Cardinal Newman: Father of the Catholic Revival

The debt that American Catholics owe to the soon-to-be-canonized Cardinal Newman is considerable.

John Everett Millai (1829-1896), “John Henry Newman”
John Everett Millai (1829-1896), “John Henry Newman” (photo: Public Domain)

The forthcoming canonization of Cardinal Newman serves as a timely reminder of Newman’s monumental importance to the revival of Catholicism, not only in his native England but also in the United States. Put simply, the reception of John Henry Newman into the Catholic Church in 1845 heralded a new dawn for Catholicism in the English speaking world. It would, in fact, be no exaggeration to say that Newman’s conversion was the very birth of the Catholic Revival. Before Newman, the Catholic presence in England had withered to such a degree that only the remnant of the old recusant families still carried the faith from one beleaguered and persecuted generation to the next. These adherents to the “Old Faith” bore the Catholicism in their hearts and in their homes, but they were effectively excluded from bringing it into public life. After Newman’s conversion, however, Catholicism became a major intellectual presence in English cultural life, and, in Newman’s wake, thousands of Englishmen followed his example, converting to Catholicism in droves. This phenomenon crossed the Atlantic, heralding a similar revival in the United States.

If Newman’s historical importance is beyond question so is the great legacy he has bequeathed to posterity. In theology, philosophy, education, and literature his influence on both sides of the Atlantic has been remarkable.

Newman’s famous sermon on “Development in Christian Doctrine,” which he preached in February 1843, has become the benchmark for the study of doctrinal development, elucidating the teaching authority of the Catholic Church in the light of the Church’s claim to be the Mystical Body of Christ. His discourses on liberal education, delivered to Catholic audiences in Dublin in 1852, as he prepared to become rector of the new Irish Catholic University, would be published two years later as The Idea of a University, a book that remains one of the finest and most eloquent works advocating the efficacy of an integrated liberal arts education. To this day, Newman’s influence can be seen in the founding of new Catholic centers of higher education.

His greatest contribution to philosophy is his seminal work, The Grammar of Assent (1870), the product of twenty years’ labor, which highlighted the rational foundations for religious belief and the inadequacy of empiricism. His Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864) is arguably the greatest autobiographical spiritual aeneid ever written, with the obvious exception of St. Augustine’s incomparable Confessions.  

Years earlier, in 1848, only three years after his reception into the Church, Newman had foreshadowed his Apologia with his first novel, Loss and Gain, a fictionalised quasi-autobiographical account of a young man’s quest for faith amid the scepticism and uncertainties of early-Victorian Oxford. He also addressed the issue of conversion in his historical novel, Callista: A Sketch of the Third Century, published in 1855.

As a prose stylist, the critic George Levine judged Newman as “perhaps the most artful and brilliant prose writer of the nineteenth century,” a judgement seemingly echoed by James Joyce, via Stephen Dedalus, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Newman was also one of the finest poets of the Victorian age, writing poems, such as “The Sign of the Cross,” “The Golden Prison” and “The Pilgrim Queen,” which rank alongside the best verse of his illustrious contemporaries. His most ambitious poem is The Dream of Gerontius, later the inspiration for an oratorio by Sir Edward Elgar, which presents the vision of a soul at the moment of death, and its conveyance by its guardian angel to the cleansing grace of purgatory. “It reminds us at times of Milton,” suggested the critic A. S. P. Woodhouse, “and it strikingly anticipates T. S. Eliot in its presentation of Christ as the surgeon who probes the wound in order to heal.”       

Newman's impending canonization signifies the belief of the Catholic Church that he has attained his heavenly reward. There is, in any event, no denying the magnitude of Newman’s influence on both the Church and the wider secular culture, especially in the English-speaking world. Indeed, it might be said that Newman is not only the father of the Catholic Revival but that its subsequent development stands on his sturdy and studious shoulders. Remembering the famous words of Sir Isaac Newton that he had “seen further … by standing on the shoulders of giants,” Catholics in the United States can be said to see their faith and the world from the perspective of a revival that is standing on the shoulders of John Henry Newman. As such, the debt that American Catholics owe to the soon-to-be-canonized Cardinal is considerable.