On 11 August 1890, Cardinal John Henry Newman died. At one time he had been the most famous priest in the Church of England, upon which he had a long-standing and permanent effect, and from which he departed to become a Roman Catholic on 9 October 1845. By contrast to his career in the Established Church, Newman’s career as a Roman Catholic was, at one level, undistinguished. It was clear that the hierarchy of his new Church welcomed this most distinguished of converts, and regarded his conversion as a feather in its cap; but the bishops of England and Wales, like the Vatican, had no idea what to do with him. Someone thought it might be an idea if he founded a new University in Dublin, and so he set to work, but, as would be the case so often, a lack of official support meant the endeavour came to very little. Then it was thought that such a distinguished stylist might be the man to provide a better English translation of the Bible, but that too tailed off. His editorship of the periodical The Rambler, was brought to a premature close by the growing suspicion that he had ‘liberal’ ideas about the role of the laity in the Church; plans for him to found an Oratory in Oxford foundered on the same rocks. By the 1860s persistent rumour had it that he was thinking of converting back to the Church of England. As he himself noted in his journal in 1863, ‘since I have been a Catholic I seem to myself to have had nothing but failure personally.’
Such rumours were very wide of the mark, but so persistent were they that in June 1862 he wrote a letter to the Globe denying them, and adding that ‘the thought of the Anglican service makes me shiver, and the thought of the Thirty Nine Articles makes me shudder’; the violence of the language was, he explained to his Anglican friends, aimed not at them, or their Church, but to make the point that he was content to be where God had called him. He had not, he declared in the letter:
had one moment’s wavering of trust in the Catholic Church ever since I was received into her fold. I hold, and ever have held, that her Sovereign Pontiff is the centre of unity and the Vicar of Christ. And I ever have had, and have still, an unclouded faith in her creed and in all its articles; a supreme satisfaction in her worship, discipline and teaching’
He would, he said, be a ‘consummate fool … if in my old age I left ‘the land flowing with milk and honey for the city of confusion and the house of bondage.’
Newman’s works secured to him an influence on posterity which might have surprised him, and his personal sanctity brought him along the road to canonisation, but he has also left us an example of what it is to be a Catholic in troubled times. Though his name was in bad odour in Rome, though his old friend, the head of the Church in England, Cardinal Manning, suspected him deeply, and though he knew that Pius IX had been misinformed about his views, and although he felt these things deeply, none of it made any difference to his position as a Catholic. He did not believe that the moment was opportune for a declaration of Papal Infallibility. It was not that he doubted it, but rather that he doubted the possibility of defining it in a satisfactory manner; he also took on board the views of those concerned lest the Ultramontanes try to make of the Pope a dictator in matters of faith and morals. He advised against its being done, and disliked the fact that the First Vatican Council did it. But when others expressed their frustration and indignation, and some even said that they could no longer hold communion with a Bishop of Rome who had gone against the long tradition of not defining Papal Infallibility, Newman declined either to join them or to speak out in their cause. This was not because of fear, not yet the product of any illusion about what was happening and might yet happen.
Writing in November 1870, he described the Council’s decision as ‘a climax of tyranny’ – it was not, he thought, good for a Pope to reign for as long as Pius IX. For many years, he wrote, his sole consolation ‘has been in Our Lord’s presence in the Tabernacle’. But he had never had a ‘single doubt about the divine origin and grace of the Church, on account of the want of tenderness and largeness of mind of some of its officials and rulers’. The Church was what it claimed to be, and that being the case, not even the Gates of Hell would prevail against it – so one should resist the temptation – the work of the devil – to despair. He doubted, he thought, that the definition reached at the Council would do any harm, neither did he think that across the next century, there would be the flood of infallible pronouncements some feared. The Holy Spirit was the source of the Infallibility the Pope undoubtedly possessed, so why be fearful?
His memorial stone bears the inscription: Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem (“Out of shadows and phantasms into the truth”). A reminder to us all, not least in our own troubled times.