John Henry Newman: the Patron Saint of Converts

It was announced this past week that Pope Francis intends to canonize now Blessed John Henry Newman, the famous English convert to Catholicism from the 19th century. This news was greeted with great joy, especially in the English-speaking world, where Newman is loved so dearly and his literary works read and studied with much diligence and devotion, especially by those Protestants who have found a home in the Catholic Church after years of anxiety and deliberation. I want to speak just a bit here about Newman’s life and his conversion, in order to show something of what I mean when I call him “the patron saint of converts.”

The most famous Christian in 19th c. England; a holy man

 Newman was one of the most famous men in England at the time of his reception into the Catholic Church in 1845. As an Anglican clergyman and teacher at Oxford University, Newman had for two decades been a prolific writer in this the center of English intellectual life. His many published sermons were best-sellers. He spoke forthrightly on important issues of his time in the light of the Gospel. His books on Church History were read and commented upon by the leading English scholars, and he practically invented the discipline of “patristics”, the study of the ancient “Fathers of the Church.” Newman’s reflections and arguments were always drawn from and animated by a lively and deep faith in the ancient tradition, which he believed truly brought down to us the person of Christ and made a relationship with him possible. By the overwhelming testimony of those who new him personally and intimately, Newman lived a holy life, truly practicing what he preached.

Faith and Reason: against “liberalism” and “private judgment”

Newman was especially concerned with the “liberalism” of his time, which he defined as allegiance, not to the ancient Gospel of Sacred Scripture and the Church Fathers but rather to what he called “the principle of private judgement”, which makes every individual Christian the final arbiter of what is true and false with respect to faith. Even though Newman was an Anglican, he refused to call himself “Protestant” since he believed that the Anglican Church was one of the three authentic “branches” of the one Church Catholic (the other two being the Church of Rome and the Orthodox Churches of the East). For Newman it was the “Protestant” ethic which embraced the erroneous principle of private judgement, exhalting human reason over revelation and the teaching authority of the Church.

“Now, in the first place, what is faith? it is assenting to a doctrine as true, which we do not see, which we cannot prove, because God says it is true, who cannot lie. And further than this, since God says it is true, not with His own voice, but by the voice of His messengers, it is assenting to what man says, not simply viewed as a man, but to what he is commissioned to declare, as a messenger, prophet, or ambassador from God” (J.H. Newman, Faith and Private Judgement).

Unless one believed in Christianity in this way, he had not faith, said Newman, for there are many who are aligned with Christianity in so far as they agree with it, but when they do not agree, substitute their own ideas for the Christian ones they reject. The Bible alone, Newman argued, cannot be the sole criterion of faith, since the Bible is written from within the Church and given to us by the Church, and therefore is an extension of the Church’s authority to teach us the truth about the God of Jesus Christ. Church and Bible cannot be pitted against one another.

Doubts about the catholicity of the Anglican Church and a turn to Roman Catholicism

In the course of Newman’s studies in the bitter controversies about the nature of Christ in the early centuries of Christianity, he came to doubt his theory that the Anglican Church, which he had thought of as “the Catholic Church of England”, really deserved the name “catholic.” He had argued that the Anglican Church was a “middle way” between the errors of the Protestants and the Roman Catholics. Now he saw that the truth does not always lie in the middle of two extremes, but sometimes is with one of the “extreme parties.” He saw that in the early arguments about Christ the Church of Rome occupied one of the extremes, and that the other extreme and the “middle way” were both wrong. This frightened Newman, who saw that if the Roman Catholic Church were right about this thing of massive importance—whether Christ was divine and how he should be spoken of as divine—then perhaps it was not because she had merely guessed correctly, but rather because the Holy Spirit resided in her as the One True Church which alone deserved the name “catholic”, with which all other Christian churches must agree. This epiphany of Newman’s led him through agonizing self-doubt to leave the Anglican Church of his country, which he loved so dearly, and be received into the Roman Catholic Church. John Henry Newman was received into the Catholic Church at his retreat in Littlemore, England, on a rainy autumn night of 9 October 1845, by the Italian Passionist priest and evangelist, Fr. Dominic Barberi (now Blessed Dominic). His conversion was considered by all but a few as a great betrayal. His reputation in Protestant England was ruined, and he lost many friends.

Lead Kindly Light: Newman the “Doctor of Conscience”

Pope Benedict XVI rightly called Newman the “Doctor of Conscience” because of his teaching that conscience is not the sum total of one’s strongly held opinions, but is in fact the voice of God speaking from within us, leading us on to the truth in freedom. Newman’s definition of conscience is cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“Conscience is not a longsighted selfishness, nor a desire to be consistent with oneself, but it is a messenger from Him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representative. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and, even through the eternal priesthood throughout the Church could cease to be, in the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a say” (J.H. Newman, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk).

Newman followed his conscience like a Light from Above guiding him to his true home. He inspires those of us who are plagued with doubt. By the intercession of John Henry Newman, may we all grow in Faith, Hope, and Charity until we see the Day of the Lord’s Return.

Lead, Kindly Light (by John Henry Newman)

Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th'encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till 
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile, 
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!

Meantime, along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife
In the calm light of everlasting life.