Cardinal Newman: a centenary tribute

Cardinal Newman: a centenary tribute

Dr Frank Mobbs

1990 marks the centenary of the death of John Henry Newman, one of the great thinkers and writers of the 19th century. Dr Frank Mobbs provides here a general outline of Newman's life, ideas and achievements and his relevance for Christians in the late 20th century.

Dr Mobbs has lectured in theology and philosophy at Australian and overseas colleges and universities. His articles have been published in Australian and overseas theological and catechetical journals.

Newman, with amazing insight, saw early in life that the great enemy of Christianity was what he called "infidelity". By that he meant the adoption of criteria of rationality that would exclude belief in God from the area of rational belief.

He foresaw the situation in which we now live, in which the climate of opinion excludes even the formation of religious concepts. Men no longer know what it is like to have a religion.

Today, we can draw from his works beautifully written yet cogent arguments in response to pressing questions of our day: Is faith in need of justification? Has the simple religious believer a right to his beliefs? Can the supernatural be reduced to the natural? Is Jesus more than a model of the upright man? Did Jesus leave us any reliable way of coming to know him and his teaching? What is special about the Catholic Church?

Spiritual realities

Newman reminds us that some questions are much more important than others. Also he teaches us to touch and savour spiritual realities. For him, all about were glimpses of God, intimations of his loving presence. God's heart ever beat close to his own; the angels, the saints, the departed, were only just out of sight; the sacraments were charged with God.

A gracious Providence guided all men. Reflection would reveal his "gentle form and pressure". Newman wrote: "God's hand is ever his own and he leads [men] forward by ways they know not." We need spirituality.

It is tempting at times to turn in disgust from Christ's Church and its leaders. But Newman, grounded as he was in the history of the early Church, one riddled with dissensions, but one which went on to give salvation to many, has taught us to love the Church and to have patience with her. He himself suffered from the attentions of both Anglican and Catholic bishops and he learned to be wary of ecclesiastics. But he never defied them nor drew their faults into the public arena. No one was more loyal.

Inculturation is all the rage today. Here Newman can also teach us for he lived through a period of Romanisation of the Catholic Church, with Rome's ways imposed everywhere with little regard for cultural differences.

Newman, having taken careful note of this trend, consistently fought for and articulated a presentation of Christianity acceptable to Englishmen.

"We are Church", meaning "We laity, and not the Pope and bishops, are going to run the Church", is the latest in modern catchcries. Newman taught a wiser theology of the laity which visualised an important role for them in the Church, with extended responsibilities and education in the faith, but not to the extent of occupying the chairs of the Apostles.


What of the recent promotion of Newman's cause for canonisation? While the thought of plastic statues of John Henry Newman with candles burning in front of them makes me uneasy, there is no doubt that he did practise heroic Christian virtue.

Newman's heroism was show in the acceptance of exile: on becoming a Catholic he was exiled from his Anglican and cultural homeland Oxford, too, had been the centre of his life. Its politics, its trends of thought, its personalities, consumed much of his interest. He loved Oxford.

One of the most poignant lines ever written occurs at the end of the Apologia (1864), the work he produced 18 years after leaving Oxford: "On the morning of the 23rd, I left the Observatory. I have never seen Oxford since, excepting its spires, as they are seen from the railway."

Heroic, too, was his patient enduring of being unused for half a lifetime. Newman was superbly gifted and he was sensibly aware of his gifts and his employment of those gifts in the Anglican Church led to his rejection by that Church.

Newman and his former Anglican companions constituted perhaps the greatest acquisition of intellectual strength ever for the Catholic Church in Britain. Yet for most of his Catholic life he was ignored, left to vegetate in Birmingham. True, he was commissioned to found a Catholic University in Dublin. But the Irish bishops made sure he failed. True, he was asked to translate the Bible, but nothing came of it.

No wonder that at times Newman was depressed as he reviewed his life and concluded that he had done very little. The fact is that his immense gifts were given scanty employment by his superiors. They either thwarted him or ignored him because they could not see what to do with a genius.

Newman, of course, put himself in the hands of God and made his own way, principally in his writings. His attitude is summed up in the Meditation of which many hold a copy today: "God has created me for some definite service ... He has not created me for naught ... Therefore I will trust him ... He knows what he is about."

Newman knew that the Church had survived great trials, including her churchmen. Time healed. Better days lay ahead. But these were not only the musings of a philosophical historian but also the expressions of profound and enduring faith in a leading "Kindly Light": "I do not ask to see the distant scene - one step enough for me."

If we are seeking holiness then we have a lot to learn from Newman.

But if it is common today to praise Newman, as this article does, it is worth recalling that both during his lifetime and since then, Newman was strongly disliked and quite ferociously criticised. Catholics, including bishops, held that he was a sceptic, and said so while he lived.

Anyone who could base theology on the principle, "Probability is the guide to life" was obviously a doubter.

Like Thomas Aquinas, Newman was honest enough to articulate serious objections to Christianity. He was one of few Christians capable of doing so. His readers, however, often found this too much and concluded that he half-believed the objections.

After his death the modernists - who were to be condemned by Pope St Pius X - claimed him as one of their own. In Catholic circles wide credence was given to the view that he had been a crypto-modernist.

Anglicans, surveying the Anglican half of his life, argued that he had then been a crypto-Catholic, a "mole" burrowing in the Anglican Church, a pretended Anglican who had used his position to gather a coterie of admirers and dupe them into the Roman Church.


In 1892, just after Newman's death, E.A. Abbott, for example, published two lengthy volumes of unremitting hostility to Newman, picturing him as insecure and a man without principle. Bremond (1906) concluded that Newman was basically anti-intellectualist, relying on religious experience for his theology. Sarolea (1908) offered as an explanation of Newman's conversion to Catholicism the claim that Newman had a naturally "Catholic temperament."

During his lifetime, Newman endured such assessments with serenity. Were he with us today, he would be no different. He provides a lesson for those touchy souls who expect an acceptance of their views at the writing of a mere book.

Newman's security lay, not in the estimate of men, but elsewhere, as he wrote: "The foundations of the ocean, the vast realms of water which girdle the earth, are as tranquil and as silent in the storm as in the calm.

"So it is with the souls of holy men."

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