Lesson 7: A Long Life

The lifespan of John Henry Newman (1801-1890) embraces the shorter span of Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) but there is no indication that either man had ever heard of the other. This is not at all surprising, of course. In the third millennium, with global communication all but instantaneous, we are inundated by such a flood of useful and useless information, items fill the television screens of the world for a few hours and then give way to some fresh outrage or sensation, it is difficult for us even to imagine a time when the railroad and telegraph were new. In Walden Thoreau writes of the way the railway brought time to the small towns of America, the scheduled arrivals and departures introducing a precision into the sun's passage overhead it hitherto had not had. Nor is it simply weather disasters, scandal and political upheavals that receive media attention. It was a first-time feature of the ecumenical council held in Rome from 1962-1965 - Vatican II - that it was covered and commented on and, as we say, spun by a horde of interested observers. Leaked documents, confidential briefings on supposed secret meetings, media pressure on the council meetings themselves - we can forget how utterly new all this was. I mention to suggest that a Newman and Kierkegaard might nowadays be covered like celebrities, their visages flashed to the far corners of the world, their ideas analyzed, digested, refuted, affirmed. Under such attention, interest in them would doubtless soon have been exhausted.

Which is doubtless why God placed them in the 19th century. Both men saw the rise of the power of the media -and both in their different ways suffered from it - just as both were aware of the more unsavory aspects of Enlightenment sponsored political developments and deplored the rise of what Newman would label Liberalism. The encroachment of the public on the private, the tendency to see people as faceless members of the mass rather than as individual persons with an eternal destiny, was condemned by both men. Fittingly enough, the filter through which they saw the world was their own person - not in an egocentric way, but in the conviction that for each of us our own life is our principal task, working out our salvation. That this has social implications is clear from the way both Newman and Kierkegaard felt compelled to address their fellows - not as a mass, but as persons - and remind them of their eternal destiny.


As with Kierkegaard, there are certain events in Newman's life which loom large and give it the shape and direction it took on. We find none of the childhood traumas in Newman's life that characterized Kierkegaard's. When Newman tells the story of his religious opinions an otherwise untroubled Christianity is brought up short in 1816 when he speaks of being converted to a dogmatic Christianity - that is, a faith with doctrines of a quite definite sort, acceptance of which is to guide the Christian life. The following year, Newman entered Trinity College, Oxford and a long if choppy love affair with the university began.

When Newman took his B.A. in 1820 it was characterized as a "poor degree." Like many brilliant students he was undone by the rigors of final examinations. His university career seemed over. But then in 1822 he was elected a fellow of Oriel College and once more his life was on track. Kierkegaard prepared himself for but did not take orders in the Danish Lutheran Church. Newman's university life was one with his clerical vocation. In 1825, he was ordained a priest in the Anglican Church, and was already engaged in pastoral work in Oxford. In 1828 - and this is a milestone - he was named Vicar of St. Mary's, which was the University Church. It was from its pulpit that he was to preach sermons that continue to be read today - we will be examining some shortly - and when you go there you will find a commemorative plaque on the pulpit commemorating Newman's occupancy of it.

Newman's trip to Italy - he sailed in December 1832 and returned the following July - involved of course time in Rome, spent largely with Anglicans, and characterized by the wariness that would linger long in Newman's attitude toward the Catholic Church - but it was when he went on to Sicily and fell ill that a time of reflection was forced upon him that led him to see his return to England in a new light. "I have a work to do in England." It was also at this time that, becalmed off Sicily, he wrote the immortal "Lead, Kindly Light."

The work that awaited him in England became known as the Oxford Movement. Newman had published his first book, on the Arians of the Fourth Century, in 1832. On July 14, 1833, John Keble preached a sermon called "National Apostasy" which initiated the Movement. From this time through 1841, Newman was one of the leaders of the Movement which sought to see the English Church, not as Protestant, but as the Catholic Church in England. It represented a Via Media, a path between Protestantism on the one hand and the supposed excesses and distortions of Rome on the other. Newman and his fellows sought to find in the history of the English Church justification for their understanding of it, while not insisting that their interpretation was exclusive. They were willing to settle for the acceptance of the Catholic version of Anglicanism as legitimate. Tract 90, written by Newman, appeared in 1841 and the reaction to the Oxford Movement, which had been growing, crystallized and it became inescapable that the bishops of the Anglican Church did not see themselves as successors of the Apostles, that the clergy of the Church thought of themselves as Protestants not crypto-Catholics, and finally that Newman's position in Oxford was untenable.

In 1842 he moved to Littlemore, a small town outside Oxford, where his sister Jemima had contributed money to the building of a church. With various companions, Newman lived a quasi-monastic life in the L-shaped building at Littlemore. (If you go there today you will find it in the care of an order of nuns, German in origin, who have restored the buildings, the library, the chapel where they chant the office angelically, and are eager to acquaint visitors with the historic role the place played in Newman's life and beyond.)

In 1843, Newman resigned as vicar of St. Mary's.

In 1845, on October 5, he resigned his fellowship at Oriel.

On October 9, 1845, at Littlemore, he was received into the Catholic Church.

The Convert

Newman's conversion to Catholicism divides his life almost exactly in two. It was his 45th year, he had 45 years yet to live.

The prolonged, gradual and almost reluctant conversion to Catholicism is put before us with great candor in the Apologia pro vita sua. Up to the very end, Newman resisted the direction in which his heart and mind were pulling him. He would have been forgiven if he had seen his conversion as a downwardly mobile step. He had been one of the leaders of his Church, he was a recognized member of an intellectual elite, the congregations to which he preached hung on his every learned and complicated word. As a Catholic he entered a Church made up of the old Catholic families who had survived persecution and internal exile and carved a place for themselves. They did not particularly welcome Newman. And there was as well the immigrant Church, the Irish, lower class by and large. There was no triumphant Roman celebration at the acquisition of so prestigious a convert. Newman's Catholic life was to have as many ups and downs as his Anglican life had had.

In 1847, Newman was ordained a Catholic priest in Rome.The following year he founded the Birmingham Oratory of St. Philip Neri and there continued to live a community life with those of his friends who had come into the Church with him.

In 1851, Newman was appointed rector of the Catholic University of Ireland. Until 1858, when he resigned he devoted himself to this project. The Idea of a University is made up of lectures Newman gave setting forth his vision of the institution.

In 1864, in response to an attack on him by Charles Kingsley, he published the pamphlets that eventually became the Apologia pro vita sua, his narrative account of the history of his religious opinions which brought him into the Catholic Church.

In 1870 he published a book he had spent his lifetime preparing in one form or another, beginning with the Oxford University Sermons delivered at St. Mary's. The book was An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. In it, Newman examines the difference between what he called notion and real assent, and casts light on the mental acts which go into a religious conversion. In that same year, Vatican I defined papal infallibility as a dogma of the Church.

In 1879, the newly elected Pope Leo XIII, named Newman a cardinal. This, coupled with being named an honorary fellow of Trinity College a few years earlier, brought a certain serenity to Newman's twilight years. For over a decade he lived on, seemingly having outlasted the controversies and opposition that had marked his life both as an Anglican and a Catholic. Anglicans had accused him of duplicity, pretending to be one of them when he had already gone over to Rome and seeking to take as many with him as he could. Among Catholics, there were often mutterings about what he wrote, suggestions that his views were heretical or nearly so, and there were times when Newman felt that he was under a cloud in Rome. His great contemporary, Cardinal Manning, another convert, seemed wary of Newman and vice versa, and Manning knew the ropes in Rome as Newman did not. Students often feel a tendency to choose Newman over Manning, to lionize the one and demonize the other. This tendency should be fought. The two men made complementary and essential contributions to the Catholic Church in England. They were both stormy petrels.

Newman lived a long and extremely active life - as a preacher, an author, a controversialist, a churchman - but it would be difficult to argue that his was a planned life. Throughout, he responds to the demands and opportunities of the moment, of the situation in which he finds himself, the duties of his state in life. Thus, for example, the University Sermons he preached as a young man were doubtless each of them simply the task of the moment, and yet they hang together in a way that was very likely not fully intended and can be seen by us as a first go at the issues that would reach their ultimate treatment many many years later in the Grammar of Assent. So too when Kingsley attacked Newman and called into question the veracity of the Catholic clergy, Newman seized on the opportunity to address his fellow Englishmen and recount for them the history of his conversion. Anyone looking for a single knockdown argument to explain his conversion will be disappointed. But not for long, because Newman reminds his reader of how complicated a matter a conversion is. Changing one's mind might be done on the basis of a single argument, but even a cogent argument does not suffice to change one's life. This is far more subtle matter. Irrational? Let's discuss what we mean by rational or reasonable, would be Newman's response to that charge.

Given the range and number of Newman's writings - he published two novels, he wrote poems and hymns, he incessantly produced articles on one subject or another, and pamphlets, as well as collections of sermons; he was an historian, a controversialist, a philosopher and theologian of sorts - given all this, we must of course be selective in our treatment. We will discuss:

  • The University Sermons
  • The Philosophical Notebook
  • The Apologia
  • The Grammar of Assent

Suggested Reading

Ian Ker, John Henry Newman A Biography. Oxford: University of Oxford Press, 1988. Michael Finch, Newman Towards the Second Spring. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991.


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