What Dr. Newman Meant by Margaret Tucker

Duels were technically illegal in Victorian England, so the contest of honor between Cambridge professor Charles Kingsley and Father John Henry Newman had to be fought, not with pistols, but with print. Kingsley had been the one to throw down the gauntlet: in a pamphlet published in late 1863, he accused Newman, a former Anglican minister and notorious Roman Catholic convert, of being a liar. “Truth, for its own sake,” Kingsley wrote, “had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy. Father Newman informs us that it need not, and on the whole ought not to be.”

Newman was accustomed to being disliked. His conversion to Catholicism in 1845, after years of advocating for conservative reforms to the Church of England, had provoked a wave of public dismay and earned him a scandalous reputation. After joining the Catholic priesthood in 1847, he had attempted to take the high road. “Sensitive then as I have ever been of the imputations which have been so freely cast upon me, I have never felt much impatience under them, as considering them to be a portion of the penalty which I naturally and justly incurred by my change of religion,” he wrote.

Kingsley’s slander, however, could not go unaddressed. In another pamphlet, which appeared in March of 1864, he escalated his claims, appealing to a long-standing Protestant suspicion about Catholics: that they were authorized to lie to “heretics” to further their own purposes. “I am henceforth in doubt and fear, as much as an honest man can be, concerning every word Dr. Newman may write,” Kingsley argued in the pamphlet, the title of which begged the question “What then does Dr. Newman mean?” “How can I tell, that I shall not be the dupe of some cunning equivocation, of one of the three kinds laid down as permissible by the blessed Alfonso da Liguori and his pupils?”

Newman’s response was to take Kingsley at his word and explain exactly “what he meant.” Refusing to be goaded into a debate over specific points of doctrine, he instead published a narrative of his religious development titled Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864), or “defense of one’s life.” “I must,” Newman wrote in the preface to the text, “give the true key to my whole life; I must show what I am, that it may be seen what I am not, and that the phantom may be extinguished which gibbers instead of me.”

On October 13, John Henry Newman will be canonized a saint, which makes the “true key to his whole life” a vital matter of interest and instruction. Within its own time, the Apologia vindicated Newman of the charges leveled against him; within ours, it provides an intimate look at how one of our newest saints reasoned, thought, and felt as he slowly came to recognize the truth of the Catholic Church.

It was vitally important for Newman to persuade his readers that his change of faith had arisen organically from years of intellectual labor and theological study. To the English public, he seemed to have been flirting with Catholicism for a long time before he actually joined the church. Prior to his conversion, he had been one of the de facto leaders of the Oxford Movement, a loose confederation of thinkers and ministers dedicated to resisting what they perceived to be a growing “liberalism,” or loosening of doctrines, in the Church of England. As an alternative to liberalism, Newman and his colleagues called for a return to certain Catholic practices in the Anglican communion, particularly a firmness in doctrine and a strengthened commitment to liturgy and the sacraments.

In his writings on behalf of the Movement, Newman argued that the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England, and the Greek Orthodox Church were three branches of a single, Christian communion—an alarming and offensive claim, given the historical animosity between Catholicism and Anglicanism. He ignited an even bigger controversy—a “sudden storm of indignation,” as he put it—when he published a pamphlet contending that the fundamental principles of the Anglican church, or the “39 Articles,” were not at odds with the “Catholic teaching of the early centuries.” This pamphlet, “Tract 90,” elicited the same kind of frenzied reaction we associate today with high-level government leaks, so taboo were its contents.

To many members of the English reading public, it seemed suspicious—even impossible—that a clergyman of the Church of England could hold such views without having some kind of conspiratorial relationship with the Catholic Church. As Newman described it in the Apologia, “Evidently, I had certain friends and advisers who did not appear. . . . Beyond a doubt, I was advocating certain doctrines, not by accident, but on an understanding with ecclesiastics of the old religion.” His eventual conversion only confirmed what many of his countrymen and women had long suspected: that he had been calculating and dishonest in his representations of his religious beliefs.

As a piece of argumentative rhetoric, then, the Apologia had to fight an uphill battle. To convince readers of his authenticity, Newman paints his religious development and conversion as a matter of both emotion and reason. While the structure of the Apologia guides readers through the books and theologians that shaped his thinking, Newman also incorporates a series of striking metaphors that suggest how deeply his intellectual revelations stirred his feelings. It becomes clear that, for Newman, “the head and the heart” were dual partners in his pursuit of religious truth.

The drama of the Apologia is largely the drama of ideas: Newman enumerates the books and intellectuals that inspired him most, from 17th-century Anglican theologians to his own contemporaries. As the Apologia proceeds down the years of Newman’s life, trundling through the acres of printed material that the man read and produced, it becomes plain, as he intended, that the chief figures who influenced his thought were not Catholics, but Anglicans and other Protestants, such as John Keble and Richard Whately, whose works or views gradually opened his mind to the Catholic Church.

The turning point eventually came when Newman began to recognize parallels between heretical groups such as the Arians and Monophysites and contemporary Anglicans. As Newman put it, inserting a passage into the Apologia from one of his earlier polemical works, “It was difficult to make out how the Eutychians or Monophysites were heretics, unless Protestants and Anglicans were heretics also. . . . The Church then, as now, might be called peremptory and stern, resolute, overbearing, and relentless; and heretics were shifting, changeable, reserved, and deceitful, ever courting civil power, and never agreeing together, except by its aid.”

Yet Newman’s sudden revelation was no mere act of the intellect. Though one could easily come away from the Apologia with the impression that he was, as a person, essentially an animate brain, he was also deeply moved by feeling.

Newman does not dwell extensively on his emotions in the Apologia. Perhaps the most touching moment in the text occurs when he describes breaking down in “a fit of sobbing” after a long period of illness during a youthful trip abroad. He was likely homesick, but also preternaturally aware that he had some great task ahead of him: “I have a work to do in England,” he told his servant, by way of explanation.

Initially, Newman suggests, intellect and emotion were opposing forces in his religious progression. He admits that, as a young man, he had learned to have “tender feelings” towards the Catholic Church after witnessing the beauty of its devotions in Italy, but quickly protests that his “reason was not affected at all.” He was troubled enough by this tension between his mind and his heart to write about it in one of the early pamphlets, or “tracts,” that he published on behalf of the Oxford Movement: “how could we withstand [the Catholic Church], as we do, how could we refrain from being melted into tenderness, and rushing into communion with it, but for the words of Truth itself, which bid us prefer It to the whole world?”

As Newman continued on in his work, however, it seems that his reason and emotion began to work in sync. He doesn’t state this overtly, but encodes it in dramatic metaphors that probably would have invoked, for his contemporary readers, some of the tropes of Romantic literature. Romanticism was a literary movement that sought to capture the messy and emotional aspects of human existence through poetry that more closely mimicked the language of ordinary people. Indeed, in a pamphlet written prior to his conversion, Newman had outlined quite a Romantic set of literary antecedents for the Oxford Movement, citing poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge and the novelist Walter Scott as individuals who contributed to the “phenomenon of the time . . . the need which was felt both by the hearts and the intellects of the nation for a deeper philosophy.”

Romantic poetry and fiction were often populated by ghosts and other supernatural characters. It’s not surprising, then, that when Newman describes the impact of his study of early church heresies, he resorts to a spectral metaphor: “It [the Monophysite heresy] was like a spirit rising from the troubled waters of the old world, with the shape and lineaments of the new.” In this configuration, the contemporary Church of England is the “new shape and lineaments” adorning the ancient, and resurrected, heresy. This intellectual truth frightens Newman as keenly as a phantom. Its implications are too great to bear.

Newman then extends his metaphor across nearly 20 more pages. “He who has seen a ghost, cannot be as if he had never seen it,” he writes, expressing the degree to which his sudden awareness of Anglican heresy had unsettled him. And then: “I had got but a little way in my work, when my trouble returned on me. The ghost had come a second time.” The powerful emotions inspired by his research thus continued to animate his investigations, leading him to the eventual conclusions that would have such a fateful impact on his life.

It may seem odd that Newman would express such a significant moment in his journey towards the Catholic Church with so ghastly a figure of speech. But this variety of Romantic metaphor is keyed to build credibility with his readers: it suggests his own deep reluctance to abandon the Anglican tradition, and his horror at the path opening before him. His conversion was not some cold-blooded academic exercise, or—even worse—the result of a Catholic conspiracy. Instead, like a spirit from beyond the grave, it could not be unseen or resisted.

In 1879, Newman was elevated to a cardinal’s chair for his long years in service of the church. He continued to write after the Apologia appeared, publishing volumes of poetry and a number of theological works. But the Apologia stands apart as unique portrait of his quest for religious truth; reading it, one can begin to grasp the fullness and complexity of his character. Though one of the most preeminent minds of his day, he did not regard deep feelings as a distraction from deep thoughts. As he himself proclaimed in his motto as a cardinal, “cor ad cor loquitur”: “heart speaks unto heart.” 

Margaret Tucker is a writer living in St. Louis, Missouri. Her work has also appeared in the Atlantic and America magazine.

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