Newman Becomes a Roman Catholic Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Through his sermons, personal example, and published works, John Henry Newman challenged his fellow Anglicans to recover their full religious heritage. He contended that Protestant reformers had wrongly suppressed or disregarded vital elements of the pre-Reformation Christian tradition. Ultimately, Newman himself found spiritual fulfillment only in the Roman Catholic Church. The study of church history played a major role in his conversion.

Summary of Event

On October 9, 1845, in the village of Littlemore, near Oxford, the eminent Anglican clergyman John Henry Newman was received into the Roman Catholic Church. This act culminated more than a dozen years of intense study, writing, and soul-searching by Newman. He finally concluded that Catholicism most fully represented God’s will as found in the Gospels, in the teachings of the church fathers, in the general councils of the Church, and in the primacy of the papacy. A number of considerations—political, historical, and, above all, religious—had converged in Newman’s decision. Roman Catholics;John Henry Newman[Newman] Newman, John Henry [kw]Newman Becomes a Roman Catholic (Oct. 9, 1845) [kw]Roman Catholic, Newman Becomes a (Oct. 9, 1845) [kw]Catholic, Newman Becomes a Roman (Oct. 9, 1845) Roman Catholics;John Henry Newman[Newman] Newman, John Henry [g]Great Britain;Oct. 9, 1845: Newman Becomes a Roman Catholic[2370] [c]Religion and theology;Oct. 9, 1845: Newman Becomes a Roman Catholic[2370] Keble, John Froude, Richard Hurrell Pusey, E. B.

John Henry Newman.

(Library of Congress)

Newman was raised in the evangelical or Low Church tradition of the Church of England Church of England;and John Henry Newman[Newman] , the official state church of the realm. Evangelicals favored a plain Protestant liturgy and the exercise of private judgment in interpreting the Bible. They also maintained a persistent hostility to the Catholic Church. At Oxford University, however, the young Newman was drawn to the High Church or Anglo-Catholic faction within the Church of England. Although only a relatively small minority within the Church, they hoped to revive some of the Christian beliefs and customs discredited by the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. They sought thereby to challenge the pervasive protestantizing influence of the Evangelicals. Newman’s reading of church history further enhanced his interest in the Anglo-Catholic cause.

Following a remarkable academic career at Oxford, Newman was ordained to the Anglican priesthood in 1827 and, shortly afterward, appointed to the coveted position of vicar at the university’s official Anglican church. His popular sermons continued to reflect his old Evangelical antagonism to Rome. He found it particularly perverse that the papacy could allow suspect religious devotions like the cults of Mary and the saints.

Appointed tutor in 1828 to instruct Oxford undergraduates, Newman began a close reading of such early Church authorities as Athanasius and Augustine. He was struck by the disparity between what these church fathers believed and what was taught and preached in his own church. He blamed excessive Protestant influence and determined to do something about it. This ambition came closer to fruition when Newman found three like-minded fellow tutors at Oxford, namely John Keble Keble, John , E. B. Pusey Pusey, E. B. , and Richard Hurrell Froude Froude, Richard Hurrell . Committed Anglo-Catholics like Newman, they decided to join him to achieve a bold “second reformation” in the Church of England.

The opening salvo in this campaign came from John Keble on July, 14 1833. In a sermon from the pulpit of Newman’s Oxford church, Keble denounced the Anglican establishment for its adamant refusal to recognize the Catholic, or pre-Reformation, component of its heritage. He also condemned the persistent intervention of the British parliament in Anglican affairs. So began what became known as the Oxford Movement (also known as the Tractarian Movement), composed mainly of conservative young Oxford reformers under Newman’s leadership. They demanded above all the reinstating of long-suppressed theological and liturgical traditions needed to revitalize Anglican parish life. They sought as well a clear line separating the political authority of the secular state from the Church’s strictly religious sphere.

The chief means of spreading the Oxford reform message was a series of tracts published between 1833 and 1841. Ninety tracts appeared altogether, nearly one-third by Newman, with Keble, Pusey Pusey, E. B. , Froude Froude, Richard Hurrell , and others such as Henry Edward Manning Manning, Henry Edward making prominent contributions. Many of their essays bitterly denounced the state’s infringement on church prerogatives. Most tracts, however, pressed the urgent need for Anglican authorities to allow the reintroduction of certain devotions and practices that had proven of enduring spiritual benefit to English Christians prior to the Reformation. Suggested innovations included clergy in formal vestments to celebrate liturgies that featured candles and incense. Most important, the faithful would receive from an Anglican priest consecrated Communion wafers believed to contain the real presence of Christ and able to confer divine grace on those properly disposed. Advocated likewise was celibacy for priests and fasting in Lent.

Newman at that point wanted no union with Rome and denied any desire to recognize papal primacy over the Church of England. In fact, he elaborated in his tracts and elsewhere a rationale justifying the independence of the Anglican Church as a kind of via media, or moderate middle way, between the extremes of Protestantism and Catholicism. During 1841, however, Newman’s study of several heresies of ancient Christianity forced him to abandon his via media theory. This decision brought him across another major barrier that had prevented him from conversion to Roman Catholicism. In examining the Arian and Monophysite heresies of the fourth and fifth centuries, he discovered that each group had split into a moderate and an extreme faction. He concluded that the Catholic Church in condemning these movements had defended the basic Christian teaching about the nature of God handed down from the apostles and sanctioned by the papacy.

Newman decided that modern Protestantism was comparable to the extreme forms of ancient heresy, and his own Anglicanism, although more moderate, was nonetheless heretical. By this analogy, the Church of Rome retained its historical role as the ultimate arbiter of Christian orthodoxy. Newman could no longer rationalize the Church of England’s position as the true mean between extremes, nor as an independent branch of the universal church that traced its origins directly to the age of the apostles.

Newman made one final effort to reconcile the Anglican and Catholic communions. In Tract 90, published in August, 1841, he argued that the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion formulated in the sixteenth century as the official statement of Anglican beliefs did not contradict basic Catholic doctrine but only condemned corruptions and abuses of these teachings. The way therefore remained open for reunion.

These assertions ignited a firestorm among an Anglican establishment already infuriated by the subject matter and tone of the previous tracts. Twenty-four Anglican bishops declared Tract 90 a caricature of Anglican beliefs. Newman’s own bishop at Oxford forbade the publication of any further tracts.

Newman was devastated. His passionate hope for the reunification of his church with Rome, though never likely to be realized, was permanently dashed. He resigned his remaining positions at Oxford and withdrew to nearby Littlemore. There, with a few followers, he prayed for guidance and sought to resolve his remaining doubts about Rome.

Newman had long criticized the Catholic Church for making improper additions to its canon of beliefs, but in his An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845) he acknowledged that he had been mistaken. What had seemed new doctrines had in fact unfolded gradually over time, based on the original revelation derived from Christ’s incarnation and death on the cross. For example, of the Church’s seven sacraments, six had, according to Newman, emerged directly out of the primary sacrament, the Eucharist. Any such doctrinal developments had to be authenticated by the papacy as the supreme teaching authority of the Church.

This discovery confirmed Newman in his course of action. In early October, 1845, he officially entered the Catholic Church. Hundreds of Anglicans, including many clergy, also converted, but not, however, his close friends Keble Keble, John and Pusey Pusey, E. B. . As one journey ended for Newman, a new one began.

Significance

Newman’s life became a quest for spiritual perfection. While his personal search ended in the Church of Rome, he left a fruitful legacy to the Church of England. Through his published works and a sterling personal example, Newman sowed the seeds of an ongoing revitalization of Anglican church life. Many local parishes benefited for years to come from a better-educated and a more caring clergy. Also evident was a more diverse worship service and greater emphasis on sacraments as transmitters of God’s grace, as in the pre-Reformation church. He also elevated the study of early church history as a major source of orthodox Christian beliefs.

In addition, Newman’s conversion left an indelible mark on the Catholic Church. For instance, his idea of the gradual unfolding of the meaning of Christian doctrines, together with his advocacy of an expanded role for the laity in church affairs, figures frequently in the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council (1961-1965). Newman’s powerful autobiographical account of his conversion experience still resonates with modern readers.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blehl, Vincent F. Pilgrim Journey of John Henry Newman, 1801-1845. London: Burns and Oates, 2001. An account that finds the keys to Newman’s conversion in his uncompromising search for truth and for personal holiness.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dessain, C. S. John Henry Newman. 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. Concise, authoritative survey of Newman’s career, stressing the role of ideas and of his study of early church history in his conversion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ker, Ian, ed. Newman and Conversion. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997. Of special interest are the essays by Avery Dulles and by Ker himself offering important new perspectives on the conversion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Newman, John Henry. Apologia pro Vita Sua. Edited by David De Laura. New York: W. W. Norton, 1968. A classic autobiographical account tracing Newman’s gradual turn to Rome. A work of enduring religious and literary value.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Tract 90 and the Jerusalem Bishopric, Janaury 1841-April 1842. Vol. 8 in The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1999. Text with commentary of Newman’s controversial essay on the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England.

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