After John Henry Newman was made a Cardinal by Pope Leo XIII in 1879, he said in his acceptance speech in Rome, “I have nothing of that high perfection, which belongs to the writings of Saints.” Little did he know that this is what future generations would think of him—and that sainthood awaited.
On October 13, Pope Francis will canonize Cardinal Newman, the first Englishman born since the 1600s to be canonized**. A man full of courage and dedicated to the pursuit of fellowship, charity, and conscience, Newman is known for his highly influential writings, poems, meditations, novels, and sermons. One attendant of his services noted that “it was for many of us as though God was speaking to us for the first time.”
Since his death, he has inspired Christians suffering under totalitarianism, and has been seen as a stronghold of continued faith in an increasingly secular world. He is also known for being the most famous convert to Catholicism in British history, and one of the most iconic in the world.
As an Anglican, Newman quickly rose through the academic ranks of 19th-century England. He was one of the leading members of the Oxford Movement. His following among Anglicans was enormous by religious standards, making him a sort of “rock star,” as he’s called in this beautiful BBC documentary on his life. While he argued for fundamental reforms of the Anglican Church, he still held, as was usual for the time, the Catholic Church in strong contempt. At one point, he even called the pope the antichrist.
Yet as he increasingly studied Church history and, in particular, the early Church fathers, he became more skeptical of Anglicanism’s claim to be the true bearer of Christian tradition. The hated Church in Rome, meanwhile, seemed to him to propagate Christian truth much more authentically. And so, in his own words, he decided in 1845 to become “one who, in the middle of his days, is beginning life again.”
His conversion to Catholicism caused a major uproar in British society, for which allegiance to Rome meant being a traitor to the empire—and for which the conversion of one of its most respected religious thinkers caused great disappointment. As Catholics were barred from holding public office or working at universities, Newman lost his prestigious position at Oxford. Family and friends abandoned him—one of his sisters never spoke to him again.
“People mocked him in the street,” Brenden Thompson of Catholic Voices explains. More vocal critics called him a traitor, a liar, someone who had been a “closet papist” all along.
But over time, he would change the attitude of the English vis-à-vis Catholics. In his Apologia pro vita sua, he recollects step by step how his religious views changed and why he eventually converted. In An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, he developed a theory of how dogmas in Catholicism come into being—a theory that would later exert influence on the Second Vatican Council. He argued that simply because a Catholic dogma doesn’t show up exactly as stated in Scripture, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong, as many Protestants would argue. Rather, “expansion of the Christian Creed and Ritual” would develop slowly over time and further progress as new insights from the original texts were discovered.
Ever-continuing inquiry and the attainment of wisdom were essential for Newman, who put education at the forefront of his life, in order that he could get beyond “this half-knowledge of Christianity.” For this purpose, he founded the Catholic University of Ireland and served as a teacher in Birmingham.
He surely wouldn’t have expected his influence to extend beyond his death in 1890. In Nazi Germany, for instance, Sophie Scholl and her brother, who led the peaceful White Rose Movement against Hitler’s regime, were “deeply moved” by Newman’s sermons, and according to scholars, resisted the fascist regime in large part because of his influence.
It was his work on conscience, which in many regards stood at the forefront of Newman’s religious views, that had the biggest impact on them. For example, though a defender of papal infallibility, Newman would still say, “I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please—still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.”
As Ryan Marr, the director of the National Institute for Newman Studies, argues: “Newman’s nuanced treatment of the role of conscience in the moral life provided the members of the White Rose resistance with the tools necessary to articulate reasons why their refusal to obey Hitler was not only a legitimate option, but morally obligatory.”
A young Joseph Ratzinger, himself no fan of the Nazis, also saw value in the cardinal’s works.
The man who would later become Pope Benedict XVI is often mentioned in the same breath as Newman. It was Benedict who beatified him in 2010 and who decided to personally travel to England for the occasion. Many saw the beatification as a clear message by the pope at the time: a rallying cry against what he coined “the dictatorship of relativism.” Both men fought throughout their lives—the pope emeritus still does—against this, in the words of Newman, “anti-dogmatic principle,” which is “the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion.”
When Newman became cardinal, he delivered the Biglietto Speech, a full-fledged attack on what called “liberalism.” As he said, “for 30, 40, 50 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.”
Newman’s “liberalism” is not necessarily political and he certainly uses the term differently than we do in our own age. If we mean by liberalism simply that any human being has inalienable human freedoms and dignity that need to be honored, Newman would have had nothing to object to. Indeed, he says, “there is much in the liberalistic theory which is good and true,” and arguing for any sort of theocracy would not only be unrealistic in our world but also wrong. Newman instead sought “some way of uniting what is free in the new structure of society with what is authoritative in the old.”
Liberalism does become a problem, however, when it “is intended to supersede, to block out, religion.” It is a problem when the conventional view is that “one creed is as good as another,” that there is, in fact, no truth, but that everything, including God, is merely a matter of opinion, a sentiment, or a taste.
As the Acton Institute’s Samuel Gregg notes, if there is no objective truth, then all Church teachings and everything in Scripture are “essentially human historical constructs” and thus adaptable to the zeitgeist in whichever way we like. Whereas Newman’s theory of development says that a furthering in Christian doctrine is obviously always possible so long as it stays true to Scripture and earlier teachings, the relativist creed would lead to “wholesale adaptations” from one modernization effort to the next, losing Christian belief along the way.
As Pope Benedict puts it: “How do we recognize what is right? How can we discern between good and evil, between what is truly right and what may appear right?” Christianity has natural law for that. But in a relativist mindset, this doesn’t matter anymore. Because the teachings are not verifiable or falsifiable in the positivist creed, “ethics and religion must be assigned to the subjective field” and are thus excluded from the public square. But “where positivist reason considers itself the only sufficient culture and banishes all other cultural realities to the status of subcultures, it diminishes man, indeed it threatens his humanity.”
Cardinal Newman’s life-long endeavor was to bring back his audience to fundamental questions about and the search for truth in life. His work calls us to resist both the temptations of totalitarianism and relativism. Thus he challenges his readers. It is difficult to put him into a box. Instead one constantly feels outboxed by him. It is therefore easily understandable how he has had such a great influence, from British society in his own time to Sophie Scholl to Pope Benedict XVI to many Christians of our age. There is little doubt that we should rejoice for Saint John Henry Newman and his life fully devoted to Christ, despite the challenges we endure because of it.
Editor’s Note: This sentence has been corrected to clarify that there have been no Englishmen born since the 17th century who have been canonized. There were several who were born in England earlier, but canonized later, after the 17th century.