Blessed John Henry Newman was one of the most important Catholic converts in the last 200 years. His contributions to the Church are hard to estimate, and his life is a shining witness to the courage in following the truth. During his homily during the beatification ceremony, Pope Benedict XVI said of him, “His insights into the relationship between faith and reason, into the vital place of revealed religion in civilized society, and into the need for a broadly-based and wide-ranging approach to education were not only of profound importance for Victorian England, but continue today to inspire and enlighten many all over the world.”
It is impossible to write a summary of his extraordinary and complex life briefly, so I will simply focus on his conversion.
The England of Newman’s Day
England was a turbulent place for Catholics in the mid-19th century. Being Catholic meant being barred from important and influential roles (including the monarchy), and many prestigious academic institutions like Cambridge and Oxford refused degrees to professing Catholics. The roots of the religious tensions of course went back to King Henry VIII’s split from the Catholic Church to form his own church.
Meanwhile, in the midst of these tensions, a group of influential intellectuals and Anglican clergymen began to write tracts and pamphlets arguing that the Church of England needed to return to its ancient, “high church” Catholic roots—albeit while remaining separated from the Roman Catholic Church. This was known as the Oxford movement, due to the influence of Oxford academics and religious. The movement was lead by two prominent figures: Edward Pusey and Anglican priest, John Henry Newman.
John Henry Newman, one of the most influential high church Anglicans, found himself in a difficult position, for the more he studied and argued for a more Catholic form of Anglicanism, the more he began to question whether or not the Church of England was really the Church that Christ founded.
Previously, he believed that Anglicanism was one of the three branches of the Catholic Church, which was composed of the Eastern Orthodox, the Roman Catholics, and the Anglicans. (As a side note, many Anglicans, especially high church Anglicans, who call themselves Anglo-Catholics, still believe this.) He believed the Anglican church was a via media, or middle way, between many protestant denominations that had completely abandoned the sacraments and traditions of the faith, and the rigid dogmas of Catholicism.
But the more he studied history, the more Newman was convinced that the Catholic Church was fundamentally different from Anglicanism. The separation consisted of more than merely traditional practices or forms of prayer, and was at bottom a different understanding of truth and revelation.
After much agonizing and prayer, years in fact, he finally decided he must become Catholic. Truth was too important to ignore. It was a matter of life and death. In his own words, he came to believe that, “truth and falsehood are set before us to try our hearts; that our choice is an awful drawing of lots on which our salvation or rejection is inscribed; that ‘before all things it is necessary to hold the Catholic faith”; that ‘he that would be saved must thus think,’ and not otherwise…”
Now came the hard part. While Newman was convinced he must become Catholic, he had to deal with the practical consequences of his choice. Becoming Catholic meant renouncing his brilliant academic career as well as his Anglican priesthood. It meant enduring the misunderstanding and bitter criticism of his many friends, fellow clergyman, and even family. It meant, in short, abandoning his life and everything he knew. But he followed through, and was received into the Catholic Church, which he called, “the One Fold of Christ.”
There is so much more that could be said about this wonderful saint who left all to follow Christ. His academic career, his outstanding literary output, and his theological work continue to be influential to this day. But perhaps the most important lesson he left us is the importance of following the truth wherever it leads, even it if means losing everything. In our relativistic culture, that values personal choice and tolerance more than anything, it is important to remember that truth is worth everything. And that truth, the truth we need to find salvation, has been revealed and preserved in the One True Church of Jesus Christ, the Catholic Church.
Blessed John Henry Newman, pray for us!