Cardinal Newman's 'Kindly Light' Shines On

In his homily during the most recent consistory for the creation of new cardinals, Pope John Paul II noted that the ceremony fell on the 200th anniversary of the birth of Cardinal John Henry Newman (Feb. 21, 1801), the most important English churchman of the 19th century, and one of the Catholic Church's most celebrated converts.

“The Church has nothing more to do than to go on in her own proper duties, in confidence and peace; to stand still and see the salvation of God,” quoted John Paul from Newman's own speech upon being made a cardinal in 1879.

Newman's long life (1801-1890) was not marked by great peace, as he found himself at the heart of almost every major religious controversy to rattle Victorian England. In retrospect, Newman was controversial in his day because he was ahead of his time. Within a century of his death, he came to be almost universally acclaimed in every part of the Church. So influential was his thought in the 20th century that the 19th century's greatest theologian has been called the guiding spirit of the Second Vatican Council.

The festivities for the bicentenary of Cardinal Newman's birth testify to that acclaim. From his home at the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Birmingham, England, to other oratories around the world, special events have been held. St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, for example, held a five-part lecture series on different aspects of his work. For the anniversary itself, a special international gathering of Newman scholars met at the Pontifical Urban University in Rome, where in 1846-47 Newman studied for the priest-hood following his conversion from Anglicanism. The Holy Father penned a special letter to the Archbishop of Birmingham for the occasion, indicating his own hope that Newman's canonization will not be long delayed. And, to further mark the occasion, John Paul selected texts from Cardinal Newman for this year's Good Friday Via Crucis at the Colosseum. (St. Philip Neri's feast day, by the way, is May 26.)

Cardinal Newman's influence is such that entire centers of scholarship are dedicated to research on his life and works. Nevertheless, three characteristics stand out that marked Newman as a man apart from others. Here was a man wholly dedicated to the truth, to God and to the Church.

To Know the Truth

Cardinal Newman was a man committed above all to the truth — to the conviction that it existed and that it could be known with certainty, both by the light of natural reason and by the light of revelation. For his tombstone he composed the epitaph ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem (out of the shadows and imaginings into the truth).

His commitment to discover the truth and to live in accord with its demands led him to the most difficult decision of his life, that of leaving the Anglican Church to become a Catholic in 1845. At that time in England, becoming Catholic meant surrendering his esteemed position at Oxford for a life of material uncertainty and cultural impoverishment. After his conversion, in a Catholic environment marked by a noticeable lack of intellectual adventurousness, he was severely criticized by those who thought his creative theology to be dangerous. When he was entrusted with the (ultimately failed) project of creating a Catholic university in Dublin, he wrote a vision of the intellectual life, The Idea of a University, which expounded his view that the Church has nothing to fear from honest intellectual inquiry.

Though a first-rate philosopher, Cardinal Newman did not seek an impersonal wisdom that spoke only to the nature of things. Rather, he was a passionate believer in a wisdom that became flesh and blood, a wisdom that was also love. By the age of 15, the young John Newman was already something of an intellectual prodigy and, given the philosophical winds blowing in the 19th century, may well have been tempted to follow the path of purely secular reason. Yet in August of 1916, Newman had his “first conversion,” in which he accepted with his whole person the need for divine revelation to know the truth about himself and the world. Toward the end of his life, Newman still spoke of that conversion to God — which he never fully explained — as if he became a new person: “I should say that it is difficult to realize or imagine the identity of the boy before and after August 1816.…I can look back at the end of 70 years as if on another person.”

Though a first-rate philosopher, Cardinal Newman was a passionate believer in a wisdom that became flesh and blood — a wisdom that was also love.

“The young man, in the fullness of his intellectual pride and self-sufficiency, now becomes aware of something, of some power, which he had dimly guessed at, even when he turned away from it,” wrote Father Louis Bouyer of that conversion. “Something, Someone, stronger and more wise than he, Someone who subdued him to His will, even in the proudest hour of his intellectual self-reliance. To that other Power, the mind, be it never so proudly confident, must needs defer. The very clearness with which he recognizes this is a token that he has already surrendered.”

Newman's passion for truth was a Christian passion from that day forth, namely, that without the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, the deepest of truth of things could not be known.

Seeing Christ in the Church

From his earliest days, Newman was a man of the Church. Indeed, his devotion to the Church was the cause of his becoming Catholic; he could not do otherwise when he concluded that Anglicanism had cut itself off from the Church established by Christ on the foundation of the Apostles. To the end, Newman viewed himself as a humble servant of the Church and when, in the winter of his life, he was made a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII, he counted it as a singular grace to be honored by the Church to which he had given his life.

“I have nothing of that high perfection, which belongs to the writings of the Saints, [namely] that error cannot be found in them,” he said in his speech upon being made a cardinal. “But what I trust that I may claim all through what I have written, is this — an honest intention, an absence of private ends, a temper of obedience, a willingness to be corrected, a dread of error, a desire to serve Holy Church, and, through Divine Mercy, a fair measure of success.”

Cardinal Newman believed that revelation made demands upon the believer, and foremost among them was the obligation to belong to the Church that God had chosen to safeguard the deposit of that revelation. And he defended that cause against what he saw as the great danger of his day — a danger that sounds all too familiar to contemporary ears.

“And I rejoice to say, to one great mischief I have from the first opposed myself. For 30, 40, 50 years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion,” Newman said in summarizing his career.

“Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily,” explained Newman.

“It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, but all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and taste; not an objective fact; not miraculous: and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy. Devotion is not necessarily founded on faith. Men may go to Protestant Churches and to Catholic, may get good from both and belong to neither.”

To fighting that error Newman devoted his considerable talent and, if the error is abroad today more than in his own time, so too is the need for his work to be more widely diffused. From the reality of truth, to the revealer of truth, to the necessity of adhering to revealed religion in the Church — such was the path that Newman walked in his long 19th-century life. And at the beginning of the 21st century, he himself has become a “kindly light” for those who seek after the wisdom that is also love.

Raymond J. de Souza is the Register's chief Rome correspondent.