The anti-Catholic bigot who provoked a spiritual masterpiece

Charles Kingsley

In 1863 John Henry Newman was sent a copy of an article that attacked his character. It had been written by Charles Kingsley, the popular novelist and Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, and it said that “truth, for its own sake, had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy. Father Newman informs us that it need not, and on the whole, ought not to be.”

Newman had been an Oxford don and Anglican priest, and one of the leaders of the Anglo-Catholic revival in his Church. This had infuriated anti-Catholic bigots like Kingsley, who thought that Newman, while posing as an Anglican, was in reality a covert Catholic who was leading good, honest Englishmen to cross the Tiber and “pope”. Then, when Newman left the Anglican Church to become a Catholic priest, Kingsley thought this confirmed his worst suspicions about Newman’s motives and truthfulness.

Kingsley had charged that, while Newman was an Anglican, he had really been a “Romanist” disguised in Protestant livery. And so Newman felt himself bound, as a duty to himself and to his Church, to explain how in all sincerity he had been led to leave one Church for another. The result was one of the greatest of spiritual autobiographies, the Apologia Pro Vita Sua. It had to be, he said, the key to his whole life, to show what he was and what he was not. He wrote from morning to night, often without taking meals, and as much as 22 hours in a single day. As he did so, he was often in tears.

The book is a long and scrupulous examination of conscience by one who felt impelled to do so in defence of his new religion. If Newman was personally shy, he was intellectually curious, and that had led him to the positively un-Anglican study of Christian dogma and theology. While an Anglican, Newman brought to his church the fine scholarship of one who wanted to know just what Anglicans did or could believe.

Anglicanism, he had argued, was a via media, an Anglo-Catholic middle of the road, that was neither Protestant nor Catholic. It rejected what he saw as heretical Protestant doctrines as well as the excesses of an unreformed Catholic Church. Most Anglicans, and especially Evangelicals like Kingsley, thought this entirely too sympathetic to Catholicism.

The Apologia took its readers through the history of Newman’s ideas, step by step, from his arrival at Oxford to his decision to convert, and showed how, though he had never intended it and though the possibility would have dismayed him, he found the via media crumbling beneath his feet. His scholarship had taken him down a winding path, where the steps proved unstable and his footing gave way and finally brought him to Rome. He had sought to prove that the Anglican Church was not Protestant, but when he had finished he realised that, if it wasn’t, it was necessarily Catholic.

As he had gone through the theological controversies that defined Catholicism, in which this was determined to be Church dogma while that was heresy, he found that the Protestants and Anglicans were on the wrong side of orthodoxy, and that he could not condemn the popes of the 16th century without condemning those of the 5th century as well. If so, the claim that the 19th century Church of England was the successor of a pre-Reformation church in his country must fall.

That was in 1841. It took Newman four more years before he converted. Those four years must have been painful. What his submission to the Church entailed, as he realised, was a loss of all that he had held dear, his faith apart – Oxford, his family, his friends other than the few who followed him to Rome, a church that had made him its pet. He knew that he owed duties to his bishop, to people under his care. But then he recalled that Pascal had said, “It is absurd of us to rely on the company of our fellows, as wretched and helpless as we are; they will not help us; we shall die alone”, and resolved to think of his own soul above all else.

Besides, he was joining a Church which, though he thought it the true faith, was nevertheless very different in its culture and people. And if Anglicans thought his beliefs suspect before he converted, some members of the Catholic hierarchy repaid the compliment afterwards. He toiled in relative obscurity until his Apologia was published in 1864.

Even then, the Church hierarchy mistrusted him, and in Eminent Victorians Lytton Strachey recounted how Cardinal Manning saw him as a rival to be thwarted. He was only given the cardinal’s hat when he was older, and after Pius IX was succeeded by Pope Leo XIII.

That’s why we shouldn’t be surprised that it took Newman years to make up his mind. But he was scrupulous and willing to follow his first principles wherever they might lead, even down a slippery slope to a place he had never wished to be. The censure of fellow Anglicans helped nudge him on his way, but a less principled man would have admitted defeat and adjusted his principles to fit his Church. That he could not do, and he is therefore a model of scrupulous curiosity.

FH Buckley is a professor at Antonin Scalia Law School in Arlington, Virginia. His next book is American Secession: The Looming Threat of a National Breakup (Encounter, January 2020)