In 1845 a middle-aged Oxford vicar, after a long period of agonising, decided to become a Roman Catholic. From the perspective of 2019, it is hard to see why this should have been – as it was – a matter of widespread shock and scandal. A modern secularist will wonder why moving from one benighted institution to another seemed important to anyone; a modern, ecumenically minded Christian would be baffled by the vitriolic reaction from many in the Church of England.
On 13 October, John Henry Newman was declared a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. His move away from the Church of England was not the end of the story but the beginning of an unusual and eventful journey. When he died in 1890, he had not only been appointed a cardinal but had won an extraordinary degree of admiration and respect from the educated British public – and, more importantly, from the impoverished Irish migrants to whom he had ministered faithfully for decades in inner-city Birmingham. He had become both a popular pastor and a public intellectual, despite belonging to a minority religious group widely regarded with intense suspicion.
This last point helps us grasp why his turn to the Catholic Church was such a shock. Catholicism remained associated in the popular English mind with foreignness at best, and at worst with sedition and terrorism (the Gunpowder Plot lived on in folk-memory). Socially it was the religion of a small group of rather inward-looking English families and a growing number of despised migrant workers. On top of all this, it was often presented in popular literature as corrupt and sexually deviant. Becoming a Catholic in 1845 was rather like becoming a Muslim in 2019. It was to take on a burden of almost universal opprobrium.
For Newman it was even worse because he had already become a respected leader in the Church of England. Born in 1801 and brought up in a large middle-class London family, he had an evangelical conversion experience as a teenager and committed himself early on to a life of austerity and devotion (which included a resolution never to marry). When financial crisis hit the family in 1819, there was talk, briefly, of the young man becoming a lawyer; but he persevered with his studies, securing a fellowship at Oriel College, Oxford. He was ordained two years later, in 1824.
During his time as a young don, his strong Protestant views shifted; like some of his close colleagues, he was increasingly anxious that the authority of the Church should not be reduced to the privilege of a governing class – as seemed to have happened in much of the Church of England. He and his friends launched a fierce campaign of sermons, books and pamphlets designed to revive the “High Church” tradition, which stressed the necessity for spiritual discipline and the maintenance of the authority of the clergy as something derived from God, not government.
Thanks largely to Newman’s charisma and skill as writer and speaker, the movement became influential enough for the Church establishment to become worried about it, for political as well as religious reasons. Newman was widely attacked, and his confidence in the Church of England eroded steadily to the point at which he concluded that the only place where spiritual authority was secure was the Church of Rome.
But his restless intellect continued to worry at the ways in which authority could be corrupted and abused. As the Catholic Church moved towards its declaration in 1870 that the Pope was infallible – incapable by a special gift from God of formally expressing any error about faith or behaviour – Newman was yet again agonisingly at odds with his co-religionists, anxious this time about the dangers of mortgaging the Church to an arbitrary form of centralised governance. He insisted that the rights of conscience could not simply be jettisoned in favour of submission to authority.
This mindset had already influenced his innovative writing about philosophy and education. Invited to take over the running of a new Catholic University in Ireland, he set out his view of higher education in a series of lectures in 1852. In The Idea of a University – still a central text for educational theorists – Newman ridiculed the idea that social improvement and moral elevation could come through a programme of utilitarian and scientific information free from religious content or context. The way Newman defined his ideal was very much what one might expect from a Victorian middle-class male – yet the fundamental questions he raises about the point of education and the folly of a “knowledge economy” still resonate uncomfortably.
More ambitiously, he published in 1870 a long and dense book, A Grammar of Assent, in which he examined how we learn to draw conclusions even when we do not have absolutely compelling evidence. He skilfully shows that the claims of religious faith are not completely unlike the way in which we ordinarily approach decisions and commitments, building up a variety of arguments and evidence, and then making a rationally defensible even if not rationally irrefutable choice. It is arguably the most important English philosophical essay of the 19th century, anticipating more recent critiques of artificial criteria for “rational certainty”.
He knew something about the pain of commitment, having made a choice that initially lost him his job, his friends and his reputation. Part of his abiding interest and greatness is that, like so many serious writers, he knew how to interpret his personal struggles in a way that could help others make sense of their experience. His contemporaries – Catholic, Protestant and non-religious alike – eventually came round to seeing him as a writer whose significance lay in his unflinching self-scrutiny and the depth of his engagement with the hall of mirrors that is human awareness. Twenty-first-century readers – even those for whom the category of saint means little or nothing – will still find his intense, self-aware intelligence both disturbing and illuminating. And if a saint is someone who shows you just why the notion of God might matter to the mind and the heart, Newman has surely earned the title.