Following the loose chronology of this series on Great Christian Thinkers, I had planned to write this week on the momentously influential John Henry Newman. How fortuitous then that this column appears immediately following Pope Benedict XVI’s recent allowance for the beatification of Newman, moving him one step closer to sainthood. The scientifically inexplicable healing of Deacon Jack Sullivan’s spine in Boston has been recognized as the first official miracle attributed to Newman’s intercession. As Father Paul Chavasse, current provost of Newman’s own Birmingham Oratory, said, “‘The Holy Father’s decision is one of great significance for the whole church.”
John Henry Newman (1801-90) was perhaps the most important Christian thinker of the 19th century. Oxford educated and well versed in the classics and history, Newman began the trajectory of his widely-varied theological arc as an Anglican. Early in his life he famously viewed the Church of England as a via media, or middle path, between Catholicism and Protestantism, which he felt represented two extremist poles of Christianity. However, in studying patristic theology and employing Augustine’s axiomatic phrase “securus iudicat orbis terrarum” (“the verdict of the whole world is conclusive”), Newman came to see that his former theories on the via media were “absolutely pulverized” by the study of ecclesiastical history (Apologia Pro Vita Sua, V). Some of his most enlightening and dramatic spiritual wrestling on the subject took place while he penned “An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine” (1845). This work dealt with the reality that church teaching unfolds over time, and that objective and methodological arguments can be used to distinguish authentic dogmatic developments from any rank growth of corruption. Thus, the deposit of faith can be ever applied to new conversations, situations and historical occurrences, without substantial change to the enduring and revealed gift God has provided to humanity. Newman saw the Anglican Church as failing to understand this progressive and temporal dimension in its entirety.
Instead, Newman came to view the Roman Catholic Church as the living and permanent voice of Jesus Christ through the centuries and the seat of true moral authority. His autobiographical journey toward “swimming the Tiber” as a convert to Catholicism is traced in his deeply personal “Apologia Pro Sua Vita.” It is a momentous and significant work, in the mold of Augustine’s “Confessions.”
After his entrance into full communion with Rome, Newman was ordained and founded the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in England. He was subsequently given the charge to found a new college in Dublin – the Catholic University of Ireland. His reflections on the role and duties of Catholic higher education, collected in “The Idea of a University” (1852), are rightly recognized as indispensable resources for appreciating the distinct value and complementarity in an education moored in both faith and reason.
He also made significant theological contributions in his “Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent” (1870), “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk” (1875), and hundreds of collected letters. His efforts were recognized for their importance during his lifetime, as he was raised to the cardinalate in 1879.
Perhaps because of the incredible breadth and expanse to which his knowledge and interests extended, he was a figure difficult to characterize. He opposed the ultramontane movement at the First Vatican Council, originally arguing that the declaration of papal infallibility was ecumenically inopportune. However, he accepted the doctrine personally and became one of its most ardent defenders after its promulgation. While he is often portrayed as forward-looking and progressive in his thoughts on doctrinal development, he defined his own life’s struggle as combating “liberalism” in religion (a very specific term which defined human reason as the ultimate arbiter of all truth).
His influence is little questioned today. Cardinal Avery Dulles, Pope Benedict XVI and countless other theologians have extolled his insight and erudition in bringing to light the rationality of faith and appreciation for God’s enduring and historical presence in the church through the millennia. Pope John XXIII is said to have seen Vatican II as a validation and implementation of Newman’s thought, as he was the most quoted theologian in the Council Fathers’ discussions. He remains one of the most read and important Christian authors in the post-Enlightenment and philosophically literate West, and his work continues to make contributions in contemporary theological, ecclesiological and historical discussions.
Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at Fordham University.