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John Henry Newman, conversion, and the papacy

In an age when ultramontane agitations were increasing and a rising cult of the papacy was being exploited by Pius IX, Newman pointed to the irrelevance and impotence of the papacy of the fourth century as a good thing.

It is cheering news that John Henry Newman’s canonization now appears to be at hand since a second miracle attributed to his intercession has been accepted.

Whenever I am asked how I became Catholic (Newman himself thought such a question should never be answered quickly—“between the fish and the soup,” as he memorably put it), I always point to Alasdair MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, and Cardinal Newman. Hauerwas and MacIntyre had limited success over several years. But in 1996, finding the doctrinal disarray of Anglicanism increasingly hard to ignore, I happened one afternoon to venture down the street from my apartment in Ottawa to a cramped used bookstore operated (as I learned only later) by a cantankerous Catholic. There I bought a very yellowed copy of Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua. I left it on the arm of my reading chair by the window for the better part of a week, refusing to open it while saying sotto voce, “That is a very dangerous book for me to read just now.”

And indeed it proved to be so. By the time I was transported to the last page, carried aloft on Newman’s magnificent prose throughout the spell-binding work, I knew I had to become Catholic. Soon after, I was hit by a bus, which resulted in being hospitalized for many months; among the further works I read during my long recovery were several that Ignatius Press has reprinted in handsome editions, including Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons as well as his Prayers, Verses, and Devotions

Later works would also prove to be of lasting value, and never more so than in the current pontificate. Last year I spent a semester luxuriating with my students in the long and dense work Newman finished in 1845, sealing his decision to become a Catholic: the famous Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. And then this year I have found myself going back again to the Apologia for what it says about the purpose and powers of the papacy, a theme treated at length in Newman’s beguilingly named Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, which was written in the aftermath of Vatican I, the consequences of which I have been re-thinking in the light of the sex abuse crisis and this papacy.

Though the Apologia is ostensibly a spiritual autobiography, it is, in characteristic Newmanian fashion, also a work deeply embedded in patristic history, especially of the fourth century. (Benjamin King’s book Newman and the Alexandrian Fathers: Shaping Doctrine in Nineteenth-Century England is a good study of Newman’s patrology, as was the work of the late Oratorian scholar C.S. Dessain. As I learned in writing my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy, an early draft of which had a chapter on Newman, he was the only theologian of the nineteenth century whose work—especially in patristics—was of sufficient stature to merit being translated into Greek so that Orthodox theologians could study him.)

Astonishingly, the Apologia was written out by hand over a six-week period after Newman had been attacked in the popular press with fake accusations about his motives for conversion and his conduct as a Catholic. Charles Kingsley was the adversary who brought forth this magnificent riposte. As I always tell my students, even if you cannot appreciate the nature of the controversy at the time, or cannot follow Newman’s conclusions and become Catholic, read the book for no other reason than to savor his rapier-like rhetoric and the beauty of his prose.

In the Apologia Newman addresses many caricatures of Catholics at the time and rebuts many charges made against the Church throughout history. In an age (the Apologia was finished in 1864, just five years before Vatican I) when ultramontane agitations were increasing and a rising cult of the papacy was being exploited by Pius IX (r. 1846-78), Newman points to the irrelevance and impotence of the papacy of the fourth century as a good thing. In typical fashion, he takes one of his enemy’s arguments and turns it back on him to deadly effect:

Indeed, it is one of the reproaches urged against the Roman Church, that it has originated nothing, and has only served as a sort of remora or break in the development of doctrine. And it is an objection which I really embrace as a truth; for such I conceive to be the main purpose of its extraordinary gift. It is said, and truly, that the Church of Rome possessed no great mind in the whole period of persecution. Afterwards for a long while, it has not a single doctor to show; St. Leo, its first, is the teacher of one point of doctrine; St. Gregory, who stands at the very extremity of the first age of the Church, has no place in dogma or philosophy.

Newman would return to the papacy again in the lead-up to Vatican I, the calling of which he greeted with not a little anxiety in a famous letter to his bishop in which he plaintively asks what need there is for a council in the first place:

No impending danger is to be averted, but a great difficulty is to be created. … What have we done to be treated as the faithful never were treated before? When has the definition of doctrine de fide been a luxury of devotion, and not a stern painful necessity?

In the end, Newman greeted the proceedings with relief, writing to the Duke of Norfolk that the extreme ultramontane party (led in England by his fellow convert-cardinal Manning) had been rebuffed with a “moderate infallibility—that is, embracing only faith and morals, whereas the ultra party wished to pass political principles.”

But many feared that Vatican I had at the very least dire political consequences. In a newly united Germany, the imperial chancellor Bismarck claimed the council reduced the bishops to the pope’s “postmen,” giving him an excuse to ratchet up the Kulturkampf. In England, the prime minister Gladstone revived old caricatures of Catholics in a pamphlet he published saying Vatican I proved once more that Catholics could never be loyal to the English crown because they were reduced to mindless and treasonous obedience to a foreign papal crown.

Newman used Gladstone’s explosive claims as the basis for his lengthy public letter to the Duke of Norfolk, the premier dukedom atop the English peerage, which had largely managed to stay in Catholic hands. It is a letter very much worth re-reading today as claims by and for the papacy and its powers are more controverted at any time since Newman’s death in 1890. His section on the relationship between the individual Catholic’s conscience vis-à-vis the pope is one I have long directed my students to. In addition, his thoughts on papal limitations are well worth recalling today. In the interests of brevity, let me just give a taste: “a Pope is not infallible in his laws, nor in his commands, nor in his acts of state, nor in his administration, nor in his public policy.” (For the rest of his thoughts, and almost all his other works I have not touched on, go to the invaluable Newman Reader website run by the National Institute for Newman Studies.)

In conclusion, I’ll make two pleas: first, for those who do not know the full, rich, and variegated humanity of Newman, read Fr Ian Ker’s unsurpassed and indispensable John Henry Newman: A Biography (Oxford University Press, 2010). I read it years ago and have often gone back to it. I met the author in 2004 when I was a nobody writing a doctoral dissertation using Newman, and Ker—the doyen of Newman scholars and an Oxford man—was extremely kind and helpful to me. His book deserves a renewed audience.

Finally, let me make bold to put in a plea on Newman’s behalf directly as we move towards his canonization: do not turn him into a “clothes rack for virtues,” as I recall him saying somewhere about plaster saints and other manufactured totems of hagiography that bleed out the humanity of those considered holy. His sharp mind—especially in matters of ecclesiology—should not be domesticated. Nor should we ignore his other gifts, not least his sly humor in dealing with stupid ideas. He has much to teach us still.

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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 110 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, IN., where he also maintains a part-time private practice in psychotherapy. He is the author and editor of several books, including Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).


  1. As the cultural pendulum swings so does reaction. Vat I anticipated Modernism evident in the ongoing effects of the French revolution and the ‘liberating’ ideas of Marxism. That strengthened the hand of Pius X. No man including Newman can be used as a gauge for truth because truth is independent of men. We abide to it. Ultramontanism is today’s Papolatry. Dr DeVille taken in context of previous columns favors the Eastern Rite approach to Papal authority perhaps if I am wrong then may I be corrected more in line with a subdued authority bordering on Orthodox primacy. Otherwise why cite Newman’s “A pope is not infallible in his laws, nor in his commands, nor in his acts of state” leaving it at that without further comment. That coupled with Newman’s remark of the good of an irrelevant 4th century papacy. The Apologia places that in context of the times. There is a sense of balance in quoting Newman’s relief that Vat I narrowed infallibility to faith and morals. If that indicates DeVille’s Catholicity then the quote of Newman’s “The pope is not infallible in his laws…” needs explaining. A prime missed example is when a pontiff acts as if he is producing laws effecting acts of state that deserve faithful adherence exactly as we find with Pope Francis’ presumption of being a law unto himself contrary to the Gospels. Laws suggested by oblique reference not by legitimate Sententia Definitive Tenenda. That is quintessential Ultramontane, and that is the issue if addressed that would have given this article a clearly defined thesis.

    • You bring something of a clear lens to the article, Father, if I am reading you correctly. While it is not at all without merit the article exhibits the prejudicial devices which are continually utilized in the verbal civil war transpiring in Ecclesia. One comes to the point of total exasperation when without respite we are abused with weaponized individualism substituting for the perennial Magisterium – which is the ecclesial contract. Academic narcissistic polemics have taken dominance in place of the virtue of humble submission to the truths of the faith.
      There is no doubt that there are incredibly challenging developments in our world which require the application of the Christian revelation to moral conundrums, but we don’t let the conundrum sit in the driver’s seat – the jawdroping awe inspiring revelation Who Is Jesus Christ is the operative element, not our emotional and cognitive disorientation.
      Our necessity need conform to Christ who has already conformed Himself to us. On the cross. This appears entirely lost on the Holy See, the episcopate and the Catholic academy.
      In the end, even the Angelic Doctor said “…it is all straw.”

      • Nicely put James. The essence then of our faith is precisely in Christ – as we know him thru the Apostolic Tradition. The Pontiff’s office is strictly abidance to the integrity of that tradition. Throughout history the Chair of Peter has been key in preserving that integrity and why I support the office not the present occupant. That is why our best theologians take issue with this pontificate and why we suffer the present turmoil.

  2. Of Newman’s conversion process, de Ville writes that “Newman himself thought such a question should never be answered quickly—’between the fish and the soup,’ as he memorably put it.” Still, there is a decisive tipping point, just as there was with St. Augustine in hearing the words of a child in the garden: “take up and read”.

    In his Apologia pro Vita Sua, Newman writes that the Archbishop of Canterberry was intent on consecrating a Bishop for Jerusalem, to have authority “over such other Protestant Congregations, as may be desirous of placing themselves under his or their [the new bishop(s)] authority” (enabling Act of Parliament, Oct. 5, 1841).

    When Newman questioned whether those entering such a missionary Anglican domain could do so “without any renunciation of their errors or regard to the due reception of baptism and confirmation” he found that doctrinal consistency simply was not relevant as a church concern. Newman then wrote to a friend “we have not a single Anglican in Jerusalem, so we are sending a Bishop to make a communion…” [!!???].

    AND, in his Apologia: “THIS was the third blow, which finally shattered my faith in the Anglican Church.”

    What then, today, of the indiscriminate “new paradigm” Catholic Church—a circus-like, big-tent do-over that even winks at resistant and fatal infections within the “field hospital”? Obscured by blankets of ambiguity, euphemistic myopia (“abuse of the young”), card-trick theology (truth is an “abstraction,” set apart from “concrete” reality), and red-hat musical chairs (the still-well-situated McCarrick nominations), and microphone fondling (Fr. James Martin)–the words “homosexual infiltration” are a diagnosis as unheard as any distress signals sent from the dark side of the moon.

    Newman ended up writing a PROTEST (Nov. 11, 1841), which after a litany of griefs ends with this: “On these grounds, I in my place, being a priest of the English Church […] by way of relieving my conscience, do hereby solemnly protest against the measure aforesaid, and disown it, as removing our Church from her present ground and tending to her disorganization.”

    Sound anything like the cleric-in-hiding Archbishop Vigano?

    Even Augustine’s discovery and reading of Romans (13:13, 14) exactly applies today: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in strife and envying; but put you on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscence.”

    To acquiesce today that “chastity” is irrelevant to consensual same-sex cavorting, or that such is beyond the reach of ecclesial self-preservation, because not illegal, exposes either absolute desperation or the absolute epitome of hair-splitting, Jesuitical casuistry and complicity.

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