St. John Henry Cardinal Newman

Authored By: Matthew Bunson, Encyclopedia of Catholic History

St. John Henry Newman (1801-1890) 

Leader of the Oxford movement, prominent convert to Catholicism, cardinal, and one of the Church’s greatest apologists. He was born in London, the son of a London banker. At the age of seven, he entered the Ealing School and while there became initially attracted to the antireligious writings of Voltaire (1694-1778) and the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), one day announcing his disbelief in God and divine revelation. His master at the school persuaded him to read the writings of John Calvin (1509-1564), and Newman underwent a kind of conversion, reading the Bible with enthusiasm. In 1817, he enrolled at Trinity College, Oxford, and was converted to Anglicanism. In 1822, he became a fellow of Oriel and two years later was ordained a deacon. He was then appointed vice-principal of Alban Hall (1825) and vicar of St. Mary's, Oxford (1828). As a preacher, he attracted a wide following with his superb oratory; the crowds only increased after his resignation in 1832 from his tutorship at Oxford owing to a dispute over religious duties.

From that time, as Newman's belief in Anglicanism declined, he became a leading figure in the Oxford movement and acquired national notoriety for his writings entitled Parochial and Plain Sermons (1834-1842) and his contributions to the Tracts for the Times (1833-1841). He advocated a position for the Anglican Church that he characterized as the via media; this meant that Anglicanism held a middle ground between Romanism (with its papal infallibility) and Protestantism (with its lack of restraint for private judgment). This perspective was more fully developed in the Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church (1837) and Lectures on Justification (1838). Finally, he caused a firestorm of controversy in the Anglican Church with “Tract 90” in which he argued that the Thirty-Nine Articles should be interpreted in a manner in keeping with the Council of Trent. To him, the Thirty-Nine Articles were not directed against the leadership of the Catholic Church but the political supremacy of the papacy. Condemned by Anglican authorities, Newman resigned from St. Mary's, ended his association with Oxford, and retired to the village of Littlemore with several friends. His four friends entered the Church over the next several years, largely under Newman's influence, but he did not join himself until 1845. On October 9 of that year he wrote to his sister: “I must tell you what will pain you greatly. This night Father Dominic, the Italian Passionist, sleeps here. . . . I shall ask him to receive me into what I believe to be the One Fold of the Redeemer.” He then issued a defense of his decision, Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845).

Newman traveled to Rome after his baptism and was ordained in 1847. He entered the Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri and received permission from Pope Pius IX to open an oratory in Birmingham in 1849. From 1851-1858, he served as the first rector of the Catholic University of Dublin, finally resigning in 1858. In 1864, he became embroiled in a controversy with the Protestant clergyman Charlie Kingsley (d. 1875), who had slandered both Newman and the priesthood in an article. After several unsatisfactory exchanges, Newman released his Apologia pro vita sua (1864), a magnificent religious autobiography examining his religious thoughts to the time of his reception into the Church. It is also one of the greatest autobiographical works in the English language, and the primary source for the history of the Oxford movement. In 1870, he wrote A Grammar of Assent, a profound survey on the psychology of faith. Other writings included: Loss and Gain (1848, a novel); Callista (1856, a novel); The Dream of Gerontius (1866, in book form), a poem expressing the departure of a soul to God that was set to music by Edward Elgar (1857-1934); and Idea of a University (1852), containing Newman's vision of a liberal education.

In 1877, Newman was elected an honorary fellow of Trinity College. Two years later, in recognition of his service to the Church, Pope Leo XIII made him a cardinal deacon. He chose as his motto, “Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem” (“Out of the shadows and images into the truth”). His elevation was greeted with genuine enthusiasm in England and elsewhere, and was considered a significant gesture by the Holy See to the English Catholics. Newman died at Edgebaston, Birmingham, where he had spent his final years, on August 11, 1890.

He was beatified on September 19, 2010 during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to England. 

(From: Matthew Bunson, Encyclopedia of Catholic History.)