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The next Doctor of the Church?

A Guide to John Henry Newman, published by Catholic University Press, features twenty-seven essays from prominent scholars across the world and is an excellent introduction to one of the most important Catholic thinkers and saints of the nineteenth century.

Statue of John Henry Newman, by Léon-Joseph Chavalliaud, outside Brompton Oratory in London. (Image: Another Believer/Wikipedia)

Last January, Pope Francis declared Church Father St. Irenaeus of Lyon (d. 202) to be a Doctor of the Church, a title given to those of eminent learning, a high degree of sanctity, and having been proclaimed by the Church. Given Irenaeus’s powerful articulation of many essential doctrines and his defense of Catholicism against early heresies, it’s unsurprising he received the honorific; what’s surprising is how long it took to receive the designation of Doctor: more than eighteen hundred years.

It leads one to wonder: who will be the next Doctor of the Church?

If I were a betting man, I’d wager that St. John Henry Newman (1801-1890), canonized in 2019, represents a very persuasive option. Indeed, there is already a book published with the provocative title, John Henry Newman: Doctor of the Church, which featured a foreword from the eminent Avery Cardinal Dulles. Bishop Robert Barron has recommended he be declared a doctor, as have various Newman scholars. And a new book edited by Juan R. Vélez, A Guide to John Henry Newman: His Thought and Life, proves the English churchman’s remarkable, outsized influence over the last almost two centuries.

The guide features twenty-seven essays from prominent scholars across the world, including Archbishop Anthony Fisher, O.P., Tracey Rowland, Michael Pakaluk, John F. Crosby, Fr. Carter Griffin, Jeffrey L. Morrow, and others. The essays encompass just about everything needed to understand Newman’s life and impact, from contribution to the Tractarian movement, his Via Media, his multiple conversions, his role as an educator historian, theologian, philosopher, and prominent cleric; and, of course, his writings on the development of doctrine. It is, in short, an excellent introduction to one of the most important Catholic thinkers and saints of the nineteenth century.

Newman must have been a pretty incredible child. Fr. Juan Alonso argues that the Englishman had multiple conversions, beginning about the age most other boys are directing their attention at girls and sports. The earlier stages of his conversion focused on the personal and spiritual, and the latter, in his thirties and forties, became more ecclesiological as he moved from the Church of England to Rome.

His first conversion in his teenage years, says Alonso, was defined by a recognition of an invisible world, the presence of another, a call to a singular mission focused on Christ, and the necessity of dogma. This was followed by another conversion coeval with early academic failure, a physical and nervous breakdown stemming from his father’s financial troubles and the death of a sister, which served to chasten him against a growing intellectual skepticism. Later, while traveling in Europe as a young man, he grew gravely ill in Sicily. That event served to further invigorate his trust in God, but also inspired in him a sense of a personal mission to renew the Church of England.

Then, finally, there was his conversion to Catholicism in 1845, which he described as “departing for the high seas.”

One of the impetuses for that final conversion was his role in the Oxford Movement, which David P. Pelio and Matthew C. Briel describe as being variously interpreted as “an awakening destined for Rome, a restoration of the Anglican Church, a revival, schismatic yet failed endeavor, or an ongoing ecclesial reality.” Pelio and Briel argue that the movement was not reactionary, but reformist, akin to an evangelical revival aimed at restoring the Anglican Church to her ancient roots, with an emphasis on the Church Fathers and the Rule of Faith, the authoritative tradition of the Church. Yet it was that very reformist desire — especially suspicion of private judgment — that made the movement unstable and unsustainable, at least for Newman. He failed, for example, to align Anglicanism’s Thirty-Nine Articles and other traditions with ancient Church teaching.

“Taking Antiquity, not the existing Church, as the oracle of truth; and holding that the Apostolical Succession is a sufficient guarantee of Sacramental Grace, without union with the Christian Church throughout the world” — these were Newman’s principles. In time, those principles led Newman to realize that the Anglican Church was not a veritable Via Media — a middle path between the extremes of Protestantism and Catholicism — but alienated from the true Church in heresy. Ironically, as Tracey Rowland argues in her essay, Newman came to see Catholicism as the true Via Media between pure intellectualism that rejected any role for history, and a voluntarist-historicism that had little place for dogmatic theology. It was through that reconfigured Via Media that Newman articulated a doctrine of development that could offer an organic account of how new doctrines could be formulated while remaining true to orthodoxy.

Newman was undoubtedly brilliant. According to Jeffrey Morrow, Newman once confessed that as a youth he had committed much of the King James Version of the Bible to memory. Newman’s knowledge of the Bible was “extraordinary,” wrote the great French theologian Louis Bouyer. And, with increasing diligence and devotion, Newman read and interpreted Scripture through the lens of the Fathers. Indeed, in Tract 85 he argued that it was impossible to adhere to the Bible without recourse to the patristic tradition. His conversion to Catholicism, then, is best understood, as a deepening, rather than abandonment of his lifelong love of the Bible.

His brilliance went beyond theology. Michael Pakaluk observes that he was also quite the philosopher, being considered for a philosophy position at Oxford (he lost out to the liberal Renn Hampden), and collaborating with Richard Whately on the latter’s logic textbook. Philosophy also looms large in several of his most famous texts, including Grammar of Assent, a book on the philosophy of faith that dialogues with Hume; and Idea of a University, which explicates his view of conscience (one that has been cited by the Catechism of the Catholic Church). He also wrote an unfinished manuscript titled “Discursive Enquiries on Metaphysical Subjects,” which has been labeled his “Philosophical Notebook.”

And, as Michael A. Dauphinais explains, Newman did extensive, influential work examining the relationship between faith and reason, rejecting liberalism, or what we might call relativism, which posts “that one creed is as good as another.” The English cleric applied his understanding of probabilities to demonstrate the reasonability of the New Testament texts and affirm the Church’s motives of credibility. He argued, pace Descartes and Hume, that humans using antecedent probabilities rely on a broader conception of reason than empiricism and logical rationalism allow. “We are so constituted, that if we insist upon being as sure as is conceivable, in every step of our course, we must be content to creep upon the ground, and can never soar,” he wrote. In other words, there must be certain implicit principles that are “incapable of proof,” upon which all other reasoning stems. This points to what Newman in Grammar of Assent calls the illative sense, an unconscious process of the mind by which probabilities unite into certainty.

Newman’s work on conscience has also proved quite authoritative, as Archbishop Fisher’s essay shows. Newman defined conscience as a property or function of the intellect, a “constituent element of the mind” and a “rule of ethical truth,” that must be informed by Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium. The Second Vatican Council II, in Gaudium et Spes, Dignitatis Humanae and Lumen Gentium and other documents, discussed conscience fifty-two times — all in words remarkably consistent with Newman’s above definition. Paul VI and subsequent popes have praised Newman’s contribution to Catholic teaching on conscience, and Catechism of the Catholic Church and Veritatis Splendor directly quote him on the subject.

Finally, I should briefly highlight Fr. Carter Griffin’s essay explaining Newman’s calling to celibacy — a calling that became clear to him at age fifteen! Carter refutes tendentious scholarship that has sought to accuse Newman of homosexual desires. He cites Newman scholar Ian Ker, who observed that if Newman possessed homosexual inclinations, it’s odd that he exhibited no struggles during his years in all-male boarding school environments.

It is difficult to understate John Henry Newman’s impact on the Catholic Church. His work on the development of doctrine and the relationship between faith and reason have been embraced by the Church in her official teaching. His personal conversion story recounted in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua is considered one of the greatest conversion memoirs ever written. His vision for Catholic education in The Idea of a University is used by academic leaders across the world. And, as this guide makes clear, he was a man of singular holiness devoted to Christ and HIs Church. As far as future Doctors of the Church go, my money is on Newman.

A Guide to John Henry Newman: His Life and Thought
Edited by Juan R. Velez
Catholic University of America Press, 2023
Hardcover, 448 pages


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About Casey Chalk 44 Articles
Casey Chalk is a contributor for Crisis Magazine, The American Conservative, and New Oxford Review. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia and a master's in theology from Christendom College.

3 Comments

  1. Thanks for this article.
    Last para. – It is difficult to overstate John Henry Newman’s innfluence on the Catholic Church.

  2. Then Cardinal Ratzinger said in 1990: The characteristic of the great Doctor of the Church, it seems to me, is that he teaches not only through his thought and speech but also by his life, because within him, thought and life are interpenetrated and defined. If this is so, then Newman belongs to the great teachers of the Church, because he both touches our hearts and enlightens our thinking.

    Pope John Paul II said in 2001: John Henry Newman belongs to every time and place and people.

    Cardinal Newman’s writings can be found at newmanreader.org, archive.org, and digitalcollections.newmanstudies.org. For links to specific works on those websites, go to stjhnewman.guide.

  3. I have read a great deal of St. John Newman’s spiritual writings. They are deep and true both emotionally and intellectually….. a joy to read.

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