Once Blessed John Henry Newman had put his hand to the plough, there was no turning back from his journey towards Truth

Pope Benedict XVI leads Mass and the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman (CNS)

I have just finished reading “Newman and his Family” by Edward Short, published by Bloomsbury. It is a very fine book, much to be recommended for all lovers of Newman. I am in no way a Newman scholar and learnt a great deal from this erudite and insightful sturdy of that great and saintly man.

What I had not known, and which Short spelt out in discursive and melancholy detail, was the story of Newman’s ensuing fraught, unhappy relations with his siblings when he became a Catholic in 1845. It made me realise that his conversion not only meant the parting of friends and the forfeiture of a prominent position in Oxford; it also meant the end of any harmony with his family circle.

His two brothers, Charles and Frank, abandoned Christianity in early adult life and never came back to it. They could not understand their older brother and Frank often attacked him in print for his faith. Newman’s two surviving sisters, Harriet and Jemima, not only stayed firmly within the Anglican camp but deplored their brother’s seeming betrayal of his former allegiance and never forgave him for it. Harriet didn’t meet him for the final nine years of her life, while Jemima held him at arm’s length and deliberately kept her children from getting to know their famous uncle.

All this must have been a deep and abiding sadness for Newman, most especially as he had been so close to his family in his youth and during his years in Oxford. But once he had put his hand to the plough there was no turning back in the journey towards truth, whatever the cost and the sacrifice involved. He wrote, “No one can be a Catholic without a simple faith, that what the Church declares in God’s name, is God’s word, and therefore true.”

The blogger who goes under the name of “chalcedon451” and who is a convert like Newman, has written a good post, titled “self-will, disobedience and apostasy”, about this obedience to truth, once a person has discovered it. He states, “It is not my part to determine what is, and what is not, authentic Catholic teaching. The Church has done that”, and quotes Newman: “No one should enter the Church without a firm purpose of taking her word in all matters of doctrine and morals, and that, on the ground of her coming directly from the God of Truth.”

I was reminded of Newman’s (and “chalcedon’s”) response to what they discovered to be the irresistible attraction of authentic Catholic teaching in another conversation over coffee after Mass yesterday. A middle-aged man whom I had always assumed to be a pillar of orthodoxy in our local Catholic community told me he hoped the Church would one day “change her opposition to women priests.” He was all in favour of them and said he knew many Catholics who would agree with him. I said it was not a question of numbers, nor was it a matter of mere opinion and that the all-male priesthood was not something the Church had the power to change. I might have added, because it has “come directly from the God of Truth.”

I could see from the look of tolerant amusement on his face that he was thinking what an old conservative fuddy-duddy I was, unable to recognise genuine “progress” in the Church when it was staring me in the face.