is some truth to the picture as long as you don’t look too closely at the details—especially in the Anglican phase. Suffice it to say that the 1860’s and ‘70’s were a time of personal anguish in which he felt he had sacrifice everything for the Truth he found in Catholicism. Rumors abounded that he had—or soon would—revert to the Church of England. And in all honesty old Anglican friends, most notably Richard William Church, the Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, were far more faithful friends than his Catholic co-religionists.
Newman was a particular thorn in the side of Manning who had, by this time, advanced to the position of Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster and (Catholic) Primate of England. Henry Manning was a particularly stony fellow who met the description often used by a late friend of mine when describing unpleasant people. “He had a face like a bowl full of sour a**holes.” Manning was in many respects the polar opposite of Newman. As Newman stuck to the understated Recusant Catholic Tradition that marked English Catholicism between the Reformation and the establishment of the hierarchy, Manning embraced a Catholicism that would make a Neapolitan blush. Newman and Manning came to public disagreement over the Declaration of Papal Infallibility in 1870. Newman professed his belief in the Doctrine but felt that it may not be opportune to define. Manning supported the definition with an alarming enthusiasm totally divorced from the socio-political realities of the Catholic Church in England. Newman, of course, was a priest and therefore would not be attending Vatican I, his influence being confined to his writings and talks. Manning was leading the English Episcopal delegation to the Council. Manning made sure that Pius IX and the Roman Curia well understood just how liberal Newman was and his intellectual ties to other opponents of the definition. This pushed Newman further and further back into the shadows.
Newman was sustained during this period of neglect by Ambrose Saint John. Saint John had been part of the Littlemore community and converted to Catholicism about a month before Newman. He accompanied Newman to Rome and was ordained to the Catholic priesthood there with him. Together they were received into the Oratory and together they planned and built the Birmingham Oratory. Other than Newman’s four years in Dublin they lived together in the Birmangham Oratory for the remainder of Saint John’s life. When Saint John died in May 1875 Newman threw himself on the bed next to the corpse and would not be parted from his friend until the undertakers came for the body the next morning. Newman said: "I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband's or a wife's, but I feel it difficult to believe that any can be greater, or any one's sorrow greater, than mine.” He called Ambrose Saint John his “life under God for 33 years.” (This would be from the time Saint John came to Littlemore in 1842 until his death in 1845.) Newman instructed that he was to buried in the same grave as Ambrose Saint John. It was a very complex relationship and while there is no reason to suspect that it lacked an integrity, it does reveal the complexities of our psycho-sexual natures.
In 1878 Pius IX died. The election of Giacomo Pecci as Leo XIII was as much a new broom sweeping away the accumulated rubbish of the previous reign as the election of Pope Francis has proved to be. And in the very first consistory of Cardinals named in his reign in 1879, Leo named John Henry Newman. The Duke of Norfolk, the premier peer of the Realm as well as England’s leading Catholic layman, had suggested the idea to the new Pope who was quite enthusiastic about it. But even here Manning tried to stop it. The practice was (and still is) that Cardinals who are not residential bishops live in Rome. Newman, now at the age of 78, was reluctant to give up the comforts and securities of England and said he might accept the Red Hat but only if dispensation were given him to continue to live at the Birmingham oratory. The correspondence all went through the Primate and Manning did not forward Newman’s letter but duplicitously wrote Rome saying that Newman had declined as he did not choose to live in Rome. When Pope Leo expressed his regrets to the Duke of Norfolk, Norfolk immediately cleared up the “misunderstanding” on Newman’s behalf and Newman got his Red Hat. Punch, the satirical magazine, put it right when it wrote of Newman’s elevation:
"'Tis the good and grey head that would honor the Hat
Not the Hat that would honor the Head."
Newman died August 11, 1890 and was interred in Saint John’s grave in Rednal as he had requested.
When Newman died he was much admired by Anglicans and Catholics alike, especially among the intelligentsia. A particular correspondent and admiring friend was Liberal Prime Minister William E. Glastone. Gladstone, like Newman, believed in the supremacy of the individual conscience.
Ironically Newman has been adopted by several right-wing groups of contemporary Catholics, most notably the “Cardinal Newman Society.” He is posited as an anti-liberal when in fact he was anything but. Newman’s opposition was to the “liberalism” of the Enlightenment and its heirs who saw religion only as a natural phenomenon and discounted not only the idea of Absolute Truth(s) but of Divine Revelation itself. Newman had always seen what a blind alley this rationalism led to but he was no conservative. His philosophy of Education which had led him into conflict with the Irish Bishops during his years with the National University in Dublin shows his respect for open inquiry, investigation, and discussion. His defense of the supremacy of conscience was decades ahead of its time. Moreover his essay on the need to consult the laity in matters of doctrine gives lie to his belief in the Magisterium as the sole source of authority in the Church. Indeed, he had a great confidence in the capabilities of a Catholic laity and was very leery of hierarchical absolutism in the Church. He is often referred to as “The Father of Vatican II” since the Council realized so many of his dreams for the Church. We can’t say, of course, what his attitude would be towards the Liturgical Reforms which came about only 75 years after he was in his grave, but an overall familiarity with his writings gives that sense of confidence in modernity that is reflected in the 1970 Missal. “To live is to change,” he wrote “and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
Newman’s flight from the Church of England to the Catholic Church gave impetus for many more to follow him but ironically he has always, even in his lifetime, served as an eirenicon of harmonization between the two traditions.