Magazine article Commonweal

Tacking toward the Truth: The Wisdom of Cardinal Newman

Magazine article Commonweal

Tacking toward the Truth: The Wisdom of Cardinal Newman

Article excerpt

This month marks the beatification of John Henry Newman (1801-90), long considered a saint by some and even worthy of being declared a doctor of the church. The London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement have recently published lengthy articles on Newman's literary style ("the greatest Victorian master of English prose") and his influence on Gerard Manley Hopkins and James Joyce.

But for Christians, Newman is something more, one of the finest religious minds of his century, whose work exerted a profound influence on the Second Vatican Council and thus on twenty-first-century Catholicism. Newman's philosophy, theology, letters, and homilies continue to command both attention and reflection. And then there were also his achievements as an educator, spiritual director, and founder of religious houses.

To mark his beatification it is only appropriate to return to some of the vast store of Newman's writings, as I have done in recent postings on dotCommonweal ( As anyone who has attempted to write about Newman is quick to admit, it is Newman's own words that soon rise to the top and illumine what follows. So they will here.

In 1877, thirty-two years after he became a Roman Catholic and more than a decade after his Apologia pro vita sua (1864), which described the culmination of his long intellectual and spiritual process with such passion, insight, and literary brilliance that it vindicated him in the eyes of many of his countrymen, Newman wrote a reflection that might have been addressed to the needs of the church today. More than a few Catholics will be able to enter fully into the sentiments of regret expressed in these words of Newman: "It is so ordered on high that in our day Holy Church should present just that aspect to my countrymen which is most consonant with their ingrained prejudices against her, most unpromising for their conversion."

In 1870, Newman had published his An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. It set out his defense of the reasonableness of Christian faith, not by invoking external arguments but by a close analysis of the mind's movement toward assent. For some years he had been republishing his Anglican works, among them his Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church, which was originally published in 1837 and was to reappear forty years later as the first volume of his Via Media. So that the new edition would not be left with its severe criticisms of Roman Catholicism unanswered, Newman prefaced it with a lengthy introductory essay.

Lectures had urged that Anglicanism be understood as a third way between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, a possible road, Newman called it, "between a mountain and a morass." While that work was far more an assault on popular Protestantism than on "Popery," the Catholic principles and doctrines Newman invoked in explaining the creed's article on the church required him to explain why those who held such views were not becoming Roman Catholics. To this purpose, he had offered a recurrent contrast "between the theological side of Roman teaching and its political and popular side," and his repudiation of the corruption of the latter had been expressed often in harsh and even violent language. Both in his new preface and in the many footnotes he appended to the original lectures, Newman now apologized for his language and clarified or corrected his earlier views.

But the new preface had another purpose also. The sentence from it quoted above has greater poignancy because it was preceded, only a few lines before, by a description of what was attracting so many of his contemporaries to the Catholic Church:

  they see in the Catholic Religion a great substance and earnest of
  truth; a depth, strength, coherence, elasticity, and life, a
  nobleness and grandeur, a power of sympathy and resource in view of
  the various ailments of the soul, and a suitableness to all classes
  and circumstances of mankind; a glorious history, and a promise of
  perpetual youthfulness; and they already accept without scruple or
  rather joyfully feed upon its solemn mysteries. … 
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