Our Tradition: Newman’s Apologia

More than any single person, John Henry Newman is responsible for legitimizing Catholicism in Britain. Before the publication of his classic, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (an account of his religious conversion and beliefs), it was still fashionable to espouse anti-Catholic and antipapist sentiments in England. Certainly prejudice against Catholics was not entirely obliterated after Newman’s book, but it was severely truncated, rendered crass and objectionable in polite company. Reading the Apologia, one sees how a single text could have such an impact. It is a powerful and moving account of an Anglican priest’s conversion to the Catholic Church, and his painful attempt to justify this shift to the very community he has left.

Newman did not simply sit down, on some divine afflatus, to write the Apologia. It was provoked by a series of attacks on his character and indeed on all Catholics by Charles Kingsley, prominent Anglican chaplain, professor at Cambridge University, author of Westward Ho! “Truth, for its own sake, had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy,” Kingsley wrote in Macmillan’s Magazine in December 1863. “Father Newman informs us that it need not, and on the whole, ought not to be; that cunning is the weapon which heaven has given to the saints wherewith to withstand the brute male force of the wicked world which marries and is given in marriage. Whether his notion be doctrinally correct or not, it is at least historically so.”

When Newman protested “this grave and gratuitous slander” to Macmillan’s he received a reply from Kingsley offering to withdraw the charge based on Newman’s assurance that he did not mean it. But Newman was not satisfied, as his ironic rebuttal in the form of a dialogue indicates:

I rejoin: Mean it! I maintain I never said it, whether as a Protestant or as a Catholic.

Mr. Kingsley replies: I waive that point.

I object: Is it possible? What? Waive the main question! I either said it or I didn’t. You have made a monstrous charge against me, direct, distinct, public. You are bound to prove it as directly, as distinctly, as publicly — or to own you can’t.

Well, says Mr. Kingsley, if you are quite sure you did not say it, I’ll take your word for it; I really will.

My word? I am dumb. Somehow I thought that it was my word that happened to be on trial. The word of a Professor of Lying, that he does not lie.

By the time of the publication of Newman’s call for vindication in the form of a pamphlet, the controversy had become one of the spiciest on the European continent. Unfortunately for Kingsley, but fortunately for Catholicism, the Anglican teacher and writer was not sufficiently chastised. He wrote a booklet full of the most acrimonious attacks on Newman personally and the Catholic Church generally. It was titled “What, Then, Does Dr. Newman Mean?” To this crude and virulent document, Newman’s Apologia was a fitting reply.

The Apologia would be of passing interest if it was merely a clever riposte in a nineteenth-century dispute. But it is far more than that. By enlarging the scope of the debate, by reading Kingsley’s booklet to be a call for Newman to justify his presence in the Catholic Church, Newman elevated a newspaper grudge into a monumental defense of Catholic orthodoxy over Protestant liberalism. In the process he achieved far more than the vindication of one man who had incurred the suspicion of British elites for defecting from the Anglican faith; somehow Newman spoke in one voice, for an entire generation of Catholics in England, who felt cornered and uncomfortable practicing what was derisively termed “Romanism,” who wanted to be able to worship on their own terms, who needed to communicate to their Anglican friends what it really meant to be a Catholic.

Newman was aware that he was starting out the Apologia as an underdog. After all, his main audience was the very Anglican community with which he had broken when he became a Catholic priest. “I must break through this barrier of prejudice against me if I can, and I think I shall be able to do so,” he writes. He is referring not only to a general suspicion toward him, especially intense at Newman’s alma mater, Oxford. Even while he was an Anglican, Newman had been critical of Protestantism, and his famous Tract 90 had drawn fire from a body of European bishops. To some Anglican scholars and prelates, Newman had spent years in the Anglican Church as a closet Catholic, receiving orders from Rome, and quitting Anglicanism at the strategic moment calculated to give it maximum embarrassment and bring maximum rewards to the Vatican.

It is not easy to overcome feelings like this against you; thus Newman starts his Apologia with an account of the beginning of his life. He was born John Henry Newman to middle-class parents on February 21, 1801 in London. He attended a private school at Ealing where, he reports, “by the time I was fifteen my masters had nothing to teach me.” At age fifteen he came to Trinity College, Oxford, where he would spend the next twenty-nine years, studying and teaching.

At first Trinity made a terrible impression. “I really think,” Newman wrote elsewhere, “if anyone should ask me what qualifications were necessary to Trinity, I would say there was only one: drink, drink, drink.” But his revulsion for this turned him toward his books, and he spent, on average, six hours a day reading. In 1818 Newman was elected Scholar of Trinity.

Newman soon came under the influence of some brilliant and distinguished writers and teachers who were to have a profound influence on him, and later he on them. From William Hawkins, provost at Oriel College at Oxford, Newman learned about the value of religious tradition. Hawkins was an orthodox Anglican, yet he understood that contrary to what a lot of Protestants said, not all religious truths are contained in Scripture. “The sacred text was never intended to teach doctrine,” Newman writes, “but only to prove it, and if we would learn doctrine, we must have recourse to the formularies of the church, for instance the cathechism…. After learning from them the doctrines, the inquirer must verify them by Scripture.”

Another colleague of Newman’s was the erratic iconoclast Hurrell Froude, a fellow at Oriel. “He professed openly his admiration of the Church of Rome, and his hatred of the Reformers. He delighted in the notion of a hierarchical system, of sacerdotal power, and of full ecclesiastical liberty …. He had a high severe idea of the intrinsic excellence of virginity, and he considered the Blessed Virgin its great pattern. He delighted in thinking of the saints; he had a vivid appreciation of the idea of sanctity …. He had a deep devotion to the Real Presence [in the sacrament]. He was powerfully drawn to the medieval church.” Newman comments that Froude’s opinions “arrested and influenced me, even when they did not gain my assent.” What Froude did teach Newman was “to look with admiration toward the Church of Rome, and in the same degree to dislike the Reformation,” also to develop “an idea of devotion to the Blessed Virgin.”

For all this, Newman was a firm Anglican. Although Anglicans are Protestants it must be remembered that they became so because of a quirk of history — the event centering on King Henry VIII and his passion for a second wife that the pope would not approve. It was lust, and not doctrinal difference, which brought about the Anglican separation from Rome. Later the Anglican Church took on some of the slogans of Protestantism, but in many respects it remained theologically and ritually close to the Catholic Church. Newman could believe in the Real Presence of God in the Eucharist and in reverence for the Virgin Mary without violating the canons of Anglicanism.

What sharply separated Newman from the Catholic Church — and this should come as no surprise — is that Newman believed from his youth that “the pope is the Antichrist.” In fact, at Christmas in 1824 he preached a sermon to that effect. Newman says he followed distinguished Protestant authorities in believing that Gregory I, around the year 600, was the first pope who sold out to the devil, and that the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century cemented the Catholic alliance with Mephistopheles. Further, Newman felt Catholics practiced idolatry in their worship of the Virgin Mary and the saints; oddly, his increasing admiration for the Mother of God and the martyrs did nothing to dilute Newman’s objections on this point, because, he writes, he felt “these glorified creations of God would be gravely shocked, if pain could be theirs, at the undue veneration of which they were the objects.”

In 1824 Newman took holy orders and was appointed curate of St. Clement’s Church at Oxford. There he argued with the gloomy predestinarians, who said that man is totally corrupt; Newman’s view was that men are not so good as they should be, and better than they might be. He rejected the Calvinist tradition in Protestantism which denies free will and makes a chasm not only between good and evil but also between the chosen few and the damned — even in this life. Newman preferred the Catholic view that “shades and softens the awful antagonism between good and evil, by holding that there are different degrees of justification, and that there is a great difference in point of gravity between sin and sin, that there is no certain knowledge given to any one that he is simply in a state of grace.” Distinctions between sins and the perennial opportunity for repentance — these were what characterized Catholicism, and to these Newman was quite sympathetic.

During much of his Anglican years Newman devoted his energies to opposing theological liberalism, which was becoming very fashionable in his time, and which he felt was making a “shipwreck of the faith.” Why? Because Newman considered religious liberalism to be a policy of appeasement. Whenever it came into conflict with modernism — modern thought as represented by astronomy, Darwin, German transcendentalism — it yielded on all essential points. Liberals considered this the best way to preserve Christianity in a changing world, but to Newman it was a formula for surrender, an acknowledgment that the Christians were wrong and the secularists were right. Newman saw, moreover, that religious liberals were finding their own beliefs gradually eroded, until many of them were reduced to a religion of sentiment — they believed that most of the Bible was metaphor, that God was merely an extension of the laws of nature, and that as long as we are nice to our neighbors we are fulfilling God’s plan for us.

Newman in the Apologia describes theological liberalism as “of a dry and repulsive character, not very dangerous in itself, though dangerous as opening the door to evils which it did not itself anticipate or comprehend.” By admitting that Scripture was not inerrant, for example, liberalism left all the miracles and miraculous doctrines, including those central to Christianity such as the Resurrection, open to doubt. Newman proved prophetic in this concern; in our own day liberal clergy often deny such fundamental tenets of Christianity as Christ’s bodily death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven.

The reason for liberalism’s failure, Newman believed, was that it constituted “false liberty of thought, or the exercise of thought upon matters in which, from the constitution of the human mind, thought cannot be brought to any successful issue, and therefore is out of place. Among such matters are first principles of any kind; of these the most sacred and momentous are especially to be reckoned the truths of Revelation. Liberalism then is the mistake of subjecting to human judgment those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it.” Essentially, then, liberalism stemmed from pride. It was a case of the human mind trying to apprehend truths that were outside the orbit of reason, truths that could only be taken on faith.

From the speed with which liberalism was gaining favor among the clergy and intellectuals in England, Newman saw that it would need robust forces allied against it in order to cripple its proselytizing power. The problem for Newman was: How to resist this program to modify and erode the “great dogmas of the faith” that went by the name of liberalism? Would an orthodox Anglicanism and Protestantism be sufficient to oust so formidable an adversary? Ultimately Newman concluded that Catholicism was all that stood between liberalism and total victory; that, more than any other single factor, explains his astonishing decision to break with his church, and join the Roman one.

But throughout the 1830s Newman resisted this solution, and developed instead his well-known Via Media (“middle course”), a sort of interregnum between Catholicism and Anglicanism, which he regarded as the strongest theological armor to withstand the liberal threat. Along with John Keble and Hurrell Froude, Newman founded the enormously influential Tractarian movement, which published regular tracts essentially affirming this centrist theological course which embraced Anglicanism but was, more precisely, equidistant from both the Church of England and the Church of Rome.

Newman’s basic argument during this point in his life was that both Catholics and Anglicans descended from the same authentic religious roots — the “primitive” Church of Saint Augustine and Saint Athanasius. But both had departed from the original wisdom, Newman felt: the Catholic Church by “adding on” doctrines such as the Assumption of Mary into heaven; the Anglican Church for having cut itself off from the true Church through schism. “Each disputant has a strong point,” Newman writes in the Apologia. “Our strong point is the argument from primitiveness, that of Romanists from universality.” It is fact, Newman noted to the discomfort of many Anglican friends, “that we are estranged from the great body of Christians over the world.”

The issue for Newman, then, was Catholicity versus Apostolicity. The ideal religion would embody both, would be universal and yet legitimately descended. Unfortunately Newman found himself in a world where one religion, the Catholic, had a claim to universality, and another, the Anglican, claimed it was truer to the teaching of the early Church. Newman’s Via Media, then, was to nudge both “errant” theologies in the direction of what he considered the true Church, one which abjured the “errors” of both Catholicism and Anglicanism while retaining their good points.

Newman cites the three fundamental defining points of the Via Media: dogma, the sacramental system, and anti-Romanism. Unfortunately for him, many Anglicans found the third plank to be a bit of a sham. They did not think Newman’s criticism of Rome was firm or strident enough. They saw him in the company of others like Froude who were openly affectionate toward the pope. They read Newman’s students who went further than he did in vaunting Roman teaching. The renowned Edward Pusey and others at Oxford scolded Newman for being too “high church,” but as the years went on, Newman was to ascend higher and higher until, in 1845, he would take Communion in his house at Littlemore and become a Catholic.

What caused Newman to bear out the dire predictions of his critics and move headlong toward Catholicism? Why did Newman leave what he himself termed “the happiest time of my life” in order to join a controversial group of papists? The first reason was a realization of a fundamental problem at the core of Protestantism. Protestants say they trust only in the word of the Bible, but nowhere does the Bible ask them to do this. It is Church tradition that has from the outset directed believers to Scripture as the inerrant word of God. Further, Newman saw that “every theology has its difficulties: Protestants hold justification by faith only, although there is no text in Saint Paul which enunciates it, and although Saint James explicitly denies it.” He gives other examples.

Newman’s study of two ancient Church controversies, the heresies of the Monophysites and the Arians, brought him something of an epiphany about Anglicanism. “It was difficult to make out how the Eutychians or Monophysites were heretics, unless Protestants and Anglicans were heretics also,” Newman found. “It was difficult to [find arguments to] condemn the popes of the sixteenth century, without condemning the popes of the fifth.” This was because “the principles and proceedings of the Church now, were those of the Church then; the principles and proceedings of heretics then, were those of Protestants now.”

This was confirmed Newman’s Arian study. He saw that the arguments of the reviled heretics were identical in substance, and very nearly in form, to those of his current-day Protestant friends, except that they tried to distinguish themselves from the early-Church heresies and claim a legitimate lineage back to Christ and the apostles. Newman discovered that this Protestant family tree had been faked; the Catholic Church, for all its institutional failings, had maintained spiritual continuity with its origins. “I found it so,” Newman writes, “almost fearfully.” As a result, his doctrine of the Via Media was, he admits, “in ruins.”

Previously Newman had regarded the choice between the Catholic and Anglican churches as one between universality and antiquity. But his study of Saint Augustine, then as now a beacon that all Protestants cherish because of his emphasis on justification by faith, convinced Newman how wrong he had been. Saint Augustine was one of the prime oracles of antiquity, and yet Newman read of his reverence for the popes, his apparent conviction that one could not be saved outside the Roman Catholic Church, and the passion with which he fought those who tried to revise the teachings of the Church and polarize it. Newman wrote to a friend that this discovery was “the first real hit from Romanism” which he had felt, and that it gave him “a stomach ache.”

From the end of 1841, Newman’s Apologia tells us, “I was on my deathbed as regards my membership with the Anglican Church.” He did not leave for four more years. But in 1842 Newman resigned his tutorship and chaplaincy at St. Mary’s and moved to a retirement center at Littlemore. The reason was plain. Newman was not ready to become a Catholic yet, but he did not feel comfortable preaching in an Anglican church.

Shortly after his Tract 90, which defended certain Roman doctrines, Newman got a letter from a stranger who complained that Newman was converting his friends to Catholicism and would he be “good enough” to convert them back to Anglicanism? Newman, pained, replied, “Whatever be the influence of the Tracts, great or small, they may become just as powerful for Rome, if our Church refuses them, as they would be for our Church if she accepted them.” But ultimately this answer proved unsatisfactory. As Newman confessed in a letter to John Keble, “I fear I must allow that, whether I will or no, I am disposing [my pupils] to Rome.” This disturbed Newman because he himself had not taken the step of converting, so he didn’t feel right in urging others upon a path that he himself was holding back from.

Controversy pursued Newman even to Littlemore. It bothered him, he acknowledges in the Apologia. “They persisted, what was I doing at Littlemore? Doing there! Have I not retreated from you? Have I not given up my position and my place? Am I alone, of Englishmen, not to have the privilege to go where I will, no questions asked?” Newman spent three years at Littlemore, shying away from seeing people, living a monastic and contemplative life in the company of a few of his most devoted pupils.

Gradually, Newman writes. “I came to see that the Anglican Church was formally in the wrong, and that the Church of Rome was formally in the right; so no valid reason could be assigned for continuing in the Anglican, and no valid objections could be taken to joining the Roman.” In 1843 Newman published a retraction of his previous anti- Catholic statements. He says in the Apologia that “these words have been and are again and again cited against me, as if a confession that, when in the Anglican Church, I said things against Rome which I did not really believe.” But Newman believed them at the time, he says, and the only reason his retraction was so strongly worded was because his original prejudices were stridently articulated, and Newman felt angry at the Anglican divines from whom he had absorbed this anti-Catholic bigotry.

Still, one doubt persisted in Newman’s mind. For years he had defended what he calls “the dogmatic principle,” or the principle of absolute truth, through the Via Media, and many had listened. “It is not easy, humanly speaking, to wind up an Englishman to a dogmatic level,” Newman admits, and thus to persuade so many that the Via Media was preferable to theological liberalism was quite an accomplishment. But “in breaking the Via Media to pieces,” Newman wondered, “would not dogmatic faith altogether be broken up?” In other words, was Newman striking an accidental blow for liberalism? “Oh, how unhappy this made me,” Newman confesses.

It was only in 1845 that Newman realized that “either the Catholic religion is verily and indeed the coming of the unseen world into this, or there is nothing positive, nothing dogmatic, nothing real in any of our notions as to where we come or whither we go. There is no help for us: we must either give up the belief in the Church as a divine institution altogether, or we must recognize it in that communion of which the pope is the head. We must take things as they are: to believe in a church is to believe in the pope.” Only Catholicism and not the “half-way house” of Anglicanism could defend against the rising tide of liberalism and secularism, Newman concluded.

On October 9, 1845 Newman was received into the Catholic Church by Father Dominic Barberi, a missionary priest from Italy. Newman felt relief for his soul, and yet there was a sadness. “How much I am giving up in so many ways. To me these are sacrifices irreparable, not only from my age, when people hate changing, but from my especial love of old associations and the pleasures of memory.” Newman left Oxford in 1846, and was not to revisit it for at least thirty years. He paid one of the highest prices a man can pay for his convictions — the loss of a lifelong sense of place in life, estrangement from personal and intellectual companions who meant so much to him.

The next year Newman went to Rome and was ordained a Catholic priest. He was to rise rapidly through the ranks of the Catholic Church, despite opposition from some medieval-minded clergy such as Henry Manning, Archbishop of Westminster, who still doubted Newman’s orthodoxy. When Newman was made a cardinal he felt a final sense of vindication. “A cloud has been lifted from me forever,” he exulted. He had justified himself, at last, to both Protestants and Catholics, and his integrity was intact.

The last part of the Apologia is a series of reflections on various aspects of Catholic orthodoxy. It also returns to several of Charles Kingsley’s specific accusations against Newman, which are ably rebutted.

Newman starts out by telling his English readers, “I have changed in many things: in this I have not. From the age of fifteen, dogma has been the fundamental principle of my religion. I know no other religion. I cannot enter into the idea of any other sort of religion. Religion, as mere sentiment, is to me a dream and a mockery. As well can there be filial love without a father, as devotion without the fact of a Supreme Being.”

After he became a Catholic Newman saw that his earlier concerns about “added on” Catholic doctrines were mistaken. Newman saw that there was a “principle of development” within the Church which “not only accounted for certain facts, but was in itself a remarkable philosophical phenomenon, giving a character to the whole course of Christian thought.” In Catholicism there was a harmony, a continuity, and an individuality that no other religion had.

When Newman got to reading such Catholic saints as Alfonso Liguori, whom Kingsley had traduced, he found that there was none of the “Mariolatry” and contempt for Scripture that he had been told was contained in such books. Similarly in the Exercises of Saint Ignatius, Newman found “no cloud interposed between the creature and the object of his faith and love,” that is, God. Protestants often complain that prayers to Mary and the saints interrupt the communication between man and God.

Newman says that upon becoming a Catholic, he had no difficulty accepting additional articles of faith that Catholics hold but Anglicans don’t. Of course there were doubts and difficulties along the way, Newman writes, but “I have never been able to see a connection between apprehending those difficulties, and on the other hand doubting the doctrines to which they are attached…. A man may be annoyed that he cannot work out a mathematical problem, of which the answer is not given to him, without doubting that it admits of an answer, or that a certain particular answer is the true one.”

Newman acknowledges that his original belief in God is a gift not of intellectual apprehension but of faith. “If I looked into a mirror and did not see my face, I should have the sort of feeling which actually comes upon me, when I look into this living busy world, and see no reflection of its Creator. Were it not for this voice, speaking so clearly in my conscience and my heart, I should be an atheist.”

Listing a catalog of the evils of the world, “the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, and corruptions, the condition of the whole race,” Newman speculates, “since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, as true as the fact of existence. Thus the doctrine of what is theologically called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists.”

What about such a Catholic doctrine as the infallibility of the pope, which causes Protestants so much discomfort? “Supposing,” writes Newman, “it is the will of the Creator to interfere in human affairs, and to make provisions for retaining in the world a knowledge of himself, so definite and distinct as to be proof against the energy of human skepticism; in such a case, there is nothing to surprise my mind, if he should think fit to introduce a power into the world, invested with the prerogative of infallibility in religious matters. Such a provision would be a direct, immediate, active, and prompt means of withstanding the difficulty; it would be an instrument suited to the need; and when I find that this is the very claim of the Catholic Church, not only do I feel no difficulty in admitting the idea, but there is a fitness in it, which recommends it to my mind.” After all, says Newman, “experience proves that the Bible does not answer a purpose for which it was never intended.” It may help with conversion, but a book “cannot make a stand against the wild living intellect of man” who wants to deviate from the truth.

Newman is, of course, not sympathetic to attacks on the Bible which seek to discredit it as the word of God. He detects “in many men of science or literature an animosity arising from almost a personal feeling: it being a matter of party, a point of honor, the excitement of a game, or a satisfaction to the soreness or annoyance occasioned by the acrimony or narrowness of apologists for religion, to prove that Christianity or that Scripture is untrustworthy.” Writing at a time of burgeoning scientific developments threatening certain aspects of the faith, Newman is confident that there is no contradiction; but if there seems to be, he contends, the error is more likely with science. Scientific knowledge is always changing, Newman observes, so it is silly to follow the examples of religious liberals and modify eternal doctrines to suit the prevailing hypotheses in physics, chemistry, or astronomy.

Finally Newman settles on Kingsley’s accusation of lying. This charge has long been defeated by the credibility with which Newman narrates the history of his religious views in the Apologia. Still, Newman faces the slander in all its specificity. He acknowledges that certain Catholic teachers have written that it can be moral to tell untruths under certain exceptional circumstances — say when telling an untruth will prevent the death of an innocent person — but so, Newman shows, did great Anglican divines, not to mention Milton, Paley, and Samuel Johnson. To permit equivocation in special or extreme cases is not to sanction routine falsehoods, Newman says to his English audience. “You would have no fear of a man who you knew had shot a burglar dead in his own house, because you know you are not a burglar; so you would not think that Paley had a habit of telling lies in society, because in the case of a cruel alternative he thought it the lesser evil to tell a lie.”

Newman closed his Apologia on this note. The reader, on shutting the book, feels a profound sense of admiration for this man’s spiritual power, for his inspired intellect, for his courage and candor. Here is a book intensely personal in tone, dramatic despite its subject matter, vivid in its images, rising and falling in its modulations like the tides, held together with firm logical scaffolding.

Even though Newman’s book greatly damaged Kingsley’s reputation, Newman bore him no personal animosity. In the first pages of the Apologia he had said that this was no personal quarrel with Kingsley. “I am in warfare with him, but I wish him no ill. It is very difficult to get up resentment toward persons whom one has never seen.” Rather, Newman was writing on behalf of the faith. And even though Kingsley never forgave Newman nor admitted his errors, when news of Kingsley’s death reached Newman he grieved, and offered Mass for his soul.

Newman himself breathed his last on August 11, 1890, at the age of eighty-nine. Archbishop Manning, in a revised opinion, said of Newman’s death, “We have lost our greatest witness for the faith.” But in the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, perhaps the greatest “confession” since that of Saint Augustine, Cardinal Newman lives on, and Catholicism is stronger for that fact.

  • Dinesh D'Souza

    Dinesh D'Souza is an American conservative political commentator, author, and former college president.

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