Father John Saward, a scholar and author who converted from the Anglican clergy to the Catholic priesthood, has called Venerable John Henry Newman “the supreme writer of English in the Victorian age.”
Father Saward is not the only one with a lofty opinion of the great man of letters. Pope Benedict plans to beatify Newman — the erstwhile Anglican intellectual and clergyman who became one of the most influential Catholic bishops in history — when he visits England in September.
On the anniversary of Newman’s ordination to the Catholic priesthood (on May 30, 1847), and with the Holy Father’s upcoming U.K. trip already making headlines, it’s worth pausing to remember the irony and drama of Newman’s conversion.
Case in point: One of the first things he wrote for publication was a passionately anti-Catholic poem. “Mistaken worship! Where the priestly plan/In servile bondage rules degraded man!”
Illustrative of the era’s Gothic fiction, “St. Bartholomew’s Eve” depicts a priest leading assassins in search of Protestants by night. The poem was popular with John Henry’s family. Small wonder: His mother’s ancestors were descended from Protestants targeted by French Catholics in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, which claimed somewhere between 5,000 and 30,000 lives. (Pope John Paul II mournfully referenced this horrifying episode at the 12th World Youth Day in Paris in 1997.)
Young John Henry also read Sir Isaac Newton’s Bible commentaries on the Book of Daniel, Revelation and the letters of Sts. Paul and John. These studies convinced him the papacy was the Antichrist. Newman apparently preached this doctrine from the Anglican pulpit as late as 1835. After visiting Rome, Newman called the Catholic faith “polytheistic, degrading and idolatrous.”
It was only reluctantly that Newman abandoned the idea of Rome’s total apostasy. He was, after all, a man of his times. And this was a time when all organized Christian communions came under scrutiny in religious and intellectual circles. For example, the Socinians, a Trinity-denying society that formed in 17th-century Switzerland, laid the soil out of which not only Unitarians but also Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) later flourished.
Skepticism toward the Catholic faith was in the air Newman breathed — but, unlike many of his contemporaries, he had a genuinely open mind. “We are much disposed to question whether any tests can … prove that the Roman communion is the Synagogue of Satan,” he wrote.
While he granted his earlier position was extreme, “it will not be from any special leaning towards Romanism” that he now argued the opposite.
“It is very well for Sandemanian, Ranter, or Quaker to call Rome the seat of Antichrist. We cannot afford to do so; nostra res agitur: We come next,” he warned in an 1840 essay titled “The Protestant Idea of Antichrist.” “Members of our Church are entreated to consider this carefully. In thus assaulting Rome, [Protestants] are using an argument which is … available against their own religious position; an argument which, if they use it consistently, must drive them forward into some still more simple system of religion … on and on they know not whither.”
Newman then cites a Latin ditty which, fully translated into English reads: “Babylon is fallen./Luther pulled off the roof./Calvin pulled down the walls./Socinus tore up the foundation.”
Luther had denied charity’s role in preserving justification. Calvin denied the Real Presence, private confession and a hierarchy. Socinus, finally, denied the Incarnation itself. Christianity thus became progressively “disincarnated” in the West.
Newman saw this unraveling clearly, yet retained a measure of hostility toward the Catholic Church. Of the passage regarding Peter receiving the keys of the Kingdom in Matthew 16:18-19, Newman preached: “This passage … is made much of by the Papists … who assert ... the Pope is the successor of St. Peter (though this of course is not proved by the text). ... I do not suppose that many of us are likely to fall away to Popery. It is not in the way of Churchmen to depart from their excellent forms and worship to the corruptions of the Romish Church.”
Thus, the Rev. Newman sniffed, “sober Churchmen are in no danger from the Pope.”
In Via Media (“Middle Way”), Newman proposed a middle ground between a nonhistorical version of Protestantism — which downplayed the Church Fathers, Church authority and the sacraments — on the one hand and Catholic Christianity on the other. He scoffed at Catholics, writing, “They profess to appeal to primitive Christianity; we honestly take their ground, as holding it ourselves. ... The Fathers are only so far of use in the eyes of Romanists as they prove the Roman doctrines … How hopeless then is it to contend with Romanists.”
For Newman, Catholicism was “a perversion or distortion of the truth … a disproportionate or monstrous development of a theory in itself extravagant.” He warned that, “dismissing the dreams which the romance of early Church history … raise in the inexperienced mind, let us be sure that she is our enemy, and will do us a mischief when she can.” Though one should deal charitably with Catholics, Newman advised this must be done “with a steady eye and a firm hand,” since “in Romanism there are some things absolutely good, some things … tainted and sullied, some things corrupted, and some things in themselves sinful.”
But the more he read and reflected on history, the less Newman could sustain this position. The church he himself confessed to believe in might have existed “on paper.” But it hadn’t been incarnate in history over any appreciable length of time. By contrast, Newman found the Catholic Church, in her structure, central teachings and stance toward heresies both ancient and modern, to be what she’d always professed to be.
For Newman, this horrifying thought led to what he called “an ‘encircling gloom’ deepening into mental agony.” Even after he abandoned the idea of the pope as the Antichrist, Newman confessed his mind was “stained” by the effects of this doctrine until 1843 (two years prior to his entry into the Church).
In the end, Newman asserted the role not only of Peter’s successors, but exhorted Catholics: “Trust the Church of God implicitly, even when your natural judgment would take a different course from hers. … Recollect what a hard task she has; how she is sure to be criticized and spoken against, whatever she does. … Thank her that she has kept the faith safe for so many generations, and do your part in helping her to transmit it to generations after you.”
How exciting (and ironic) it is to consider that, within this year, we will be praying without hesitation or reservation: “Blessed John Henry Newman, pray for us!”
Peter J. Mango is assistant professor of philosophy at the Legion of Christ’s Center for Higher Studies in Thornwood, N.Y.
He also teaches for the St. John Neumann pre-theology program of the Archdiocese of New York.