On October 13, 2019, at an open-air Mass in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis canonized Cardinal John Henry Newman, a towering theologian and convert from Anglicanism whose profound influence carries through to the present day. Although the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) remains critical of the post-Vatican II canonization process, that does not mean every person elevated as a saint in the contemporary Catholic Church is unworthy of honor and emulation.
A Devout and Controversial Life
Born in 1801 in London England, the future Cardinal Newman was notable from an early age for his intellect and piety, though he himself admitted that it was not until the age of 15 when his religious views began to take shape. After entering Oxford University in 1816, he was elected a fellow of the University’s prestigious Oriel College in 1822. Rather than pursue a career in law, he opted to take orders in the Anglican Church in 1824. Not long after, Newman abandoned the Calvinist influences which predominated in 19th Century Anglicanism in favor of a Christianity informed by the Greek Patristic Fathers. It became Newman’s opinion that the Church of England could not be reconciled to the revolutionary doctrines of Protestantism, though Newman remained suspicious of what he saw as the excesses of Latin Catholicism.
During the 1830s and up through 1841, Newman was a leading light in the so-called “Oxford Movement,” which sought to realign Anglicanism with Catholicism, albeit without seeking communion with the Church of Rome. This line of thinking, culminating with a tract Newman published in 1841 which held that the Church of England had never condemned Catholicism per se but rather certain excesses and exaggerations, caused a firestorm. He was requested not to issue any more theological tracts by the local Anglican bishop at Oxford and soon thereafter left Oxford to live out a quasi-monastic life in the town of Littlemore.
Conversion to Catholicism
Following the 1841 tract and the controversy which followed, Newman knew he was “on his deathbed” with respect to his membership in the Church of England. In 1843, he published an anonymous retraction of the sharp barbs he had once launched against the Roman Catholic Church and then, in 1845, was formally received into the Universal Church. In the wake of his conversion, Newman’s ties to family and friends were strained, if not broken, and public opinion turned sharply negative against him. After receiving holy orders, Newman became an Oratorian and established an oratory in London.
In 1850, Pope Pius IX re-established a Catholic diocesan hierarchy in England, leading to a wave of anti-Catholic and anti-papal backlash in the country. The following year, Newman delivered a series of lectures that were collected under the title Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England. The purpose of these talks was to unmask the shallowness of popular anti-Catholic polemics while giving guidance to British Catholics on how they should respond to widespread public prejudice against them. Perhaps more than any other Anglophone writer before or since, Newman demonstrated critical weaknesses in the Protestant cause and laid bare the extent to which anti-Catholic animus was borne out of ignorance and mischaracterization more than learned conviction.
Newman suffered further attacks during this period, including being tried and convicted of libel against Giacinto Achilli, an ex-Dominican friar and fervent anti-Catholic who had been removed from the priesthood for sexual misconduct. Although outside observers decried the trial as unjust and motivated by anti-Catholicism, the verdict stood and Newman was fined for calling attention to Achilli’s moral impropriety.
Undeterred, Newman continued on, helping to establish the Catholic University of Ireland (now University College, Dublin) in 1854. A decade later, Newman would publish his famous Apologia Pro Vita Sua, originally in bi-monthly installments. The work, which was intended to set forth the trajectory of Newman’s religious views and his eventual arrival at Catholicism, helped shift the British public’s opinion of Newman toward a more positive light. In 1878, Pope Leo XIII made Newman a cardinal despite the fact he was not a bishop and had once drawn suspicion from Leo’s predecessor, Pius IX. After experiencing a decline in health during the 1880’s, Cardinal Newman reposed in the Lord on August 11, 1890.
Doctrinal and Theological Views
Newman’s oeuvre is vast and hardly susceptible to easy summarization. However, a few points are worth highlighting. First, as noted, Newman was a student of the Greek Church Fathers and the theological controversies which embroiled the Church in the first millennium. His rich understanding of this period informed one of his most famous works, An Essay on the Development of Doctrine. Although misunderstood and misappropriated by certain factions which wish to renovate or overturn established Church teaching, the book is a defense of Catholic doctrine from Protestants who accused Catholics of innovating or corrupting teachings found in Scripture. To the contrary, Newman argued that doctrinal development, such as the Church’s Mariology, was the consequence of reasoned reflection on revealed truth implicitly present from the beginning.
Second, and more controversially, Newman was a muted critic of the push to define Papal Infallibility at the First Vatican Council. He believed defining the dogma was “inopportune” and, in a private letter that was later published without his consent, Newman had few good words to say about the Ultramontanists who had placed the matter front and center on the Council’s agenda. Even so, Newman never spoke out against the dogma and later affirmed publicly that he had always believed it. Newman was, however, concerned that defining the dogma, coupled with historic misunderstandings and prejudices against Catholicism in England, would deter conversions. Right or wrong, Newman’s concerns are today echoed by some traditional Catholics who see certain liberal factions in the Church using a distorted view of infallibility to support the view that a pope can alter, delete, or innovate doctrine on a whim.
Last, before and after his conversion to Catholicism, Newman remained a staunch critic of liberalism. In the so-called “Biglietto Speech” that Newman gave on the occasion of his elevation to the cardinalate, Newman condemned “liberalism in religion” which included (1) “the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion”; (2) “that one creed is as good as another”; (3) that no religion can be recognized as true for “all are matter of opinion”; (4) that “revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective faith, not miraculous”; and (5) “it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.” Such a strong anti-liberal position is wholly consistent with the teachings of the 19th Century popes such as Pius IX and Leo XIII, and the witness of traditional 20th Century hierarchs such as Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.