John Henry Newman: Catholic Revivalist

The canonization of John Henry Newman in Rome on October 13 will be a triumph for the light of life and love amidst the gloom and darkness of the Culture of Death. It will signify the way in which the Church transcends and outlives the evil forces that assail her, whether such assailants are the enemies without or the traitors within. As for Newman himself, there are two ways of assessing and understanding his life and legacy. The first is to see the influence he had on his own times; the second, to see the influence he has had in the 130 years since his death.

Newman was born in 1801, at the beginning of a century that would see the rise of the British Empire, as well as the rise of skepticism in matters of religion. Yet, simultaneously, it was a century that would see a real revival of religious orthodoxy. With respect to the latter, Newman himself might be seen as the most important and influential figure.

As a child, Newman lived in a culture basking in the radiance of Romanticism, especially as manifested in the poetry of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge—both of whom followed the call of beauty until it brought them to Christ. One fruit of this Romanticism was the rise of neo-medievalism, which found expression in the Gothic Revival and the Pre-Raphaelites, as well as the Oxford Movement, of which Newman emerged as the indubitable leader.

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The Oxford Movement sought to reconnect the Anglican Church to its pre-Reformation roots, advocating what would come to be known as Anglo-Catholicism. It was as the leader and spokesman of the Oxford Movement that Newman first gained a degree of celebrity, especially for his authorship of many of the Tracts for the Times, which argued for the adoption of Catholic doctrine and liturgical practice by the Church of England. He was also celebrated for the eloquence and elegance of his sermons, which are marked as much by their rhetorical brilliance as for their depth of scholarship. The flourish of such scholarly rhetoric is captured in two newly published books, Waiting for Christ and The Tears of Christ, both of which glean some of the glorious passages from Newman’s sermons as meditations for the seasons of Advent and Lent. What’s remarkable about these sermons, given in the years prior to Newman’s conversion, is their orthodoxy. One is reminded of Chesterton’s 1908 book of the same name, a profoundly Catholic work written fourteen years before the author’s reception into the Church.

As with Chesterton, Newman’s pre-conversion writing is marked so unmistakably by a Catholic understanding of philosophy and theology that it seems to prophesy his future conversion, the wisdom of hindsight notwithstanding. It’s therefore somewhat surprising that his reception into the Church in 1845 caused such a seismic reaction, shaking the Anglican Church to its foundations and sending shockwaves through the culture of Victorian England. By the time of his conversion, Newman had been a household name for a decade or more. How could such a pillar of the British establishment, celebrated and respected for his intelligence and learning, succumb to a religion which the establishment had spent three hundred years trying to eradicate—one the educated classes looked down upon as being characterized by ignorance and superstition? It was thus that Newman’s crossing of the Tiber affronted the pride and prejudice of British culture.

Newman’s conversion opened the floodgates for a new tidal wave of converts, all of whom entered the Church in the wake of his tsunamic and counter-cultural act of faith. It is for this reason that the year 1845 can be taken as the definitive date of the birth of the Catholic Revival.

Newman entered the Church in his mid-forties, at the halfway point of his life. He bestowed upon her such an abundance of gifts during his 45 years as a Catholic that it’s by no means unlikely he will be declared a Doctor of the Church soon after his canonization.

As a theologian, his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845) sheds new light on the living tradition that animates the faithful and rational life of the Church. As a philosopher, his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870) exposes the inadequacies of empiricism as a mode of apprehending truth, following Aristotle in its insistence on the necessity of practical virtue as a prerequisite for assenting to the truths of faith and metaphysics. His Idea of a University (1852 and 1858) has been hugely influential upon the theory and practice of Catholic education, continuing to inspire the foundation of new schools and colleges and informing the structure of their curricula.

As a writer, Newman has been described by the literary critic George Levine as “perhaps the most artful and brilliant prose writer of the nineteenth century”—a judgment seemingly echoed by James Joyce, via Stephen Dedalus, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Considering that the Victorian Age in literature was a true Golden Age, such praise represents a literary accolade of the highest order. Newman’s prose style is at its best in his masterful Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864), possibly the finest spiritual autobiography ever written apart from St. Augustine’s incomparable Confessions. It is also evident in his two published novels, Loss and Gain (1848) and Callista (1855). So, too, in his poetry—especially in The Dream of Gerontius (1865), which would inspire an oratorio by Sir Edward Elgar, as well as in shorter poems like “The Pilgrim Queen”, “The Golden Prison,” and “The Sign of the Cross”.

Newman’s death in 1890 signaled the advent of that other living legacy, over and above that which is constituted by his work: the profound influence he has exerted and continues to exert on generations of cradle Catholics and converts to the Faith. Those thousands of souls, living and dead, who were ushered into the fold and strengthened in their belief by this most wonderful of shepherds, will rejoice with the company of saints and angels as John Henry Newman is raised to the altar. May we raise our voices with theirs in Newman’s own hymn of praise to the Holiest in the height.

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