john henry newman

A thoughtful essay on Newman... Eamon Duffy reviewing John Cornwell's biography.

A remarkably consistent thinker, to the end of his life Newman looked back on his conversion to evangelical Protestantism in 1816 as the saving of his soul. Yet as a fellow of Oriel, the most intellectually prestigious of the Oxford colleges, he outgrew his earlier Calvinism. He came to see Evangelicalism, with its emphasis on religious feeling and on the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone, as a Trojan horse for an undogmatic religious individualism that ignored the Church’s role in the transmission of revealed truth, and that must lead inexorably to subjectivism and skepticism.

Partly as an antidote to his own instinctive skepticism, Newman sought objective religious truth initially in a romanticized version of the Anglican High Church tradition, emphasizing the mystery of God, the beauty and necessity of personal holiness, and the centrality of the Church’s sacraments and teaching for salvation. He was ordained as a priest in 1824, and in 1831 was appointed preacher to the university. Eloquent, learned, widely read, combining a beautiful voice with an unmatched mastery of words, by the early 1830s Newman had acquired a cult following in Oxford. Admiring undergraduates imitated even his eccentricities, like his habit of kneeling down abruptly as if his knees had given way.

The university authorities were alarmed at his growing influence, and changed college mealtimes so that undergraduates had to choose between hearing Newman preach and eating their dinners. In their hundreds, they chose the preaching. This was all the more remarkable since Newman’s message was both uncompromisingly austere and often deliberately provocative, as in his declaration that “it would be a gain to this country, were it vastly more suspicious, more bigoted, more gloomy, more fierce in its religion, than at present it shows itself to be.”

via The New York Review of Books.

But by the early 1840s, Newman himself had lost confidence in it. His increasingly subtle attempts to interpret the foundation documents of the Church of England in ways compatible with Roman Catholic teaching provoked a hostile backlash both from the Anglican bishops and from older and more cautious High Churchmen.

Frustrated by the apparently impregnable Protestantism of their contemporaries, one by one Newman’s more headstrong disciples became Roman Catholics. Newman did what he could to stem the leakage, but was himself in an agony of indecision, increasingly convinced that Rome possessed the fullness of truth, yet unable to bring his loyalties and emotions into accord with his intellect. “Paper logic” was merely the trace of deeper and more mysterious movements of heart and mind. As he wrote later, recalling this long slow “death-bed” as an Anglican:

It is the concrete being that reasons; pass a number of years, and I find my mind in a new place; how? The whole man moves…. Great acts take time. He resigned his university pulpit and retreated to Littlemore, a village outside Oxford where he had built a church. There he and a dwindling band of followers lived a quasi-monastic life of prayer, fasting, and reflection. In October 1845 Newman at last recognized where his own logic had led him, and was received into the Roman Catholic Church.

Both Newman’s attraction to Catholicism and his hesitation in embracing it sprang from a radical historicism. As an Anglican, he had subscribed to the notion that truth was unchanging. Christianity was a revealed religion, its doctrines descended to the present in an unbroken tradition from the Apostles. Nothing could count as Christian truth, unless the primitive Church had believed and taught it. The modern Church of Rome, therefore, could not claim to be the true Church, since so much about it—its elaborate worship, the dominant place of the Virgin Mary in its piety, the overweening authority of the pope—seemed alien or absent from the earliest Christianity: there were no rosary beads in third-century Carthage. Yet Newman’s reading in early Christian sources convinced him that to condemn Rome on these grounds would also be to outlaw much of the rest of mainstream Christianity. The doctrines of Incarnation and Trinity, accepted as fundamental by both Catholics and Protestants, were not to be found in their mature form in the early Church. If the central tenets of the faith could develop legitimately beyond their New Testament foundations, why not everything else?

To resolve this apparent contradiction between a religion of objectively revealed truth and the flux of Christian doctrines and practices, Newman wrote at Littlemore a theological masterpiece, the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845). Its central claim is that the concepts and intuitions that shape human history are dynamic, not inert. Great ideas interact with changing times and cultures, retaining their distinctive thrust and direction, yet adapting so as to preserve and develop that energy in different circumstances. Truth is a plant, evolving from a seed into the mature tree, not a baton passed unchanging from hand to hand. Ideas must unfold in the historical process before we can appropriate all that they contain. So beliefs evolve, but they do so to preserve their essence in the flux of history: they change, that is, in order to remain the same. “In a higher world it is otherwise; but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”