“He is the one Englishman of that era who upheld the ancient creed with a knowledge that only theologians possess, a Shakespearean force of style, and a fervor worthy of the saints.” This description of Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890), from the 1913 edition of The Catholic Encyclopedia, captures well three of the many impressive qualities of the man: his theological knowledge, his masterful literary abilities and his holiness.
Given Cardinal Newman’s reputation during his lifetime, both for his prodigious intellect and for his personal sanctity, support for his canonization not surprisingly began at his death. His formal cause for sainthood has been underway for some time now, making headlines, at times, even in secular publications.
An article in America magazine in 1941, along with Pope Pius XII’s support of the 1945 “Centenary of Newman’s Conversion,” played essential roles in moving the process along.
In an address to the Cardinal Newman Academic Symposium in 1975, Pope Paul VI acknowledged the powerful and ongoing witness of Cardinal Newman:
“He who was convinced of being faithful throughout his life, with all his heart devoted to the light of truth, today becomes an ever brighter beacon for all who are seeking an informed orientation and sure guidance amid the uncertainties of the modern world — a world which he himself prophetically foresaw.”
In fact, the Pope had hoped that he might celebrate the Holy Year of 1975 with the beatification of the English cardinal. But more research was needed before that event could take place.
Finally, in January 1991, Pope John Paul II declared Cardinal Newman to be “Venerable.” He was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, and was approved for canonization by Pope Francis in 2019.
Cardinal Newman captured even bigger headlines when, in October 2008, his bones were exhumed and nothing was found save a few red tassels from his cardinal’s hat. Damp conditions had led to the decomposition of the body, thus frustrating the intended move of his remains from a cemetery in Rednal, Worcestershire, to a sarcophagus at Birmingham Oratory.
Cardinal Newman had founded the oratory in the 1840s after he left the Anglican denomination to enter the Catholic Church.
A Dramatic Conversion
It was Cardinal Newman’s dramatic conversion that captured, and still captures, the attention and imagination of so many.
Born into a family of bankers, the eldest of six children, the shy and studious Newman had a fondness for reading the Bible and the novels of Sir Walter Scott. The religion of his youth was Anglican and evangelical in nature; he described it in his biographical “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” (1864)as “Bible religion.” (It was also quite anti-Catholic.)
The future cardinal once wrote that he “had no formed religious convictions” until he was 15. “Of course,” he added, “I had a perfect knowledge of my catechism.”
The teenager experienced a profound crisis of faith in 1816, but emerged from it with a newfound fervor, evidenced by his frequent reception of communion in the Anglican Church and taking a private vow of celibacy. At 21 he was a professor at Oriel College, Oxford, and was ordained in June 1824 as a priest in the Anglican Communion.
Newman was a curate of St. Clement’s, Oxford, for two years, and then served as vicar of St. Mary the Virgin, the university church, where he overcame his shyness. Several years of impressive scholarly work followed, including his first major publication, “The Arians of the Fourth Century” (1833).
Much of that work had to do with early Church history and the Church Fathers. Such study would eventually lead him to communion with Rome.
During the 1830s Newman became a leader in the Oxford Movement, which consisted of several Oxford theologians who addressed key issues relating to the authority, nature and history of the Anglican Communion. They also sought to reinvigorate what they considered to be a spiritually lethargic institution.
Because of the many theological tracts published by Newman and others, the movement became known as Tractarianism. In Tract 90, published in 1841, Newman argued that the Thirty-Nine Articles — the defining creedal statements of Anglicanism established in 1563 — were essentially Catholic teachings.
This led to controversy and to Newman’s forced resignation from Oxford.
“From the end of 1841,” he wrote in the “Apologia,” “I was on my deathbed, as regards my membership with the Anglican Church.”
Newman retired to the village of Littlemore with a small group of followers and lived a semi-monastic life as he worked on his now-famous “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.” It was during his years there that he worked through his various concerns and questions about Catholic doctrine.
He preached his last sermon at St. Mary’s in September 1843, and shortly thereafter he published a retraction of his previous attacks on the Catholic Church.
On Oct. 8, 1845, with his “Essay” still not completed (he never did finish it), Newman wrote: “I am this night expecting Father Dominic, the Passionist. … I mean to ask of him admission into the One Fold of Christ.”
Blessed Dominic Barberi, an Italian, received Newman into the Catholic Church the next day.
Service in the Church
The following October the new convert traveled to Rome, where he was ordained a Catholic priest and given a doctorate in divinity by Pope Pius IX himself. Father Newman joined the Congregation of the Oratory and, having been given a papal brief, set up an oratory in Birmingham, England.
The years of Cardinal Newman’s life were nearly equally divided between those when he was non-Catholic and those when he was Catholic, and the second half of his life, like the first, did not lack for controversy.
“Apologia Pro Vita Sua” was published in response to personal attacks against him by novelist Charles Kingsley. In it, he defended the civic loyalty of English Catholics against the accusations of William Gladstone.
At the same time, many Catholics remained wary of the new priest, not only because he was a convert, but also because some considered him to be a liberal. This accusation stemmed in part from his concerns about the First Vatican Council’s formal definition of the dogma of papal infallibility. In his “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk” (1875), however, he affirmed that he had always believed in the doctrine.
Whatever may have been the qualms of some Catholics about his thinking, in 1879 the convert priest was named a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII.
Cardinal Newman has sometimes been called the “Father of Vatican II” because of the influence of his writings on several key areas of theology and practice. Pope Paul VI, in his 1975 address, highlighted this influence:
“Many of the problems which [Newman] treated with wisdom — although he himself was frequently misunderstood and misinterpreted in his own time — were the subjects of the discussion and study of the fathers of the Second Vatican Council, as for example the question of ecumenism, the relationship between Christianity and the world, the emphasis on the role of the laity in the Church and the relationship of the Church to non-Christian religions.”
In a 1990 address given on the first centenary of Cardinal Newman’s death, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote:
“The characteristic of the great Doctor of the Church, it seems to me, is that he teaches not only through his thought and speech but also by his life, because within him, thought and life is interpenetrated and defined. If this is so, then Newman belongs to the great teachers of the Church, because he both touches our hearts and enlightens our thinking.”
Shortly before his death, Cardinal Newman asked Bishop William Bernard Ullathorne of Birmingham to bless him. Bishop Ullathorne, deeply moved by the request, later wrote: “I felt annihilated in his presence. There is a saint in that man.”
Carl Olson is editor of IgnatiusInsight.com and writes from Eugene, Ore.