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In Praise of Blessed John Henry Newman

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.
October 9th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

In the person of Blessed John Henry Newman, we find a man who lived his life dedicated to the true and to the good, to truth and holiness.  Without knowing it, he also exuded the other transcendentals.  While pursuing the true and the good, Newman's soul not only achieved truth and good, Newman's soul also became one in integrity and resplendent in beauty.

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, whose feast day we celebrate on October 9th, famously said "Catholicism is a deep matter, you cannot take it up in a teacup." The same may be said of this blessed man's life which was committed to similarly deep matters: truth and holiness.  "Holiness before peace" was the young Newman's motto.  On his epitaph are the words he selected: "Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem," "out of shadows and images into the truth." From beginning to end: truth and holiness.  That was Newman.

Before we proceed more deeply, I must confess my bias for the man.  John Henry Newman is not merely a beatus who has been raised to the altars of the Catholic Church.  Blessed John Henry Newman is my hero.  Blessed John Henry Newman is my friend.  Blessed John Henry Newman is he whom the Lord used to bring me into, as Newman phrased it upon his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church, "the One true Fold of the Redeemer." 

Newman has influenced me in a variety of ways.  First, one has to mention his remarkable genius for, as Pope Benedict XVI put it in the homily during the ceremony of John Henry Cardinal Newman's elevation to the altar, "preaching, teaching, and writing."  Newman's preaching, teaching, and writing were sure guides which inspired me, instructed me, and guided me into the one, catholic, and apostolic Church.  And they still inspire me, instruct me, and guide me.

For example, Newman's Idea for a University, where he articulated a philosophy of Catholic education, made me appreciate the importance of human knowledge tutored by the faith in Christ.  The image given me by a most reasonable Newman in this work about reason's weakness without faith shall never leave me:  "Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man." 

Anyone who has struggled with passion and with pride knows that something more than reason is required to overcome these recalcitrant twins of our human nature.

Newman, however, was more than just a wordsmith for me.  He not only wrote about holiness, he lived holiness.  He contended with, and overcame, "those giants, the passion and the pride of man." 

What a sensitivity Newman had to sin, the illegitimate spawn of passion and pride, and yet without a sign of unhealthy scruple.  "The Catholic Church," Newman famously wrote to the chagrin of liberals and social reformers, "holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one willful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse."  With this vivid image, Newman shows the huge difference between moral evils and physical evils.

Who can forget the humility of Newman who was asked by Msgr. George Talbot to leave the blue-collared town of Birmingham, England, where some believed Newman's prodigious intellectual talents were wasted among the uneducated laborers of that town.  Come to Rome, Msgr. Talbot said, "to preach at my Church in the Piazza del Popolo, where you would have a more educated audience of Protestants than would ever be the case in England."  Msgr. Talbot also intimated that Newman could increase his connections with the Roman curia and even the Pope; one supposes Msgr. Talbot did this to tickle any hidden ecclesiastical ambition Newman might have had in his breast.

But Msgr. Talbot underestimated Newman.  And the short riposte that Newman wrote to Msgr. Talbot ranks at the top of examples of bons mots justes in the history of the world: "Dear Monsignore Talbot, I have received your letter, inviting me to preach next Lent in your Church at Rome to 'an audience of Protestants more educated than could ever be the case in England.' However, Birmingham people have souls; and I have neither taste nor talent for the sort of work which you cut out for me. And I beg to decline your offer."

Birmingham people have souls!  It is no wonder that Benedict XVI recognized that Newman had the heart of a priest, a pastor whose "long life devoted to the priestly ministry."  Here was a man who had conquered worldly ambition, who had conquered intellectual pride, who saw that a soul of any man was precious regardless of his station.  Jesus came to save all men, not just gentlemen.  Newman gave himself in his priestly ministry to his flock.  Indeed, when there was a cholera outbreak in Birmingham, Newman had no hesitation in ministering to the sick, though it exposed him to the risk of the disease.

Newman followed truth where it led him, even when it led him to the most unlikely of places and resulted in the worst of worldly losses: the Catholic Church which, during his Protestant days, he had described as having corrupted apostolic doctrine.  But this characteristic of his was in keeping with his unswerving dedication to truth, a dedication which demanded humility.  As he wrote it in his famous hymn:

Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th'encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.


It was one step at a time that led Newman away from liberal Protestantism, to high Anglicanism, to promoting the Tractarian or Oxford movement in the Anglican Church which sought to stress its Catholic heritage, including the notion of sacraments and apostolic authority.  But as the Tractarians got closer and closer to the "Romish" doctrines, many people in the Anglican Church became uncomfortable, even angry at these Oxford dons.  But it was this one-step-at-a-time journey to truth which ultimately resulted in the famous Tract 90, and the great crisis of Newman's life which gave the occasion for his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church.

Tract 90, written by Newman in 1841, argued that the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church--which are a fundamental document of Anglicanism--could be, and ought to be, understood in a Catholic sense. Newman's argument is untenable; the Thirty-Nine articles clearly are outside the Catholic tradition, as he was later to see.  But that was not where he was attacked.  He was attacked because he went too far in imposing Catholicism into Anglicanism.  He exceed the bounds of Anglican propriety, and the Anglican propriety wanted to distance itself from things Catholic.

Newman's Tract 90 was condemned by the Anglican bishops, and that made Newman see that the Anglican Church he belonged to, and which he had argued was a branch of the Catholic Church, was not, in fact not in any real communion with the historical Catholic Church. 

The rejection of his thought by the Anglican hierarchy led to Newman's internal crisis, caused him to resign his position at St. Mary's in Oxford, and then retire at a sort of hermitage in Littlemore.  It was there that he struggled with his condition: he was rejected by his Anglican Church, but was unable to cross the Tiber into Rome because he suffered under the misimpression that the "Romish" Church had corrupted apostolic Christian doctrine. 

He worked through his struggles in writing.  These struggles gave birth to his great work An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. He worked on this lengthy, book-sized Essay for up to fourteen hours a day.  It might be described as his wrestling with truth as Jacob wrestled with the angel of God.

In the Essay, which is a tour de force of theology and ecclesiastical history, Newman struggled with and distinguished the notion of development from the notion of corruption. Eventually, he was able to see how some of the Catholic Church's doctrines that troubled him were developments of apostolic doctrine and not corruptions.  Upon perceiving this, he realized where Christ's Church was to be found.  This led him to resign from his prestigious Fellowship at Oriel College, Oxford, and to ask St. Dominic Barberi, an Italian Passionist priest, for admission into the Catholic Church.  He converted to the Catholic Church on October 9, 1845. 

The significance of this event in the life of the Catholic Church in England cannot be underestimated.  It is for this reason that Pope Benedict XVI, in a very unusual move, declared October 9 to be Blessed John Henry Newman's feast day, and not the traditional dies natalis, the date of his death (which is his birth into heaven), August 11.  Blessed Newman, a confessor, is like St. Paul, whose conversion is also a feast day. 

Given this move, we may say that Blessed Newman is the patron of Catholic conversion.  The choice of this date tells the world that there is not just a difference in degree, but a difference in kind between being in communion with the Catholic Church and not being in communion with the Catholic Church.

One of the great characteristics of Newman was his ability to allow truth to work through cultural prejudice.  He was raised in an England deeply anti-Catholic in spirit and culture. He absorbed anti-Catholic prejudice with his mother's milk so that it was almost connatural to him.  Catholicism, usually described by the epithets of "Romanism" or "Popery," was everywhere ridiculed and demeaned.  The Church was the "whore of Babylon" in the poisoned minds of Englishmen. In some cases, Catholics still suffered under legal restrictions. Catholics held no positions of power.

Most of us do not have the integrity to unravel the conventional prejudices with which we grow up, even less so when they will result in the loss of social stature or influence.  Newman, to his eternal credit, let nothing stand in the way of his dedication to truth.  His was a life of intellectual and moral integrity.

What allowed Newman out of the envelope of anti-Catholic prejudice was his study of history and of the Fathers of the Church.  "To be deep in history," he wrote in his An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, "is to cease to be a Protestant."

After his conversion to Catholicism, Newman spent some years in Rome to prepare to be ordained to the Catholic priesthood.  There, he became acquainted with the reforming spirit of St. Philip Neri (1515-1595), the so-called "Apostle of Rome," and his Oratorians, a society of apostolic life.  When he was ordained to the Catholic priesthood on May 30, 1847, Newman decided that he would promote the Oratorian spirituality in England.

Newman was involved in the founding of two Oratories: one in industrial Birmingham (over which he presided), and one in London.  For a short period of time, he was appointed the first rector of a new Catholic University in Dublin, Ireland; however, the project never obtained the hierarchy's support.  Though it might be seen as a failure, God's providence assured that it was not to be so.  It was during his efforts there that Newman penned his Idea of a University, a book which Pope Benedict XVI described as one which "holds up an ideal from which all those engaged in academic formation can continue to learn."

After his ordination into the Catholic priesthood, Newman settled into his duties, and soon he seemed to disappear from public view.  But then the Anglican minister Charles Kingsley, wrote a book in which he accused the Catholic clergy of dishonesty, specifically naming Newman as being dishonest and promoting dishonesty..

It was this gratuitous attack that caused Newman to defend the honor of the Church regarding honesty as well has his honor, and he wrote a defense of his life and his beliefs in the famous Apologia pro Vita Sua.  This book is considered to be one of the greatest spiritual autobiographies since St. Augustine's Confessions. It catapulted Newman back into the limelight.  This book ought to be read by any serious Catholic.

Newman's service to the Church was tremendous in quality, and it can hardly be summarized in a short article.  One might point to his unique treatment on faith in his Grammar of Assent (where he advocated something called the "illative sense") was an original contribution to the Church's repository of thought on the reasonable justifications supporting the act of faith. 

His devotion to conscience was such that he is often referred to as the Doctor of Conscience.  He famously said "if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts (which, indeed, does not seem quite the thing), I shall drink - to the Pope, if you please - still, to conscience first and to the Pope afterward."  Newman knew that a Pope without a conscience is more worthless than a conscience without a Pope.  But as a Catholic, Newman also knew that both Pope and conscience were needed, and the two ought never be at odds, but were intended to be partners.

He strongly emphasized the role of the laity, a position which earned him the distrust of the English hierarchy who were not similarly prescient, but which eventually received recognition in Vatican II.  For this reason, he is often referred to as the silent Father of Vatican II.

At the age of seventy-nine, Newman, the Oratorian priest, was created a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII.  This was seen as papal approval of Newman's thought, and it increased his influence. In Newman, Catholicism was once again seen by the English to be no intellectual or moral inferior to Anglicanism.  It was, indeed, not seen as anything contrary to being English. When he died, thousands upon thousands of Englishmen lined the streets to pay respects to his body as it was taken to its place of burial.

In Newman, we confront a man who lived his life dedicated to the true and to the good, to truth and holiness.  Without knowing it, he also exuded the other transcendentals.  While pursuing the true and the good, Newman's soul not only achieved truth and good, Newman's soul also became one in integrity and resplendent in beauty.

Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman is a true man, a holy man, a good man, a man of integrity, a man of beauty.  On January 22, 1991, Pope John Paul II recognized his heroic virtues and declared him venerable.  On September 19, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI declared him blessed.  But these are simply steps to what is obvious to anyone who knows his life: John Henry Newman is materially if not yet formally, a saint.  He shows you what Christ and Catholicism will do to a man if you let it.

Newman's motto was "cor ad cor loquitur," or "heart speaks unto heart."  Even after his death he speaks to human hearts and introduces them to the heart of God.  Indeed, I know from personal experience.  For Newman's heart spoke to my heart, and it was the colloquium between my heart and his which was an important part of my "reverting" or converting back to the Catholic Church.  Newman is one of the first I hope to thank if and when I get to heaven.

Here on earth, I have prayed to God with Newman's words during Lent, words borrowed from his poem, "The Dream of Gerontius":

Sanctus fortis, Sanctus Deus,
De profundis oro te,
Miserere, Judex meus,
Parce mihi, Domine.


Holy and mighty.  Holy God
From the depths I pray to you,
Have mercy on me, my Judge,
Spare me, O Lord."

For these words and the sentiments behind them, should they serve me to get me to heaven by God's great mercy, I hope to thank Newman.  And there, I hope to praise the thrice-holy God with Newman and in the words of Newman also found in this same poem:

Praise to the Holiest in the height
And in the depth be praise;
In all his words most wonderful,
Most sure in all his ways!

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Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at agreenwell@harris-greenwell.com.

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