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The Life and Legacy of John Henry Newman

The Life and Legacy of John Henry Newman

St. John Henry Newman (photo: St. John Henry Newman / Public Domain)

Newman’s conversion opened the floodgates for a new tidal wave of converts, all of whom entered the Church in the wake of his counter-cultural act of faith.

The canonization of John Henry Newman was a triumph for the light of Life and Love amidst the gloom and darkness of the death-culture. It signified the way in which the Church transcends and outlives the evil forces which assail her, whether such evil assailants are the enemies without or the traitors within.

As for Newman himself, there are two ways of assessing and understanding his life and legacy. The first is to see the influence he had on his own times, and the second is to see the influence he has had in the century and more since his death.

Newman was born in 1801, at the beginning of a century that would see the rise of the British Empire, as well as the rise of skepticism in matters of religion; and yet, simultaneously, it was a century which would see a real revival of religious orthodoxy. With respect to the latter, Newman himself might be seen as the most important and influential figure.

As a child, Newman lived in a culture which was basking in the radiance of Romanticism, especially as manifested in the poetry of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, both of whom followed the call of beauty until it brought them to Christ. One fruit of this Romanticism was the rise of neo-medievalism, which found expression in the Gothic Revival and the Pre-Raphaelites, and also in the Oxford Movement, of which Newman emerged as the indubitable leader. The Oxford Movement sought to reconnect the Anglican Church to its pre-Reformation roots, advocating what would become known as Anglo-Catholicism. It was as the leader and spokesman of the Oxford Movement that Newman gained a degree of celebrity and notoriety, especially for his authorship of many of the Tracts for the Times, which argued for the adoption of Catholic doctrine and liturgical practice by the Church of England. He was also celebrated for the eloquence and elegance of his sermons, which are marked as much by their rhetorical brilliance as for their depth of scholarship. The flourish of such scholarly rhetoric is captured in two recently published books, Waiting for Christ and The Tears of Christ, which glean some of the glorious passages from Newman’s sermons as meditations for the seasons of Advent and Lent. What is remarkable about these sermons, given in the years prior to Newman’s conversion, is their orthodoxy. One is reminded of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, a profoundly Catholic work written 14 years before the author’s reception into the Church.

As with Chesterton, Newman’s pre-conversion writing is marked so unmistakably by a Catholic understanding of philosophy and theology that it seems to prophesy his future conversion, the wisdom of hindsight notwithstanding. Since this is so, it is somewhat surprising that his reception into the Church in 1845 caused such a seismic reaction, shaking the Anglican Church to its foundations and sending shockwaves through the culture of Victorian England. By the time of his conversion, Newman had been a nationally known figure for a decade or more. How could such a pillar of the British establishment, celebrated and respected for his intelligence and learning, succumb to a religion which the establishment had spent 300 years trying to eradicate, and which the educated classes looked down upon as being characterized by ignorance and superstition? It was thus that Newman’s crossing of the Tiber affronted the pride and prejudice of British culture.

Newman’s conversion opened the floodgates for a new tidal wave of converts, all of whom entered the Church in the wake of his tsunamic and counter-cultural act of faith. It is for this reason that the year of 1845 can be taken as the definitive date of birth of the Catholic Revival, a birth which, alongside Newman’s conversion, was also brought about by the influx of Irish immigrants to England in the wake of the potato famine which began in the same year.

Newman entered the Church in his mid-forties, at the halfway point of his life, and bestowed upon her such an abundance of gifts during his 45 years as a Catholic that it’s not unlikely that he will be declared a Doctor of the Church. As a theologian, his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845) sheds new light on the living tradition that animates the faithful and rational life of the Church. As a philosopher, his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870) exposes the inadequacies of empiricism as a mode of attaining an apprehension of the truth and follows Aristotle in its insistence on the necessity of practical virtue as a prerequisite for assenting to the truths of faith and metaphysics. His Idea of a University (1852 and 1858) has been hugely influential upon the theory and practice of Catholic education, continuing to inspire the foundation of new schools and colleges and informing the structure of their curricula.

As a writer, Newman has been described by the literary critic George Levine as “perhaps the most artful and brilliant prose writer of the nineteenth century,” a judgement seemingly echoed by James Joyce, via Stephen Dedalus, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Considering that the Victorian Age in Literature was a true Golden Age, such praise represents a literary accolade of the highest order. Newman’s literary style is at its best in his masterful Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864), possibly the finest spiritual autobiography ever written apart from Augustine’s incomparable Confessions. It is also evident in his two published novels, Loss and Gain (1848) and Callista (1855), and in his poetry, especially in The Dream of Gerontius (1865), which would inspire an oratorio by Sir Edward Elgar, as well as in shorter poems, such as “The Pilgrim Queen,” “The Golden Prison” and “The Sign of the Cross.”

Newman’s death in 1890 signaled the advent of that other living legacy, over and above that which is constituted by his work; that posthumous legacy connected to the profound influence that he has exerted and continues to exert on generations of cradle Catholics and converts to the Faith. Those thousands of souls, living and dead, who were ushered into the fold and strengthened in their faith by this most wonderful of shepherds, rejoiced with the company of saints and angels as John Henry Newman was raised to the altar. May we raise our voices with theirs in Newman’s own hymn of praise to the holiest in the height.

This essay first appeared in Crisis Magazine and is published with permission.

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