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The Mystery of Newman

by John F. Crosby


John Crosby, professor of philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville, known for his studies on Cardinal Newman, writes on the ability of Cardinal Newman to unite apparently opposed aspects of reality that would ordinarily tend to break apart.

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Lay Witness

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Catholic United for the Faith, March/April, 2009

I personally began to feel the fascination of Newman when I was 16, and he has accompanied me all these years, and formed me, as no one else has, and yet he does not wear thin. There is in Newman nothing artificial, nothing forced, nothing affected – nothing to make us tire of him. He is so real, so convincingly real, so utterly truthful.

Let us try to understand this mysterious abundance of Newman, and this inexhaustible fullness. To this end we begin with an idea of Newman's regarding truth and falsity.

He holds that we are kept from truth not only by error, but also by truth. This sounds paradoxical in the abstract, but it is quite undeniable considered in the concrete. Some truths can get in the way of our recognition of other truths; some can seem to exclude others. Heresy has sometimes been defined as not an outright error, but rather someone truth that is played off other equally certain truths. Thus Newman teaches that the fullness of Christian truth involves the union of apparent opposites; as he says in one place, "One aspect of Revelation must not be allowed to exclude or to obscure another; and Christianity is dogmatical, devotional, practical all at once; it is esoteric and exoteric; it is indulgent and strict; it is light and dark; it is love, and it is fear."

Now the mind of Newman is distinguished by the most extraordinary ability to find room even for apparently opposed truths. He is also distinguished by the comprehensiveness of his heart; that is, by his ability to find room for apparently opposed loves. His heart is as capacious as his mind. I think that this coincidentia oppositorum, or union of apparent opposites, explains, or at least goes far towards explaining, hat mysterious fullness of Newman.

By the way, it is because Newman knows so well how to affirm truths without letting them get in the way of each other, and because there is, as a result, so much truth in Newman, that partisans of the most different stripes try to appropriate Newman for themselves. I have seen people from the likes of Hans Küng all the way to followers of Archbishop Lefebvre quote Newman as if he were one of their own. Each of them seizes on a part of Newman, but none of these is quite equal to the whole Newman. There is usually more truth in Newman than they can cope with, and in fact, one can often draw on the same Newman in order to show the narrowness of their partisan interpretations.

We proceed now to consider several concrete ways in which Newman holds together aspects of reality that, in lesser minds, tend to break apart.

Objectivity and Subjectivity of Truth

All his life, Newman was passionately committed to what he called the "dogmatical principle." I know of no better expression of it than the following:

That there is a truth then; that there is one truth; that religious error is in itself of an immoral nature; that its maintainers, unless involuntarily such, are guilty in maintaining it; that it is to be dreaded; that the search for truth is not the gratification of curiosity; that its attainment has nothing of the excitement of a discovery; that the mind is below truth, not above it, and is bound, not to descant upon it, but to venerate it; that truth and falsehood are set before us for the trial of our hearts; that our choice is an awful giving forth of lots on which salvation or rejection is inscribed; that "before all things it is necessary to hold the Catholic faith". . . – this is the dogmatical principle, which has strength.

One cannot even begin to understand Newman without understanding the depth of his commitment to the dogmatical principle. Now it would not be surprising if Newman's passionate commitment to objective religious truth, to dogma and to the creed, would have made him suspicious of religious experience. Well, it is a striking sign of the breadth of Newman that, according to him, it is not enough to believe what is in itself true; the believer has also to apprehend doctrinal truth imaginatively and experientially, that is, to apprehend it really and not just notionally. Only on this basis can the truth gain power over him and enable him to live a life of religious devotion. Newman explores in great detail the religious experience without which there is no committed religious existence, and he is constantly striving to elicit this experience in his readers and listeners.

Indeed, Newman ought to be seen as a kind of forerunner oft hose modern thinkers who have turned, far more than religious thinkers before them, to religious experience as a unique source of knowledge of God. Newman anticipates some of their reserve about scholastic philosophical theology when he says of the traditional demonstrations for the existence of God that they "do not warm me and enlighten me; they do not take away the winter of my desolation, or make the buds unfold and the leaves grow within me, and my moral being rejoice." For all of his zeal for doctrinal truth, Newman was a great friend of religious experience and a sharp critic of the religious rationalism that expects too much from definition and demonstration. In general, we can say that Newman lived through and made his own what has been called the modern "discovery of subjectivity," and that he is in this respect an entirely modern mind. In the mind and heart of Newman, there is so much room that the turn to religious subjectivity in no way weakens the witness to the dogmatical principle. He is serious about the subjective appropriation of truth, but is no less serious about the objective truth itself which is to be appropriated, and in fact each of these commitments supports the other.

The Kingdom of God and Intellectual Culture

Newman lived a total consecration to God. This is why he felt drawn to a celibate life even while living in a Church that in no way prized or recommended priestly celibacy. It was just this total consecration of all his powers, of his whole life to God, this total freedom from worldly ambition, this single-mindedness and purity of heart with which he gave himself to God, which so profoundly impressed Protestant England. Newman was for his countrymen a witness, a uniquely convincing witness to the world of God, as one can see from the way in which England took leave of him at the time of his death. Whenever culture or civilization or intellectual excellence tended to deform genuine religion, Newman was quick to detect the deformation, and was zealous in defending true religion and in rejecting the counterfeits.

Now it would be entirely understandable if a profoundly religious personality, who consecrated himself totally to the kingdom of God, had neither eyes nor ears for the finite value of any work of man. It would be understandable, in other words, if Newman had become a zealot like Savonarola. But he did not; he had room in his heart, which totally belonged to God, for the great good of intellectual culture. The prophet who witnessed against the world from the pulpit of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, and who called the Church of England to repentance, is identical with the great Christian humanist who wrote The Idea of a University.

 For Newman, true intellectual culture is nothing other than a certain breadth and balance of mind, a certain vision of the totality, an ability to impart "the image of the whole body to every separate member. "To have a well-formed mind is simply to have, in one's intellectual life, the habit of that comprehensiveness that Newman had at all levels of his being. Newman greatly esteemed such intellectual formation and wrote eloquently about it. He even called it a good worth having for its own sake. He perplexed even some of his own confreres in his Oratory of St. Philip Neri by refusing to say that intellectual formation is only a means to moral improvement; he insisted that it is a good in its own right.

But Newman did not just combine in himself radical Christianity and Christian humanism; he made a point of deploring the fact that they so often get in the way of each other. He once said in a well-known sermon,

Here, then, I conceive, is the object of the Holy See and the Catholic Church in setting up Universities; it is to reunite things which were in the beginning joined together by God, and have been put asunder by man.. . . I want to destroy that diversity of centres, which puts everything into confusion by creating a contrariety of influences. I wish the same spots and the same individuals to be at once oracles of philosophy and shrines of devotion. . . . I want the intellectual layman to be religious, and the devout ecclesiastic to be intellectual.

How much richer the Church is as a result of the fact that Newman himself was not only devout, but also deeply intelligent and broadly learned and balanced in judgment.

Faith in the Supernatural and Recognition of the Natural

Another aspect of Newman's radical Christianity was his faith. He lived alone before God, dwelling intimately in the world of God. He realized, in faith, the ministry of the angels and the struggle in which we are involved with the devil. His faith was so strong that he could see in the Church the Bride of Christ, and in the history of the Church the faithfulness of God to His people, and in the stirrings of conscience the voice of God. His was truly a faith that is not scandalized by the world, but that finds God working in the world, and so overcomes the world.

 The one who lives out of this overcoming faith often forfeits a certain realism and has difficulty doing justice to all that is "human, all too human" in the Church and in believers. Perhaps he is embarrassed at the frailties that often remain in the saints, or feels threatened by evidences of historical conditioning in the Church. Perhaps he would rather not look too closely at the system of secondary causes, so as not to be troubled in his faith. But this is not Newman; his faith that overcomes the world did not estrange him from the world.

Newman is never disposed to repress any realm of human existence. He is ashamed neither of human corporeality nor of human historicity. In his writings we never find anything prudish; they rather breathe a great inner freedom toward all that is real. This is why he so disliked the old style of hagiography, in which the weaknesses of the saints were never admitted, and the saints were presented as epitomes of virtue and perfection, like angels in human disguise. Newman often quotes approvingly the saying of the Roman poet, "Humani nihila me alienum puto" ("I think of nothing human as foreign to me"). And when the historical sciences began to develop and to be applied to Scripture and revelation, Newman remained calmer than most of his friends. He was not scandalized to learn more than previous generations of Christians had known about the human side of revelation, and about the ways in which God had subjected His revelation to natural laws of growth and development. It did not trouble his faith, which continued to discern the hand of God in history. He did not see why revelation should not have both its human and divine aspect, seeing that it comes from the God who created man by infusing a spirit into the dust of the earth.

This is a wonderful specimen of that breadth of Newman that we have been studying. And who does not see that his faith takes on a maturity, a Christian adulthood, as a result of being joined with his realism? Who can fail to see that Newman thereby becomes a far more credible witness to the revealed Word of God? Who can fail to see something of the mystery of the man in the way in which, here and elsewhere, he brings into unity apparently opposed aspects of truth?


Venerable John Henry Newman was born in London, 21 February 1801, and died Birmingham, 11 August 1890. As Vicar of St. Mary's Oxford he exerted a profound spiritual influence on the Church of England. Joining the Catholic Church in 1845 he founded Oratories of St. Philip Neri in Birmingham and London, was the first rector of the Catholic University in Dublin, and was made Cardinal by Pope Leo XIII in 1879. Through his published writings and private correspondence he created a greater understanding of the Catholic Church and its teachings, helping many persons with their religious difficulties. At his death he was praised for his unworldliness, humility, and prayerful contact with the invisible world. He was declared Venerable on 22 January 1991. John Henry Cardinal Newman is the author of many books including, Parochial and Plain Sermons, Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, The Church of the Fathers, The Idea of a University, Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University of Oxford Between A.D. 1826 and 1843, and Apologia Pro Vita Sua.

Dr. John Crosby is professor of philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is known for his work in Christian personalism, including the work of Pope John Paul II, and for his studies on Cardinal Newman. He has taught at the University of Dallas, the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Rome, and at the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein. Professor Crosby earned his doctorate in philosophy from the Universitaet Salzburg, Austria, studying with Josef Seifert and having Dietrich von Hildebrand as his master. He is the author of The Legacy of Pope John Paul II: His Contribution to Catholic Thought, Personalist Papers, and The Selfhood of the Human Person.

Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness magazine. Adapted from the September/October 1995 issue of Lay Witness.

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