Blessed John Henry Newman

Blessed John Henry Newman

From an ordinary Anglican family, whose religion was Bible, morals, and Prayer book, he was born during the European-wide Revolution, whose first principle was to set Science and Reason against Faith and Religion. Follow Reason and despise Religion, or follow Faith and despise Science! Or, in between, those Newman called “Liberals” held “the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another.” Newman lived to build a new synthesis of Faith and Reason, our foundation for a new Christendom.

Growing up in wartime, a lonely exiled French priest taught him French — how much do Newman and the world owe to his silent prayers? But at fifteen Newman found a strongly Evangelical faith, a knowledge of God that never left him.

As an Evangelical, Newman arrived at Trinity College, aged sixteen (June 1817). Avoiding the hard-drinking “Gentlemen”, Newman and his friends were keen readers, riders, swimmers and yachtsmen. They worked hard and played hard, until he broke down and performed dismally in final examinations. Undaunted he stayed on, taking pupils, and studying a wide range of subjects. Although his principal studies were classics, theology and philosophy, new sciences like geology were emerging, and Newman was fascinated with them. He had no difficulty in reconciling them with his religion, just as later he had no anxiety over Darwinism, seeing the new theories as illustrating God at work.

He courageously applied for a Fellowship at Oriel, and was elected in April 1822. For much of his Oxford career Newman was not a teacher but a pastor, Vicar of St Mary’s (1828–43). His time passed in parish work, helped by his mother and sisters, but his greatest influence came through preaching and writing.

The “Oxford Movement” began with Keble’s sermon on “national apostasy” (14 July 1833), meaning that the Government had no right to interfere in Church matters. This applied even to the tiny “Church of Ireland”, which Newman and friends still thought was the One True Church founded by St Patrick, not a department of State. At first, they met the problems of the times by publishing “Tracts”. After they had rediscovered ancient Catholicism, they developed the theme of “Apostolicity”. If the Church was founded on the teaching of the Apostles, transmitted from them to modern bishops, these bishops could not be mere servants of the State. Disappointingly, actual Anglican bishops at the time period did not share this view at all.

Newman also began to work on Faith and Reason. Logic alone, he said, is not enough to convert anyone. We need an inner conviction (“intuition”, “conscience”, the “illative sense”), to perceive God. Then apply reason, and see how our instinctive faith fits together with human knowledge. This approach combines the fact of Evangelical conversion with the demands of reason. We do not come to faith through argument, but once we have faith, we can put it to the rigorous examination, and find it consistent with science. (This insight was taken up by the First Vatican Council in 1869.)

As Newman and friends read the Church Fathers, they were increasingly dissatisfied with Protestantism, for the real “Church of the Fathers” was much richer and wider. After a brief attempt to maintain that Rome had somehow left the One True Church at the Council of Trent, they began to imagine that the Church was divided into three “branches”, Roman, Greek and English, all valid in their own territories, but not elsewhere. This theory was exploded once Newman realised that neither Greece nor Rome believed in it, and besides it was rejected by most Anglicans. He also realised that appeal to antiquity is not enough. In early centuries the heretics clung to outmoded positions, while Catholic truth advanced by new understanding. So emerged the theory of the Development of Christian Doctrine, which Newman wrote up in retirement at Littlemore. “To grow is to change” — the sign of life and growth is organic development of Christian doctrines and practices. Obviously not all change is growth, and he shows us how to distinguish development from corruption. Newman worked slowly, developing his own doctrine until he was ready to fall before Blessed Dominic Barberi at Littlemore to be received into the One Fold of the Redeemer (8 October 1845).

The friends who had lived at Littlemore found themselves Catholics, with no friends and few contacts. Not by Catholics were they converted, for “Oxford made us Catholics”. But they must leave Oxford, for its University was closed to them. The local bishop, Nicholas Wiseman, invited them to the former seminary at Old Oscott while they decided what to do. Newman named it “Maryvale” and planned some sort of Catholic educational institute there. But then Wiseman sent them off to Rome for ordination. While there, they examined various religious congregations, and realised that St Philip’s Oratory was the most suitable. The Birmingham Oratory was accordingly set up in Maryvale (2 February 1847), before settling on its present site, with another Oratory in London.

The remainder of Newman’s life was comparatively uneventful. Mostly he was occupied in pastoral work, preaching in the Oratory church, teaching in the schools. Occasionally bishops attempted to use him for grand public works, but failed to provide the necessary support. Hence the failure of the Catholic University, the new Bible translation, an Oratory at Oxford. In the great work of re-building the Catholic Church in England, Newman was something of a bystander. But at the first national Synod, Newman preached, and likened the sudden re-flowering of Catholicism to a “second spring” (13 July 1852).

Newman lived quietly in the Oratory, until he and the world were startled when Leo XIII made him a Cardinal. His thought had been more influential than he realised, for it was his theology of the development of doctrine that made it possible for Pius IX to define the Immaculate Conception in 1854 (a doctrine which had been worked out in Oxford by Blessed Duns Scotus centuries before). As the grand old man of the Church, Newman was respected by all, and followed to his grave in Rednal in August 1890 by thousands of the Birmingham poor.

The philosophy taught by Newman was taken up by a strong tradition of thinkers. Some still think that Science and Faith are incompatible, but the legacy of Newman is now being used to show how Science and Religion, Reason and Faith, do fit together, so that our century may avoid the mistakes of the last.

O God, who bestowed on the Priest Blessed John Henry Newman the grace to follow your kindly light and find peace in your Church; graciously grant that, through his intercession and example, we may be led out of shadows and images into the fulness of your truth. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.