John Henry Newman: An Ecumenical Conversion

Newman is a model of stability amid hostilities that arise from without. But he is also a model for spiritual resistance to the suspicion and distrust that arise within one’s own ranks.

John Henry Newman—rightly regarded as one of the most important Christian thinkers of the modern era—was born February 21, 1801 in the city of London. The span of his life encompasses nearly the entire nineteenth century. The Anglican divine and illustrious leader of the Oxford Movement was admitted into full communion with the Catholic Church in 1845 and died on August 11, 1890 as a cardinal in the Birmingham Oratory, his primary place of work since 1849.

Newman’s historical, theological, and spiritual works are equally remarkable. Most of his homilies appear in German editions, many of which boast a profound interpretation of Christianity’s central mysteries. His celebrity grew with his An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, which answered the question of how we can—with all the finitude of human knowing—arrive at certainty of faith’s assent to the historical revelation of God.

His work on the development of dogma is, we can say, nothing short of genius. In it Newman developed principles for the historical continuity and identity of revelation under the conditions of finite, human knowing, within the believing Church, founded by Christ and preserved in—and attended ever more deeply into—truth by the Holy Spirit. Newman’s 1851 lectures on the nature of the university, offered on the occasion of the Catholic University of Dublin’s founding, should be of the highest relevance for contemporary debates on the nature and goal of the university, education, and science, and the legitimacy of revelation-based theology in public schools.

Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua is crucial for his spiritual biography. In it he renders the history of his religious convictions and defends himself against accusations that the motives behind his conversion were disingenuous. With this literary masterpiece penned in glittering English (which we could place alongside Augustine’s Confessions and Blaise Pascal’s Pensées), Newman restored honor to Catholic clergy in Protestant England, which had been characterized by anti-Catholic polemics since the reformation. Encouraged by Enlightenment polemics from eighteenth-century France, many then remained firmly convinced that Catholic priests and religious were nothing but evil hypocrites and pitiless agents of the antichrist seated on the Roman pontiff’s chair, for whom every means of slaking their hunger for power is justified. Many lived and cultivated the prejudices of the anti-scientific, reactionary Catholic Church and saw in Roman universalism the nemesis of the ideal of the nation-state with its imperial, colonial goals. In this context one could suffer the Church only as a national English Church; and the Anglican bishops put themselves in service of a dilated, national Christianity.

The Plurality of Christian Communities and the Visible Unity of the Catholic Church

By his own account Newman, a respected scholar and celebrated university preacher in Oxford, discovered the biblical and historical instability of the Protestant ur-dogma of the pope as antichrist. After this Newman could no longer shy away from the insight that it was the Catholic Church of the Roman pope (so disdained in England)—and not the Anglican national church, which had existed since the sixteenth century—which stood in real continuity with the Church of the apostles. With his extraordinary knowledge of the Bible and of the Church fathers he could not escape the conclusion that the Catholic Church is located in full continuity of doctrine and Church polity with the Church of the apostles, and that Protestant charges of corrupting the apostolic faith or of supplementing it with unbiblical elements of doctrine rather fall back on themselves. In his Apologia Newman wrote: “And as far as I know myself, my one paramount reason for contemplating a change is my deep, unvarying conviction that our Church is in schism, and that my salvation depends on my joining the Church of Rome.”

This same understanding of the Church as confession of faith finds expression in the Second Vatican Council. The declaration Dominus Iesus, published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on August 6, 2000, says the same, though it is mostly misinterpreted because largely (by some intentionally) unread. For good reason Newman rejected the theory that the Anglican Church charts a middle way between Catholicism and Protestantism; he also rejected that we could pragmatically settle for the splintering of Christendom with the notion that there are several branches on the Church’s one tree. Yet the plurality of communities around now cannot count as a partial realization of Christ’s Church; the Church of Christ is indivisible. And indivisibility—which expresses itself visibly in the Church’s unity of belief, its sacramental life, and its apostolic constitution—belongs inexorably to the essence of the Church. The goal of the ecumenical movement is not, then, a manmade merger of ecclesial confederations. It is rather the restoration of full communion in faith and of the bishops as successors to the apostles, as it has been realized historically and continuously since the beginning in the Church, which “is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him” (Dominus Iesus 17).

Why did Newman oppose an ecumenism based on relativism and skepticism? Why did he not settle for the following formula? “We all believe in the same God, and so the Church’s teaching does not matter. Our knowledge of things is not exact. Religion is a matter of feeling, and so the majority of those who share the same sentiments determine which way the Church goes. For ecumenical unity, a mere sense of community and a sentimental relationship to ‘Jesus’ suffices to render unity according to the tastes of the majority. If you feel united, you too can celebrate a Eucharistic feast together—even if the binding doctrine of the Church or the separated Christian communities teach the opposite and recognize these doctrines as relevant to salvation.”

Newman believes in the reality of God, in the fact of a historical self-revelation in Jesus Christ, and in his current presence in the Church which is, in its essential structural elements and apostolic authority of its shepherds, led by the Spirit of God.

Whoever takes seriously the incarnation must also take seriously the Church as the work of God and beware any manipulation by ideologically stubborn pressure groups. The visible Church is the concretization of the Word of God’s incarnate presence in Jesus Christ. Because Israel bears a salvation history, because the incarnation happened, because Christ has really given up his life on the cross for the salvation of the world and has really risen again—thus there is also the concrete obligation faithfully to obey revelation, which makes present the confession of faith in the promise of salvation, in the sacraments, and in ecclesial authority of the apostles’ successors in the episcopate. It is within the context of these confessions that Newman wants to be understood.

The common view that one Christian confession is like the other and that true Christianity unfolds only within the interiority of the heart—beyond creed, dogma, sacrament, and magisterial authority—appears indeed quite plausible to great numbers of Christians today. But it is untenable in view of the holy scriptures’ claims about revelation and the Church. Because the visible, sacramental Church and the invisible community of the faithful belong together indissolubly, Newman had to pose the question: Which among the visible Christian communities now on offer can rightly lay claim to an identity of confession of faith and of historical continuity? He did not understand his conversion as a change from one Christian confession to another. Nor had he determined to take this step because Catholic piety might have appealed more to him emotionally, say, or because a Catholic culture of romantic style might have suited him more. Quite the opposite! The outer appearance of the Catholic Church should have disgusted him, even. Newman took the step because he realized in faith and conscience the complete identity of Christ’s Church with the visible Catholic Church. This was no slight to the Anglican Church. His conversion is not one’s cause for grief and another’s flush of success. Newman belongs to all Christians! He is one of the most impressive witnesses for the visible unity of the Church, which Jesus himself willed and which thus constitutes an unshakable benchmark of Christian identity (John 17:22ff).

Newman: Apologist for Christianity as Revealed Religion

Newman lived in the nineteenth century, which posed the basic questions also decisive for the twentieth century and which will bleed deeply into the twenty-first. These questions concern the fundamental challenge posed by the philosophy of the Enlightenment.

At stake is Christianity’s right to exist and the onus of historical revelation as truth and fact before human reason. In the critique of religion by Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, the apparent overcoming of revealed faith by modern science and the massive hostility to the Church of Hitler’s and Stalin’s totalitarian regimes always raise a single question: Does God exist, and is his Word allowed to be the measure for our faith and conscience?

In his famous talk at his elevation to cardinal (1879), Newman signals two possible attitudes toward revelation. He calls one the liberal, skeptical posture of agnosticism and atheism. The other he calls the dogmatic posture—that is, the basic willingness faithfully to obey the Word of God, which is represented in the human word of the Church’s confession: “Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.” Dogmatic thinking opposes this. It acknowledges the fact of the revealed Word of God spoken to humans in Jesus Christ. In contrast to a merely emotional sense of an impersonal presence of the divine, the Word of God made flesh is rational and clearly expressible. This proves the Church’s confession of faith. In the sacramental act given to the Church by Christ, the Word made flesh is again present.

This comparison of both possible attitudes of modern people toward the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ is not, of course, a question of the concepts of “liberal” and “dogmatic,” but rather of the thing identified by them.

Newman did not target political liberalism. Indeed, he recognized the humane views of many of its proponents. After the end of the religious wars in Europe and the devastation wrought by the French Revolution and Napoleon’s campaigns of expansion over the world, there remained no other choice than to reorganize society on the principles of religious freedom, tolerance, and equality of all before the law. So if religion was entrusted to the individual’s consciousness of truth, it was still far from becoming a private affair or something arbitrary. On the contrary, the challenge to individuals to seek truth and to face up to their obligatory power had increased enormously since the days when European rulers could still determine the religion of their subjects. To be sure, modern freedom of religion includes more than the right of the individual against the state’s claims to power and against pressures to conform to society. Decisive for the full realization of this fundamental right is also the communal dimension of the question of truth.

Every religious community must be allowed to determine for itself what are and are not the binding or dogmatic elements of its constitution along with the rational, identifiable conditions of their validity.

At this point the modern conflict between belief and unbelief emerges. In opposition to its own principles, liberalism demands its validity totally and exclusively. Its largesse and alleged capaciousness toward all religious orientations often just amount to a militant indifference to the claims of God’s Word. Liberalism as Newman critiques it is another form of rationalism:

Liberalism then is the mistake of subjecting to human judgment those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it, and of claiming to determine on intrinsic grounds which are in their nature beyond and independent of it, and of claiming to determine on intrinsic grounds the truth and value of propositions which rest for their reception simply on the external authority of the Divine Word (Apologia, 493).

Liberalism claims the sole validity of metaphysical skepticism, even though under the assumptions of liberalism metaphysically valid and indubitable statements are impossible. Liberalism turns against the free right of religious communities to determine the truth content and horizon of their own metaphysical and epistemological principles. In contradiction to liberalism of this sort, rational justification of the act and content of faith became a theme of Newman’s life.

Here again Newman is impressively relevant. The declaration Dominus Iesus rejected the so-called pluralist theory of religion that relativizes Christ and the Church as irreconcilable with the fundamentals and substance of the Catholic faith. This theory about the equality and similarity of several forms of mediation and several mediators is based on epistemological relativism and skepticism. It assumes that every person can, with the help of his ancestral religion and culture, overcome his selfishness in order to engage his fellow human and to open himself to reality, which is always grander than anything we in our finitude can think or do. This is the salvation communicated to every religiously-minded person irrespective of whether he, before the ever-vanishing horizon of reality, imagines God as a personal God or an impersonal numinosum, or whether after death he anticipates a personal resurrection or a biological resuscitation of corpses, as unity with the one-and-all of being or else nothing beyond personal consciousness.

For Newman it was clear that the Christian confession of the universal salvific will of the one God and of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ’s revelation (cf. 1 Timothy 2:4ff) does not denigrate pre-Christian religions by absolutizing a tradition unique to the Christian West. Whoever debunks as unproven and indemonstrable the fundamental dogma of relativists, metaphysical skeptics, and agnostics for whom a historical self-revelation of God is impossible will also confess that God is already at work in the human pursuit of truth and in all religions’ desire for salvation. Thus in Jesus Christ “all people are saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).

For Newman, then, Christianity is the religion of the future because God, who once and for all has taken up residence in our world in his Word made flesh, is also the future of humanity:

Revelation begins where Natural Religion fails. The Religion of Nature is a mere inchoation, and needs a complement,—it can have but one complement, and that very complement is Christianity. Natural religion is based upon the sense of sin; it recognizes the disease, but it cannot find, it does but look out for the remedy. That remedy, both for guilt and for moral impotence, is found in the central doctrine of Revelation, the Mediation of Christ . . . Thus it is that Christianity is the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham, and of the Mosaic revelations; this is how it has been able from the first to occupy the world and gain a hold on every class of human society to which its preachers reached; this is why the Roman power and the multitude of religions which it embraced could not stand against it; this is the secret of its sustained energy, and its never-flagging martyrdoms; this is how at present it is so mysteriously potent, in spite of the new and fearful adversaries which beset its path. It has with it that gift of staunching and healing the one deep wound of human nature, which avails more for its success than a full encyclopedia of scientific knowledge and a whole library of controversy, and therefore it must last while human nature lasts. It is a living truth which never can grow old.

Some persons speak of it as if it were a thing of history, with only indirect bearings upon modern times; I cannot allow that it is a mere historical religion. Certainly it has its foundations in past and glorious memories, but its power is in the present. It is no dreary matter of antiquarianism; we do not contemplate it in conclusions drawn from dumb documents and dead events, but by faith exercised in ever-living objects, and by the appropriation and use of ever-recurring gifts.

Our communion with it is in the unseen, not in the obsolete. At this very day its rites and ordinances are continually eliciting the active interposition of that Omnipotence in which the Religion long ago began. First and above all is the Holy Mass, in which He who once died for us upon the Cross, brings back and perpetuates, by His literal presence in it, that one and the same sacrifice which cannot be repeated. Next, there is the actual entrance of Himself, soul and body, and divinity, into the soul and body of every worshipper who comes to Him for the gift, a privilege more intimate than if we lived with Him during His long-past sojourn upon earth. And then, moreover, there is His personal abidance in our churches, raising earthly service into a foretaste of heaven. Such is the profession of Christianity, and, I repeat, its very divination of our needs is in itself a proof that it is really the supply of them . . .

The promised Deliverer, the Expectation of the nations, has not done his work by halves . . . He has created a visible hierarchy and a succession of sacraments, to be channels of His mercies . . . In all these ways He brings Himself before us . . . as human nature itself is still in life and action as much as ever it was, so He too lives, to our imaginations, by His visible symbols, as if He were on earth, with a practical efficacy which even unbelievers cannot deny, so as to be the corrective of that nature, and its strength day by day,—and that this power of perpetuating His Image . . . is a grand evidence how well He fulfils to this day that Sovereign Mission which, from the first beginning of the world’s history, has been in prophecy assigned to Him (Apologia, 487–489)

Newman: A Model of Stability

Another parallel to the present is the episode of the Achilli affair, which cast a dark cloud over 1851. A vow-breaking, apostatizing Dominican named Achilli had, much to the delight of his smug and Church-critical audience, related the Church’s crimes and transgressions, omitting no stereotype or prejudice. When Newman countered this populist approach with historical events, he was charged with libel. Though all the accusations proved unjustified, the judge sentenced Newman to pay a ruinous fine, deprived him of the right to speech, and cursed him as a completely sordid figure.

Even today there is bad blood and eruptions of hatred within the Church. In some countries like Holland, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany there are factions that assume the worst of bishops and the pope. Often theologians and priests who have lost faith or failed celibacy or the evangelical counsels lead and agitate for movements that demand Church reform and yet—consciously or not—sow only division and destruction.

Newman is a model of stability amid hostilities that arise from without. But he is also a model for spiritual resistance to the suspicion and distrust that arise within one’s own ranks. Today we call this “bullying.” For years higher personalities within the Church cast a “cloud of suspicion” over Newman. Newman did not shrink back sorely; he knew that Christ’s Church is more than group dynamics and their surge of sympathy and antipathy on the Church’s surface. The Church penetrates into the mystery of Christ. The Church as sacrament means being taken up into the sonship of Christ, who as head makes the Church his body, uniting individual believers as a community and imparting to it all the charisms and ministries to fulfill its mission of the world’s salvation. And so humanity—all-too-human—cannot destroy the Church; and we cannot yield to despair.

Even after all the external and internal difficulty, hostility, resistance, and irritation, Pope Leo XIII elevated Newman to the position of cardinal. He honored Newman for his belief rooted deeply in the Church and his willingness to serve with all the admirable talents of his spirit, his humanity, and his formation of the Church’s heart. “I was determined to honor the Church,” Leo explained, “by honoring Newman.”

Newman is undoubtedly an impressive Christian thinker who—with his work and life embroiled in conflicts regarding Christianity’s legitimacy in modernity—confidently and cogently points up humanity’s future. And this is nothing other than God in Jesus Christ and in his Church. Yet Newman was not only a brilliant theologian and gifted poet but also a great prayer; he brought the situation of the Church as he perceived and suffered it before God in prayer. Little commentary is needed to show how relevant these words are:

O God,
the time is utterly beset.
The cause of Christ lies as in agony.
And yet—never did Christ stride more powerfully through the age,
never was his advent starker,
never his nearness more sensible,
never his duty dearer than now.
So in these flashes of eternity,
between storm and storm,
let us here below pray you:
O God,
You can relume the dark,
You and you alone.*

*Translator’s note: Though this poem borrows lines from Newman, it is not his. It derives rather from Johannes Dierkes’s Gedanken und Gebete im Christuslicht (Paderborn: Junfermann, 1935), but quickly became misattributed to Newman himself.

Translated by Justin Shaun Coyle

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