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Newman and the Question of the Church
Different topics - 13 Juni 2008

Sr. Kathleen Marie Dietz

Newman writes in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua that his reception into the Church was „like coming into port after a rough sea“[1]. In this paper we would like to reflect a bit on that scene and would like to add to it one more image, namely that of a beacon light which helped Newman find that port. This will entail exploring the question which made the waters of the sea rough, that question to which Newman had to find an answer in order to reach the port. The question is, in short, the question of the Church. But what was that beacon light which guided Newman through the rough waters to the port of the Catholic Church? That beacon was Divine Providence.

One is struck, when reading Newman’s works, by the frequency of the idea of Divine Providence, as well as of the term itself. It forms the cornerstone of his theology. When we look at Newman’s writings with an eye to Divine Providence and the Church we find that he speaks of Divine Providence preparing the way for Revelation and the Church on both the pagan and Jewish fronts; that he speaks of Divine Providence giving Revelation and the Church and that he speaks of Divine Providence preserving Revelation in and through the Church. It is this last aspect which we will focus on, taking the other two aspects as givens. We will see that Newman didn’t always understand Revelation to be preserved in and through the Church and that, in fact, this was the point of question for him. We will look at how he came to that understanding and how it influenced him to join the Catholic Church.

1. The Question Asserts Itself

It was through the contact with the other members of the Oriel Common Room and through his pastoral experience as a curate at St. Clement’s that Newman gradually gave up his Calvinist way of thinking which he had imbibed through his reading at the time of his first conversion in 1816. Newman had been elected a Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford in 1822 and had thus joined ranks with the likes of Edward Hawkins, Richard Whately and John Keble, who were later also joined by Richard Hurrell Froude and Edward Bouverie Pusey. He described the members of that prestigious common room as being neither high Church nor low Church, but a new school, which was characterized by its spirit of moderation and comprehension.

In his association with them, Newman began to develop his understanding of the Church as a visible oracle of truth, independent of the State, with its own rights, prerogatives and powers. He learned the importance of apostolic succession and of the historical character of Revelation, and received an understanding of tradition. These, coupled with the dogmatic principle which was the lasting legacy of his first conversion, served to root in Newman an idea of the Church. From then on Newman’s wrestlings with his religious opinions, as he called them, had always to do with his understanding of the Church.

Newman had finished writing his Arians of the Fourth Century in July 1832, and in the course of its writing he had come to love and venerate the Church of the Fathers. He saw the ruling hand of providence behind the champions of the Church such as Sts. Athanasius and Ambrose, Basil and Gregory. He compared their Church to the Established Church in England:

With the Establishment…divided and threatened, thus ignorant of its true strength, I compared that fresh vigorous Power of which I was reading in the first centuries. In her triumphant zeal on behalf of that Primeval Mystery, to which I had had so great a devotion from my youth, I recognized the movement of my Spiritual Mother. … I felt affection for my own Church, but not tenderness … As to leaving her, the thought never crossed my imagination; still I ever kept before me that there was something greater than the Established Church, and that that was the Church Catholic and Apostolic, set up from the beginning, of which she was but the local presence and the organ. She was nothing, unless she was this. (Apo, p. 47)

Newman returned to England in July 1833, after a trip to the Mediterranean, with a sense of purpose, with a strong sense that he had „a work to do in England“ (Apo, p. 50). Just days after his return, John Keble preached the Assize Sermon, entitled „National Apostasy“, in the University Pulpit. Newman „ever considered and kept the day, as the start of the religious movement of 1833“ (Apo, p. 50). That religious movement, which came to be known as the Oxford Movement, had as its main objective, the saving of the Anglican Church from the liberalism of the day, that liberalism which was anti-dogmatic in principle.

In his Apologia, Newman describes his purpose in being a founder of the Oxford Movement as being the promotion of three propositions: 1. The principle of dogma; 2. „the truth of a certain definite religious teaching, based upon this foundation of dogma; viz. that there was a visible Church, with sacraments and rites which are the channels of invisible grace;“ and 3. „my then view of the Church of Rome“ (Apo, pp. 61-62, 64). Newman retained the first two as ecclesiastical principles and they became for him, along with the four marks of the Church, the measuring rod with which he measured the Anglican Church and the Church of Rome. These were the necessary and immutable constituents and characteristics of the Church founded by Christ through the Apostles. The true Church must have these, by these can she be known.

The third proposition of which New- man was confident at the beginning of the Oxford Movement is the only one which he later „utterly renounced and trampled upon“ (Apo, p. 64). That proposition was, to put it simply, anti-Romanism. It is this proposition upon which we will dwell for the remainder of our inquiry because it is, of course, here that we are able to follow the evolution of Newman’s thought.

From his reading of Newton’s On the Prophecies in 1816, Newman came to see the Pope as the „Antichrist“ predicted by Daniel, St. John and St. Paul (cf. Apo, p. 27). Later, under the influence of his close friend Hurrell Froude, he softened his view. Nonetheless, this perception of the Church of Rome remained with him, as he put it, „as a stain upon my imagination“ (Apo, p. 119) even after he had given it up in his reasoning and judgment. The stain was finally effaced only around 1843.

However, more important for our inquiry, though not as shocking to the Roman Catholic mind, perhaps, is the fact that, during the Oxford Movement, Newman’s deep-seated problem with the Roman Church was the „honours which she paid to the Blessed Virgin and the Saints“ (Apo, p. 64). This must not be understood as a mere prejudice. This was a fundamental problem for Newman which meant more than simple devotional practices. It meant that the Roman Church had added to the Creed and was no longer the Church of antiquity. Nonetheless, Newman writes of the affection he had for the Roman Church, but stresses „the warning of Moses against even a divinely-gifted teacher, who should preach new gods; and the anathema of St. Paul even against Angels and Apostles, who bring in a new doctrine“ (Apo, pp. 65-66).

Newman, then, protested against the Church of Rome as a duty of conscience. He also did it, however, because, as he wrote, „the prescription of such a protest was a living principle of my own Church“ (Apo, p. 66). He was following the Anglican divines who professed the same ecclesiastical principles and had formed the same judgment against Rome as Newman, and yet died Anglicans. Newman was sure that a deep abyss lay between Anglicanism and Rome, and that the exposition of deficiencies in the Anglican system would not, could not, lead to Rome. „In that very agreement of the two forms of faith,“ he wrote, „…would really be found, on examination, the elements and principles of an essential discordance“ (Apo, p. 67). It was because of his certainty concerning his position vis à vis Rome that Newman thought also that there could be no imprudence in „giving to the world in fullest measure the teaching and the writings of the Fathers“ (Apo, p. 67). He thought the Anglican Church to be based on them.

Thus we see the two main trends or focuses, the one positive, the other negative, of his thoughts and studies in the years between the beginning of the Oxford Movement and his conversion, namely, the Fathers and anti-Romanism. It is extremely interesting to note that these two main focuses are exactly those which he derived from his reading in the Autumn of 1816 at the time of his first conversion and which planted in him, as he said, „the seeds of an intellectual inconsistency which disabled me for a long course of years“ (Apo, p. 27). As he grew in knowledge and love of the Fathers and their writings, that is, of primitive Christianity, so did his anti-Romanism lessen, and eventually disappear. Newman’s heart was drawn to Rome long before he had the intellectual conviction that she is the true Church, but for Newman, certainty was necessary before making the step. He wrote:

I felt then, and all along felt, that there was an intellectual cowardice in not finding a basis in reason for my belief, and a moral cowardice in not avowing that basis. … Alas! it was my portion for whole years to remain without any satisfactory basis for my religious profession, in a state of moral sickness, neither able to acquiesce in Anglicanism, nor able to go to Rome. But I bore it, till in course of time my way was made clear to me. (Apo, p. 75)

This was the moment of crisis, a moment which Newman was able to overcome by obeying the voice of Divine Providence.

The Oxford Movement had begun against the liberalism of the day, and had protected itself against the charge of „popery“ by attacking Rome, but it couldn’t be sustained with mere negatives. A positive Church theory was necessary. Newman looked to the great Anglican divines and on that basis tried to work out a system of theology on the Anglican idea. Thus was born the so-called Via Media, built upon the three fundamental propositions about which we have already spoken – dogma, the sacramental system and anti-Romanism. The question was, would it work? It was a good theory on paper, but did it have a life of its own? In the course of the next years Newman sought to strengthen the case of the Via Media and he summed up his work of the first six years of the Oxford Movement thus:

I wanted to bring out in a substantive form a living Church of England, in a position proper to herself, and founded on distinct principles; as far as paper could do it, as far as earnestly preaching it and influencing others towards it, could tend to make it a fact; – a living Church, made of flesh and blood, with voice, complexion, and motion and action, and a will of its own. (Apo, p. 79)

The work of the Oxford Movement was not without reverberation in the Anglican Church. From the first there had been cries of „popery“ from the evangelical party, and the more Catholic principles were expounded, the greater the disturbance in the Anglican Church. A „collision with the Nation, and that Church of the Nation, which it [the Movement] began by professing especially to serve,“ was inevitable (Apo, p. 83). At length the day came.

The occasion of the collision was the publication of, what would turn out to be, the last of the Tracts for the Times, Tract 90 , written by Newman himself in 1841. Tract 90 addressed itself to the „problem“ of the 39 Articles, propositions set down by the Anglican Church, to which, for example, university students had to subscribe before taking their degree. It was written to keep those in check who didn’t like the Via Media nor Newman’s strong judgment against Rome. Such felt that the Articles were themselves directly against Rome. Newman was fighting the influence of Rome, trying to hold it at bay, trying to keep others in the Church of England. His point was to see how far the Articles could go in the direction of Roman doctrine. He was prepared to accept criticism and to correct whatever could be proven to be false in the Tract.

He was not prepared, however, for the anger and indignation which followed upon the publication of Tract 90 . He was „startled at its violence“, but didn’t have any fear. It was, perhaps even „a relief“ to him. Looking back at that time, he wrote: „Confidence in me was lost; – but I had already lost full confidence in myself. … I felt that by this event a kind Providence had saved me from an impossible position in the future“ (Apo, pp. 93-94). In a letter to his Bishop, Newman resigned his position in the Oxford Movement, saying:

I have acted because others did not act, and have sacrificed a quiet which I prized. May God be with me in time to come, as He has been hitherto! and He will be, if I can but keep my hand clean and my heart pure. I think I can bear, or at least will try to bear, any personal humiliation, so that I am preserved from betraying sacred interests, which the Lord of grace and power has given into my charge. (Apo, p. 95)


2. The Question Defined

Now that we have briefly traced Newman’s thought in general until 1841, it is good to define more precisely the question of the Church as Newman saw it.

The question, Newman wrote, „turned upon the Faith [what Newman also calls Creed] and the Church. This was my issue of the controversy from the beginning to the end. There was a contrariety of claims between the Roman and Anglican religions and the history of my conversion is simply the process of working it out to a solution“ (Apo, pp. 111-112). In 1838 Newman had contrasted an image of the Madonna and Child, and an image of Calvary to show the difference between the Roman and Anglican theologies. Anglican theology „supposed the Truth to be entirely objective and detached, not (as in the theology of Rome) lying hid in the bosom of the Church as if one with her, clinging to and (as it were) lost in her embrace, but being sole and unapproachable as on the Cross…, with the Church close by, but in the background“ (Apo, p. 112). Anglican theology separates the Truth and the Church, Roman theology unites them intrinsically. The question then is the relation between the two, which is in reality the question of the relation between divine faith and the faith of the Church.

Here we have to bear in mind that Newman regarded the ancient Church, the apostolic Church, the Church of the Fathers, through which we have the Faith, the Creed, as the Church founded by Christ. It was this Church for which he was searching and his stumbling block to finding it in the Catholic Church was her so-called additions to the Creed. This is what is meant by Creed versus Church, by divine Faith versus the Faith of the Church, by Apostolicity versus Catholicity. In the end, we will see it is a matter of synthesis, Creed and Church, rather than antithesis.

3. The Question Becomes Urgent

While Newman was, as he describes it, „feeling about for an available Via Media“, he „received a shock“ which „cast out of [his] imagination all middle courses and compromises for ever“ (Apo, p. 105). During the Long Vacation of 1839 Newman began a systematic study of the history of the Monophysites. It was during this course of reading that for the first time a doubt came upon him of the tenableness of Anglicanism.

My stronghold was Antiquity; now here, in the middle of the fifth century, I found, as it seemed to me, Christendom of the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries reflected. I saw my face in that mirror, and I was a Monophysite. The Church of the Via Media was in the position of the Oriental communion, Rome was, where she now is; and the Protestants were the Eutychians. (Apo, p. 114)

For Newman it was difficult to understand how the Eutychians or Monophysites could be heretics, unless the Protestants and Anglicans were heretics also.

The drama of religion, and the combat of truth and error, were ever one and the same. The principles and proceedings of the Church now, were those of the Church then; the principles and proceedings of heretics then, were those of Protestants now. (Apo, p. 114)


„I found it so,“ Newman writes, „almost fearfully; there was an awful similitude, more awful, because so silent and unimpassioned, between the dead records of the past and the feverish chronicle of the present“ (Apo, p. 114).

Not long after finishing his study of the Monophysites, Newman was given an article from the Dublin Review by a leading English Roman Catholic, Nicholas Wiseman, later Archbishop of Westminster, entitled „The Anglican Claim of Apostolical Succession“. After the first reading Newman didn’t see anything striking in it, but a friend of his pointed out the words of St. Augustine, repeating them over and over again: Sicurus judicat orbis terrarum (the whole earth judges rightly). „And when he was gone“, Newman relates, „they kept ringing in my ears.“(Apo, p. 115)

What a light was hereby thrown upon every controversy in the Church! … The deliberate judgment, in which the whole Church at length rests and acquiesces, is an infallible prescription and a final sentence against such portions of it as protest and secede. (Apo, pp. 115-116)

The words were for Newman like the Tolle, lege, tolle, lege, which converted St. Augustine himself. Securus judicat orbis terrarum. „By those great words of the ancient Father, interpreting and summing up the long and varied course of ecclesiastical history, the theory of the Via Media was absolutely pulverized“ (Apo, p. 116).

Still, Newman determined to be guided by his reason, not by his imagination. „The heavens had opened and closed again. The thought for the moment had been, ‚The Church of Rome will be found right after all;‘ and then it had vanished.“ Nonetheless, he noted, „he who has seen a ghost, cannot be as if he had never seen it“ (Apo, p. 116). He abandoned the idea of the Via Media.

Thus it was that Newman was then left with only those special charges which he had against Rome, namely that she had added to the Faith and that she did not teach formally what she nonetheless sanctioned in practice, especially concerning devotional practices. He was, as he said, „very nearly a pure Protestant“ (Apo, p. 118). He had no theology of his own.

In the summer of 1841, after the storm following Tract 90, Newman set himself to translating St. Athanasius, but between July and November three things happened which broke him. Only a short way into his study he was confronted with the ghost again, this time „in a far bolder shape“. What he found in the history of the Monophysites, he found in the history of the Arians. He „saw clearly, that in the history of Arianism, the pure Arians were the Protestants, the semi-Arians were the Anglicans, and that Rome now was what it was then“ (Apo, pp. 133-134). As he was grappling with this specter, the second blow came upon him: namely the de facto condemnation of Tract 90 by the bishops.

The third thing which broke Newman was the setting up of an Anglican Bishopric in Jerusalem, which would have jurisdiction also over Protestants. This was a joint effort by England and Prussia and Newman saw that with it the bishops were, as he put it,

fraternizing, by their act or by their sufferance, with Protestant bodies, and allowing them to put themselves under an Anglican Bishop, without any renunciation of their errors or regard to their due reception of baptism and confirmation…. This was the third blow, which finally shattered my faith in the Anglican Church. … The Anglican Church might have the Apostolical succession, as had the Monophysites; but such acts as were in progress led me to the gravest suspicion, not that it would soon cease to be a Church, but that, since the 16th century, it had never been a Church all along. (Apo, pp. 136-137)

4. The Question Answered

Newman now lay on his deathbed in the Anglican Church (cf. Apo, p. 142), but could not yet find in the Roman Church the Church Apostolic. His difficulty still lay in her so-called excesses, but gradually he came to feel, as he says, „the force of [a] consideration. The idea of the Blessed Virgin was as it were magnified in the Church of Rome, as time went on, – but so were all the Christian ideas; as that of the Blessed Eucharist. The whole scene of pale, faint, distant Apostolic Christianity is seen in Rome…. The harmony of the whole, however, is of course what it was“ (Apo, p. 180).

This was Newman’s last point of inquiry concerning the Roman Catholic Church, namely, the development of doctrine. Did it exist or not? The idea of the development of doctrine had been in the back of Newman’s mind for years. He finally worked out the answer systematically in his book, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine[2], which he began early in 1845. It is in Newman’s understanding of the development of doctrine that we are able to see most clearly the place of Divine Providence in his ecclesiology.

Newman testifies in his Apologia that he never lost sight of the idea of the development of doctrine in his speculations. In fact, Newman didn’t leap from one point of view to another, but built a bridge between Creed and Church with the available materials given by Divine Providence. The point of consistency in the progress of Newman’s thought is his issue of Creed versus Church, which is in the end a question of authority (cf. Apo, p. 181).

In reality all of Newman’s struggles concerning the Anglican and Roman Churches have to do with the question of authority, though the word itself does not come often to the fore. Newman’s struggles can be seen as a microcosm of the whole ecumenical question today, which is at its basis a question of authority – a fundamentally ecclesiological question touching on the very nature of the Church.

Gradually Newman came to the understanding that development is of the very nature of the Gospel. He points out that developments are to be expected.

If Christianity be an universal religion, suited not simply to one locality or period, but to all times and places, it cannot but vary in its relations and dealings towards the world around it, that is, it will develope. (Dev, p. 58)

In his Apologia, Newman writes that the principle of development not only gave the reason for certain facts, „but was in itself a remarkable philosophical phenomenon, giving a character to the whole course of Christian thought“ (Apo, p. 182). Thus Newman applied the principle to the whole idea of Christianity. Development is natural and necessary because a living idea, that of Christianity, has been entrusted to the discursive thought of man. Divine Providence has given the structure of the Church and has used this structure for the authentic development of doctrine and the preservation of it as such. It is almost a truism, then, to say that Divine Providence is the key to the unity of Creed and Church.

Having seen that, indeed, development is consonant with the nature of Sacred Scripture, and with the idea of Christianity as a whole, we still have not answered two fundamental questions: how does one distinguish development from corruption and who has the authority to make the distinction, that is, who guarantees the purity of Christian doctrine?

In his essay, after giving antecedent reasons for the development of Christian doctrine, Newman gives historical arguments for its development and instances thereof. Then he tackles the pressing question of development versus corruption, formulating his now famous seven criteria for the genuine development of an idea.

Perhaps the foundation of these criteria can best be summed up in the principle of analogy which holds that all of God’s works bear the stamp of an identical Wisdom. The nature and order of things reveal a design, upheld by some great yet simple principles, which confer on the whole a harmony and a majestic beauty. The basic principles of the divine plan are more or less evident in creation. An event which takes place in accordance with these laws is not unlikely the work of God. When we look at the great works of God that are known to us we see that they are performed according to a law of development. God doesn’t create anything in a state of definitive completeness. He allows all things to come gradually to fulfillment, to grow and reach perfection by degrees. Given this basic principle, we can see that the solemn development of dogmatic tradition suggests that it is God who rules the history of dogma and guides the Church in the acquisition of truth.

Still, the question of the guarantee of the purity of doctrine remains. The answer is to be found in the doctrine of infallibility of the Church, which Newman finally came to recognize as being of necessity according to Providence. In a letter to a friend written on July 14, 1844, he remarks, among other things, that

granting that the Roman (special) doctrines are not found drawn out in the early Church, yet I think there is sufficient trace of them in it, to recommend and prove them, on the hypothesis of the Church having a divine guidance, though not sufficient to prove them by itself. So that the question simply turns on the nature of the promise of the Spirit, made to the Church. (Apo, p. 181)


Here we see Newman touch upon the synthesis of Creed and Church.

It is not difficult to find the necessary link between the fact of the development of doctrine and the fact of an infallible Church. Indeed, it seems that the difficulty would lie in not seeing the connection.

The basis of Newman’s argument is this: if Revelation is expressed in doctrine and if, as we have seen is true, development is of the nature of doctrine, there must be an infallible authority given by God to protect doctrine from corruption. Newman expresses it thus:

If development must be, then, whereas Revelation is a heavenly gift, He who gave it virtually has not given it, unless He has also secured it from perversion and corruption, in all such development as comes upon it by the necessity of its nature, or, in other words, that that intellectual action through successive generations, which is the organ of development, must, so far forth as it can claim to have been put in charge of the Revelation, be in its determinations infallible. (Dev, p. 92)

This, says Newman, is the doctrine of the infallibility of the Church, „for by in- fallibility…is meant the power of deciding whether this, that, and a third, and any number of theological or ethical statements are true“ (Dev, p. 78).

Newman began his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine at the beginning of 1845 and he recounts: „As I advanced, my difficulties so cleared away that I ceased to speak of ‚the Roman Catholics‘, and boldly called them Catholics. Before I got to the end, I resolved to be received, and the book remains in the state in which it was then, unfinished“ (Apo, p. 211). On October 9 of that same year John Henry Newman was received into what he called the „one Fold of Christ“ (Apo, p. 211).

5. The Role of Divine Providence

The history of Newman’s conversion is, then, the history of the reconciliation of Church and Creed, that is, the reconciliation of the faith of the Church and divine faith in Newman’s thinking. When Newman recognized the Catholic Church as divine this reconciliation was effected. The key to this synthesis is the doctrine of Divine Providence.

To Newman it was absolutely logical that if Divine Providence gave the Church, Divine Providence would also provide the means of maintaining and protecting it. If Divine Providence gave Revelation, Divine Providence would preserve it intact and free from corruption.

Newman tried for many years to see in the Anglican Church that Church of which his conviction spoke and for which his heart longed. He, in a certain sense, tried to reshape it according to his ideas. One has the impression that Newman was trying to stretch his old pullover sweater to fit a man who had outgrown it, letting out all the seams as far as possible, patching up worn and threadbare spots, and all the time stretching it to the limits in the daily wearing of it. In the end the sweater was ruined and the man dissatisfied.

Only when Newman stopped trying to find in the Anglican Church what wasn’t there, and began accepting in the Roman Church what was, did he begin, step by step, to find what his heart had known all along to be true. Only then did the paper theory of the Via Media give way to the living reality of the one true Church of Jesus Christ.

The point at which Newman’s struggle with the „old sweater“ of Anglicanism ceased came with the series of three blows about which we spoke earlier. After the three blows which landed him on his deathbed in the Anglican Church, he threw aside the ruined sweater, but shivered in the cold of uncertainty until he found, not another sweater, but a better climate and, at length, could bask in the fact of the true Church.

Newman’s conversion was, then, not only a conversion to the true Church, but to the Church as such. It was an eminently ecclesiastical conversion. Therefore Newman could say that there is a difference, not in degree, but in kind between the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church.

In the end, a conversion is the work of God’s grace in the soul and the response of the soul in faith. The form it takes is according to God’s providence and remains, to a large extent, a mystery to the public. Newman’s way into the port of the Catholic Church was indeed through a rough sea, but it was by following the beacon light of Divine Providence in his life that he was able to see Divine Providence at work in the Church and was thus able to find in the Roman Church the Church Catholic and Apostolic for which he had been searching.

[1] Newman John Henry, Apologia pro vita sua (= Apo), edited by Ian Ker, London, Penguin Books, 1994, p. 214.

[2] John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (= Dev), Westminster, Md. Christian Classics, 1968.

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