John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement

First in a series of occasional articles about Cardinal John Henry Newman

Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martin of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints recently stated that the beatification of John Henry Newman is “imminent.” A longtime favorite theologian of Pope Benedict XVI, Newman will move from being called “venerable” to “blessed” in the next calendar year, thanks in part to the recognition of his intervention in the miraculous recovery of Boston deacon Jack Sullivan.

Because of his numerous contributions to Catholicism and the modern ecumenical movement, his rising international prominence, and in the hopes of eliminating the surprisingly widespread confusion within the diocese between the English convert and local hero St. John Neumann, the editors of this paper have found it opportune to commission a series of articles on his thought. Having been blessed to study under prominent Newman scholars Avery Cardinal Dulles of Fordham and Father Stephen Fields of Georgetown, I feel honored to be asked to reflect on the life and work of Cardinal Newman.

His association with the Oxford Movement seems a particularly appropriate place to begin. On July 14, 1833, Newman was present at John Keble’s famous Assizes Sermon on National Apostasy preached at St. Mary’s in Oxford. This sermon denounced the growing laxity in nineteenth century English moral sensibility and criticized the relationship of abject dependence of the church upon the sovereign state, where the former was, according to Keble, “forsaken, degraded, nay trampled on and despoiled.”  Most pertinent to the discussion was the secularizing tendencies which came to the fore after the Irish bishops were reduced in number (and thus influence) after the 1832 Reform Act.

In response to such events, Newman led a group of likeminded theologians including Keble, Edward Pusey and Richard Hurrell Froude in intellectual protests of the situation. These high-church Anglicans came to be called the founders of the Oxford Movement, or more succinctly the Tractarians, because of their publication and espousal of a series of pamphlets, written by Newman, entitled The Tracts for the Times (1833-41).

These Tracts argued for the legitimacy of apostolic succession and for the recognition of the Church of England as a sister church to the more populous churches of Rome and Greece. Many of Newman’s views on Anglicanism as the middle path (via media) between the stark simplicity of Protestantism and the abundant extravagance of Roman Catholicism were later “pulverized” in his mind by the study and application of Augustine’s phrase securus judicat orbis terrarum (“the verdict of the entire world is secure”). Yet the careful historical research done during the period, especially on the history of the Arian heresy, which led him to his eventual conclusions, paired with the spread of his influence to enthusiastic students flocking to St. Mary the Virgin Church on Oxford’s campus to hear his preaching, cannot be denied as formative of his later thought.

Newman’s role in the Oxford Movement waned as he became increasingly disillusioned with the reception of his arguments for a more apostolic Church of England within Anglican circles. Tract 90, which argued for a catholic interpretation of the Church of England’s Thirty-nine Articles, and his condemnation of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s plan to erect a joint bishopric in Jerusalem to be held alternately by English and Prussian bishops ministering to Anglican, Calvinist, and Lutheran pilgrims in the Holy Land, did little to ingratiate him to English churchmen. He eventually took the plunge and swam the Tiber, formally converting to Catholicism.

However his time with the Oxford Movement is recognized as having lasting impact on contemporary theology. Augustus Blair Donaldson calls it “the greatest religious movement of the nineteenth century, if not of the whole epoch since the great spiritual upheaval of the sixteenth century.” The noble aims of the Movement, to end the Erastian subjugation of the Church to the Crown and to rid the State of inordinate control in matters of religion, were of service to the perennial debates over church-state relations.

Newman’s colleagues were not unanimously convinced of his arguments, and many stayed to try to effect the changes they sought on the Anglican church from within her borders. But the importance of the Movement and its role in eventually shaping Newman’s significant and prolific writing is unquestioned.

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at Fordham University.

Categories: Growing in Faith

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