Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801 – 1890)
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 heart.
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 life".
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 life.
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 reform.
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 of rationalism.
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 revived".
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 Doctrine. In this theological masterpiece … Newman, [rejected] 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, [he] reaffirmed what he was in the habit of calling the dogmatic principle….. “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…”
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….. 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….
Against religious liberalism
To conclude we [turn] to the Biglietto Speech Newman delivered on being raised to the College of Cardinals [15 May 1879]. 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".
[On 11 August 1890, at the age of 89, Cardinal Newman died at the Oratory House in Edgbaston. At his death The Times of London wrote: "whether Rome canonizes him or not he will be canonized in the thoughts of pious people of many creeds in England". On 22 January 1991, he was declared Venerable by Pope John Paul II.]
Edited from “On the 125th Anniversary of John Henry Newman's Becoming a Cardinal,” Hermann Geissler, L’Osservatore Romano, 11/18 August 2004