I write these words in the Rome airport, on my way to England, where I will deliver a paper on St. John Henry Newman and evangelization. I’m still basking in the glow of the splendid Mass of canonization yesterday, presided over by Pope Francis and attended by tens of thousands of bishops, priests, and faithful from all over the world.
Hanging from the central loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica during the liturgy was a marvelous tapestry featuring a portrait of Newman, and I found myself gazing at it frequently as the Mass progressed. I couldn’t help but wonder what Newman himself would have thought if someone had told him when he arrived in Rome in 1846 to commence studies for the Catholic priesthood that one day in the distant future his Mass of canonization would be celebrated at St. Peter’s. He would have been, I’m quite sure, utterly flummoxed. Newly converted to the faith, seen by many of his former co-religionists as a traitor, distinctly uneasy in the Catholic intellectual environment, the Newman of 1846 felt more than a little at sea. When he paid a courtesy visit on Pope Pius IX, Newman bent down to kiss the Pope’s foot, which was the custom of the time, and in the process managed to bang his forehead against the papal knee. This, he said later, rather summed up his relationship with Pius IX, and it also serves as a fitting symbol of his initial awkwardness and feeling of discomfort in the Catholic world.
Things didn’t get particularly better when Newman returned to England. Anglicans, who made up the overwhelming majority of the population, were still, of course, suspicious of him, and Catholics were not quite ready to accept him fully. Upon becoming rector of the newly established Catholic University of Dublin, Newman composed the magnificent lectures later gathered as his book The Idea of a University, but he was also met with considerable opposition from the bishops of Ireland, who wondered why they should entrust their students to a former Protestant minister. Upon becoming in 1858 the editor of the Rambler, a left-leaning Catholic journal, Newman published an article under the title “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine.” It was met with a firestorm of criticism from conservative Catholics convinced that he was democratizing the articulation of the formal teachings of the faith. And those same critics were hardly mollified when they studied Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, which struck them as relativizing dogma, or his later Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, which clearly departed from the standard scholastic manner of approaching theological questions.
Now, one of the great ironies of Newman’s life is that the criticism he received from many Catholics as a “liberal” was rivaled by an equally severe criticism he had received in the first half of his career from his fellow Anglicans as an arch-“conservative.” When he was a very young man, still a student at Oxford, he joined the ranks of those calling for a more Catholicizing reading of Anglicanism, an interpretation more in line with the Fathers of the Church than with the Protestant reformers. In his thirties, he became a leader of the so-called Oxford Movement, which sought a deep transformation of Anglicanism, stressing the doctrinal and sacramental elements of the religion. In 1841 Newman published the (in)famous Tract #90, an essay laying out the case that one could interpret the 39 Articles of Anglicanism—the cornerstone of the English religious and cultural establishment—in a Catholic manner. The reaction to this was so severe that Newman found himself vilified in every corner of the society, condemned from pulpits, criticized in drawing rooms, excoriated in pubs and train cars. In the eyes of his fellow Anglicans, he was a dangerous conservative. And their worst suspicions were confirmed when he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845.
To be sure, this buffeting from both sides made almost the whole of Newman’s life difficult, and it is not hard to see why he saw much of his career as a Sisyphean exercise in futility. But it was precisely this both/and quality that made Newman so attractive to many of the theologians who paved the way for the Second Vatican Council: Balthasar, Ratzinger, Bouyer, de Lubac, Danielou, to name just a few. They appreciated the great Englishman’s obvious devotion to the great Catholic tradition, and they also savored his sense of that tradition as a living organism and not a dead letter. Pope John XXIII was entirely in the spirit of Newman when he spoke of the Church not as a museum but as a flourishing garden of life.
The battle over Newman continues to this day. Both liberals and conservatives within the Catholic Church eagerly claim him, and both sides can do so legitimately. I am convinced that it is most helpful to read him in the both/and manner of his preconciliar disciples, to see all sides of him and not to lock him into ideological categories. Best of all, we should read him on his own terms, assess his arguments objectively, take him in full. If we do that, we shall see why he was such an important inspiration to the Second Vatican Council, and why the Church has seen fit to declare him a saint and one day, I hope, a Doctor of the Church.
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.