|Exemplary commitment to the service of Truth
At the Consistory of 15 May 1879, John Henry Newman was created a Cardinal
of the Holy Roman Church. Leo XIII, who had recently been elected Pope,
personally desired to confer the dignity of Cardinal on the well-known
English convert whom he affectionately called at an Audience, "my
On receiving the biglietto informing him of his elevation to the
Cardinalate three days before the above-mentioned Consistory, Newman
addressed those present at Cardinal Howard's residence in Rome. His
Biglietto Speech was to become famous.
After thanking the Holy Father for so great an honour, he humbly said
that he had made "many mistakes" in his life and did not possess any of
"that high perfection which belongs to the writings of saints". However,
he added that he had always acted with "an honest intention, an absence of
personal ends, a temper of obedience, a willingness to be corrected, a
dread of error, a desire to serve the Holy Church, and, through the Divine
mercy, a fair measure of success".
The newly elected Cardinal then summed up the essential nucleus of his
mission as pastor and theologian: "I rejoice to say, to one great mischief
I have from the first opposed myself. For 30, 40, 50 years I have
resisted, to the best of my powers, the spirit of Liberalism in religion.
Never did the Holy Church need champions against it more sorely than now,
when, alas, it is an error overspreading as a snare the whole earth; and
on this great occasion, when it is natural for one who is in my place to
look out upon the world and upon the Holy Church as it is and upon her
future, it will not, I hope, be considered out of place if I renew the
protest against it which I have so often made".
To commemorate this 125th anniversary year of Newman's creation as
Cardinal, it would be appropriate to mention certain stages of his life,
for the purpose of illustrating his exemplary commitment to the service of
Conversion: God and dogma
Cardinal Newman was born in London on 21 February 1801. He was brought
up in the Anglican tradition, and as a young man had a strong religious
inclination that was mainly expressed in reading the Bible. From his earliest years, Sacred Scripture endowed him with high moral
standards, but his intellectual potential demanded something more precise
and more clearly defined.
Very soon, when he was only 14 years old, he was tempted by disbelief
and self-sufficiency. He wanted to be a gentleman, but not to believe in
God. "I remember", he wrote about this, "that I wanted to be virtuous but
not to be religious; I had not understood what loving God means". As the young student struggled with this temptation, God knocked at his
During his holidays in 1816, he read Force of Truth by Thomas Scott and
its content made a profound impression on him. He subsequently experienced
his "first conversion", which he himself considered one of the most
significant graces of his life. It involved acute awareness of the
existence and presence of God and of the invisible world.
In his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, he confessed that this experience did
have a great influence on his personality, "isolating me from the objects
which surrounded me, in confirming me in my mistrust of the reality of
material phenomena, and making me rest in the thought of two and two only
absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator". He also chose from Scott's book two phrases that were to mark his whole
life: "holiness rather than peace" and "growth, the only evidence of
After this first conversion, Newman sought to love God above all things
and to follow the Truth without compromise. "When I was 15 (in the Fall of 1816), a great change of thought took
place in me. I fell under the influences of a definite Creed and received
into my intellect impressions of dogma, which through God's mercy have
never been effaced or obscured". He thus began to realize the importance of the great Christian dogmas:
the Incarnation of the Son of God, the work of Christ's redemption, the
gift of the Spirit who dwells in the baptized person's soul, the faith
that cannot remain a simple theory but must be expressed in a programme of
The Oxford Movement
After his studies at Trinity College, Oxford, Newman was elected a
fellow of Oriel College. He became an Anglican minister, and later, vicar
of St Mary's, the church of Oxford University. At Oriel College he met certain representatives of High Church
Anglicanism and began to be interested in the Fathers of the Church. In them he
discovered the freshness and honesty of the early Church, which had to put
down roots in a pagan world.
At the same time, he was more and more dissatisfied with the spiritual
situation of his confession and concerned about the increasing influence
of liberalism in Oxford and throughout England. To combat these trends, Newman, together with some friends, founded the
Oxford Movement in 1833. Its supporters denounced the Nation's detachment
from the practice of the faith and fought for a return to primitive
Christianity by means of a sound dogmatic, spiritual and liturgical
Newman sums up the fundamental principle of the Oxford Movement in
these words: "My battle was with liberalism; by liberalism I mean the
antidogmatic principle and its developments.... From the age of 15, dogma
has been the fundamental principle of my religion: I know no other
religion; I cannot enter into the idea of any other sort of religion;
religion, as a mere sentiment, is to me a dream and a mockery. As well can
there be filial love without the fact of a father, as devotion without the
fact of a Supreme Being". It is clear from this that the doctrine of liberalism which Newman rejected is identical to the relativistic
conception of religion and morals.
By publishing tracts that were easy to disseminate, the Oxford Movement
endeavoured to penetrate the consciences of ecclesiastics as well as of
the simple faithful, caught between the two extremes of sentimentalism and
Newman realized that the polemic against religious liberalism needed a
sound fundamental doctrine. He was convinced that he had found the basis
for it in the writings of the Fathers, whom he admired as the true heralds
and doctors of the Christian faith, representatives of that ancient
religion "which had virtually disappeared from this earth and should be
While the Oxford Movement was spreading, Newman developed the theory of
the Via Media. With this he intended to demonstrate that the Anglican
Communion was the legitimate heir to primitive Christianity and the true
Church in Christ since it showed no sign of either the doctrinal errors of the Protestants or the corruption and abuses that he thought he saw in the Church of Rome.
Towards the Catholic Church
His Via Media was hinged on dogma, the sacramental system and
anti-Romanism. However, in studying the history of the Church in the
fourth century, Newman made a great discovery: he found that the
Christianity of his own century was reflected in the three religious
groups of that period: in the Arians, the Protestants; in the Romans, the
Church of Rome; and in the semi-Arians, the Anglicans. This experience
stirred up in his heart his first doubts about the Anglican Communion.
Shortly afterwards, he read an article in which the position of the
African Donatists of Augustine's time was compared with that of the Anglicans. Newman could not forget the phrase "Securus judicat orbis terrarum" quoted by St Augustine, that is, in Newman's own translation: "The universal Church, in her judgments, is sure of the Truth".
He realized that not only were doctrinal conflicts in the ancient
Church resolved on the basis of the principle of antiquity, but also of
catholicity: the opinion of the Church as a whole is an infallible decree.
Consequently, "the theory of the Via Media was absolutely pulverized".
Faithful to the principle of respecting the Truth, Newman decided to
retire to Littlemore, a small village near Oxford, for a few years of
prayer and study. He began to pull together the threads of a reflection
that had been in his mind for years: if the Roman Catholic Church is in
the apostolic succession, how would it be possible to justify those
doctrines that did not seem to be part of the patrimony of faith
bequeathed by early Christianity?
The principle of authentic development that he worked out enabled him
to justify various new teachings in the life of the Church: the later
dogmas were authentic developments of the original Revelation. He
illustrated this argument, crucial for his future, in An Essay on the Development of Christian
In this theological masterpiece there is a passage in which Newman,
rejecting the idea that truth and error in religious matters were supposed
to be a question of opinion and that salvation did not depend on the right
profession of faith, reaffirmed what he was in the habit of calling the
"That there is a truth then; that there is one Truth; that religious
error is in itself of an immoral nature; that its maintainers, unless
involuntarily such, are guilty in maintaining it; that it is to be
dreaded; that the search for Truth is not the gratification of curiosity;
that its attainment has nothing of the excitement of a discovery; that the
mind is subject to the truth, therefore, it is not superior to it and is
bound not to dissertate upon it, but to venerate it; that truth and
falsehood are set before us to try our hearts; that our choice is an awful
drawing of lots on which our salvation or rejection is inscribed; that
'before all things it is necessary to hold the Catholic faith'; that 'he
that would be saved must thus think', and not otherwise; that, 'if thou
criest after knowledge, and liftest up thy voice for understanding, if
thou seekest her as silver, and searcheth for her as for hid treasure,
then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of
God'. This is the dogmatical principle, which has strength".
While Newman was thus proceeding with his studies on the development of
Christian doctrine, he realized that the Church of Rome was the Church of
the Fathers, the true Church of Christ.
In his Apologia he wrote: "I was led on to examine more attentively
what I doubt not was in my thoughts long before, namely, the concatenation
of argument by which the mind ascends from its first to its final
religious idea; and I came to the conclusion that there was no medium, in
true philosophy, between Atheism and Catholicism, and that a perfectly
consistent mind, under those circumstances in which it finds itself here
below, must embrace either the one or the other".
On 9 October 1845, he embraced the Catholic faith and was received by
Bl. Dominic Barberi, an Italian Passionist, into the Catholic Church which
he described as "the One Fold of Christ".
"Tests" for the Truth
After being ordained a Catholic priest, Newman founded the Oratory of
St Philip Neri in Birmingham. In his many pastoral and theological
activities he worked above all for the intellectual and spiritual
formation of the Catholic faithful, of his confreres and of new converts. Indeed, he was convinced that comparison with the cultural and social
developments of the time demanded a faith that could demonstrate the
reasons for hope.
Amid infinite difficulties and misunderstandings on many sides, he
worked tirelessly to train cultured lay people, "persons of the world for
the world", but who were guided by an illuminating faith that they would
also be capable of defending.
An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent came out in 1870. In this book,
another classic, Newman analyzes philosophically the act of the assent of
the human mind to revealed truths, seeking to defend the right of ordinary
people to certainty, though unable to justify and formulate the faith for
himself or herself. In this essay, the author shows in a convincing and timely way how the
mind may reach certainty, both in general and in the area of faith.
In the section that concludes this book, Newman has bequeathed to us a
beautiful passage in which he sums up the "acid test" for the Truth, comparing it with natural religion, the
promises made to the people of Israel and the various religions that had
spread through the Roman Empire. Let us cite this passage, which is
particularly important in today's world in which Christianity is called to
assert itself and spread in a pluralistic and multi-religious society.
"Natural Religion is based upon the sense of sin; it recognizes the
disease, but it cannot find, it does but look out for, the remedy. That
remedy, both for guilt and for moral impotence, is found in the central
doctrine of Revelation, the Mediation of Christ.
"Thus it is that Christianity is the fulfilment of the promise made to
Abraham, and of the Mosaic revelations; this is how it has been able from
the first to occupy the world and gain a hold on every class of human
society to which its preachers reached; this is why the Roman power and
the multitude of religions which it embraced could not stand against it;
this is the secret of its sustained energy and its never-flagging
martyrdoms; this is how at present it is so mysteriously potent, in spite
of the new and fearful adversaries which beset its path. It has with it
that gift of staunching and healing the one deep wound of human nature,
which avails more for its success than a full encyclopaedia of scientific
knowledge and a whole library of controversy, and therefore it must last
while human nature lasts. It is a living truth which never can grow old.
"Some persons speak of it as if it were a thing of history, with only
indirect bearings upon modern times; I cannot allow that it is a mere
historical religion. Certainly it has its foundations in past and glorious
memories, but its power is in the present. It is no dreary matter of
antiquarianism; we do not contemplate it in conclusions drawn from dumb
documents and dead events, but by faith exercised in ever-living objects,
and by the appropriation and use of ever-recurring gifts.
"Our communion with it is in the unseen, not in the obsolete. At this
very day its rites and ordinances are continually eliciting the active
interposition of that Omnipotence in which the Religion long ago began.
First and above all is the Holy Mass, in which He who once died for us upon the Cross, brings
back and perpetuates, by His literal presence in it, that one and the same
sacrifice which cannot be repeated.
"Next, there is the actual entrance of Himself, soul and body and
divinity, into the soul and body of every worshipper who comes to Him for
the gift, a privilege more intimate than if we lived with Him during His long-past sojourn upon earth.
"And then, moreover, there is His personal abidance in our churches,
raising earthly service into a foretaste of heaven.
"Such is the profession of Christianity, and, I repeat, its very
divination of our needs is in itself a proof that it is really the supply
Against religious liberalism
To conclude we return to the Biglietto Speech Newman delivered on being
raised to the College of Cardinals. On that occasion he renewed his
protest against religious liberalism. He gave a precise description of
this, a description whose prophetic character is obvious in our time.
"Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth
in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the
teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent
with any recognition of any religion as true. It teaches that all are to
be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a
truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous;
and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes
his fancy. Devotion is not necessarily founded on faith. Men may go to
Protestant Churches and to Catholic, may get good from both and belong to
neither. They may fraternize together in spiritual thoughts and feelings,
without having any views at all of doctrine in common, or seeing the need
of them. Since, then, religion is so personal a peculiarity and so private
a possession, we must of necessity ignore it in the intercourse of man
with man. If a man puts on a new religion every morning, what is that to
you? It is as impertinent to think about a man's religion as about his
sources of income or his management of his family. Religion is in no sense
the bond of society".
Today we are witnesses of a mentality, widespread in many milieus,
which sustains precisely these ideas, denounced by Newman, with very grave
consequences for the cause of the Truth, for ecumenical and interreligious
dialogue, for the liturgy and spirituality and for the social and cultural
dimension of the faith.
Venerable Cardinal Newman can remind everyone, Pastors and lay people
alike, that the Truth is a very precious treasure to be accepted with
faith, proclaimed with honesty and defended with force.
"Commonly the Church", as Cardinal Newman ends his discourse, "has
nothing more to do than to go on in her own proper duties, in confidence
and peace; to stand still and see the salvation of God".