Twentieth Century Theology

The influence of John Henry Newman

John Henry Newman, that great English Christian, has been a clear leaven of renewal of Catholic theology in the twentieth century, especially in the areas of Fundamental Theology. 

Juan Luis Lorda-October 12, 2019-Reading time: 7 minutes

What is the most important thing about Newman," a student asked me after hearing me praise him enthusiastically and confessing that I knew nothing about him. And I answered: "That he is a convert". And it seems to me a good definition, although it needs some nuances. 

Newman is a convert in two senses. 

First, because his life was a life of constant conversion, in search of the truth that is God: that truth, that light, as he would like to define it, led him as a child and decided him to pray, to serve the Lord, to be celibate, to be an Anglican minister, to try to renew the formation of the students in the schools, to be a priest, to be a priest, to be a priest, to be an Anglican minister, and to try to renew the formation of the students in the schools. colleges and also to revitalize the Church of England, delving into its roots: the Fathers of the Church and the early councils.

He is also a convert because this search led him to join the Catholic Church (1845). Today, for ecumenical sensitivity, but also for theological precision, these steps are not usually called conversions. We speak of reaching full communion or some other equivalent expression. And that is fine.

Newman himself was very much aware of the Christian truth that he had learned and lived in the Anglican Church, although he was also completely sure of the step he had taken. He had done so after a long process of reflection, in clear obedience to his conscience and with all purity of intention, bearing in mind the clear disadvantages that such a conversion would entail for his personal situation and for his future. He would have to give up his university lifestyle, which he loved dearly, all his academic achievements and aspirations, and many of his friendships in Oxford. And he did so without any guarantees about his future. As well as a convert, he was a brave man. 

Theology and life 

That his reflection is so closely linked to his life gives it a singular theological value. For this reason, Newman's great theological themes are so powerful: his idea of what faith is and on what kind of reasons it is based, of the relationship between faith and reason, of the role of conscience, of the historical and vital legitimacy of the Church, of the value of the Church's doctrine and its developments, of Christian formation and of the role of theology among university studies. What perhaps in other authors is taken only from books, in him has passed through his life. Although, certainly, through a life where study - the search for truth - has occupied a very relevant place. 

Newman's most important book, therefore, is a somewhat circumstantial one: the Apology pro vita suaThe book, which arose from the need to demonstrate that he had been Christian and intellectually honest when he had decided to join the Catholic Church, is of extraordinary value for all matters having to do with faith, conscience and the credibility of the Church. His spiritual itinerary, magnificently narrated, has an extraordinary value for all the themes that have to do with faith, conscience and the credibility of the Church. It can be placed, without any exaggeration, in the wake of the Confessions of St. Augustine. 

Despite the relative difficulty of precisely following the thread, or skein, of its influences, there is no doubt that it has had an impact on many topics of Fundamental Theology, Ecclesiology and Apologetics, in a broad sense, by placing the Christian faith before the most intimate needs of people, but also in the body of knowledge and before the demands of credibility of the modern world. 

He was moved by a great love for the truth and the great sorrow of seeing his contemporaries moving away from the faith and losing their Christian roots. In addition, he developed an intense personal apostolate, at the same time respectful and authentic. He was convinced of this path -cor ad cor loquitur (the heart speaks to the heart) - and his more than seventy thousand letters bear witness to this. A treasure largely undiscovered, because it needs a lot of translation, presentation and context. 

And he was not only a thinker. In the first place, he was the soul of the Oxford movement, which wanted to revitalize the Anglican Church; then, he founded the Oratory in England, and he brought forward the houses of London and Birmingham, where he also founded and directed a college, with great commitment. As a Catholic, he attended to the various requests of the English episcopate, such as a new translation of the Bible (which, in the end, was suspended), or of the Irish, such as the foundation of a Catholic University; a project that would give rise to his famous essay on The idea of the UniversityThe project was promoted by the Holy See, but met with local (Catholic) reluctance, to the point of paralyzing the project. Not everything was satisfactory. Entering his old age, and before being named cardinal (1879), he felt more like a failure. 

Intellectual style 

There is another reason that should also be kept in mind when thinking about his influence. Newman comes from a mental world very different from the Roman Catholicism of his time, which is marked by the manualistic tradition (although more so in Rome than elsewhere). For this reason he also renews, because he sees things in a different perspective and says them in a different way. 

In the forms of dealings, but also in intellectual usages, Newman was a gentleman of Oxford. Although, of course, he did not connect with the more pedantic or snobbish aspects that this figure could then acquire. In this sense, the considerations that he makes at the end of The idea of the universityon the differences and the various requirements between a gentlemanwith an exquisite liberal education, and a Christian. 

But he clearly has a cultivated English way of thinking. He is convinced that whatever one says one has to be able to prove, and that, for that very reason, it is in bad taste to make claims that are too grand. He is very sensitive to the intellectual demands of the English tradition, such as Hume's distinction between matter of fact (matter of fact, immediate evidence) and relations of ideas (necessary deductions), as the two fundamental ways of proving something. Your Grammar of assent wants to defend the legitimacy of the faith in this context. Partly by "broadening reason", to use a phrase made famous by Benedict XVI. 

When in your Apology describes the many gifts of his friend Hurrel Froude, he says: "He possessed a keen penetration of abstract truth, but was an Englishman to the core in his strict adherence to the real and concrete.". Exactly the same as Newman. Style somewhat disconcerting for the "continental" taste, which identifies thinking with handling brilliant abstractions. 

Newman has in front of him the English liberal critical sector, which he knows very well. Everything he says, also about Christianity, has to be justifiable also in those forums. This makes him very moderate and nuanced, but also very precise. That is why sometimes too quick summaries of his doctrine can be unfortunate. You have to understand him very well to summarize him well.

Newman in the Catechism and in the Council

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, he is quoted 4 times, which is significant for an author who was not canonized at the time. And they are emblematic quotations: on the certainty of the faith (n. 157), on conscience and its judgments (n. 1778, taken from the famous Letter to the Duke of Norfolk), on the experience of the sacred (n. 2144) and on putting God above the goods of this world (n. 1723), quotes taken from his pastoral sermons. 

On the occasion of the first centenary of his death (1990), Pedro Langa made an in-depth study for the Augustinian Magazinewhere he searched in the documentation of the Second Vatican Council for all the references that could be found. Some of them are rather scattered. However, by then some of Newman's themes were already common doctrine, at least among the most knowledgeable. His biographer Ian Ker, who earlier did a work on Newman's role in the Second Vatican Council (Newman on Vatican II), points to an important influence on Dignitatis humanaewhich will be discussed later, and in Lumen Gentiumthe great encyclical on the Church. He looks in particular at the role of the laity, and asserts that Newman would have viewed with great joy the renewal of theology and the institutions for the laity and lay movements that developed in the twentieth century Church. 

Newman in theology 

The direct influence of Newman on the renewal of the ideas of revelation and faith has been well studied (by Nédoncelle and others) for many years, and we have already commented on it. His Grammar of assent has remained in this sense a point of reference. His influence on Blondel and De Lubac has also been studied, in the change of the apologetic approach and in some aspects of ecclesiology. His essay on justification, when he was still an Anglican, and the later nuances, are also a relevant contribution, which has been studied, for example, by José Morales, one of the greatest Spanish-speaking experts, biographer and editor of Newman.  

Having reflected at a time when liberal English governments wanted to transform the traditional Anglican Church, Newman had a very clear conception of the participation of the laity in public life. And he has given much thought to the relationship between Church and State. 

For his defense of conscience, he is considered a forerunner of the Decree Dignitatis humanaeThe Council of the Second Vatican Council, which, on the one hand, defends the obligation of conscience to seek the truth and, on the other, the need for public life to provide the necessary space for everyone to do so. 

This, as is well known, put an end to the old Christian ideal of confessional nations and provoked the schism of Lefebvre, who believed he saw an illegitimate change in the doctrine of the Church. In a famous address to the Roman Curia (22 December 2005), the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI addressed this point with great clarity. He distinguished between reform and rupture in the interpretation of the Council, and showed how this change was not a rupture, but a legitimate and coherent evolution of doctrine. 

This finely nuanced concept of evolution in doctrine owes much to Newman's pioneering book Essay on the evolution of Christian doctrines.which he composed when he wanted to explain the changes that separated the Anglican Church from the Catholic Church, in order to respond to the claims of the Protestant reformers. It opened a panorama on the question and aroused a wide debate.  

Reading recommendations

Undoubtedly, Newman's greatest book is his Apology pro vita sua. It is preferable to read it in an annotated edition (Encuentro) and better after having read a biography. In Spanish, the already classic one by José Morales (Rialp) and the more recent and extensive one by Ian Ker (Palabra) stand out. The other universal work of Newman is the Idea of the university (o Discourses on the purpose and nature of university education.), a brilliant and always inspiring work for the intellectual tasks and the role of Christianity among knowledge. The Anglican and Catholic sermons are being systematically edited, as well as collections of letters and diaries, in addition to the important Letter to the Duke of Norfolkwhich we have mentioned. His novels are interesting, although less known Losing and winningautobiographical, and Calixtaabout the first Christians and the persecutions. 

The other major works are of a more specialized nature: Grammar of assent, Via Media of the Anglican Church, The Arians in the 4th century¸ Essay on the development of Christian doctrine.... However, it should be known that Newman's "minor" work is immense and can be consulted online in English on the pages of Newman reader

The work of Víctor García Ruiz, a great translator and scholar of Newman, John Henry Newman. The Mediterranean voyage of 1833 (Encounter, 2018), recomposes on the basis of letters and diaries the trip to Sicily and his illness there. And there appears that scene that is etched in anyone who has read his Apology. Believing himself to be dying and with a fever that made him delirious, he repeated: "I have not sinned against the light.". He claims he didn't know why he said it, but the reader who has made it this far already knows: the young Newman was faithful to the light of God that guided him. Learning to personally follow the light of conscience, and then discovering the role of the Church in keeping that light alive in the world, are the greatest lessons of this holy theologian. n

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