The coming Beatification this year of Cardinal John Henry Newman during the visit to England of Pope Benedict XVI, will cap the reputation for holiness of the Church’s greatest English convert of the 19th century and whose person and writings were to bring many in his day and ours to the One True Fold Christ committed to Peter, Prince of the Apostles.
The intellectual leader of the Oxford Movement, Newman was received into the Catholic Church together with others by the Passionist missionary and mystic Blessed Dominic of the Mother of God who from the age of 22 heard the voice of God calling him to labor for the reconversion of England to the Catholic Faith.
Another convert, Dom Bede Camm, OSB, influenced as were so many seekers of truth by Newman’s powerful apologetic against the Anglican pretension to be a branch of the Catholic Church, summed up Blessed Dominic’s life-work as an Apostle of Christian Unity in these words:
"That little band of converts received at Littlemore on October 9, 1845, was not that a harvest for which a man might well have spent a lifetime of prayer and penance? Was it a mere chance that it fell to his hand to gather in those souls and herald thus the birthday of the Second Spring? He wrote himself of this crowning act of his ministry: ‘This I consider an ample reward for all I have suffered since I left Italy: and I expect that the results of such conversions will be incalculable’. May it not, indeed, be said that the conversion of John Henry Newman was the greatest event of its kind that has happened since the Reformation, and it is not likely that the future holds in store for us a greater?"
In our days we witness the further doctrinal dissolution of the Established Church of England or the Anglican Communion long predicted by Newman who was repelled by the divisive spirit of Protestantism as well as that of the influence upon its members of Erastianism, Rationalism, and Liberalism which reduced Christianity to a "matter of opinion" and to something quite different from the ancient Church which clung to "the dogmatic principle" of unchanging revealed truth.
Newman came to grasp that the Catholic Church alone could establish its identity with the Church of the Fathers, especially those Greek Fathers whom he loved and whose writings he had studied at length. He was certainly aware of the separated Churches of the East for Anglican apologists often appealed to them for their own rejection of the Roman Primacy, though in his major writings he does not deal directly with their dissident status. In his works there are slight references to the "Greek religion", the "Greek Church", the "Russian Church", the "religious communion dominant in Russia or Greece", the "Greek orthodox communion", and the "Greek communion." In his 1866 "A Letter to E.B. Pusey, D.D., on his recent Eirenikon", Newman refuted Pusey’ charge that Catholics had deviated from the teaching of the ancient Church on Marian devotion. There he revealed his great familiarity with Greek liturgical and other texts that demonstrated that the "devotion of the Eastern Churches, so independent of us, so long separated from the west, so jealous for Antiquity, should even surpass us in their exaltation of the Blessed Virgin."
In 1882 Cardinal Newman selected and arranged the "Notes of A Visit to the Russian Church in the Years 1840,1841", by his erudite friend William Palmer, Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, who had proceeded to defend before bewildered Russian theologians and prominent laity the theory dear to the Anglo-Catholic party in the Church of England that the Church existed in three main branches, the Latin, the Greek, and the Anglican. Such a volume had value in revealing the incoherent state of Russian Orthodox thought on the Church and their differences with Catholics. Encountering the doctrinal contradiction between Greek and Russian prelates and theologians concerning the validity of Protestant and Catholic baptisms, Palmer eventually despaired of his effort to be accepted into "Orthodoxy" (the Greeks insisted he be re-baptized). Newman observed that Palmer became a Catholic in 1879.
In his remarkable volume "Newman to Converts: An Existential Ecclesiology", Real View Books, 2001, Fr. Stanley Jaki has provided key excerpts from Newman’s voluminous private correspondence where one finds the Oratorian, answering the queries of many troubled Anglicans. (Pages from this volume follow unless otherwise indicated). Some sought to find justification for their Branch Theory of the Church by an appeal to the not insignificant numbers of Greek and Russian Orthodox Christians or were tempted to join the separated Eastern Orthodox communion as the "true Church". Whatever their numbers, Newman replied to one correspondent, they were not universal, and thus like the ancient Donatists confined to North Africa, were not Catholic.
The Church was the Kingdom of God on earth, and a unique visible polity ruled by the successors of the Apostles. "If the Church be a visible kingdom, where is such a kingdom, visible and yet spiritual, all over the earth except the Catholic Church?" (p. 238) The Catholic Church was "a body, and next a body in many lands... at once one and Catholic." (p.238) Moreover, the relative stagnancy of the separated Eastern Churches suffering under oppression was a factor that could not be avoided: "The ‘kingdom of heaven’ is a polity, which implies political life, activity, history, progress, development, warfare, etc. All this the Roman Church has- the Greek has not- and the more it is known, the less it is seen to have." Moreover, the enslaved Church under the Czars had fallen victim to "the Erastian heresy", and the absence of a center of unity among the Easterners negated the visible unity demanded of the Mystical Body of Christ in the world : "What centre is there in the Greek Church? What real intercommunion between Russia and Syria? A sympathy, nothing else." (pp. 215-216)
Fr. Jaki relates how to the same correspondent "Newman recalled his own path to conversion: ‘I was converted by the manifest and intimate identity of the modern Roman Catholic Church with the Antenicene and Nicene Church- to which I thought the present Greek Church absurdly contrary." (p. 222) For Newman, and this is what he urged upon a Protestant correspondent particularly objecting to Papal supremacy and Papal infallibility, such matters had to be considered in the context of the divinity of the one Church founded by Christ. This approach alone made sense. The "historical continuation of the Primitive Church in the Roman Church" can be demonstrated to Protestants by examining the marks of the Church: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. It "can be proved overpoweringly (without any reference to or assumption at all of Papal supremacy) to those who admit that a Church, one and the same, from first to last there ever will be." (p. 217)
Newman was quite aware of the different ecclesial situation of the separated Easterners who for the most part, unlike Protestants, confessed their communion of bishops to be the one visible Church. They were, however, as much in a state of schism with the Chair of Peter as the other and earlier separations of Eastern Churches (those Nestorian and Monophysite Churches which still existed).
To those Anglicans who even questioned whether there had ever been an "undivided Church" because of undeniable historical schisms, Newman had taken care to reply in his "Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans" (London, Longmans, Green & Co., 1855; Lecture 11, p. 349):
"All depends on the fact of the Supremacy of Rome; I assume this fact; I admit the contrary fact of the Arian, Nestorian, and the Greek Communions; and strong in the one, I feel no difficulty in the other. Neither Arian, nor Nestorian, nor Greek insubordination is any true objection to the fact of such supremacy; unless the divine foresight of such a necessary result can be supposed to have dissuaded the Divine Wisdom from giving occasion to it."
To one of his correspondents, Newman emphasized that unlike the Anglicans, "the Greek Church for certain has true Priests, but still it is the duty of members of it to unite themselves to Rome, which is the centre of unity, and to the Catholic Church which is in communion with it...Schism is separating from the Catholic body, and is a sin, whether the Church has the priesthood in it or not." (p. 359). With specific reference to "Greece, where a far greater attention is paid to ritual exactness, [and] the whole population may be considered regenerate", he observed the fruitfulness of the Sacraments the Eastern dissidents retained. Their possession of the Sacrament of Baptism:
"may be the foundation of a supernatural life, which is gifted with perseverance in the hour of death. There may be many too, who, being in invincible ignorance on those particular points of religion on which their Communion is wrong, may still have the divine and unclouded illumination of faith on those numerous points on which it is right; And further, if we consider that there is a true priesthood in certain countries, and a true sacrifice, the benefits of Mass to those who never had the means of knowing better, may be almost the same as they are in the Catholic Church. Humble souls who came in faith and love to the heavenly rite, under whatever disadvantages they lie, from the faulty discipline of their Communion, may obtain as well as we, remission of such sins as the sacrifice directly effects, and that supernatural charity which wipes out greater ones. Moreover, when the Blessed Sacrament is lifted up, they adore, as well we, the true Immaculate Lamb of God; and when they communicate, it is the True Bread of Life, and nothing short of it, which they receive for the eternal health of their souls."
In a famous text "Cathedra Sempiterna" composed in 1853, John Henry Newman again vigorously confessed his faith in that Papal supremacy that is an essential aspect of the hierarchical constitution of the Church Christ founded:
"Deeply do I feel, ever will I confess, for I can appeal to the ample testimony of history to bear me out, that, in questions of right and wrong, there is nothing really strong in the whole world, nothing decisive and operative, but the voice of him, to whom have been committed the keys of the kingdom and the oversight of Christ’s flock. The voice of Peter is now, as it ever has been, a real authority, infallible when it teaches, prosperous when it commands, ever taking the lead wisely and distinctly in its own province, adding certainty to what is probable, and persuasion to what is certain. Before it speaks, the most saintly may mistake; and after it has spoken, the most gifted must obey." (p. 509)
No false ecumenism with the future Blessed. It is in Cardinal Newman’s many letters to converts that one can read stirring testimonies to his fervent belief that the Catholic Church is the One True Fold of Jesus, the duty of all to submit to it, and an absolute repudiation of any compromise or equivocation in the expression of that belief.
The above article was published in the April 29, 2010, issue of the national Catholic newspaper "The Wanderer" (201 Ohio St., St. Paul MN 55107).
James Likoudis is the author of "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church", the most comprehensive work in English dealing with Eastern Orthodox objections to Catholic doctrines. It is available from the author, P.O.Box 852, Montour Falls, NY 14865, for $27.95 (covers S&H). For other articles of interest visit: James Likoudis' Homepage