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I first heard of John Henry Newman when I was 18. I had just been admitted to Oriel College, Oxford. (I was one of the handful of Americans who go there every year as undergraduates.) Oxford’s colleges are more than a dorm or a fraternity but less than separate schools, and Newman — along with perhaps Cecil Rhodes and Walter Raleigh — was the most famous man (so Wikipedia told me) to have been associated with Oriel. A cousin of mine, a Catholic priest, gave me his portrait as a graduation gift. Gifts were not uncommon in my family, but even so, this was unusual: Clearly it had taken some doing to track down this antique colored lithograph somewhere in Greater Philadelphia.
Even though I had had a reasonably good education in both European history and my Catholic religion, I had not learned Newman’s story growing up. I soon found I was not alone in this: The same was true of the other young people I knew, from both sides of the Atlantic, who spotted his portrait, distinctive in cardinal’s robes, in our dining hall. The stranger thing was that the smartest people I knew, especially of an older generation, were far more likely to have heard of him — and those who had heard of him tended to revere him. He seemed to be a treat and an inspiration that the intelligentsia had kept for themselves, rather than popularized for the pubic — much as everyone knows Shakespeare or Mozart, but Spenser or Mahler are held back, albeit inadvertently, for the initiated.
With any luck, after his canonization this weekend, Newman will shift into the category of the better-known. His story is extraordinary. One of the brightest professors at Oxford in the early 1820s and ’30s, he was a leading light of a party in the Church of England (known, unsurprisingly, as the Oxford Movement) that pressed for a rediscovery of that church’s catholic roots. To oversimplify: This group argued that the Anglican Church had separated from Rome not on core doctrinal but on political grounds; that it still held the apostolic succession and the core catholic beliefs (indeed, sometimes going as far as to say that these were more perfectly preserved in Britain than in Rome); and that the Anglican Church should rediscover and celebrate this identity.
It is generally understood today that the 19th century was a time when men took religion seriously. What’s less well remembered is that for much of it, the composition of Christianity in England was highly contested, far more so than the stereotype of stolid Anglican establishment would suggest. A landmark — and never repeated — religious census conducted in 1851 showed that only half the population was Anglican, of which only half again were observant, while half the total population were “dissenters” — usually evangelicals. Though these figures come from a generation after the Oxford Movement was at its peak, they illustrate well the extent to which the quality of Britain’s Christianity was up for debate. Viewed in this light, it is easier to see how the Tractarian controversy (as the Oxford Movement and its counter-reactions came to be known) became one of the most hotly debated issues in England throughout the 1830s and ’40s.
As Newman relates in his spiritual autobiography, Apologia Pro Sua Vita (A defense of one’s life), the more he pressed into the history of the early Church Fathers, the more he became disturbed by the thought that the modern Catholic, rather than Anglican, Church was the one true church, judged by the standards he had advanced. Meanwhile, through a complicated series of maneuvers, the bulk of the Anglican establishment made it clear that they were protestant, not catholic, in principle as well as in organization. If Newman were to have the courage of his convictions, the only way open — so it seemed clear to him — was to Rome.
The most moving part of the Apologia is where Newman details the anguish this double realization gave him. It is hard today to capture the taboo against Catholicism that pervaded his world. An establishment WASP in the 1950s simultaneously announcing he was gay, a Communist, and an atheist would not even come close in the pain he caused his friends and family, or felt himself. For three hundred years, “popery” had been conceived of as the primary political as well as religious opponent of the British — the foe behind every foe in war, the core ideological enemy of British liberties, the anti-Christ in religion. Newman’s conversion was explosive; his sacrifice — in the eyes of many contemporaries, very nearly a crime — was great and public. His separation from Oxford in particular, which, as he relates, he only ever saw again in the form of the spires visible from the passing railroad, was a sort of living martyrdom.
At this point, history goes in one direction; Newman, in another. The Anglican Church, Oxford, and the British nation as a whole soon rounded into the high imperial period, driven by religion of either the evangelical or middle-of-the-road variety. The Oxford Movement was shattered. Meanwhile, Newman, instead of leading a party within the English church, became: Newman. An institution in his own right, he continued to write and preach with the same amazing intellect that had marked his early years. In time, indeed, he became (generally) respected for his sincerity of conviction, and even something of a Victorian establishment. Yet he was, inevitably, a world apart from the driving forces of his country and period.
But the lives of saints are very long indeed (as Newman’s own reading of the Church Fathers shows us). His greatest impact may yet be to come.
Newman has special relevancy to us today, and not just because he is in the news this weekend. The mutual understanding of the Catholic and Anglo-American worldview, though greatly advanced since Newman’s day, is nevertheless still less than one might hope. To be sure, because the center of political power in the English-speaking world has shifted to America, that world is far more Catholic (and on both sides of the Atlantic, far more tolerant). But the fact remains that the leading Christian church and the preeminent temporal power understand each other imperfectly — a fact that can be seen in everything from Pope Francis’s offhand political remarks (not ex cathedra, but ex airplane seat), to certain recurrent political controversies, to even the Ahmari–French dispute that has recently rocked American conservatism. Newman’s struggle, personal and intellectual, was throughout his life to live in both of these worlds — English-speaking civil society and the Catholic Church — and be true to the best and most necessary parts of both.
There are reasons to be hopeful that studying this life and works of the newly canonized saint will become easier going forward. In December, Eamon Duffy, a great historian of British Christianity, is releasing a short and accessible biography of the professor-priest. More generally, one can expect that his works will receive the greater attention and popularization that attend most prominent saints. And there is good reason to pray for the same.
When I did make it up to Oxford, in time I became the college Catholic representative — a bit of student-government formality that meant, among other things, attending meetings in Newman’s old rooms and organizing a termly Mass in his former chapel. Even then, it was generally acknowledged — as this weekend it has been formally acknowledged — that one was treading in the footsteps of a saint. Saint John Henry Newman, pray for us. We need it.