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Newman revisited

30 November, 1999

Cardinal Newman has become a popular source of spirituality since Vatican II and he could soon be beatified. Michael Paul Gallagher SJ gives an account of the man, his struggles and his thinking. This year we are celebrating the bi-centenary of Cardinal John Henry Newman. He was born in London on 21 February 1801 and […]

Cardinal Newman has become a popular source of spirituality since Vatican II and he could soon be beatified. Michael Paul Gallagher SJ gives an account of the man, his struggles and his thinking.

This year we are celebrating the bi-centenary of Cardinal John Henry Newman. He was born in London on 21 February 1801 and died in Birmingham in 1890. His long life falls into two equal parts, half as an Anglican, half as a Roman Catholic.

His conversion in 1845 was a major event in England, because by that time he had become a national figure as leader of the Oxford Movement – seeking the intellectual and spiritual renewal of the Church of England. He was a celebrated preacher at Oxford University (the volumes of his sermons run to over a thousand pages). He also wrote poetry and religious novels.

Difficult years
In the 1850s he had a few difficult years as Rector of a new Catholic University in Dublin. For one thing, his appointment of laity to positions of authority was not liked by Archbishop Cullen.

However, he left behind him not only a beautiful church in Stephen’s Green but an institution that evolved later into University College Dublin.

Some years later the honesty of his conversion was publicly questioned by Charles Kingsley, a novelist and Anglican minister. Newman was deeply offended. In reply he published a series of brilliant weekly pamphlets, which became his autobiographical book, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, and had huge success. When he was nearly seventy he wrote his Grammar of Assent, a synthesis of his thought in defence of faith, an ambitious work praised even by the atheist writer Thomas Hardy.

Vatican II
In old age he was made a Cardinal by Pope Leo XIII, an honour that removed the cloud of suspicion that lay over him during the time of Pius IX. In the second half of the twentieth century his reputation continued to grow. His ideas had a considerable influence on the Second Vatican Council. Today his writings are studied even more than during his lifetime and there are strong prospects for his eventual beatification.

To provide readers with a brief introduction to the life story and vision of Newman, an imaginary interview seems a possible method. It requires us to make a certain leap of fantasy.

Were you always a firm believer? 

From the age of fifteen, yes. Even though my sense of faith changed greatly with the years.

What happened at fifteen?
Because of various books I came across, I was drifting towards doubt. I was impressed by the philosophers who denied the existence of God. But the chaplain at my school helped me to see through those arguments and to discover my deeper self. That was the key. Within my conscience I experienced the voice of God.

So that experience was your first major conversion?
From that moment on I trusted the inner road. I could rest in the thought of two, and two only, luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator. I had a ‘ruling sense of God’s presence within’. Paradoxically, ‘I believe in God because I believe in myself’.

What gave you energy in your long life as a thinker?
A desire to make sense of faith for my century, when there were so many new questions. In fact my dialogue with unbelief began in the family. When I was only twenty two I started a long debate with my younger brother, Charles, who had become an atheist. I discovered that it was his disposition or state of mind that was at fault. Arguments are useless if a person’s attitude is wrong. You need a certain quality of heart before the question of faith. Then, and only then, you are in a position to recognise the ‘converging probabilities’ that point towards God.

You did not like the traditional approaches to the existence of God?
I was never convinced by the more external proofs for God. ‘I believe in design because I believe in God; not in a God because I see design’. Besides, ‘life is for action’: if we insist on proofs for everything, we will never commit ourselves. It seems a bit subjective.

‘We believe because we love’. That is subjective in a good sense – personal and real. But all my life I opposed ‘liberalism’ – the notion that faith is subjective in a bad sense, merely a ‘private luxury’ or feeling.

Did you not advocate liberal education?
There is, I feel, understandable confusion on that point. In my Dublin lectures I praised ‘liberal education’ in the sense of ‘an enlargement of mind’.

Real education should offer rounded personal development as distinct from rote learning. But in religious matters I used the word ‘liberalism’ negatively. Christian faith is a truth given to us by God in Christ. It is consoling and full of light. It is also definite and demanding. The temptation of my century was to reject authority, to see truth as relative, and to water down religion into personal poetry. All that seemed a woolly ‘liberalism’.

Can you tell me why you became a Catholic?
Read my Apologia! But in brief, my study of Church history of the early centuries ‘unsettled by degrees’ my intellectual security as an Anglican.
However, it was a much longer journey to convert my imagination to Catholicism. I had grown up with many prejudices. Eventually, the decision came very simply. In conscience I had to become a Catholic.

You have mentioned conscience twice. Was it so central to your religious journey?
From that youthful conversion onwards conscience was my anchor. I called it the ‘Vicar of Christ’ in me.

I once said that if I had to propose an after-dinner toast, I would drink ‘to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards’.

I must add that conscience can be lazy but at its most genuine it is always a call against pride and towards truth and love.

You seem to have relished the many changes in your life. Was that the case?
Some were very costly, including leaving my Anglican culture.

My sense of history taught me that ‘to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often’ .

The Church itself is a great adventure of development to understand the Gospel and to make sense of Christ for many different cultures.

How did you respond to the ‘Irish question’?
My years in Ireland were not very happy. I did not appreciate then the depth of hurt that many Irish people felt towards England. Gradually, perhaps reluctantly, I came to support some version of Irish independence. Towards the end of my life I wrote to Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit poet, then teaching at my old university in Dublin: ‘If I were an Irishman, I should be (at heart) a rebel’.

How would you describe your own personality?
I was looked on as somewhat retiring and scholarly, with a deep sense of duty. Perhaps a bit too serious. Some people said I had a certain spiritual ‘presence’. There was something tough in me that came alive in controversy but I tried never to cause anyone pain.

And your own spirituality?
Perhaps I can answer by putting together two mottoes that I chose. For my coat of arms as a cardinal I selected: ‘Cor ad cor loquitur’, Heart speaks to heart. That was my experience of God and of human friendship as well. I asked that on my tombstone be written ‘Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem’, From shadows and images into the Truth. That was my own story of struggle and growth. My most celebrated hymn proved true: a kindly light
led me. 

This article first appeared in The Messenger (February 2001), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.