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The good words of John Henry Newman



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.

John Henry Newman. Image: Catholic Church of England and Wales (Creative Commons)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 the Anglican Church and his cultural home. His insistence on the authority of tradition, too, placed him in a continuing life of exploration within a community and not in a secure fortress of certainties over it. It made him a player, not a referee.

In this season of discontent in our public life the way in which he managed these tensions makes him of wider interest. His wide reading, scholarship, respect for his arguing partners and care in finding right words enabled him to appeal to the heart as well as the head. He met his interlocutors as persons and equals, not merely as an impersonal collective.


"His care with words stands as a reproach to simplistic, partisan, populist and polemical representations of Catholic life."


When conversation turns to faith it is common to regard the gift of finding good words as no more than a decoration on the hard reasoning that faith demands. Newman stands as a reproach to that view. The rhythms, images and music of his words opened the hearts of his readers and hearers to attend to his argument, and carried them through the complexities of the reality that he unfolded.

His famous sermon on the Second Spring of Catholicism in Great Britain encouraged and emboldened a small community to look beyond their poverty of resources to the great tradition that they represented. His care with words, too, stands as a reproach to simplistic, partisan, populist and polemical representations of Catholic life.

Newman's life points to the importance of finding a rhetoric appropriate for communicating religious and political ideas. His rhetorical store included single sentences of balanced clauses extending over a page and a half. In our time political and religious rhetoric is often based on Twitter and the op ed — single sentence or single screen. That discipline is valuable for commending conciseness, but when reality is complex its balanced consideration requires a more ample treatment.

Newman's rhetoric corresponded to his vision of the reality of the world and of faith as organic. For him reality, like trees, had deep roots and spreading branches, with all its parts related to and dependent on one another. He consistently commended the organic connections within the faith of the early church and with other churches, and argued against the simple slogans and mutually exclusive alternatives offered both within and outside the Catholic Church. For him the health of the foliage and the depth of the roots were crucial.

As a theologian Newman's great gift was for finding images appropriate to his subject which stirred hope. The penury of contemporary political and theological polemic is reflected in the tired and simplistic images for God's presence, for personal value and for social goods. To kindle hope, better images that generate more generous words are required.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: John Henry Newman (credit: Catholic Church of England and Wales (Creative Commons)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, John Henry Newman, Thomas More



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Existing comments

Andrew, I can't - for the very qualities you recognise in his sensitivity to and virtuosity in the use of language - see Newman giving unqualified assent to formulae such as "the primacy of conscience"; and also in view of his explicit criticism of a popular misconception of conscience as merely subjective, a faculty of construction rather discovery in relation to truth. In his "Letter to the Duke of Norfolk"(V), Newman writes:"When men advocate the right of conscience, they in no sense mean the right of the Creator, nor the duty to him in thought and deed of the creature; but the right of thinking, speaking, writing and acting, according to their judgment or their humour, without any thought of God at all . . . they demand for each to be his own master in all things, and to profess what he pleases . . . " A rejoinder, with strong contemporary relevance, to the Olympian notion of Nietzsche's "superman", cut loose from the alleged "slave morality" of Christianity to pursue a secular self-empowerment, even at the expense of others.

John RD | 09 October 2019  

I recommend a new book An Unconventional Wife, The Life of Julia Sorrell Arnold. Written by Melbourne writer and historian Mary Hoban, it gives a different picture of Newman. See https://tintean.org.au/2019/10/07/a-woman-ahead-of-her-time/

Frank | 09 October 2019  

St John Henry Newman suits him. What a learned guide and inspiration he is for me.

Pam | 09 October 2019  

I think I will print this article, and read it often – for what it says and for what it exemplifies. “His wide reading, scholarship, respect for his arguing partners and care in finding right words enabled him to appeal to the heart as well as the head. He met his interlocutors as persons and equals, not merely as an impersonal collective.” It seems to me that when we hold entrenched positions, we are unlikely to be converted even by “the facts”, and less likely to be converted by the facts presented angrily. Newman, and Andy who points us towards him, are perhaps tokens of how the right way to act can overlap with the most effective. We don’t see many examples of it in public life; perhaps we should applaud it more when we do see it.

GJW | 09 October 2019  

I'm confused. I understand the article is praising a great thinker and respectful participant in dialogue. But where is the reference to the miracles he performed to achieve sainthood? As Mary McKillop.

Jennifer Cameron | 09 October 2019  

Perspicacious profile, Fr Andrew! Can't help but wonder how this great intellect would apply itself to this season of discontent in the Catholic Church. Very much doubt that John Newman or Thomas More would join the clamour for the type of reform proposed by many modern day Catholics.

john frawley | 09 October 2019  

Fr Andrew, and interesting comparison between the two. Thomas More was beheaded on July 6, 1535. He left behind the final words: "The king's good servant, but God's first." More was canonized by the Catholic Church as a saint in 1935. Henry v111 had him charged with treason for refusing to recognize him as head of the church and to sanction his marriage to Ann Boleyn who Henry also decapitated in 1536. He was 67. Cardinal Newman lived to 89 and was a poet and philosopher who eschewed the Anglican religion and put on the mantle of Catholicism. A religion still maligned by Catholics to this day. Yes he did kindle hope. He is probably familiar to most Catholics for writing the simple hymn "Firmly I believe and truly", which though not in favour in the present day with its emphasis on American hymns, was one we all had to sing at school.

francis Armstrong | 09 October 2019  

Yes, Francis Armstrong, hymns such as the one you mention complemented the Catechism and encouraged familiarity with respect for the knowledge and truth components of faith. It's more than regrettable that pop tunes and songs widely substituted for hymns and choral singing have impoverished the aesthetics and intellectual nourishment of many liturgical celebrations - with no increase in Mass participation (often the justification for such innovation) on the part of teenagers.

John RD | 09 October 2019  

A timely and important article. The rancour and abandonment of common decency and respect in public discourse is truly alarming. Your appeal to the better angels of our nature and your modelling of the message through measured and thoughtfully constructed language is a refuge and a balm in these troubling times. Thank you Andy

Micheal Loughnane | 10 October 2019  

Its hard not to be polemical, Andy, but you're so right about our public discourse in today's highly competitive policy and ecclesiastical environment. The key, of course, is to mediate one's views with the dignifying attitude that everyone matters, regardless of how right or wrong they are.

Michael Furtado | 11 October 2019  

There is no such thing as the "Anglican religion", Francis Armstrong, and the term Anglican was rarely used until later in the 19th century. Even today I find the great majority of patients in our hospital still refer to themselves, as I do, as "C.of E." That name goes back in common use at least to the 14th century - "chirche of Engelond" and in Latin back e.g. to S.Anselm - "ecclesia Angliae", literally C.of E. - earlier than the Magna Carta's "ecclesia anglicana" and even that was usually translated as "Church of England" - but of course then of a Church then still in union with Rome, as the Eastern Orthodox Churches had been until the sad and Great Schism. In the 19th century one should refer to the Church of England and of course members of my Church would want to refer to the "Roman Catholic Church" but ours is not a "religion" ! However, thanks Andrew for a very thoughtful article that I should want to ponder further and to add to the many good things being written about Newman at this time. The Church in which he was baptised has at least honoured him long since with, for example, commemoration of him added to the 1978 Australian Church calendar and continued in the 1995 Calendar, and the Church of England will be well represented at the canonisation ceremony in Rome (whatever we think about the processes which have led to that!).

John Bunyan | 11 October 2019  

Pam's post resurrects another memory about Newman. The decision to separate his remains from Ambrose St John's went to a legal ruling and led some to question whether Rome was embarrassed about their relationship. Both were buried in the same grave, according to Newman's dying wish. But Newman's remains were recently moved to the Birmingham Oratory. Elena Curti, of The Tablet, expressed regret that the cardinal's final request was not being observed. "It's clearly documented that he wanted to be buried with his close friend and it's a pity that his dying wish is not being respected," she said. "I'd have thought Ambrose St John could be disinterred and reburied with Newman." Newman repeated on three occasions his desire to be buried with his friend. "I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Fr Ambrose St John's grave - and I give this as my last, my imperative will. This I confirm and insist on." Newman wrote after St John's death in 1875: "I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband's or a wife's, but I feel it difficult to believe that any can be greater, or anyone's sorrow greater, than mine." Heartless!

Michael Furtado | 11 October 2019  

Thanks Andrew for a thoughtful overview of this man who has so much to offer us.

janice tranter | 12 October 2019  

There is definitely something going on with Saints canonised from 1850 to our present day. Perhaps its because they are closer to our time - frame, (dimension) in some way. Having liberated themselves via the Most Precious Blood of His Chalice, Christ Jesus', Death and Resurrection. From all thinkable time-space, with matter being in the mix, yes, now free from all inevitable time-space- matter- entanglements. Trials, as some like to call them, and say: ''All life is a trail''... 'Now': is the vehicle they choose to intervene by; by which miraculous things happen via their intercession. As they are 'Now One with Christ' in all eternity. Read now, just 1 or 2 of their books. ''Heart to Heart'', by J.H. Newman. Read it and see for yourself! They just love it! As we give them by needing their intercession, a chance to use their very strenuously obtained, by the Grace and Mercy of God; God-given title. Let them know you need help when you do. Let your silent desperate prayer, the silent 'plea' in your mind for help, be short and to the point. For Example: 'Please Help me! Saint John Henry! They will answer. It's their job. It's what Saints do... Best.

AO | 12 October 2019  

Thank you Andy for your thoughtful and exploratory tone. You encourage me not to be afraid to continue searching out for a contemporary ethic of faith more patiently, and be able to articulate what I believe. Such patience for me means I can listen and weigh up differing realities more confidently and able to recognise the essential, enduring values (of our catholic faith).

Marie Bourke | 12 October 2019  

I have read a number of books about JH Newman. His personal motto was Cor ad cor loquitur (heart speaks to heart) which I have understood to mean that communication is more that an intellectual exchange of ideas. It should always be more personal. In one of the books about him, it is important to remember that Newman was not just a Roman Catholic . . . although that was the second half of his life for which he is largely remembered, and where he made a great contribution.. The first part of his life was spent in the Church of England (or Anglican Church, if you prefer). Here too, he made a great contribution, being an important part of the Catholic revival in that church. It is a comment in one of these biographies that it worth repeating . . . and, with regret, I cannot remember or find the reference -- I think the author was Meriol Trevor , and she says . . . In his long life, Newman was a member of two churches, and he made a great difference to both of them.

RobertR | 13 October 2019  

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