31 Jul Saint John Henry Newman: The ‘Pope of Oxford’
Saint John Henry Newman’s feast day today. Ora pro nobis.
The Real Cardinal Newman
In the years since his death, Newman’s work has been translated into many languages, read by serious Christians around the world. Littlemore in Oxford, today staffed by Catholic nuns, is replete with photos, paintings, memorabilia and sculptures of Newman.
By Beverly Stevens, Editor, Regina Magazine
He is Pope Benedict’s favorite theologian, and hundreds of “Cardinal Newman” schools have made his name familiar to Catholics in the English-speaking world. But who was John Henry Newman, really?
His amazing long life spanned nearly all of the 19th century. Born in a time when Napolean was threatening the West, he died as the 20th century was dawning. He was a don, a leader of the “Oxford Movement” and perhaps the leading Church of England theologian (“the pope of Oxford”) in a proud age when the British Empire was at its apogee.
Doing the Unthinkable
At the very height of his career, however, Newman took a turn that shocked and dismayed the Victorian ‘chattering classes’ in a way that even Charles Darwin’s revolutionary Theory of Evolution failed to do.
He did the unthinkable. He became a Catholic.
Stranger still, John Henry Newman read and reasoned his way into the Catholic Church. He didn’t actually know any Catholics. When he read the early Church Fathers on heresy, however, his superbly trained mind could reach no other conclusion.
He explained himself at great length to Victorian society in a variety of books and sermons, but essentially it came down to the basics: Rome was the ancient primordial seat of Peter. The doctrine of the Faith had been handed down intact since Apostolic times. Against everything he had ever learned and taught at Oxford, Newman’s intellectual honesty forced him to admit that Catholicism was the true Faith.
Newman paid a huge personal price for crossing the Tiber. His family emphatically did not understand; in fact, leaving his living at Oxford essentially removed his ability to support his widowed mother. His old friends at Oxford refused him. Newspapers openly berated him. Eventually, he became an Invisible Man as far as English society was concerned.
Newman paid a huge personal price for crossing the Tiber. Eventually, he became an Invisible Man as far as English society was concerned.
Worse, English Roman Catholics seemed not to know what to do with this towering intellect who spoke so softly. The Catholic bishops did not receive him with joy; recently re-established in England, in a delicate position vis-a-vis an unsympathetic Protestant nation, they did not need this high-profile convert to complicate things. Far from being lauded as the great theologian he was, Newman was assigned to an urban parish, filled with immigrants and the poor with no idea who this man was who heard their confessions and worried about the plumbing in the old building.
In fact, throughout his life as a Catholic, Newman would be regarded with suspicion by other Catholics, which caused him great pain. Every single project he labored to begin seemed to struggle hopelessly, causing him no end of worry and concern. In fact, his two greatest works – the establishment of the Oratory School at Birmingham and a Catholic University at Dublin – faced seemingly-insurmountable problems at their inception, and indeed only prospered after he was no longer involved with them.
Newman in the 21st Century
He continued to write and to teach, however. One reason he speaks so compellingly to Catholics today is that he was one of the earliest to identify the problem of liberalism in religion. In 1838 he made an outlandish prediction which has become all too true in our day:
“The view henceforth is to be, that Christianity does not exist in documents, any more than in institutions; in other words, the Bible will be given up as well as the Church. It will be said that the benefit which Christianity has done to the world, and which its Divine Author meant it should do, was to give an impulse to society, to infuse a spirit, to direct, control, purify, enlighten the mass of human thought and action, but not to be a separate and definite something, whether doctrine or association, existing objectively, integral, and with an identity, and forever, and with a claim upon our homage and obedience. And all this fearfully coincides with the symptoms in other directions of the spread of a Pantheistic spirit, that is, the religion of beauty, imagination, and philosophy, without constraint, moral or intellectual, a religion speculative and self-indulgent. Pantheism, indeed, is the great deceit which awaits the age to come.”
‘Littlemore,’ the converted stables where Newman and his friends moved from Oriel College at Oxford. Here, he came to the conclusion that the great Church that he was the leading light of was heretical — and that the religion of the poor, despised Irish immigrants who had cleaned his rooms at Oxford was actually the true church.
Pope Leo XIII refused to let any of Newman’s personal frustrations frustrate his own intentions: he would make Newman a Cardinal. And a Cardinal the frail old Oxfordian became, at the age of 80. Newman responded to the papal bestowal of a red hat in his famous biglietto speech, once again seeing far into the future, down to our present day:
“For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion. Never did Holy Church need champions against it more sorely than now, when, alas! it is an error overspreading, as a snare, the whole earth…
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 fraternise 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.”
In 2010, John Henry Newman was declared blessed by his 20th century pupil, Pope Benedict XVI, amidst a crowd of English well-wishers in a Birmingham park. The old Pope had braved a hostile press and protests by anti-Catholics to come to England, telling the thousands of faithful Catholics who stood in the rain that Newman’s “insights into the relationship between faith and reason, into the vital place of revealed religion in civilised society, and into the need for a broadly-based and wide-ranging approach to education were not only of profound importance to Victorian England, but continue today to inspire and enlighten many all over the world.”
“Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another…”
The Cardinal’s Miracle
In 2001, Jack Sullivan, a deacon from Massachusetts, attributed his recovery from a spinal cord disorder to Cardinal Newman. On 24 April 2008, the Fathers of the Birmingham Oratory reported that the medical consultants at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints had met that day and voted unanimously that Sullivan’s recovery defied any scientific or medical explanation. The question of the genuineness of the alleged miracle then went to the panel of theological consultants who unanimously agreed to recognize the miracle a year later, clearing the way for Pope Benedict XVI to beatify Newman. Canonization – which awaits one more miracle — would make Cardinal Newman the first English person who has lived since the 17th century to be officially recognized as a saint. His feast day is October 9, the day of his conversion in 1845, which is also his feast day.