Blessed John Henry Newman is important today for many reasons, but if I would have to single out only one it would be Newman’s revolutionary emphasis on the role of the layperson in the church as his most important contribution.
Newman abhorred clericalism and emphasized the need for a well-educated and active lay faithful, insisting that holiness and evangelization are—or should be—the goals of all in the Church.
Largely because of his prescience in this regard, Newman was quoted in the preliminary documents in the preparation for the Second Vatican Council more than any other theologian. How did he come to these history-making insights?
Newman was a profoundly religious man by temperament. This much is quite clear from his famous autobiography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864). However, unlike many of his contemporaries in the Oxford Movement, he did not come from a long line of clergymen. During his university years at Trinity College, Oxford, he clearly felt a call not only to the clerical life but to celibacy, which was not common for Anglican clergy at that time. (Newman was ordained an Anglican Deacon in 1824 but was received into the Catholic Church on October 5, 1845.)
Yet in many other ways he was a man of the world. He had a keen interest in the world of music, literature, and politics. He chose the wine for his college. He played the violin, a hobby to which he returned in later life. He exercised vigorously with frighteningly long walks, enjoyed the fresh air of the sea by sailing. (His close friend, Hurrell Froude, an Anglican Priest, caught a chill on one of those excursions which hastened his death in 1835 from tuberculosis.)
He was also a poet, a novelist, a Latinist of the highest order. Vatican curial officials were astonished at the level of his classical Latin in their correspondence with him. He was able to express in a paragraph what took them a page! All of this simply serves to emphasize that while Newman was eminently religious, he was not at all monastic.
His choice of the St. Philip Neri’s Congregation of the Oratory as the best setting for himself and his followers to live their priesthood following his conversion to Catholicism was predicated in part on the idea that it was most suited for men from university backgrounds who chose to live their dedication more clearly in the world.
St. Philip was the great Roman saint of the Baroque and the Catholic Reformation, and any of his followers would have a deep appreciation for the secular. In short, Newman was in the world but not of it. As such, his views on the role of the laity were not simply theoretical but based on experience and observation.
Newman waged a life-long struggle against liberalism in its religious sense, which he defined simply as religious indifferentism. Indeed, he wrote in his “Bigllieto Speech” on the eve of receiving his cardinal’s hat from the Holy Father, Pope Leo XIII:
And I rejoice to say; to one great mischief I have from the first opposed myself. For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion. Never did holy Church need champions against it more sorely than now, when, alas! It is an error over spreading, as a snare, the whole earth. Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another. . . it is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion as true. . . . (May 12, 1879)
As a student in the 1970s at Columbia University, I was told by professor and noted literary critic Lionel Trilling, a man of Jewish background and hardly a Christian, that John Henry Newman was the greatest writer of English in history! There is so much more I could tell you about Newman, but I hope you will read about him, and his writings, for yourselves.
Now beatified, Newman’s canonization could have an enormous impact. For in addition to his importance in recognizing the role of the lay faithful, his urgent relevance today is also as a timely catalyst that Christ’s desire, expressed on the night before his death, “that all might be one,” might be realized as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017.
Sad to say, throughout the world more and more are falling away from both Christian belief and the morality that Christ brought to the world in the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church. It’s true that Christianity (depending on how it is defined) is growing, but nonetheless many millions are leaving that Church for a life of hedonism, living for this life and not preparing themselves for the next.
Newman would be neither surprised at where we have ended up in pursuing religious indifferentism nor afraid to engage our increasingly hostile culture in pursuit of the truth.
Many fine biographies, such as the one by Ian Ker, have been written about Newman, but I suggest that you first pick up his classic autobiography, which has never been out of print, the Apologia Pro Vita Sua. (Here is a free online version of what can be translated, In Defense of One’s Life.)
In the meantime, pray to Blessed John Henry Newman if you need a real a real miracle! You may put him over the top to sainthood! And we can all be present at his canonization in Rome with the Holy Father.
I am getting excited (again) at the prospect of reading more of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman’s work – especially after having watched a wonderful 5-part lecture series about the same given by John F Crosby.
Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bKfXTA_-HmU
As I read this, I wondered if Fr. McCloskey and I were both thinking about the same John Henry Newman. This type of argumentation is indicative of the bafflingly a-historical and selective understanding of Newman articulated by many Catholic scholars, including the so-called “fine” biographer, Ian Ker. Let me take this opportunity then to address a few of the erroneous claims of this particular post.
1. “Newman abhorred clericalism.” From the earliest days of the Oxford Movement through his days as a Roman Catholic, Newman advocated a for a strong notion of clericalism. Newman’s strict interpretation of justification through the sacraments as well as through faith–a theological position that would remain constant through his life–necessitated that the sacraments–baptism and the eucharist in particular–were administered by apostolically ordained priests. The apostolic succession of bishops and the authority this succession vested in the clergy was a primary point of Newman’s belief. History and scripture, Newman reminds us, are “hostile to the idea that moral truth is easily or generally discerned,” thus it must be kept in the Church by her apostolical protectors. As Newman’s thought progressed, he certainly espoused a more inclusive vision of the Christian community, but it was always a community on his terms. As his sister said of him “John can be the most amiable, most generous…but to become his friend, the essential condition is, that you see everything along his lines and accept him as your leader.” The Christian community was an important thing, but it had to be led and led strictly.
2.”Newman was a profoundly religious man by temperament…Yet in many other ways he was a man of the world.” Fr. McCloskey is quick to remind us of the beautiful aspects of both Newman’s religious life & his life in the world, but again, he is incredibly selective. What is not mentioned are the many times in which Newman viciously attacked those in the world whom he believed to be his religious enemies. For instance, when Newman was passed over for an Oxford professorship, he published a pamphlet which outlined the religious views of his competitor, Renn Dickson Hampden. Newman quoted selectively from Hampden’s work, stripping it so far from its original context as to even insinuate that Hampden believed in magic. Hampden bitterly wrote to Newman, complaining that Newman’s publication was rife with “dissimulation and falsehood and dark malignity…you have worked the machine, but hid yourself behind it…you have sent out to the public what you know to be untrue.” Newman willfully misunderstood Hampden’s work to the point of outright slander. Nor does Fr. McCloskey remind us how Newman, in a moment of pure partisan manipulation, had the editor of journal removed so that he himself could take over the position.
3.Newman “was not at all monastic.” One again wonders which John Henry Newman McCloskey is here referring to? The Newman who began an Anglican revival of monasticism at Littlemore? The Newman who engaged in harsh monastic asceticism both at Littlemore and later at the Birmingham Oratory? Perhaps the Newman whose Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine was written at first as an attempt at justifying monastic living within Anglicanism, and after his conversion to Catholicism still provided a ringing endorsement of monastic life? The Newman who intensely studied and praised the ideal of the early desert monks? This John Henry Newman seems far removed from the Newman described by McCloskey.
McCloskey’s Newman is stunningly dissimilar from the historic Newman. His selective interpretation of Newman’s life and thought is reminiscent of Newman’s own, willfully ignorant pamphlet against Hampden. I have no issues with those in the Catholic Church who wish for Newman’s canonization, but they cannot pick and choose the Newman they wish to canonize. McCloskey and others who trot out an idealized version of John Henry Newman would do well to actually read deeply into his own life and times. The Apologia is not the beginning and ending of Newman. Neither too is The Idea of a University or A Grammar of Assent. To understand Newman means to understand him in his totality, in his often contradictory, multitudinous, and difficult writings. But therein lies the true celebration of Newman: his complexity as a human–not his idealized perfection as a saint.
With all respect, Mr. Handel, I wonder if you and Fr. McCloskey are using the term clericalism in the same sense. Most of your comments seem directed, not at clericalism as a Catholic would understand it, but in opposition to the Catholic understanding of the nature and structure of the Church as Jesus founded it. That Newman’s thought paved the way for the developments taught by the 2nd Vatican Council, including the Decree on the Laity, is widely understood by those with a love for Newman and his writings. As a former Baptist and now a Catholic layman, I deeply appreciate the altered emphases thereby wrought, such as the universal call to holiness and the essential role of the laity in evangelism, and it is precisely these points that Fr. McCloskey makes.
The same misunderstanding seems on display when you take issue with monasticism and the Catholic view of the importance of the sacraments. Again, your quarrel seems to be with Catholicism itself, and Newman happens to be your current target. As I’m sure you are well aware, there are many expressions of celibate life in the Catholic Church within both its eastern and western rites, and Fr. McCloskey is careful to define what he means by saying that Newman was not at all monastic, that is, that his vocation to living as a single man for the sake of the Kingdom was lived more clearly in the world than in the monastic community.
As to your points regarding Newman’s character and life as expressed by his treatment of those with whom he disagreed, such as Renn Dickson Hampden, I haven’t a detailed knowledge of the facts in order to engage you, but I hope others will. I would say that I have read enough Newman to know of his own deep awareness of his faults and sins, and his readiness to seek forgiveness from both God and neighbor in order to pursue a path of charity and holiness. I hope you do understand the difference between sanctity and sinlessness as we understand it within the Catholic Church?
Best wishes to you, and please pray for me as I will for you.
Thanks for the comment Mark. The points you make about a misunderstanding in terms are very fair. I certainly would not argue that Newman did not advocate for an increased role of the laity which prefigured the reforms of Vatican II. However, I would stress that 1. In Newman’s times, defense of the sacraments and the role of the clergy in administering them was closely bound up with a definition of the prophetic community (so to speak) being insistently a clerical one and not a lay one. This is certainly the argument put forth throughout the Tracts for the Times. As I admitted in my initial comment, this position certainly did soften upon his admittance to the Roman Catholic Church. However, 2. I think this softening has been greatly overstated, especially in terms of Newman himself. Newman was fine saying that the lay ministry should entail evangelizing or be the interpretive community for doctrine (as in the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk), but Newman fought sharply with any of these groups who would come to different conclusions than himself. Newman tended to advocate for the lay ministry to be deeply imitative of and influenced by the clergy.
As to monasticism, I would not cede my argument at all. Throughout Newman’s life he decried the world and the society around him. Not only is he perhaps the greatest Anglican apostate, but one of the greatest apostate’s of Victorian society as well. His views and his physical position were always removed from “the world,” and he instead lived through monastic life outside of “the world.” I’d urge you and Fr. McCloskey both to look at Newman’s personal letters and writings from 1842-1860 for a clear example of this.
As to your third point, I think it’s also telling that Fr. McCloskey plumbs most of his examples of Newman “in the world” from Newman’s Anglican days. I certainly understand the difference between sanctity and sinlessness: in fact, I think that is precisely the problem. Newman’s Apologia is so selective and misleading in terms of his Anglican days that unlike Augustine for example, there is not so much an admittance of wrong-doing, but of merely changing belief as Newman understood it. In both cases, this was a move undertaken by Newman to defend himself against the accusation of dishonesty in his conversion. In the Apologia, we’re given a portrait of a contemplative Newman who only converted to Catholicism after a slow progression of his thought to Rome. The historical Newman, viewed without the framing of his retrospective autobiography, was a hard ecclesiastical fighter who was so convinced in his personal religious views were correct, came into conflict with the bishops and church authorities whose power he had advocated for in his writings.
My argument here, with Fr. McCloskey & celebrated biographers, such as Ian Ker, is explicitly not one regarding Newman’s sainthood. I am the first to admit that Newman was an incredible thinker, one who’s work still demands grappling with. However, work like Ker’s and McCloskey’s has been so selective in its treatment of Newman, taking what bits of Newman they would like or distorting a small selection of his writings into interpretations of his larger thought, that it has crowded out a more holistic and critical approach to Newman’s life and works. The Church should acknowledge Newman as a whole and then show what exemplary gifts to the Church he has brought. Not work in the reverse direction and try to read into much of Newman’s life and work what is not there. Blanket statements like he “abhorred clericalism,” or he was “not at all monastic,” are terribly reductive of a man whose complexity should be celebrated and explored.
I hope this clears up any misunderstanding of my points. My disagreement is not with making Newman a saint, but in the method through which it has been advocated.
Apologia Pro Vita Sua changed my life.