Bl. John Henry Newman


(1801 - 1890)

Bl. John Henry NewmanJohn Henry Newman was born in London on February 21, 1801. He was the first-born of 6 children - 3 boys and 3 girls. His father was also named John and was a banker. His mother was Jemima Fourdrinier.

At the age of seven Newman was sent to Great Ealing School. He was a great reader of the novels of Walter Scott, then in course of publication, and of Robert Southey. In his early teen years, he read works by Thomas Paine and David Hume. He was brought up enjoying the scripture, though he had no formed religious convictions until he was 15 and in his last year at school, when he converted to Evangelical Christianity, which he described in his Apologia as "more certain than that I have hands or feet". Around the same time in March of 1816, his father's bank, Ramsbottom, Newman and Co. crashed, but managed to pay its creditors. At this time, his father left the bank to manage a brewery. Also at this time, Newman began reading books from the English Calvinist tradition. In the autumn of 1816, Newman became an evangelical Calvinist and held the typical belief that the Pope was the Antichrist.

Newman would later describe his conversion to evangelical Christianity in 1816 as the point when his soul was saved, but he gradually moved away from Calvinism because its emphasis on religious feeling and justification by faith alone appeared to Newman to lead to religious individualism that marginalized the role of the Church in the transmission of revealed truth. This, he thought would lead to subjectivism and skepticism.

Newman studied at Trinity College, Oxford. He suffered from anxiety to do well in his final exams, which caused him to break down during the tests. He consequently graduated as a BA with third-class honors in 1821. He wanted to remain in Oxford, so he took on private pupils and read for a fellowship at Oriel, which was at that time "the acknowledged center of Oxford intellectualism." He was elected at Oriel on April 12, 1822.

On June 13, 1824, Newman was ordained as an Anglican deacon in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. On Trinity Sunday, May 29, 1825, he was ordained a priest in Christ Church. He became curate of St. Clement's Church, Oxford for two years. During this time, he ministered to the community and wrote articles on Apollonius of Tyana, Cicero and Miracles for the Encyclopædia Metropolitana. In 1825, Newman became vice-principal of St. Alban Hall for one year. During this time, he experienced "mental improvement" and began to overcome much of his shyness.

In 1826 he returned as tutor of Oriel and assisted Richard Whately in writing "Elements of Logic". Whatley influenced Newman in coming to the understanding of the Christian Church as institution: "... a Divine appointment, and as a substantive body, independent of the State, and endowed with rights, prerogatives and powers of its own". In 1827 Newman was a preacher at Whitehall.

In 1828 Newman was appointed vicar of St Mary's University Church. In January of that year, his sister, Mary died and this likely caused Newman to gain a new perspective on his faith. Though he was still Evangelical, he was shifting away from it. He began deeply reading the Church Fathers.

Newman's move away from the Low Church was punctuated by an episode when he, as local secretary of the Church Missionary Society, distributed an anonymous letter describing a way to strip Nonconformists from power in the society. He was discovered as the author of the letter and dismissed from his position as local secretary in early 1830. He shortly thereafter left the Bible Society. In 1831–1832 Newman took the position of "Select Preacher" before the university. In 1832 a disagreement about the "substantially religious nature" of a college tutorship caused him to resign.

In December of 1832, Newman visited Southern Europe. He visited Gibraltar, Malta, the Ionian Islands, Sicily, Naples and Rome. In a letter he sent home, he described Rome as "the most wonderful place on Earth", but the Roman Catholic Church as "polytheistic, degrading and idolatrous". During this tour, Newman wrote most of the short poems that were printed in the "Lyra Apostolica". Newman then returned to Sicily alone and became very ill with gastric or typhoid fever at Leonforte, but recovered. He saw this as a sign that God still had work for him to do in England. Newman considered this his third providential illness. In June of 1833 he left Palermo for Marseilles in an orange boat, which was stranded in the Strait of Bonifacio due to lack of winds. Here, Newman wrote the verses "Lead, Kindly Light" which later became a popular hymn.

Newman returned to England in July 1833. A few weeks later, he and several other Anglicans started the Oxford Movement, which was an Anglo-Catholic revival group. It emphasized the Catholic roots of Anglicanism as opposed to its Reformed heritage. Newman at around the same time started a series of publications ranging from pamphlets to full-sized books called the "Tracts for the Times". This series included the writings of about a dozen like-minded authors. Its focus was to identify a definite basis of doctrine and discipline. The tracts were accompanied by Newman's Sunday afternoon sermons at St Mary's, which significantly influenced the junior members of the university during a period of about eight years. This movement became known as the "Tractarians".

Newman gave lectures in defense of the via media ("middle way") of Anglicanism between Roman Catholicism and popular Protestantism. Newman's influence at Oxford reached its peak by 1839. Around that time, however, he began studying monophysitism, which caused him to doubt whether Anglican theology was consistent with his view of the principles of ecclesiastical authority. He read the words of St. Augustine, "securus judicat orbis terrarum" ("the verdict of the world is conclusive"). Newman later wrote about his reaction to this phrase:

For a mere sentence, the words of St Augustine, struck me with a power which I never had felt from any words before... they were like the 'Tolle, lege, — Tolle, lege,' of the child, which converted St Augustine himself. 'Securus judicat orbis terrarum!' By those great words of the ancient Father, interpreting and summing up the long and varied course of ecclesiastical history, the theology of the Via Media was absolutely pulverised. (Apologia, part 5)

In late 1839, Newman considered moving away from Oxford. He was a High Anglican controversialist until 1841, when he published Tract 90, the last of the series. It was an examination of the Thirty-Nine Articles suggesting that Luther directed their negations not against Catholicism's teachings, but only against popular errors and exaggerations. This was strongly denounced as "suggesting and opening a way by which men might violate their solemn engagements to the university." By request of the Bishop of Oxford, the publication of the Tracts ended.

His path to conversion gained momentum as he resigned the editorship of the "British Critic" and described himself as, "on his deathbed as regards membership with the Anglican Church". He saw Anglicans as similar to the semi-Arians in the Arian controversy. The joint Anglican-Lutheran bishopric created in Jerusalem cemented his view that the Church of England was not apostolic.

In 1842 Newman with a small group of followers moved to Littlemore on College Lane (now Newman College) where they lived in semi-monastic conditions. Newman named it "the house of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Littlemore". Newman's followers wrote about English saints, while Newman wrote an Essay on the development of doctrine.

In February 1843, Newman anonymously published a formal retraction of all the negative things he had said against Roman Catholicism. He then resigned from St. Mary's, but did not leave Littlemore until his own formal reception into the Catholic Church in 1845. Like many converts, Newman's conversion resulted in much personal hardship for him as many of his Anglican friends and family isolated him for his decision to become a Roman Catholic.

In October of 1846, Newman went to Rome, where he was ordained a priest by Cardinal Giacomo Filippo Fransoni and awarded the degree of Doctorate of Divinity by Pope Pius IX. Toward the end of 1847, Newman returned to England and served as an Oratorian and resided first at Maryvale; then at St. Wilfrid's College in Cheadle; and then at St Anne's in Birmingham. He established the London Oratory, and then settled at Edgbaston, where he lived a secluded life for nearly forty years, only interrupted by four years spent in Ireland.

England had a long history of Anti-Catholicism dating back to the Protestant Reformation. The Papal Bull "Universalis Ecclesiae" which re-established the Catholic diocesan hierarchy in England by Pope Pius IX in 1850 added fuel to the fire. The British press saw this as an attempt by the Pope to claim jurisdiction over England and it was labeled the "Papal Aggression". The Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, wrote a public letter to the Bishop of Durham and denounced this "attempt to impose a foreign yoke upon our minds and consciences". This led to a national outcry against the Catholic Church and the Papacy. Catholic priests were attacked in the streets and Catholic churches were vandalized.

Newman saw this as a great opportunity for evangelization and strengthening of the will and character of British Catholics. He wrote:

"[Catholics should] make the excuse of this persecution for getting up a great organization, going round the towns giving lectures, or making speeches."

In the summer of 1851, Newman delivered a series of 9 weekly lectures in the Birmingham Corn Exchange on the "Present Position of Catholics in England". These lectures were collected into a subsequently published book. In general, the lectures focused on anti-Catholicism and the flimsy traditions and logic upon which it was based. They also suggested ways for Catholics to respond to it. Newman called the lectures his "best written book."

In 1854, he was invited by the Irish Catholic bishops to come to Dublin as rector of the newly established Catholic University of Ireland. During this time he founded the Literary and Historical Society. After four years, he retired. He published a volume of lectures entitled "The Idea of a University", which contained his views on education.

Newman sought to find harmony between free thinking and moral authority, such that the rights of knowledge would be respected as well as the rights of revelation. He endeavored to build an authentically Catholic university since many originally Catholic universities had become secularized, and most universities in the English-speaking world were Protestant. His idea of an authentic Catholic university was that it would support research and publication without church censorship but it must be a safe place for the education of Catholic youth, and therefore it would have to respect and promote the teachings of the Catholic Church.

This philosophy did not sit well with some Catholics and bishop Paul Cullen in 1854 wrote a letter to the Vatican's office Propaganda fide (later called the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples), criticizing Newman's lax use of authority within the new university:

The discipline introduced is unsuitable, certainly to this country. The young men are allowed to go out at all hours, to smoke, etc., and there has not been any fixed time for study. All this makes it clear that Father Newman does not give enough attention to details.

The University philosophy promoted by Newman did not survive under his watch in Ireland due to this opposition, but his book greatly influenced Catholic thinking on the subject.

In 1858, Newman proposed a branch of the Oratory at Oxford; but the idea was abandoned as it was thought that the creation of a Catholic body within the heart of Oxford was likely to encourage Catholics to send their sons to that university, rather than to Catholic universities. When Catholics did begin to attend Oxford from the 1860s onwards, a Catholic club was formed and in 1888 it was renamed the Oxford University Newman Society. The Oratory at Oxford was finally established in 1993.

In 1859, he established in connection with the Birmingham Oratory, a boy's boarding school, which was labeled 'The Catholic Eton'.

Between 1862 and 1865, Newman compiled and published "Apologia Pro Vita Sua", which was a religious autobiography. In 1870, he published his "Grammar of Assent", a case for religious belief. In 1877, he republished his Anglican works and added to the two volumes containing his defense of the via media, a new preface which criticized and replied to his own anti-Catholic arguments which were contained in the original books.

During the First Vatican Council (1869–1870), Newman had reservations about the formal definition of the doctrine of papal infallibility, believing that the timing was not right. He also did not approve of the aggressive manner in which the issue was pushed forward. It seems that Newman's reservations were mostly with the way it was promoted and not with the definition of infallibility itself. Newman gave no sign of disapproval when the doctrine was finally defined, but was an advocate of the "principle of minimizing", that included very few papal declarations within the scope of infallibility. Newman stated that he had always believed in the doctrine, but had concerns about the deterrent effect of its definition on conversions due to acknowledged historical difficulties.

In 1878, Pope Leo XIII was encouraged by the Duke of Norfolk and other English Catholic laymen to make Newman a cardinal, despite the fact that he was neither a bishop nor resident in Rome. The offer was presented to Newman in February 1879. Newman accepted, but made two requests: that he not be consecrated a bishop on receiving the cardinalate (as was standard procedure at that time); and that he might remain in Birmingham. He was made a Cardinal-Deacon of San Giorgio al Velabro on May 12. Newman, while in Rome insisted on the lifelong consistency of his opposition to "liberalism in religion."

After an illness, Newman returned to England and lived at the Oratory until his death. Beginning in the summer of 1886, his health began to decline. He celebrated Mass for the last time on Christmas Day in 1889. He died on August 11, 1890 of pneumonia at the Birmingham Oratory. Eight days later, he was buried in the cemetery at the Oratory. At the time of his death he had been Protodeacon of the Holy Roman Church. In accordance with his express wishes, Newman was buried in the grave of his lifelong friend Ambrose St. John. The pall over the coffin contained the motto that Newman used as a cardinal, "Cor ad cor loquitur" ("Heart speaks to heart").

During his life, Newman wrote 40 books and thousands of letters. Some of his most famous and popular are his book-length "Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine", "On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine", "Apologia Pro Vita Sua" (his spiritual autobiography up to 1864), "The Idea of a University", and "Essay on the Grammar of Assent".

In 1991, Newman was proclaimed venerable after a thorough examination of his life and work by the Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints. He was beatified on September 19, 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI. A second miracle is necessary for his canonization.


Books by Bl. John Henry Newman

ItemPublishedDescription
An Essay On Development Of Christian Doctrine1845An Essay On Development Of Christian Doctrine by John Henry Newman begins with a definition of how true developments in doctrine occur. It then catalogs the growth and development of doctrine in the Catholic Church, from the time of the Apostles to Newman's own era. It demonstrates that the basic "rule" under which Christianity proceeded through the centuries is found in the principle of development, and emphasizes that throughout the entire life of the Church this law of development has been in effect and safeguards the faith from corruption.
Retractation of Anti-Catholic Statements1845Retractation of Anti-Catholic Statements by John Henry Newman is a refutation of the earlier statements the author made concerning the Catholic Church. This work was written at the time of his conversion to the Catholic Church.