Why John Henry Newman converted to Catholicism

Why John Henry Newman converted to Catholicism

Michael Davies

Michael Davies, himself a convert to the Catholic Church from the Church of England, is currently writing a new biography of Cardinal Newman. The following extract deals with the circumstances leading to Newman's conversion to Roman Catholicism.

In 1836 John Henry Newman began to edit an English version of the writings of the Fathers of the Church. He was determined to prove that the Church of England held a middle way (the via media) between the extremes of Popery and Protestantism and to recapture some of the Catholic doctrines and forms of worship which had been lost at the Reformation.

The "Branch Theory" had been devised to explain how Anglicans could call themselves Catholic and be part of the great Church of past and present even when obviously separated from the bulk of Christians in both the Western and Eastern Churches. This theory maintained that three different provinces calling themselves Catholic and Christian are part of the one Church of Christ: the Anglo- Catholic, the Greek Catholic, and the Roman Catholic Churches.

In 1837 Newman delivered a series of lectures explaining the via media designed to give the Oxford Movement a coherent theology on the Church. The true Anglican Church was, he maintained, neither Romanist nor Protestant. It held to a a middle path between the excesses of Rome and those of Protestantism. The true Christian doctrine was that which had been taught in the early Church before the break-up of Christendom into various branches. All the Anglican Church had to do now was to model its faith on that of the early Church. This did not necessitate an infallible authority, for what the Fathers taught was a matter of fact, evident to all who looked for it.

In April 1839, as Newman studied the fifth century Monophysite heresy, it suddenly occurred to him that the Monophysites also had followed a middle way between Rome and the heretical Eutychians. For the first time he experienced grave misgivings as to the Anglican position - a cloud no bigger than a man's hand, but the forerunner of storm and shipwreck.

While, like the Anglicans, the Monophysites took their stand on antiquity, their claim was, Newman saw, disallowed by the Church, which at the instigation of Pope Leo drew up a new formula (in two natures) at Chalcedon to exclude them. Newman was struck, he wrote, "by the great power of the Pope, as great as he claims now, almost." He could not adjust the story of the Monophysites to the principles of the via media. If their middle way had been heretical, the Anglican version might also be heretical - "I saw my face in the mirror, and I was a Monophysite."

Despite the fact that Newman had been badly shaken by the cracks that appeared in his via media thesis, he was still convinced that Rome had corrupted the primitive faith and he endeavoured to patch up his theory. After all, he reasoned, the Anglican Church was a continuation in England of that one Church of which in olden times Athanasius and Augustine had been members.

Catholic principles

With this idea in mind he wrote Tract 90, to show that the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles had been so worded as to admit the ancient Catholic doctrine on such subjects as the Mass and the Sacraments, while excluding the Roman version of these doctrines. The result of Tract 90 was the violent disavowal of its thesis by those in authority in the Anglican Church. It was officially censured in 1841 by the heads of the university and condemned by twenty-four bishops, including Newman's own Bishop of Oxford.

The reception accorded Tract 90 made it clear that those in authority in the Church of England strenuously repudiated what Newman insisted were the fundamental principles of Catholicity, but he still insisted that it was the duty of true Anglicans to remain where they were, and to remain true to the Catholic doctrines that they had come to embrace.

The hostile reception Tract 90 received prompted him to give up all controversy and devote himself to the translation of the works of St Athanasius. It was then that the ghost came a second time: "In the Arian History I found the very same phenomenon ... which I had found in the Monophysite ... I saw clearly that in the history of Arianism, the pure Arians were the Protestants, the semi-Arians were the Anglicans, and that Rome now was what it was then."

The final blow to the via media theory came in what is called the affair of the Jerusalem Bishopric, when Anglicans and Protestants, irrespective of their difference in belief, were lumped together under the jurisdiction of one Anglican Bishop. On 11 November 1841, he sent a formal protest to the Bishop of Oxford in which he stated that "to admit maintainers of heresy to communion without formal renunciation of their errors goes far towards recognising the same: and Lutheranism and Calvinism are heresies, repugnant to Scripture, springing up three centuries since, and anathematised by East as well as West."

His protest was to no avail, but he still recoiled from the idea of abandoning the communion which he regarded as his own home "to which I was bound by so many strong and tender ties".


No matter how hard he tried to prevent it happening, his faith in Anglicanism slowly died and in 1842 he retired with a few companions to Littlemore, a village within his parish two or three miles to the south of Oxford. He and a few younger companions led lives of great asceticism and prayer, including recitations of the Divine Office of the Catholic Church in the very simple chapel.

Newman bore patiently the constant calumnious attacks made on him by Liberals, Evangelicals, and other non-Tractarians. On 25 September 1843, he preached for the last time as an Anglican, his theme being "The Parting of Friends." The final paragraph of this sermon is perhaps the most moving of all that he has written:

"And, O my brethren, O kind and affectionate hearts, O loving friends, should you know any one whose lot it has been, by writing or by word of mouth, in some degree to help you thus to act; if he has ever told you what you knew about yourselves, or what you did not know; has read to you your wants or feelings, and comforted you by the very reading; has made you feel that there was a higher life than this daily one, and a brighter world than that you see; or encouraged you, or sobered you, or opened a way to the inquiring, or soothed the perplexed; if what he has said or done has ever made you take interest in him, and feel well inclined towards him; remember such a one in time to come, though you hear him not, and pray for him, that in all things he may know God's will, and at all times he may be ready to fulfil it."

He remained in retirement for two more years at Littlemore where, to clear his mind, he began to study the way in which ideas develop within the Christian truth, and gradually he came to see that the later expressions of the faith were not innovations but fuller statements of the same truth which had been present from the beginning. As time goes on, the Church sees more and more clearly all that is contained in the revealed message, and she expresses this clearer vision in new formulations of doctrine, which clarify but do not contradict the earlier formulations.

He worked steadily at the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine and as he neared the end of it he felt that he could wait no longer. In writing it he had written himself into the Catholic Church. His theory of development is fundamentally opposed to that of Modernists who unjustifiably claim his support. For them, revelation is a continuing process destined to go on till the end of time, with earlier statements of the truth being modified and perhaps even contradicted by later statements more suited to the spirit of the age in which they are made.

Infallible authority

For Newman the revealed message was given once and for all by God, to be more and more fully grasped as time goes on, but to be passed on in its entirety, undiminished and uncorrupted. For him the test of a true development, as opposed to a corruption, was its continuity with the past, and, most important of all, he affirmed the need of an infallible authority for the discernment of a true development.

Anglicans and Catholics waited in suspense for his next move. He resigned his Oriel Fellowship on 3 October, thus severing his last official link with Oxford. On the night of 8 October 1845, Father Dominic Barberi, the saintly Italian Passionist priest, arrived by stage coach at Littlemore dripping wet from his journey through torrents of rain. On the following day, Newman and two of his companions were received into the Church in a very simple ceremony.

Newman's long agonising vigil was over at last. His life as a Catholic had begun. His friends always kept 9 October as "his day".

Michael Davies is the author of numerous books and articles on the liturgy and the history of the Catholic Church. He is President of Una Voce, a worldwide body that promotes the cause of the traditional Latin Mass.

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