Newman, a Model for Converts
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman set himself to the task of defending the Catholic character of the Anglican Church in what is now known as the Oxford Movement. But as he continued to study the Fathers and the early history of the Church, he saw that the early heretical sects were in the exact same relationship to the Church in the early centuries as the Anglican Church was to the Catholic Church at a later time.
Once he realized that there were absolutely no legitimate grounds to hold that the Anglican Church was part of the one Church of Christ, Newman was afraid he might be operating under a delusion. He deliberately delayed his entry into the Catholic Church for several years to make sure that he would not suddenly find he was laboring under some baneful influence he could not discern. He had no peace during this period. Peace and assurance came only after he entered the Church in 1845, and he never looked back.
The anguish of this period is captured well in The Quotable Newman (see my review, Reading the Greats in the Year of Faith: Newman and Chesterton), because the book is organized topically, so that all of the excerpts dealing with Newman’s conversion, are laid out chronologically under a single heading. This enables the reader to chart his progress, and even to feel his pain.
Perhaps the most eloquent explanation of his reasons for converting was given in a lecture a few years after the event, when he referred to and developed the parallel between Anglicanism and ancient heresies:
Nor was it solely the conspicuous parallel which I have been describing in outline, which, viewed in its details, was so fatal a note of error against the Anglican position. I soon found it to follow, that the grounds on which alone Anglicanism was defensible formed an impregnable stronghold for the primitive heresies, and that the justification of the Primitive Councils was as cogent an apology for the Council of Trent. It was difficult to make out how the Eutychians or Monophysites were heretics, unless Protestants and Anglicans were heretics also; difficult to find arguments against the Tridentine Fathers which did not tell against the Fathers of Chalcedon; difficult to condemn the Popes of the sixteenth century, without condemning the Popes of the fifth. The drama of religion and the combat of truth and error were ever one and the same.
But there were intensely personal elements as well, and at rare intervals Newman let us see not only the logic of the intellectual but the distress of the man. Immediately on his conversion, he was accused of having ulterior motives, of pursuing some peculiar idea of gain or preferment, but for Newman, who valued his friendships far more than most men, the move was exceedingly painful. A few months after his entry into the Church, in a private letter, he counted the cost:
Can you point to anyone who has lost more in the way of friendship, whether by death or alienation, than I have?...So many dead, so many separated…dear friends who are preserved in life not moving with me; Pusey strongly bent on an opposite course, Williams protesting against my conduct as rationalistic, and dying—Rogers and J. Mozley viewing it with utter repugnance. Of my friends a dozen years ago whom have I now?
And yet he persevered, and in July of 1848 he explained why, again in a letter. Once he knew the truth, he had no choice:
I joined the Catholic Church to save my soul; I said so at the time. No inferior motive would have drawn me from the Anglican. And I came to it to learn, to receive what I should find, whatever it was. Never for an instant have I had since any misgiving I was right in doing so—never any misgiving that the Catholic religion was not the religion of the Apostles.
May Newman be a model for everyone considering entrance into the Church of Rome—as well as a strength for all of us who are already there.
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