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The good words of John Henry Newman

  • 09 October 2019


It is fair to say that of English saints the newly canonised John Henry Newman is the most intellectual and active in public life since Thomas More. The number of Catholic educational institutions and professional guilds to be named after each man bears witness to that.

The title of Robert Bolt's searching play about More was Man for All Seasons. The same phrase could also be well referred to Newman, with the difference that for More winter came at the end of his life, whereas for Newman it came in the middle. He had to negotiate through times of great personal and national change many of the anxieties and polarities that mark our own times. As a result he may bear reflection beyond the world of church today.

Newman crossed boundaries of temperament and culture. He was a deeply private man who engaged fully in public life. He lived his faith in contact with the secularising trends that shaped politics and religious faith. He lost his faith at school after reading contemporary philosophical writing and returned to it through his contact with Evangelical teachers.

In the debates that marked the Anglican Church in the first half of the 19th century he had to deal with liberal ideas about faith and the place of church in society. Through his reading during these debates he came to an understanding that continuity with the Christian tradition was represented most fully in the Catholic Church. When he became a Catholic his path took him from the broad culture and ethos of the Britain in which he was raised into the narrower world of the Church to which he came.

Catholics who celebrate Newman's canonisation may do so for differing reasons. Some will find encouragement in the breadth of his faith and in his insistence on the primacy of conscience. Others will be reassured by his insistence on the authority of scripture and of Church councils in matters of faith and church life. He held together strands of living faith that today are often opposed to one another. He also challenges both groups.

For him freedom of conscience meant more than making unforced choices about belief. It required work and had its costs. Before his decision to join the Catholic Church he read in the original language the many volumes of the Greek and Latin Fathers of the Church. And his decision cost him friendships, the certainty of preferment in