Cardinal John Henry Newman:

"Out of the shadows and symbols unto truth"

Cardinal John Henry Newman, one of the great religious geniuses of modern times, was a convert to Catholicism.  He was an Oxford University educated Anglican Bishop who was influential in one of the Church of England's reform movements known as the Oxford Movement.  The spiritual energies of English Anglican Church had been paralyzed for years by its status as a state run institution, with the British monarch serving as the supreme head of the Church of England.  Over the years numerous dissenters broke off from the Anglican Church to form their own particular expressions of Christian doctrine and belief.  In the early 1800's this crisis in the Anglican Church came to a head with the formation of several reform groups which sprang from within the religious hierarchy of the Anglican church.  The Broad Church party proposed the answer to the crisis was making the Anglican Church more inclusive by opening its doors to all who professed the fundamental dogmas of Christianity.  But others, like a group of Anglican clergy who were mostly graduates from Oxford University, believed the answer was to bring the Anglican rituals and practices into closer touch with the rites and beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church, the same Church which had Christianized Britain.  It was the Roman Catholic Church from which the Church of England broke its religious ties in the 16th century, when King Henry VIII could not obtain an annulment from his first wife, the devoutly Catholic Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry his mistress.

John Henry Newman's eloquence from the pulpit and his abilities as a writer led him to become the acknowledged leader of the Oxford Movement.  They were also known as the High Church Party in their professed desire to return to the rites practiced by the Roman Catholic Church and, because they set forth their goals for the future of the Anglican Church in a series of religious tracts entitled "Tracts for the Times," they were also known as Tractarians. 

Newman's tracts attracted much attention and the soundness of his arguments won over many to the views of his party.  However, in "Tract 90" Newman's attempt to give a Catholic interpretation to the Church of England's historic Thirty-nine Articles which formed the doctrine of the Church of England caused a firestorm of protest within the English Church.  The English Church's spiritual crisis had become Newman's personal spiritual crisis, and before the controversy over "Tract 90" was over Newman added fuel to the fire by leaving the Anglican Church and entering the Roman Catholic Church in 1845.  To the majority of English Protestants John Henry Newman was a traitor, and the majority of his friends and colleagues in the Anglican Church completely cut all ties to Newman, refusing to ever speak to him again, a defection which caused Newman much sorrow.

John Henry Newman was ordained a priest in Rome.  When he returned to England he founded the English Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in London and in Birmingham, England.  Thirty years later, in 1879, Pope Leo XIII raised Newman to the cardinalate of the Roman Catholic Church. When Cardinal John Henry Newman died in 1890 his genius, revealed in his writings and in his homilies on numerous aspects of Catholic faith and belief, was recognized and celebrated by Catholics around the world. 

Cardinal Newman has come to be accepted by scholars worldwide as one of the world's great masters of English prose.  Newman's Apologia pro Vita Sua is a spiritual autobiography of beauty and truth and in his inspiring work Dream of Geroutius, many scholars profess that Newman "ranks next to Dante in expressing the Catholic penetration of eternity."  Cardinal Newman's writings have served Christ in undoing a wrong committed by the English clergy centuries ago when Catholic bishops renounced the authority of the Pope in order to win the favor of their adulterous English King.  The logic and eloquence of Cardinal Newman's writings has won many English Protestants back to the Catholic Church, not the least of whom is the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who converted to the Catholic faith in December 2007.

On his ninetieth birthday, shortly before his death, Newman wrote his own epitaph which summed up the courage of his embrace of the Catholic faith: Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem'"Out of shadows and symbols unto truth." 


Michal Hunt
December 2007


The Catholic Church in England at the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century

By Cardinal John Henry Newman


"Three centuries ago, and the Catholic church, that great creation of God's power, stood in this land in pride of place.  It had the honors of nearly a thousand years upon it; it was enthroned in some twenty sees up and down the broad country; it was based in the will of a faithful people, it energized through then thousand instruments of power and influence, and it ennobled by a host of Saints and Martyrs...

But it was the high decree of heaven, that the majesty of that presence should be blotted out... No longer, the Catholic Church in the country; nay, no longer I may say, a Catholic community;'but a few adherents of the Old Religion, moving silently and sorrowfully about, as memorials of what had been.  'The Roman Catholics';'not a sect, not even an interest, as men conceived of it not a body, however small, representative of the Great Communion abroad, but a mere handful of individuals, who might be counted like the pebbles and detritus of the great deluge, and who, forsooth, merely happened to retain a creed which, in its day indeed was the profession of a Church. Here a set of poor Irishmen, coming and going at harvest time, or a colony of them lodged in a miserable quarter of the vast metropolis.  There, perhaps, an elderly person seen walking in the streets, grave and solitary, and strange, though noble in bearing and said to be of good family, and a 'Roman Catholic.' An old-fashioned house of gloomy appearance, closed in with high walls, with an iron gate, and yews, and the report attaching to it that 'Roman Catholics' lived there; but who they were or what they did, or what was meant by calling them Roman Catholics, no one could tell;'though it had an unpleasant sound, and told of form and superstition.  And then, perhaps, as we went to and fro, looking with a boy's curious eyes through the great city, we might come to-day upon some Moravian chapel, or Quaker's meeting-house, and tomorrow on a chapel of the 'Roman Catholics'; but nothing was to be gathered from it, except that there were lights burning there, and some boys in white, swinging censers; and what it all meant could only be learned from books, from Protestant Histories and Sermons; and they did not report well of the 'Roman Catholics' but, on the contrary, deposed that they had once had power and had abused it.  And then, again, we might on one occasion, hear it pointedly put out by some literary man, as a result of his careful investigation, and as a recondite point of information, which few knew, that there was this difference between the Roman Catholics of England and the Roman Catholics of Ireland, that the latter has bishops, and the former were governed by four officials, called Vicars-Apostolic...

Such were the Catholics of England, found in corners, and alleys, and cellars, and the housetops, or in the recesses of the country; cut off from the populous world around them, and dimly seen, as if through a mist or in twilight, as ghosts flitting to and fro, by the high Protestants, the lords of the earth."

From John Henry Newman's homily, "The Second Spring," preached on July 13th, 1852, at St. Mary's College, Oscott, England, during the First Provincial Synod of Westminster.