Why the Church Needs St. Newman Today

On October 13, 2019, Pope Francis will canonize Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman. For scholars and devotees of Newman’s life, thought, and spirituality, “Saint Newman” has been a long time coming. Newman is arguably the most important Catholic intellectual of the nineteenth century. He lived almost the entirety of century (1801-1890) that saw increasing secularization, and increasing isolation of theology and religion from public and university intellectual life. In many ways, Newman was at the forefront of battles that are ongoing today.

Newman did not leave behind a complete theological masterpiece. There is no “summa” from Newman. Newman preferred to describe himself as a “controversialist” rather than a theologian, so his great works were occasional. He wrote to defend his conversion to Roman Catholicism (Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine), or to build support and set vision for a new Catholic university in Ireland (The Idea of a University), or to defend his name against accusations of dishonesty and manipulation (Apologia pro vita sua). Nonetheless, Newman was a very consistent thinker. You can find a great deal of integration across his thinking on education, theology, philosophy, and spirituality.

I first came across Newman’s writings through other people quoting him. It may not be a stretch to say Newman is one of the most quotable writers in the history of Christianity. However it was not until graduate school that I actually read a complete work of Newman’s. I did not come to understand his significance for the life of the Church in our time until I read his writings on education, faith and reason, conscience, and the development of doctrine in graduate school. Despite the absence of a complete “systematic” treatise of his thought, Newman has much to offer the Church today. Below are five reasons why the Church needs Saint Newman today.

First, Newman witnesses to the truth and holiness of the Church in spite of its imperfect, sinful, even corrupt members. When Newman entered the Catholic Church on October 9th, 1845, he was not naïve, or nostalgic about Catholicism. Growing up in fiercely anti-Catholic England, Newman was certain from a young age that the pope was the anti-Christ.[1]  As a historian, he was well aware of the unfortunate episodes in the Church’s history. He knew that lay people could be superstitious, that bishops could be corrupt, and that theologians could be prideful of their own theories. He was aware that sin was real and present in the Church. Nonetheless, he left the Anglican Church and crossed the Tiber. It was not for the holiness of Pope Gregory XIV that Newman became Catholic. Rather, it was because he was certain that the true Church of Christ, established by Him upon the Apostles, had been handed down through the protection of the Holy Spirit through the Centuries, and resided in the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, Newman famously wrote in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine,

“Did St. Athanasius or St. Ambrose come suddenly to life, it cannot be doubted what communion he would take to be his own. All surely will agree that these Fathers, with whatever opinions of their own, whatever protests, if we will, would find themselves more at home with such men as St. Bernard or St. Ignatius Loyola, or with the lonely priest in his lodging, or the holy sisterhood of mercy, or the unlettered crowd before the altar, than with the teachers or with the members of any other creed.”[2]

Newman was willing to follow the truth into the Catholic Church despite the difficulties. “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt,” he wrote in his autobiography, and this statement applies as equally to ecclesial scandal as it does to matters of doctrine.[3] Despite the difficulties presented to Catholics today regarding Holy Mother Church, Newman reminds us that there is no doubt that She is the Bride of Christ and the Ark of Salvation.

Second, Newman had an unfailing confidence in divine providence. From a young age he was certain of God’s existence in a distinctly personal way. From the age of fifteen he knew of “two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator.”[4] His famous poem (now hymn), “Lead Kindly Light” is essentially a prayer for divine providence. One of his most famous devotional meditations on hope, demonstrates his profound trust in providence:

“God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his—if, indeed, I fail, He can raise another, as He could make the stones children of Abraham. Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons. He has not created me for naught.”[5]

In Newman’s day, radical developments in philosophy, technology, and the natural sciences shook people’s confidence in the traditional understanding of God, man, the Bible, and the Church. These things continue to challenge the ability of people today to trust in God. Nonetheless, Newman’s trust in providence witnesses to us today that in the midst of turmoil, scandal, or confusion, God is present and active in the world in particular people and places.

Third, especially for Catholics living in the Western world, Newman’s sermons still today convict the worldliness and duplicity of our hearts. Probably the most widely read of Newman’s works, the eight volumes of Parochial and Plain Sermons are just a portion of the more than 600 sermons delivered in his Anglican career. Newman spent much of his Anglican life at Oxford University. Many of his sermons were delivered before a congregation of middle-to-upper class young men preparing for a life of public or ecclesial service. They were tempted to love of the world (in the 1 John 2:15 sense, not the John 3:16 sense), superficiality in their devotion, and prideful self-assuredness of their standing before God. In response, Newman warned them about the subtle ways in which the world steals their hearts from love of God above all else. He encouraged a deep devotion to meditation on the life of Christ, and frequent participation in prayer and the sacraments. He revealed the hearts of his congregation to themselves, putting on display the ways in which they negotiated their willingness to follow God. As he so poignantly put it, “[their] endeavor was not to please God, but to please themselves without displeasing Him.”[6]

As Newman put it in another sermon, “the world overcomes us, not merely by appealing to our reason, or by exciting our passions, but by imposing on our imagination.”[7] This is more true today in a media saturated world than ever before. If we allow Newman to speak to us through his sermons, he will put before us the ways in which our faith has become conformed to this world and he will point us towards the renewal of our mind in Christ.

Fourth, Newman reminds us of the unity of truth and the ultimate compatibility of faith and reason. His Anglican, Fifteen Sermons Preached before the University of Oxford, gave an account of the relationship between faith and reason. In his Idea of a University, defended the place of theology within a university education and the ideals of a liberal education. His ideal was an integrated knowledge that properly accounted for the truth of reason and the truths of faith, what he called a “philosophical habit of mind.” Rather than the piecemeal or narrow education offered to students today, Newman wanted a student who was familiar with the whole “circle of knowledge”. The preparation for this was a liberal education, which he defended against those who advocated for a more “useful” model of education. As today’s students face a more and more technological, functional skills based education, Newman offers a simple reminder that there is a big difference between whether something can be done and whether it should be done. In making his case for a liberal education as opposed to an education in practical knowledge, Newman pithily summarized his view asserting, “I lay it down as a principle, which will save us a great deal of anxiety, that, though the useful is not always good, the good is always useful.”[8]

Ultimately, Newman argued, the perceived division between faith and reason, or religion and science is a result of our fallen human nature. The goal of a Catholic university is to reunite these two things under one roof and even within individual persons. As he so forcefully put it, “I want to destroy that diversity of centres, which puts everything into confusion by creating a contrariety of influences. I wish the same spots and the same individuals to be at once oracles of philosophy and shrines of devotion.”[9]

Finally, Newman proposes a model for the New Evangelization that is rooted in the life of St. Philip Neri, the founder of the Oratorians, the religious order Newman joined upon becoming Catholic. Newman saw in St. Philip Neri a man who had inculcated the great models of sanctity in the Catholic tradition: St. Benedict, St. Dominic, and St. Ignatius of Loyola. St. Philip grew in an age of unrest and scandal, yet his approach was not one of violent opposition, nor comfortable capitulation. Rather, as Newman described it, Neri sought to convert his age, “by the great counter-fascination of purity and truth.” Rather than contradict or contend against the influences of his age, Neri “preferred to yield to the stream, and direct the current, which he could not stop…and to sweeten and to sanctify what God had made very good and man had spoilt.”[10] Newman’s approach then was to build a strong community of priests at the Birmingham Oratory, which he founded in in 1849 upon returning from seminary studies in Rome. From the Oratory Newman hoped for a fruitful, distinctively English Catholic missionary endeavor. I believe his vision, inspired by St. Philip Neri, is consistent with the vision for evangelization the Church has proposed since the Second Vatican Council and the call for a New Evangelization.

For Newman, ultimately, the faith must be handed on by people living in communal relationships. It is only people, not books or beauty or power, that embody the truth in their very being who are capable of witnessing the truth of the faith in the world to the world. The great teachers and missionaries over the centuries have done this in a way unique to their time and context. For as Newman so beautifully put it,  “Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us. Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion.”[11]

Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman, Pray for us!

[1] Newman, Apologia pro vita sua, http://www.newmanreader.org/works/apologia65/chapter2.html

[2] Newman, Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, http://newmanreader.org/works/development/chapter2.html#ambrose

[3] Newman, Apologia pro vita sua, http://www.newmanreader.org/works/apologia65/chapter5.html

[4] Newman, Apologia, http://newmanreader.org/works/apologia65/chapter1.html

[5] Newman, Meditations and Devotions, http://newmanreader.org/works/meditations/meditations9.html#doctrine1

[6] Newman, “Obedience without Love, as instanced in the Character of Balaam”, Parochial and Plain Sermons Vol. 4, http://www.newmanreader.org/works/parochial/volume4/sermon2.html

[7] Newman, “Contest between Faith and Sight,” Oxford University Sermons, http://www.newmanreader.org/works/oxford/sermon7.html

[8] Newman, Idea of a University, http://www.newmanreader.org/works/idea/discourse7.html

[9] Newman, “Intellect, the Instrument of Religious Training,” Sermons Preached on Various Occasions, http://newmanreader.org/works/occasions/sermon1.html

[10] Newman, Idea of a University, http://newmanreader.org/works/idea/discourse9.html

[11] Newman, “Tamworth Reading Room” – http://www.newmanreader.org/works/arguments/tamworth/section6.html

Matthew Muller