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Blessed John Henry Newman: Lover of Truth
By Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.
According to many people, he was the 19th century's most important English-speaking, Roman Catholic theologian. Baptized an Anglican, he will be beatified this month.


Finding a Spiritual Home
Recognizing the Faith of Laypeople
Defending His Integrity
'The Cloud Is Lifted'
Vatican II's 'Absent Father'
Newman's Ongoing Influence
'Nothing of a Saint About Me'
U.S. Deacon Miraculously Cured


CARDINAL JOHN HENRY NEWMAN (1801-1890), whom Pope Benedict XVI will beatify September 19 at Cofton Park near Birmingham, England, was exceptional in many ways: as a highly respected Anglican theologian, priest and leader of the Oxford Movement, then as a Roman Catholic priest, theologian and spiritual director and, finally, as a major influence on several key issues at Vatican II. He will now be the first person beatified by Pope Benedict XVI, who has designated others to celebrate Masses during which someone is declared blessed.

This writer was present in Rome's Chiesa Nuova (New Church) on April 28, 1990, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger enthusiastically described his 1946 introduction to Newman's writings. During that symposium (entitled "John Henry Newman: Lover of Truth"), Cardinal Ratzinger spoke about his appreciation of Newman, especially regarding conscience. Newman was declared Venerable in 1991.

Last year's official recognition of Newman's intercession in the miraculous cure of Deacon Jack Sullivan of Marshfield, Massachusetts (see "U.S. Deacon Miraculously Cured"), was the final step for this month's beatification.

Finding a Spiritual Home

Born in London to John and Jemina Newman, John Henry was the eldest of six children. He studied at Oxford's Trinity College, was elected a fellow of Oriel College (1822), was ordained an Anglican priest (1825) and three years later became vicar of St. Mary the Virgin Church, the university church. Newman was also responsible for its parish in nearby Littlemore. Between 1826 and 1845, he tutored at Oriel College. He was always concerned for students' moral development and their intellectual growth.

In 1832 he accompanied Richard Hurrell Froude, a friend, to Italy. Newman became extremely ill in Sicily and composed the poem "Lead, Kindly Light." (It eventually became part of his Dream of Gerontius, an 1865 poem that Sir Edward Elgar set to music. Newman, who played the violin, composed the lyrics for the hymn "Praise to the Holiest in the Heights.")

On returning to Oxford, Newman heard John Keble preach "The National Apostasy." That famous sermon launched the Oxford Movement, which emphasized the Church of England's debt to the Church Fathers and challenged some of its liberal ideas, especially its tendency to assert that truth is completely subjective.

Newman wrote several Tracts for the Times (1833-41), the movement's pamphlets that were highly praised by some Church of England members and bitterly denounced by others. Newman's Tract 90 argued that the 39 Articles, a foundational document for the Church of England, could be understood as compatible with the theology of the Church Fathers, whom Newman had begun studying intensely. Tract 90 was censured by the university; the bishop of Oxford requested that no further tracts be published.

Although these developments complicated Newman's friendships with leaders of the Oxford Movement, he remained on good terms with many of them for the rest of their lives. He prayed for all of them.

By 1843, Newman had published three books and six volumes of his Parochial and Plain Sermons (preached at the university church). He would eventually publish 40 books and write 21,000 letters that Oxford University Press has published in 31 volumes. (See 'Nothing of a Saint About Me')

After Newman resigned his position at St. Mary Church in 1843, he withdrew to Littlemore with several friends to consider his future as an Anglican. While writing his book-length Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church by Blessed Domenico Barberi, an Italian Passionist, on October 9, 1845.

Newman soon attended the Roman seminary run by the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, joined the Oratory religious community and in 1847 was ordained a Catholic priest. Back in England, he began an Oratory house in Maryvale, near Birmingham.

In 1849, Newman opened Oratory houses in Birmingham and in London. He set up the Catholic University of Ireland and served as its rector from 1851 to 1858. His book The Idea of a University dates from this period.


Newman was encouraged in 1859 to become editor of The Rambler, a Catholic magazine. His rocky three-month tenure ended with its July issue, which contained his essay On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine. During the fourth-century Arian heresy, he argued, lay Catholics deserved more credit than their bishops for maintaining the orthodox faith taught by the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.

A Catholic bishop in England denounced Newman to the Holy See's Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition. Msgr. George Talbot, an Englishman at the Vatican, described Newman as "the most dangerous man in England." Talbot asked, "What is the province of the laity?" and smugly responded: "To hunt, to shoot, to entertain. These matters they understand, but to meddle in ecclesiastical affairs they have no right at all." (This is probably the basis for the phrase that lay Catholics must "pray, pay and obey.")

Although Newman founded and taught in Birmingham's Oratory school, he was distrusted by many Anglicans and Roman Catholics.

While reviewing another writer's book, Charles Kingsley offhandedly remarked, "Truth, for its own sake, had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy. Father Newman informs us that it need not, and on the whole, ought not to be...."

On July 3, 2009, Catholic News Service reported that the Holy See accepted as miraculous the 2001 cure of Deacon Jack Sullivan of Marshfield, Massachusetts. Husband, father of three, once a lawyer and then a magistrate, Sullivan was a candidate for the permanent diaconate in the Archdiocese of Boston. When he began experiencing severe back pain because lumbar vertebrae and disks were squeezing his spinal column and affecting the nerves going to his legs, surgery was advised to avoid complete paralysis.

Sullivan told St. Anthony Messenger that he prayed, "Please, Cardinal Newman, help me to walk so that I can go back to classes and be ordained." He was able to walk pain-free.

After the pain returned several months later, Sullivan had surgery yet was unable to walk. He again prayed to Newman. "And suddenly, right after I said the end of the prayer, I felt a tremendous heat—very, very warm and a tingling feeling all over and this lasted quite a long time. And I was completely absorbed with a tremendous feeling of peace, tranquillity, of joy and of confidence. And as I say, I was just captured by this experience, which we've come to realize was a supernatural experience."

Sullivan began walking without medication, was able to finish his deacon internship and completed his final courses.

Doctors confirmed that there was no medical explanation for Sullivan's recovery before his 2001 ordination as a deacon. He now serves in parish and prison ministry.

A five-minute interview with Deacon Sullivan is available at Click the link to Program 1038.

After Kingsley refused to retract that statement, Newman wrote a seven-part newspaper response between April and June of 1864. He vigorously defended his intellectual integrity—first as an Anglican and then as a Roman Catholic. Published as Apologia Pro Vita Sua (Defense of His Life), this spiritual autobiography brought Newman back to public attention and remains his most widely read book.

He recalled that at the age of 15 "a great change of thought took place in me. I fell under the influence of a definite Creed, and received into my intellect impressions of dogmas, which, through God's mercy, have never been effaced or obscured."

Newman's views on papal infallibility were of great interest before the First Vatican Council (1869-70), which defined that doctrine. He accepted the Council's teaching while noting its limits, which few people who favored the definition were quick to do.

In 1878, Newman was elected an honorary fellow of Oxford's Trinity College and was very glad to visit that building and reconnect with old friends.

In 1879, a year after Leo XIII became pope, John Henry Newman was named a cardinal. After being assured that he could continue to live in England, he accepted the nomination.

"The cloud is lifted," said Newman on learning of this appointment. He chose as his motto Cor ad cor loquitur ("Heart speaks to heart"), a phrase from St. Francis de Sales.

(In the 20th century, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II would similarly appoint as cardinals three eminent theologians who had been officially suspect in the 1950s but whose work became crucial at Vatican II [1962-65]: Jean Danielou, S.J., Henri DeLubac, S.J., and Yves Congar, O.P.)

Newman died on August 11, 1890, and was buried in Rednal. He chose as his epitaph Ex Umbris et Imaginis in Veritatem ("From Shadows and Images Into the Truth"). Newman's remains were exhumed in 2008 and reburied in Birmingham's Oratory church.

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., described John Henry Newman as the most seminal Catholic theologian of the 19th century. Before Newman, Catholic theology tended to emphasize deduction from first principles disconnected from human history. After Newman, the lived experience of believers was recognized as a key part of theological reflection.

Immediately after Vatican II ended, Bishop Robert Dwyer of Reno, Nevada, described Cardinal John Henry Newman as the council's "absent father." Many of Vatican II's bishops ("fathers") and theological experts, including Father Joseph Ratzinger, were deeply indebted to Newman's historical, sacramental and scriptural approaches to theology. In an October 1964 speech at the Council, Archbishop Lawrence Sheehan of Baltimore quoted Newman.

Last year Father Ian Ker wrote that Newman's theology, which "seemed so radical, even dangerous in his own time, was always deeply historical and sensitive to the [Church's] Tradition, as well as respectful of the teaching authority of the Church.

"In the post-conciliar time in which we are living, I believe that John Henry Newman is an invaluable guide to a true understanding of the Council, free from distortions and exaggerations, an understanding that is informed by a sense of history and the development of doctrine, as well as by an appreciation of the limitations of councils and their relationship to each other" (L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, July 22, 2009).

In his address to participants in Rome's 1990 symposium, Pope John Paul II emphasized four lessons that Newman "holds out to the Church and to the world of culture":

• the need for an interior disposition of loving obedience to God,

• a lifelong quest for holiness and union with Christ,

• the unity between theology and science, between the world of faith and the world of reason, and

• a love for the Church as the continuing outpouring of God's love for people in every phase of history.

Anglican Archbishop Robert Runcie of Canterbury wrote on the same occasion: "Newman occupies a unique place in the history of both our traditions. As an Anglican, he reminded us of our roots in the Fathers and of our faith within Catholic Christendom. As a Catholic, he helped towards a better understanding of the history of dogma and prepared for the great developments this century in the Second Vatican Council."

John Henry Newman's ongoing influence is reflected in many ways, including the following:

• A Newman Club for Catholic students began at the University of Pennsylvania in 1893, a mere three years after Newman's death. Five years after that, the Oxford University Newman Society opened. As more Catholics attended public universities in the United States, Newman Clubs or Centers were established as places for praying, socializing and growing into an adult faith. Although "Catholic Campus Ministry" is the more common term now, Newman's influence remains strong.

• The 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church cites John Henry Newman four times, including "Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ" (#1778, taken from Newman's 1876 letter to the Duke of Norfolk). This is more often than 19 of the Doctors of the Church are quoted. Several are cited more often than Newman and others not at all. Some people have suggested that Newman should be added to their number.

• In his 1993 encyclical, The Splendor of Truth, Pope John Paul II wrote: "As Cardinal John Henry Newman, that outstanding defender of the rights of conscience, forcefully puts it: 'Conscience has rights because it has duties'" (#34).

• In his sermon at the Mass opening the 2005 conclave, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger denounced today's "dictatorship of relativism." That echoes Newman's 1879 declaration, "Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily" (speech on accepting official notice of his appointment as a cardinal).

Although John Henry Newman was controversial during his lifetime, few then or now would deny that he was "a lover of truth" or that he placed his formidable intellectual gifts and great pastoral sensitivity at the service of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Perhaps Newman's greatest legacy is summarized in this prayer that he composed:

"God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another.

"I have a mission; I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons; He has not created me for naught.

"I shall do good—I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments. Therefore, I will trust Him."

Many writings by and about John Henry Newman are available at The Newman Association of America can be contacted through The official beatification Web site is

The following excerpts are from Newman's letters and major works:

• "I think I see clearly that honour and fame are not desirable. God is leading me through life in the way best adapted for His glory and my own salvation." (1821, to Walter Mayers, his teacher at Ealing School)

• "A union with Rome, while it is what it is, is impossible; it is a dream. As to the individual members of the cruel church, who can but love and feel for them?" (1833, to John Frederick Christie, a friend from Oriel College)

• "It has truly grieved me to hear of the severe trials you are under, though really such trials are our portion. I think one may say it without exaggeration, but they who seek God do (as it were) come for affliction." (1837, to Henry Edward Manning, whose wife was ill and soon died; Manning later became cardinal archbishop of Westminster)

• "Faith can make a hero but love makes a saint." (1839, Parochial and Plain Sermons, IV)

• "In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often." (1845, Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, I,7)

• "I have nothing of a Saint about me as every one knows, and it is a severe (and salutary) mortification to be thought next door to one....I have no tendency to be a saint—it is a sad thing to say. Saints are not literary men, they do not love the classics, they do not write Tales." (1850, to Miss G. Munro, for whom Newman served as spiritual director)

• "The world grows old, but the Church is ever young....Have we any right to take it strange, if, in this English land, the spring-time of the Church should turn out to be an English spring, an uncertain, anxious time of hope and fear, of joy and suffering,—of bright promise and budding hopes, yet withal, of keen blasts, and cold showers and sudden storms?" (1852, "A Second Spring," sermon preached at the first Provincial Synod of Westminster)

• "For years I used almost as proverbs what I considered to be the scope and issue of [Thomas Scott of Ashton Sandford's] doctrine, 'Holiness rather than peace' and 'Growth the only evidence of life.' (1864, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Chapter I)

• "To write theology is like dancing on the tight rope some hundred feet above the ground. It is hard to keep from falling, and the fall is great." (1866, to Emily Bowles, who became a Catholic in 1843 and often wrote to him)

(The letters are quoted from A Packet of Letters: A Selection From the Correspondence of John Henry Newman, edited with an introduction by Joyce Sugg, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1983.)



Pat McCloskey, O.F.M., is editor of this publication. Between 1985 and 1992 he worked in Rome at the international headquarters of the Order of Friars Minor, primarily as its director of communications. In 1989 at Rome's Gregorian University, he audited a course on John Henry Newman and later visited Oxford and Littlemore.

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