With news of the Holy Father’s plan to beatify Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman later this year, I thought I’d share a necessarily abbreviated look at the life of one of Catholicism’s most famous converts – a man who has been called “the Father of Vatican II.”
Newman was born in 1801 into what has been described as an ordinary Church of England home — his father; a London Banker and Freemason, his mother; a descendent of French Protestants who had become famous engravers and paper makers in England.
Newman’s earliest formation in faith took place at his mother’s knee, and apart from a love for reading the Bible, he had little concretely formed religious convictions as a child.
At the age of fifteen while away at school, however, Newman experienced what he called a “conversion” that sprung in part from his reading. This marked the beginning of his search for a more doctrinally ordered faith, and he soon focused his energies on exploring an early Church creed on the Trinity and the Incarnation and its relationship with Sacred Scripture.
Now don’t get me wrong; Newman wasn’t on the Church’s doorstep at this point – heck, he wasn’t even on the parking lot! — but a seed had been planted nonetheless.
At the age of 21, Newman abandoned his plan to study law and decided to pursue a religious vocation. He was ordained an Anglican priest at the age of 23.
In his late twenties, Newman became involved in what was called the Oxford Movement which attempted to demonstrate that the Church of England — along with Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism – was one of the three branches that form the one true Church. His studies and his writings at this time were largely dedicated to portraying Anglicanism as a Via Media, or “middle way,” between what was considered the excesses of Rome on the one hand, and an unbridled Protestantism that admitted of heresy on the other.
Things began to fall apart for Newman and his convictions when he studied the Nestorian heresy which claimed that Jesus was born a mere man and only later became imbued with Divinity; a heresy condemned in the year 431 at the Council of Ephesus.
As his studies continued, Newman discovered that a very vocal opponent of Nestor, an Eastern Rite Catholic priest named Eutyches, had also erred by proposing an opposite extreme that claimed the human nature and the divine nature were at all times combined into one single nature in the person of Christ.
Then came the real eye opener in the saga; the case of the Monophysites who envisioned themselves as a “middle way” between Nestor and Eutyches. Theirs was the view that Christ has only one nature, but His humanity was simply absorbed by His divinity.
Newman discovered that both Eutyches and the Monophysites were rejected at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 when it definitively taught that the one person of Christ maintains two natures; one human and one divine. This was a doctrine that Newman had already accepted from his scrutiny of early Church doctrine on the Incarnation, and it was then that he began to see the necessity of an infallible authority in order to guide the development of doctrine along a sure path.
His misgivings about Anglicanism as a “middle way” represented but a small crack at this point in 1839, but it only grew from there, even as Newman continued to labor to serve the Movement.
In 1841, Newman — ever the historian and scholar — began work on translating the writings of St. Athanasius, at which time he encountered the history of the Arian heresy, and it was here that Newman’s Anglican convictions, already wavering from his encounter with Monophysitism, were dealt another serious blow.
Newman later said, “In the Arian history, I found the very same phenomenon which I had found with the Monophysites. I saw clearly that the pure Arians were the Protestants, the semi-Arians were the Anglicans, and Rome is now what it was then.”
The final blow came when the Church of England decided to, in Newman’s words, “admit maintainers of heresy to communion without formal renunciation of their errors… heresies that are repugnant to Scripture.”
Even without exploring the details of the controversy, who can read Newman’s words and fail to think of modern Anglicans who have witnessed the same phenomenon in their own day, finding themselves drawn to Rome which is the same today as it always has been — the very heart of the one true Church?
In 1843 — while still an Anglican priest — Newman retired to an ascetic life where he studied the ways in which doctrine develops authentically, and over the course of the next two years he wrote his famous “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine” in which he defends of certain kinds of growth in doctrinal statements as a sign of vitality in the Church that is to be expected.
Right from the very outset of his work, Newman excludes the possibility of doctrinal reversals; insisting upon what he called “preservation of type” and “continuity of principles.” He wrote that later expressions of faith in the Catholicism are simply fuller expressions of the same truth that had been present in the Church from the very beginning.
Newman realized that as time goes on, the Church expresses doctrine in a way that clarifies earlier formulations, but it does not contradict them. This, incidentally, is precisely how we should view the teachings of Vatican II.
Prophetically, Newman said that those who think that Christianity can simply model itself after what is fashionable usually end up abandoning the supernatural claims of the Faith. How often we see this today in the musings of those who misunderstand what the Council meant by “the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times” (GS 4).
Newman ultimately concluded that the test for determining what constitutes authentic development of doctrine – as well as what constitutes an authentic interpretation of the same — lies in its continuity with the past; a notion that Pope Benedict XVI has often repeated in urging “an hermeneutic of continuity and authentic reform” when interpreting the documents of Vatican II.
A number of Newman’s insights found greater expression in the conciliar decrees, some seven decades after his death. Among them:
- The Church as an organ of Divine Revelation
- Conscience as the voice of God in the soul
- The unity of faith and reason
- The sensus fidei as an authentic organ of infallibility
- How certain things that exist outside of the Church – religious, cultural, literary, artistic, etc. – can in some way, through the good within them, be considered modes of spiritual growth that serve as preparation for the fullness of the Gospel as it dwells within the Catholic Church
Newman, at great personal cost, made the journey home and was received into the Catholic Church in 1845 and he was ordained a priest in Rome one year later at the age of 45. At the age of 78, in recognition of his vast contribution to the Church as one of the preeminent theologians of the 19th century, Pope Leo XIII made him a Cardinal.
Later this year, the invisible Father of Vatican II will be raised to the altar as Pope Benedict XVI declares him among the Blessed. May his influence on the Council continue to bear fruit in its reception, interpretation and implementation through his most valuable intercession.
John Henry Cardinal Newman, pray for us!