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An English Catholic hero: a very short biography of John Henry Newman

Newman had a genius for friendship (mazur/catholicchurch.org.uk)

Newman combined intellectual insight with an almost childlike simplicity

John Henry Newman was born in London at 80 Old Bond Street on February 21, 1801. His father, John Newman, was a private banker in the City of London, the son of a Mayfair grocer, originally of Cambridgeshire. His mother, Jemima (née Fourdrinier), was the daughter of a printer of Norman Huguenot stock, whose family had become well known for its innovative paper-making. Newman’s parents married in 1799 and had six children, John Henry being the eldest, followed by two younger sons and three daughters. Of Ham House, the family’s beloved summer home near Richmond, Newman recalled gazing at “candles in the windows in illumination for the victory at Trafalgar” – a fitting memory for a man who would himself become one of England’s national heroes.

Given to warm personal relations – indeed, Newman had a genius for friendship – he was chary of personal avowals. In the Apologia, he wrote of his distaste for what he called “disclosures”. Yet he revealed striking things about his youth. “I was brought up from a child to take great delight in reading the Bible,” he remarked; and while he had “no formed religious convictions till [he] was 15 … [he] had perfect knowledge of [his] Catechism.”

When the family moved into an elegant Georgian townhouse at 17 Southampton Place in Bloomsbury, Newman recalled “admiring the borders of the paper in the drawing rooms”. Another memory of childhood was equally characteristic: he “rested”, as he put it, “in the thought of two and two only supreme and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator …” Beauty and truth – vital prerequisites for anyone entering into what Newman called “the Presence of the Word Incarnate” – would always attract him.

In 1808 Newman enrolled at Ealing School, where the classics master, Walter Mayers, renewed his Christian faith. “From the age of 15, dogma has been the fundamental principle of my religion,” Newman would later write in the Apologia, and for this he first credited Mayers. Another crucial influence was that of the biblical scholar Thomas Scott, whom Newman admired for “his resolute opposition to Antinomianism” and his two mottoes, “Holiness rather than peace” and “Growth the only evidence of life”.

In 1817, Newman went up to Trinity College, Oxford. In 1822, notwithstanding his poor degree, he was elected fellow of Oriel College, where he befriended Hurrell Froude and John Keble. He also delighted in playing Beethoven’s quartets with Blanco White (Newman was an accomplished violinist).

At Oriel, Newman began an extensive study of the early Fathers of the Church. He also began to see more clearly the dangers of liberalism, which he described in a letter of 1832 as a “cold and scoffing theory, which says there is no great evil in the world … and all religions are about the same.” Later, in 1879, when Pope Leo XIII gave him his red hat, he would declare that he had spent “30, 40, 50 years” combating liberalism, “the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another.” The claim, often made by Newman’s detractors, that his opposition to liberalism was inconsistent, is demonstrably false.

In 1833, Newman toured the Mediterranean with Froude. After attending his first Mass in Rome, he wrote to his mother: “As I looked on, and saw … the Holy Sacrament offered up, and the blessing given, and recollected I was in church, I could only say in very perplexity my own words, ‘How shall I name thee, Light of the wide west, or heinous error-seat?’ ”

When Froude left Rome for France, Newman decided to return to Sicily by himself, which, as he wrote, “filled me with inexpressible rapture, and to which … [I was drawn] as by a lodestone” – for the unsuspecting pilgrim a most providential lodestone. Succumbing to typhoid fever, he cried aloud: “I have not sinned against [the] light.” In the lucid intervals of fever, he told himself: “God has work for me.”

After recovering from fever, with the help of a loyal Neapolitan servant named Gennaro who had been a sailor aboard the Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, Newman sailed from Palermo to Marseille on an orange boat. Becalmed in the Strait of Bonifacio, between Corsica and Sardinia, he wrote what would become known as Lead, Kindly Light, the hymn that expresses so movingly his trust in the Light that would guide him ever after.

Returning to England in 1833, Newman joined with Froude and Keble to form the Oxford Movement, the purpose of which was to try to introduce some dogmatic coherence into the Anglican Church (always a quixotic enterprise). In 1834, he published the first of eight volumes of his Parochial and Plain Sermons. When his via media fell to pieces partly as the result of his arguing in Tract 90 that the Thirty-Nine Articles could sustain a Catholic reading, he retired to Littlemore, where he moved closer and closer to recognising Catholicism as what he called the “Ark of salvation”.

In 1842, Newman published his Oxford University Sermons, which set out the truths of faith and reason denied by the rationalists of the age. In September 1843, he resigned the living of St Mary the Virgin, where he had preached his sermons. In October 1845, he resigned his Oriel fellowship. On October 9, he was received into the Church of Rome. Nothing reveals the saint in Newman better than the faithful aplomb with which he left all he loved in the world to embrace and defend what he called the “one true Fold of the Redeemer”.

In his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), Newman showed how the history of the Catholic Church inheres in her adopting true and rejecting false developments. For St John Paul II, it was Newman’s “passionate contemplation of truth” that enabled him to see Christ as “the light at the heart of every kind of darkness”.

In 1846, Newman showed how central the Blessed Sacrament was to his Catholic faith when he wrote of St Fidelio in Milan: “I could go into this beautiful church … all day long without tiring … Nothing moves there but the distant glittering Lamp which betokens the Presence of our Undying Life, hidden but ever working for us.”

Ordained a priest in Rome in 1847, Newman took as his patron saint the joyous Florentine St Philip Neri and established both the Brompton and the Birmingham Oratories, even though the former was led by FW Faber. In 1848, he published Loss and Gain, his Oxford novel, one of whose characters speaks of the Mass as “not a mere form of words” but “the evocation of the Eternal”, where Our Lord and Saviour “becomes present on the altar in flesh and blood before whom angels bow and devils tremble.”

Upon settling into his new Oratorian life, Newman published his Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England (1851), an exuberant skewering of No Popery. In 1852, after helping to found the Catholic University in Dublin, for which he served as rector from 1851 to 1858 (crossing the Irish Sea 56 times), he published his Discourses on the Scope and Nature of University Education, the blueprint for his classic, The Idea of a University (1873). In 1859, he wrote On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, which urged that the laity be treated “with attention and consideration”. Why? Because “the body of the faithful is one of the witnesses to … the tradition of revealed doctrine, and because their consensus through Christendom is the voice of the Infallible Church” – a heartening reminder for an age, like ours, mired in episcopal pusillanimity. In the same year, Newman helped to form the laity himself by founding the Oratory School.

Two controversies preoccupied Newman’s Catholic life. In 1864, in response to Charles Kingsley’s alleging that “Truth for its own sake was never a virtue with the Roman clergy” and that “Father Newman informs us that it need not be, and on the whole ought not to be”, Newman wrote his Apologia Pro Vita Sua to defend his own and his co-religionists’ veracity.

“It is not pleasant to be giving to every shallow or flippant disputant the advantage over me of knowing my most private thoughts, I might even say the intercourse between myself and my Maker,” Newman wrote. “But I do not like to be called to my face a liar and a knave: nor should I be doing my duty to my faith or to my name, if I were to suffer it.” Newman’s inspired riposte met with almost universal acclaim. Dr Henry Liddon, Edward Pusey’s biographer, spoke for many when he wrote: “Dr Newman’s Apologia is the greatest treat I have had for a very long time indeed … the whole is beautiful beyond words.” If Newman was the greatest prose stylist of the 19th century, nothing exhibits this better than the Apologia.

Newman’s other controversy concerned the First Vatican Council’s adoption of the doctrine of papal infallibility. Although he thought defining the doctrine inopportune, fearing it might unsettle converts, he accepted it himself as early as 1851. In responding to WE Gladstone’s charge that papal infallibility would impede the exercise of conscience, indeed disable English Catholics from being loyal subjects, he wrote his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1875), which “upholds”, as Newman’s biographer Ian Ker remarks, “the sovereignty, but not the autonomy, of the individual conscience”. The conscience, in other words, needs forming, and, for Catholics, it is formed by the Church’s infallible teachings, not the counsels of self-will.

In 1870, Newman published his Grammar of Assent, which anatomises how we arrive at certainty in religious belief. When the ultramontane WG Ward read it, he was disarmed: “In the midst of our ecclesiastical differences … it is an unspeakable comfort to me … that on one point at least and that a most important one, I can fight under your banner.” To a Jesuit who claimed that the book’s reasoning failed its epistemological object, Newman replied: “Syllogising won’t meet it.”

After Newman was made a cardinal, the Duke of Norfolk wrote of how “it was sometimes urged that in Newman intellectual qualities were allowed somewhat to overcloud the simplicity of Catholic faith. But it would be difficult indeed to gather from any other writer than Newman such sublime conceptions of devotion to the Mother of God or of our kindred with the saints; and in all this the high intellectual insight is blended with the most childlike tenderness. I feel very strongly that the action of the Holy See in making Newman a cardinal brought out this great side of his character, this great lasting teaching of his life.”

Another biographer, Richard Holt Hutton, echoed these sentiments, writing after Newman’s death on August 11, 1890: “No more impressive testimony could have been afforded to the power, sincerity and simplicity of the great English cardinal’s life than the almost unanimous outburst of admiration and reverence from all the English churches and all the English sects.”

For his own tombstone, the great convert had written in advance: Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem (“From shadows and images into truth”). Since John Henry Newman’s life was not only a search for but a finding of the Truth, no man could ever have had an apter epitaph.

Edward Short is the author of Newman and History – Newman and his Contemporaries, and Newman and his Family. He lives in New York with his wife and two young children