One Step is Enough for Me: the life of John Henry Newman

religion | Sep 22, 2010 | By Colin Battell

‘I felt annihilated in his presence – there is a saint in that man’ were the prophetic words of Bishop Ullathorne on meeting John Henry Newman, ‘an eminent Victorian indeed. Newman towers like a Colossus above his contemporaries. Nor has his influence faded with the passing of time. As we shall see, the Second Vatican Council has been called Newman’s Council. Many of its theological advisers found him an inspiration and a forerunner who announced many of its key themes. His life spanned most of the 19th century (1801-1890).

Half his life was spent as a member of the Church of England, half as a Catholic. His thought was wide-ranging , the product of his fertile imagination and his mind never stood still, always growing and developing new truth by meditating on old truth. A complex person, difficult to categorise – indeed it is hard to generalise about Newman because he was constantly qualifying and subtly nuancing his own position as he strove to explore the mysteries of a revealed faith.

His writing was prodigious – 36 volumes in the edition brought out by himself with 12 more after his death. That does not include the 32 copiously annotated volumes of letters published in the second half of the last century. A brilliant writer difficult to paraphrase writing in a mellifluous style that still has a freshness that distinguishes him from so many of his contemporaries. He even found time to write two novels, ‘Loss and Gain’ and ‘Callista’ which are also of interest for the development of his religious thought and his poetry included perhaps the most famous hymn from the 19th Century, ‘Lead kindly light, amid the encircling gloom’, not to mention the two classic hymns, ‘Praised to the Holiest in the height’ and ‘Firmly I believe and truly’ culled from his poem on death and purgatory, the Dream of Gerontius. One can only marvel that he wrote so much while still finding time to be a pastor of souls and an accomplished violinist.

Yet, such was the humility of the man that at times he was depressed by his lack of achievement and burdened by the many trials and difficulties he had to face. Neither the Anglican church nor the Catholic Church found it easy to deal with genius if his kind and it can be said that he suffered at the hands of the authorities of both though he bore it without resentment. Indeed, he was always conscious that the Cross cannot be evaded in the Christian life. The balance between Cross and Resurrection was one of which he was always conscious, confirmed as it was by his experience of life.

In many ways, while being very much a man of the Victorian age, he transcends culture and the time at which he lived. How else could it be that his spiritual autobiography Apologia Pro Vita Sua could be seen as a classic to be compared with and seen as on a par with the Confessions of St. Augustine.

Quite without ambition, it was noted by no less a person that Dr Jonathan Routh, the President of Magdalen College, Oxford: ‘Mr Newman is not trying to get on in life’. Newman found in the early Church and in monasticism a detachment to be admired. As he noted in his novel Callista they were detached ‘because they possessed a light beaming already which they loved above everything else’.

Owen Chadwick could even say, ‘Newman was a monk by nature as well as by grace’. From an early age he called to the celibate life and felt uneasy about Anglican clergy who married. That is not to say that he did not have a high estimate of marriage and his own experience from an early age was of stable family life. He saw the faithful life of a husband and wife as a way of growing in unselfishness and saw children as a great blessing from God. But he felt the celibate life gave more opportunity for a total commitment to his ministry. When towards the end of his life he was made a Cardinal, he politely asked not to be removed from his ‘monastery’ at a time when Cardinals were expected to reside in Rome. In a poem of 1859 he wrote:

The holy monks concealed from men,
In midnight choir or studious cell,
In sultry field or winter glen,
The Holy monks I love them well.

This rather romantic view sprang from his poetic nature. The cloister in contrast to the world he saw as single-minded. The monastery, he believed,
was the locus for trying to do God’s will moment by moment. Fundamental perhaps was the thinking expressed in his epitaph which emphasised the distinction between the real and the unreal. Heaven is next door so there is no need for plans or strategies, ‘Hold thou my feet, I do not ask to see the distant scene. One step enough for me’.

Newman’s father was a banker and his mother was of Huguenot stock. As a child, Newman was sent to boarding school at the age of eight in Ealing and spent the rest of his life in male communities – at schools, in two Oxford Colleges, at what he called his ‘monastery’ in Littlemore, in Rome and at the Oratory in Birmingham.

Newman was not by nature an outgoing man – rather a man for intimates and friends. Although he lived in Communities, he was essentially a solitary but that did not preclude deep friendships. Indeed, a particular friendship in the purest sense was almost indispensible to him – Hurrell Froude in the early days until his premature death, the Ambrose St John for over forty years and towards the end William Neville. As a child he had imagined there were only two beings in existence, himself and God and he even mused on whether he was an angel and the other world a joke played on him by the other angels. He was shy and silent by temperament, partly because he found it difficult to start a conversation, but also because he was aware of the danger of words. ‘Let us avoid talking of whatever kind’ (Parochial and Plain Sermons 5:45).
It is not surprising that given his voluminous output much of his day was spent in writing. ‘I like going my own without pomp or pressing engagements. Put me into official garb and I am worth nothing. Leave me to myself and every now and then I shall do something’. (Letters 24:2,3)

He liked the monotony of community life and his cell where he did most of his writing standing at his desk – further evidence of monastic traits. But to portray Newman as humourless and hypersensitive would be far from accurate. He has been described as restrained, with a sometimes severe facade, yet underneath demonstrative and affectionate though with a distrust of ‘enthusiasm’ in religion especially as displayed by some of the evangelicals of his time.

His earliest religious experience consisted in reading the Bible at home. ‘I was brought up and inclined to take great delight in reading the Bible’ (Letters). In his early days he read some Enlightenment authors including perhaps Voltaire and might have drifted further in that direction had it not been for the first of his experiences of conversion. At school at Ealing he came under the influence of the Reverend Walter Mayers who led him to a kind of Calvinistic evangelicalism that left him with a strong belief in the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation and in the importance of holiness. This was accompanied by a strong sense of God’s presence and accountability to Him, all of which lasted throughout his life. ‘When I was 15 in the autumn of 1816 a great change of thought took place in me. I fell under the influence of a definite creed and received into my intellect impressions of dogma which through God’s mercy have never been effaced or obscured’. (Apologia p 4). It was not an uncritical acceptance of the Calvinist position – for example, he rejected the idea that some souls were predestined to be damned.

At the age of 16, her went to Trinity College Oxford where he studied mathematics, Greek and Latin and developed a taste for the novels of Walter Scott. He eschewed a good deal of the social life of the university preferring solitary walks and playing his violin. He worked so hard that his health collapsed and he was disappointed to find himself ‘below the line’ i e with a third class degree but he continued to read and contrary to his expectations in 1822 he won a fellowship to Oriel College, then the brightest intellectual achievement possible in the University Within a further two years he had been ordained as appointed as curate at St Clement’s Oxford just beyond Magdalen bridge.

At the still early age of 26 he became Vicar of St Mary’s, the University Church while still remaining a fellow of Oriel. At the College Richard Whately weaned him from some of the emotionalism of evangelicalism though Newman was to find Whately’s religion to cerebral to satisfy his deepest longing. Hence he could write to his brother Charles who weas having difficulty with faith that the evidence for Christianity ‘depends a great deal on moral feeling’ and the rejection of Christianity arises ‘from a fault of the heart not the intellect’ (Letters 1 pp214,219).

It was in Oxford that he met Hurrell Froude who until his death was to be such an enormous influence on him, as well as John Keble and Edward Pusey, who would become founders with him of what came to be known as the Oxford Movement. Under their influence he began reading the Fathers of the Church systematically which led to his first book The Arians of the Fourth Century. From his reading especially of the Alexandrine fathers he developed a strong sense that this world is but a reflection of a higher world. He identified the Arian position as emerging from the Antiochene school of thought, whom he amusingly equated with some of his Oxford rationalist contemporaries. Through his reading he also became aware of the sacramentality of the universe and the importance of tradition as a supplement to Scripture. On holiday in the Mediterranean, he went to Rome for the first time where he met Nicholas Wiseman, then Rector of the English College. He reported that he was impressed by his charm but taken aback by his doctrinal intransigence. On the way back, becalmed in the straits of Bonifacio he penned Lead kindly Light, his most famous poem that was somewhat prophetic of Newman’s own journey.

While Vicar of St Mary’s he published six volumes of Parochial and Plain Sermons perhaps among his finest writings, though neglected because they wer looked on with suspicion by Anglicans and Catholics alike, the former because of his later defection, as they saw it, to Rome, the latter because of their Anglican provenance. They were read in a low-key way but the musical timbre of Newman’s voice and the sheer force of his personality meant that they captivated many hearts and minds of the young who flocked to hear him. Needless to say some of his peers saw them as a dangerous influence of the undergraduate body.

Newman himself attributed the start of the Oxford Movement to John Keble’s Assize Sermon of 1833 though at then time this was probably less clear. It was an anti-Erastian blast against the subjugation of the Church to the State. Examples of this were seen in the State’s desire to suppress 10 Irish bishoprics and later in the establishment of a bishopric in Jerusalem that would alternate between an Anglican and a Prussian Lutheran bishop. The movement expanded its aims to attempt to show the Catholic identity of the Church of England in the hope of eliminating its Protestant elements.

‘We were upholding that positive Christianity which was delivered for all time by the early teachers of the Church... that ancient religion had well nigh faded out of the land...and it must be restored’. (Apologia p 43)

Newman worked closely with the other leaders of the Movement on a number of Tracts for the Times. The first of these on Apostolic Succession was written by Newman as was the last Tract 90 which endeavoured to show that the 39 Articles of Religion of the Church of England were patent of a Catholic interpretation , quite contrary to their apparently obvious meaning.

The outcry and condemnation that followed led to the cessation of the Tracts and the retirement of Newman to what he called a Monastery at Littlemore, then in the countryside but still part of the parish of the University Church. He still had some differences with the Catholic Church over transubstantiation, the cult of the Virgin, invocation of the saints and purgatory but was clearly moving in a Catholic direction.

Ecclesiologically, he had tried to see the Church of England as a via media between the Scylla of Rome and the Charybdis of Geneva but his historical studies began to undermine this position. He noted, for example, that the semi-Arians were a via media between the Nicene faith and the followers of Arius just as the so-called Monophysites were a via medias between the Chalcedonian faitgh and the teaching of Eutyches and his followers. He came to see the via media as what he called ‘a paper church’.
Newman always said that it was the Fathers who led him to the Catholic Church. He was further disturbed by an article by Wiseman in the Dublin Review on The Anglican Claims and especially by the quotation from Augustine against the Donatists ‘securus iudicat orbis terrarum’ (the verdict of the world is conclusive). ‘The words of St Augustine struck me with a power which I never had felt from any words before...they were like the ‘Tolle lege – tolle lege’ of the child which converted St Augustine himself. By those great words of the ancient Father interpreting and summing up the long and varied course of ecclesisastical history, the theology of the via media was absolutely pulverised’ (Apologia p 5)

For a time he espoused what is known as the Branch theory of the Church which saw the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Churches as branches of the One True Church. This distinctively Anglican position would have a vogue for many years to come but was obviously not part of with either Catholic or Orthodox ecclesiology.

In his famous Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine written after he resigned from St Mary’s in 1843 but before he became a Catholic, Newman argued that there was a legitimate development of doctrine consonant with Scripture but going beyond it. This could be seen in the doctrines of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation and the accepted Creeds and Councils of the early Church. This could also be applied to such distinctively Catholic doctrines as Papal supremacy, purgatory and the cult of the saints.

So it was that he was received into the Catholic Church on 9th October 1845 by the Passionist priest Dominic Barberi. He did not see this as a dramatic moment of conversion so much as the logical concomitant of where he had arrived doctrinally.

i was not conscious on my conversion of any change intellectually or morally wrought in my mind. I was not conscious of a firm faith in the fundamental truths of revelation or of more self-command. I had not more fervour but it was like coming into port after a rough sea. (Apologia p238)

In many ways the Catholic Church in of his time was unattractive to him he disliked its music and architecture and the superstition that he observed in Italy. It also cut him off socially from Oxford and his many friends for the next 20 years. ‘I am setting my face absolutely towards the wilderness’, he wrote to Keble. (Letters to John Keble and others p350).

He studied for the priesthood in Rome, humbly sitting at the feet of a scholastic whose dry juridical approach taught him nothing and who was suspicious of Newman’s intellectual brilliance and creative mind. He returned to Birmingham as an Oratorian living in the spirit of St Philip Neri eventually settling at Edgbaston where spacious presmises were built for the community and where, except for four years in Ireland, he would remain living a relatively secluded life for the next forty years.

In 1854 at the request of the Irish bishops he went to Dublin as Rector of the new Catholic University. Here he wrote the Idea of a University on the theory of Catholic education whose purpose was to produce ‘a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid equitable dispassionate mind’. Surprisingly, he did not see research as part of the function of a University, though research was carried out at Dublin. His views on tutoring as concerned with the whole person , not just the intellectual aspect, which had been challenged in Oxford, have since become widely adopted.

It is of interest that he also wrote two articles on education entitled The Mission of St Benedict and The Benedictine Centuries, later re-printed as On Benedictine Schools, He sees in St Benedict ‘the dominating badge’ is ‘the element of poetry’.(On Benedictine Schools in Historical Sketches pp 468) . Although very sympathetic to monasticism, he compared Benedictines unfavourably with the Fathers because of their lack of theological creativity - ‘no creative action of the intellect’ whereas the Fathers were ‘authors of powerful original minds and engaged in the production of original works’. (Ibid p 459).

His views on the development of doctrine had led him to the view that ‘there is not great mistake, then, surely to suppose that a revealed truth precludes originality in the treatment of it, the reassertion of what is old with a luminousness of explanation which is new and is a gift inferior only to that of revelation itself’ (Ibid pp 475-476)

If his life as an Anglican involved him in controversy the same could be said of the second half of his life as a Catholic. In fact most of his writings were in response to problems raised by the vicissitudes of his life. Indeed there were times when he denied that he was a theologian at all. ‘It is not often that I have attempted to discuss any point of theology, controversy being rather my line if writing’ (Letters XXIII Pp10-11) and ‘really I am no theologian’ (Letters XXIV p212). Nevertheless, Avery Dulles - another convert created cardinal for theological writings - sees Newman’s most enduring contribution as being in the realm of fundamental theology, while Anthony Kenny rates his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent as a classic of epistemology unmatched in subtlety until Wittgenstein.

Often he was engaged in polemics. In 1852 he was found guilty of libelling the ex-Dominican friar Achilli in what was even seen by the Times newspaper as an act of gross injustice.

He was also viewed with suspicion by some of his fellow Catholics not least his fellow convert Cardinal Manning. Ironically, some accused him of liberalism. (The bishops, for example, found the Rambler, a journal edited by Newman too liberal and too critical of authority.) This was partly a matter of terminology, Newman though conservative by temperament and politics (he loathed all revolution and what he had seen happen in France) saw himself as a lifelong opponent of liberalism.

‘For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion. He saw it as an erroneous spirit in the Church ‘sweeping into its own ranks numbers of able, earnest, virtuous men’. By it he meant ‘ 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’.(Essay on the Development of Doctrine p358). It is perhaps what would be called relativism today.

He was dilated to Rome for his Essay on Development which was seen as promoting Unitarianism while his Essay on Consulting the Faithful in the Matters of Doctrine would not be widely appreciated until a century later. As Newman remarked wryly of the laity, the Church would look foolish without them.

Even his Apologia pro Vita Sua was written ostensibly to answer the accusation of Charles Kingsley who challenged the integrity of the Roman clergy and of Newman in particular. ‘Fr Newman informs us that truth for its own sake need not be and on the whole ought not to be a virtue of the Roman clergy’. Writing at a furious pace, Newman produced the Apologia is a matter of weeks. It revolutionised the popular estimate of its author which from then on was increasingly sympathetic.

It is well-known that Newman was at first unhappy with the statement on infallibility of the First Vatican Council. He was strongly opposed to the Ultra-montane party that accused him of Gallicanism. On infallibility, Newman would have preferred that no definition was promulgated and he thought it inopportune (it might, he thought, discourage potential converts) though he accepted it and could see that it might be used as a bulwark against state interference in the affairs of the Church He believed that divine intervention had stopped a stronger statement that would have seen statements such as the Syllabus of Errors as infallible. He also feared that the definition would tend to ‘create in educated Catholics a habit of scepticism or secret infidelity as regards all dogmatic truth’ (Letters XXV p 166)

He also believed that the decree would be complemented and modified by a subsequent Council, The decree need to be completed rather than undone. ‘Let us have faith in a new Pope and a re-assembled Council may trim the boat’ .(Letters XXV 310) The decrees of Council need interpreting. He saw this as a general pattern within the life of the Church. In the early Church dogmas ‘were not struck off all at once but piece-meal – one Council did one thing, another a second and so the whole was built up ---the first portion of it looked extreme and controversies led to subsequent Councils which explained and completed what was done’. (Letters XXV 278)

Many would see Vatican II’s statement on Episcopal collegiality as an illustration of this principle. Infallible statements do not come from a positive divine guidance but through human means, research, consulting theologians etc. All pronouncements need interpretation and explanation just as lawyers might explain Acts of Parliament. ‘I have never been able to see myself that the ultimate decision rests with any but the general Catholic intelligence’.

Newman always stressed the sovereignty of conscience. Paul for example resisted Peter at Antioch on a matter of conscience. Conscience, of course needs to be informed and should be seen in the context of loyalty and obedience to legitimate superiors. He concludes with his famous imaginary toast, ‘Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after dinner toasts (which hardly seems quite the thing) I shall drink to the Pope if you please – still to conscience first and the Pope afterwards’. (Certain Difficulties felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching ii 261) . Pope John- Paul II quotes Newman on conscience in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor to confirm the teaching of Vatican II (Veritatis Splendor 34)

Newman then in contrast to Manning and others was an advocate of ‘the principle of minimising’ that included very few papal declarations within the scope of infallibility. He had intended to remain silent on the subject but in response to Gladstone’s accusation that the Roman Church ‘equally repudiated modern thought and ancient history’, Newman addressed the issue in a Letter to the Duke of Norfolk. He had always believed the doctrine and only feared its deterrent effect on conversions. This gave the lie to those who were even suggesting that he was not at ease within the Catholic Church and even that he might return to Anglicanism.

Newman was to see some justification for his position even within his own lifetime . His old College, Trinity, had elected him a n honorary fellow to his great delight and he returned to Oxford for the first time in 32 years. The same year Pope Pius IX who had long mistrusted Newman died and his successor Leo XIII appointed him a cardinal though he was not a bishop nor lived in Rome. He used the occasion in Rome to insist on his lifelong opposition to liberalism.

The legacy of such a complex character has proved enormous as successive recent Popes have testified. Newman has been repeatedly invoked by successive recent Popes as ‘a spiritual father and inspiring master on the way to holiness and as a sure guide to the search for eternal Truth (Cardinal Ratzinger to John Paul II, Words of Greeting at a Newman Symposium)

The breadth of his mind may be indicated by the fact that modernists, liberals and theological conservatives have all claimed him for their preferred theses. Pope Paul VI said that the Second Vatican Council could be called in a special way ‘Newman’s hour’. He notes how many of the problems which Newman treated with wisdom – although he was frequently misquoted And misunderstood – were subjects addressed at the Council, as for example, the relationship of the Church to the world, the role of the laity in the Church and the question of ecumenism. To this may be added the supremacy of conscience, the Church as Communion and the return to the scriptures and the Fathers .

Ian Ker the author of so many works on Newman including his magisterial biography while acknowledging that Newman was the forerunner of many of the themes of the Council might not have been uncritical of Gaudium et Spes but ‘only insofar as aggiornamento was interpreted in accordance with the liberal secularising so-called Spirit of Vatican II. And while he would have generally welcome the Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, I think it is certainly true that he would have been suspicious of a certain optimism reflecting the climate of the 1960s’ (Foreword to John Henry Newman by Avery Dulles p ix).

Antony Kenny has said that ‘Newman’s claim to eminence as a prelate nor in claims for conventional piety pity but his genius for creating new ways of imagining and writing about religion’ (TLS August 2010)

Newman’s long life came to an end at the Birmingham Oratory on August 11 1890. He was buried at Rednall the country house of Oratorians and 15,000 lined the route to see the cortege pass by. He was buried at his own insistence in the same grave as Ambrose St John who had been his companion at the Oratory for 32 years. The Cardinal’s motto Cor ad cor loquitur was on the pall and memorial stone was inscribed with the words Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem (Out of shadows and images into the Truth). A final irony was made manifest when his grave was opened in 2008 to exhume his body and the only remains found were the brass plate.

Let Pope John Paul II have the last word:

The philosophical and theological thought of Cardinal Newman so deeply rooted and enriched by Scripture and the teaching of the Fathers still retain their particular originality and value. As a leading figure of the Oxford Movement and later as a promoter of authentic renewal in the Catholic Church, Newman is seen to have a special ecumenical vocation not only for his country abut also for the whole Catholic Church. (Letter of Pope John-Paul II to Archbishop Dwyer).

Colin Battell osb is the Prior and Dean of Hospitality at Ampleforth Abbey.


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