The Triumph of Truth

Bl. John Henry Newman’s Road to Rome


In 1863, Fr. John Henry Newman received in the mail Charles Kingsley’s review of James Froude’s anti-Catholic History of England. The review contained a rather vitriolic remark:

Truth, for its own sake, 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; that cunning is the weapon which heaven has given to the saints wherewith to withstand the brute male force of the wicked world which marries and is given in marriage. (qtd. in Apologia pro Vita Sua, ed. Ian Ker, xi)

Newman was understandably provoked, and he set out to defend his conversion from Protestantism. The result was one of the Church’s supreme examples of Catholic apologetics, Apologia pro Vita Sua (In Defense of a Life). It was his answer to Scripture’s call to Christians to “be prepared to make a defense” when called to account for what they believe (1 Pt 3:15).

If you wish to read a biography of Newman, Ian Ker’s John Henry Newman: A Biography, is perhaps the most readable and scholarly work to date. Ker writes of the difficulty in writing a biography of Newman because of the colossal volume of his writings.

Apart from the Apologia and the Autobiographical Writings, there are more than 20,000 letters extant, which, together with the diaries, will eventually fill 31 volumes. The corpus published, including posthumous works, runs well over 40 volumes. The biographer of Newman . . . may well feel overwhelmed by the agonizing difficulty of selecting and distilling. (vii)

Given that, this article will discuss what he is best known for: his capacity to explain and defend Catholicism. Those who take the time to read through his “over 40 volumes” of work, will, I suggest, find it very difficult not to follow him into the Church.

Newman’s search for truth drew him increasingly toward the Catholic Church, but there were many hurdles. He passed through several stages on his journey, each rooted in the humble acceptance of truth on some theological issue. His journey of faith was characterized by three fundamental principles:

  • Openness to truth demands an openness to conversion;
  • Truth demands that reason be given primacy over all conclusions;
  • and truth demands that it be defended from those who question it.

Difficulties, Not Doubts

In his Meditations and Devotions, Newman connected his personal vocation to charity and teaching truth. He wrote, “I have my mission. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. I shall do good, I shall do his work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place” (Cardinal Newman’s Meditations and Devotions, 400).

It was precisely Newman’s commitment to knowing and teaching truth that, he states, brought him out of Protestantism into the Catholic Church. He says in his Apologia, “it was like coming into port after a rough sea; and my happiness on that score remains to this day without interruption” (214). Despite his spiritual and intellectual serenity after his conversion, Newman’s respect for truth made him admit that there were areas of faith where he struggled intellectually. Honesty prompted disclosure of the difficulties he had arriving at truth. He said, “I am far, of course, from denying that every article of the Christian Creed, whether held by Catholics or Protestants, is beset with intellectual difficulties; and it is simple fact, that, for myself, I cannot answer these difficulties” (Apologia, 214).

But he follows this admission with the statement that, “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt,” for a “man may be annoyed that he cannot work out a mathematical problem . . . without doubting that it admits an answer” (Apologia, 214-215).

For example, in response to Protestant critiques of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, Newman writes, “But for myself, I cannot indeed prove it, I cannot tell how it is; but I say . . . What is to hinder it?” (Apologia, 215). In other words, based on all evidence, including Scripture and philosophy, the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation cannot be disproven any more than the doctrine of the “Trinity and Unity” can be proven. He admits that, “when I come to the question of concrete fact, I have no means of proving that there is not a sense in which one and three can equally be predicated of the Incommunicable God” (Apologia, 215). Newman’s point is that transubstantiation cannot be proven or disproven to a Protestant objector any more than the doctrine of the Trinity can be proven or disproven to any Christian believer. This is perhaps why he acknowledged that he had no difficulty believing in transubstantiation once he had become Catholic, for the systematic understandings of Scripture and doctrine are combined most rationally in the Catholic faith.

A Contest of Principles

Newman challenged his Protestant interlocutors to turn constantly toward truth “for its own sake,” (as Kingsley accused Catholic clergy of not doing). He responded to anti-Catholic charges with the challenge to look honestly at the “first principles” of the Catholic faith and compare them with the first principles of other denominations. “Catholicism has its first principles,” he wrote, “overthrow them, if you can; endure them, if you cannot” (qtd. in Selections from the Prose Writings of John Henry Cardinal Newman, ed. Lewis E. Gates, 158).  I am not aware of a more direct and confident challenge.

Following this invitation, Newman recounts several Protestant criticisms: “It is all form, because divine favor cannot depend on external observances,” or, it is “a blasphemy, because the Supreme Being cannot be present in ceremonies” (“Catholic First Principles,” Selections, 158). To all of these and similar criticisms of Catholic practice and belief, Newman answers: “I say here there is endless assumption, unmitigated hypothesis, reckless assertion; prove your ‘because,’ ‘because,’ ‘because’; prove your First Principles, and if you cannot, learn philosophic moderation” (Selections, 158). Indeed, Newman calls for an open contest of first principles based on truth, an approach that does “not take for granted that that is certain which is waiting the test of reason and experiment,” and as he recommends, the contestants should remain “modest until you are victorious” (Selections, 158). Apologetics, according to Newman, begins with the humble acceptance that truth exists, that some truths are difficult to capture, and that assertions must be proven through the test of reason.

To Truth through Reason

Just as obedience to truth led Newman to accept that some truths are difficult to understand, honesty led him to defend those truths which can be known with certainty. In fact, Newman’s approach to conversion and apologetics demands that reason be the measure of all claims, and he argues that all measured claims lead rationally to Christianity and the Catholic Church.
Newman’s apologetics operate on two levels: First, establish the rational grounds for faith in God; then, demonstrate that the Catholic Church is “the oracle of God” (Apologia, 215). His two great apologias are An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, in which he defends the legitimacy of faith as a rational conclusion, and Apologia pro Vita Sua. Taken together these works comprise two of the most persuasive apologies for faith in God and the Catholic Church so far written.

In his introduction to Newman’s Grammar, Ian Ker wrote that this work “was his one important book which was long and meditated and premeditated. He saw it as exploratory rather than in any way definite, but this did not stop it from being the hardest of all his books to write” (v). It took him 20 years to complete, but he was setting out to do nothing less than confront and discredit British empiricists, such as David Hume, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill, who had become increasingly influential during his lifetime. The empiricists restrict intellectual assent to material evidence.

But how, Newman asks, can one assent to, or believe in, what one cannot understand and what cannot be empirically proven? The inscription on the flyleaf of Newman’s presentation copy notes that the first part of his Grammar “shows that you can believe what you cannot understand,” and the second part shows “that you can believe what you cannot absolutely prove” (xi).

His reflections on the distinction between apprehension and understanding suggest that assent (belief) is possible as long as one apprehends, even if understanding is not attained. Essentially, logic and experiment fail where the human mind, by inference, assent, and certitude, is able to advance through doubt into belief. The mind’s power to judge is able to consider more evidence on more varying levels than science or logic; this is what he calls the “illative sense.” In a sermon given at Oxford, Newman stated that, “The human mind ranges to and fro, and spreads out, and advances forward with a quickness which has become a proverb, and a subtlety and versatility which baffle investigation” (“Implicit and Explicit Reason,” Sermon 13, Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University of Oxford). The mind, then, is able to apprehend truths beyond the limited capabilities of experiment and logical deduction. In his concluding remarks on the illative sense, Newman states that, “Facts cannot be proved by presumptions, yet it is remarkable that in cases where nothing stronger than presumption was even professed, scientific men have sometimes acted as if they thought this kind of argument . . . decisive of fact” (An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 247). In other words, even scientists sometimes base their conclusions on other than empirical evidence.

Those who imagine only a mechanistic material world, such as the empiricists, “are ever inquiring whence things are, not why; referring them to nature, not mind; and thus they make a system a substitute for a God” (“Science and Religion,” qtd. in Selections from the Prose Writings of John Henry Cardinal Newman, 102). Newman contends that those who wonder at the sophistication and splendor of nature without the assumption that it is a creation  ultimately wonder at their own ability to perceive it: “The God we attain is our own mind; our veneration is even professedly the worship of self!”(“Science and Religion,”qtd. in Selections, 105).

One of his most profound defenses of God is his argument that without knowledge of him we become increasingly self-worshipping. As we see nature and ourselves as independent from our Creator, we also depart from truth and goodness. Our world, along with humanity, becomes distorted and corrupt. In Newman’s later writings, such as his Apologia, we find a growing number of passages referring to the collapse of a godless world; he defends God on the basis of evidence that the world crumbles without him.

And so I argue about the world; if there is a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, a fact as true as the fact of its existence; and thus the doctrine of what is theologically called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God. (Apologia, 217-218)

Newman insists that “this anarchical world” must, to restore itself to truth and order, acknowledge the reality of God and his plan for Creation.

In one of his most celebrated sermons at Oxford University, Newman appeals to reason, for it is in reason that we are forced to accept what is true, whether it is the probability of God’s existence or our place within his Creation. From his pulpit, he exhorted, “Let us take things as we find them: let us not attempt to distort them into what they are not. . . . We cannot make facts. All our wishing cannot change them. We must use them” (qtd. in Newman’s Approach to Knowledge by Laurence Richardson, 20). This is a far cry from the Newman described in Kingsley’s review, for Kingsley’s charge that “Truth, for its own sake, had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy,” and that “Fr. Newman informs us that it need not, and on the whole ought not to be” is—to put it simply—untrue. And finally, it was Newman’s insistence on plain truth that led him out of Anglicanism into the Catholic Church; his careful studies of Church history and patristic theology transformed him from an adversary of the Church to one of its most distinguished defenders.

Toward the Roman Shore

One need not look too long into Newman’s earlier writings to find evidence of his disdain for “popery,” and his tracts during his involvement with the Oxford Movement are filled with adamant assertions of his disdain for the Roman Catholic Church. Ironically, those tracts also disclose his process of conversion. In spring of 1837, eight years before he was received into the Catholic Church, Newman had this to say:

I call the notion of my being a Papist absurd, for it argues an utter ignorance of theology. . . . However, I frankly own that if, in some important points, our Anglican ethos differs from Popery, in others it is like it, and on the whole far more like it than Protestantism. (“Tract Ninety,” in The Oxford Movement, ed. Eugene R. Fairweather, 144)

While he concedes Anglicanism’s comparative proximity to Catholicism, his writing still confidently affirms his distance from the “Roman Church.”
In another passage of the same essay, John Henry Newman discusses his views on the structure of the church and the Bishop of Rome. He writes that:

The Anglican view of the church has ever been this: that its portions need not otherwise have been united together for their essential completeness, than as being descended from one original. . . . Each church is independent of all the rest. . . . Each diocese is a perfect independent church, is sufficient for itself. (“Tract Ninety,” The Oxford Movement, 155)

We see here that Newman’s idea of church before he became a Catholic perceived a fractured body of entirely independent communities, and “mutual intercourse is but an accident of the church, not of its essence.” And the “Bishop of Rome, the head of the Catholic world,” he says, “is not the center of unity.” Newman insisted that the Anglican church is, “essentially complete without Rome” (“Tract Ninety,” 155).

Compare these statements to what Newman wrote in his Apologia; they could not be more opposite:

The Anglican disputant took his stand upon antiquity or apostolicity, the Roman upon catholicity. The Anglican said to the Roman: “There is but One Faith, the ancient, and you have not kept to it”; the Roman retorted: “There is but one Church, the Catholic, and you are out of it.” (Apologia, 107)

Newman’s research and consideration had, through his involvement with Tractarianism, led him to view the antagonism as one between “antiquity versus catholicity.” The dilemma was—according to his earlier sensibilities—whether to choose to be part of a “corrupt” but unified Church or an incorrupt but fractured one. His fellow Anglicans argued their position using Scripture and the Church Fathers. Ultimately, Scripture and the Church Fathers proved the Catholic, not the Anglican, position. From St. Cyprian, Newman found steadfast contentions that branches “cut from the Catholic vine must necessarily die,” which are located in Cyprian’s famous work on the unity of the Catholic Church (Apologia, 110; cf. St. Cyprian, De Catholicae Ecclesiae Unitate). And he was also moved by St. Augustine’s remarks about the Donatist controversy, wherein Augustine refers to being separated from the body of the Church as ipso facto being separated from the “heritage of Christ” himself (Newman, Apologia, 110). As scriptural, historical, and patristic evidence accumulated in favor of the Catholic position, Newman found himself approaching the Roman shore, “after a rough sea.” And after his long intellectual voyage, he overturned much of what he had written before; obedience to truth led him to say of the Catholic Church: “I profess my own absolute submission to its claim. I believe the whole revealed dogma as taught by the apostles, as committed by the apostles to the Church, and declared by the Church to me,” and furthermore, “I submit myself to those other decisions of the Holy See” (Apologia, 224).

The Apologist’s Patron

From Anglican, to Catholic, to Catholic cardinal, to blessed, John Henry Newman was, as Benedict XVI who recently beatified him said, an “apostle of truth.” Indeed, it was the truth that ushered him along his spiritual and intellectual passage into the Church of Christ. Newman requested the dictum Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem be inscribed on his gravestone—“From shadows and images into truth.”

After his beatification at Cofton Park, in Birmingham, England, many have begun to refer to Newman as the “patron saint of conversion,” and this may be true—though it may be more accurate to imagine him as the patron saint of Catholic apologetics. Since his death, several hundreds of Anglican and other Christian clergy have been converted to Catholicism through the truth and reason of John Henry Newman’s apologetic writings. We see today that his writings and example continue to lead others into the fullness of the Church. But far beyond Newman’s interest in apologetics was his commitment to living the example of Christ in a broken world. During Benedict XVI’s beatification sermon, the pope recalled Newman’s “life as a priest, a pastor of souls,” noting that:

Cardinal Newman’s motto, Cor ad cor loquitur, or “Heart speaks unto heart,” gives us an insight into his understanding of the Christian life as a call to holiness, experienced as the profound desire of the human heart to enter into the intimate communion with the Heart of God. (Beatification Homily of Pope Benedict XVI, Cofton Park, Birmingham, England, September 19, 2010)

Given Newman’s extraordinary life, it seems fitting that this man who once distanced himself from the Bishop of Rome is now praised by that very bishop and lifted “to the altars and declared blessed.”

SIDEBAR

Further Reading

  • John Henry Newman, Apologia pro Vita Sua, ed. Ian Ker (Penguin, 1994)
  • John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (Clarendon, 1985)
  • John Henry Newman, Cardinal Newman’s Meditations and Devotions (out of print)
  • John Henry Newman, Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University of Oxford  (Notre Dame, 1998)
  • Ian Ker, John Henry Newman: A Biography (Oxford, 1988)
  • Laurence Richardson, Newman’s Approach to Knowledge (Gracewing, 2007)

Newman works online, including his Apologia: www.newmanreader.org (The National Institute for Newman Studies)


Anthony E. Clark is a frequent contributor to This Rock. He teaches history at Whitworth University.

This article appeared in Volume 22 Number 2.