Monday, 26 July 2010

I thought I'd post this timely article about Cardinal Newman by my friend John Beaumont. John is a lawyer by training and was formerly Head of the School of Law at Leeds Metropolitan University. He is now working as a legal consultant and freelance writer on Catholic issues. He has written for leading Catholic journals in both the United States and Great Britain . His new book on converts is Roads to Rome: A Guide to Notable Converts from Britain and Ireland from the Reformation to the Present Day (2010). It is published by St. Augustine’s Press ( John can be contacted at


by John Beaumont

John Henry Cardinal Newman was undoubtedly the greatest convert of the nineteenth century. He also has much to say to us today. In the context of conversion to the Catholic faith it is a very fruitful exercise to examine the last few days of Newman’s life as a Protestant and his preparation for his reception into the Catholic Church. This can be done primarily by reading Volumes X and XI of his Letters and Diaries and by reading that classic text, written some twenty years later, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, in which he gave an account of his conversion.

Newman was received into the Church over the period of the 8th and 9th October 1845. He began to make his confession to Fr. Dominic Barberi on the evening of the 8th, continued the next day and was received that same day. In the Apologia Newman explains how this came about:

“One of my friends at Littlemore [J. D. Dalgairns] had been received into the Church on Michaelmas Day, at the Passionist house at Aston, near Stone, by Father Dominic, the Superior. At the beginning of October, the latter was passing through London to Belgium; and, as I was in some perplexity what steps to take for being received myself, I assented to the proposition made to me that the good priest should take Littlemore in his way, with a view to his doing for me the same charitable service as he had done to my friend.”

On 3rd October, Newman resigned his fellowship at Oriel College, Oxford. From then until 5th October he wrote to four persons, indicating what he might do, but only in terms of what was “possible”, “likely”, or “probable”. The 5th October, a Sunday, he spent preparing for a general confession. Then, during the period from 7th October to the morning of 9th October, Newman wrote no fewer than twenty-nine letters to relatives and close friends, nineteen of which still survive, letters that were “not to go till all was over.” In these letters he announced definitively that he was about to be received into the Church. There is in fact a thirtieth letter, also surviving, as he wrote twice during this time to his sister, Jemima (Mrs. John Mozley), having received a letter from her after sending the first one.

It is most enlightening (and, of course, moving) to read the texts of the nineteen extant letters. One of the most interesting aspects is the phraseology that Newman uses in order to express what was about to happen to him. In three of the letters he refers to his prospective “admission into the Catholic Church” and in one to admission into the “bosom of the Catholic Church.” One of these letters refers also to his being “received,” a term used on its own in three others. More significant, however, is the fact that in five of the other twelve letters (including those to luminaries such as Manning, Faber, and Henry Wilberforce) he uses the term “one true fold of Christ” or “one true fold of the Redeemer.” In another three (including that to Pusey) the reference is to the “one and only fold of Christ” or the “one and only fold of the Redeemer.” On one occasion it is the “one Church and one Communion of Saints”; and three times (notably to Jemima and to Newman’s great friend, R. W. Church) he uses the term “one fold of Christ” or “one fold of the Redeemer”.

It is interesting to note that after Newman’s death, R. W. Church claimed that Newman had become a Catholic because only the Catholic Church preserved in full strength the spirit of “devotion and sacrifice” of the Church of the Apostles. This evades the true issue by falling back on subjective phenomena (devotion and sacrifice) when Newman was interested above all, as can be seen in the last paragraph, in the evidence of objective truth (the One True Fold).

Now let us move on another 146 years and consider the following. In 1991 Dr. William Oddie was received into the Catholic Church. He was an Anglican clergyman and fellow of St. Cross College, Oxford. He had, of course, written to the Anglican Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, to explain his position. The bishop then issued a press statement, which was widely publicised at the time, in which he stated that Oddie was merely “moving into another room in the same house.” What is less well-known is Oddie’s response to this, which reads as follows:

“When I went to see him, I told him that was simply untrue. The truth was that I had been camping out in a garden shed, some distance from the main house, and one night when the rain was pouring in and the roof leaking, I went to the main house and begged for some shelter. And they opened the door and said ‘But of course! A room has always been ready and prepared for you. Welcome home!’ That was the reality.”
There is a world of difference between the approach of John Henry Newman and that of Dr. Richard Harries. Does this mean that the Catholic Church’s teaching has changed on this most important issue?
Well, it is certainly clear what Newman would have thought about Richard Harries’ press release in 1991. We know this because of a remarkably similar event. In a letter written by Newman, two months after his conversion, to Dalgairns, Newman describes a meeting with Dr. Pusey, who never of course converted, and states that Pusey expected them to act like vinedressers who had merely “transferred to another part of the vineyard.”
Equally trenchant would have been Newman’s attitude to those who today look forward to the eventual fusion of Rome and Canterbury. He had correspondence with such people, notably G. Dawson, an Anglican clergyman, in his own time and left no doubt as to what was the authentic Catholic attitude. In a letter written in 1848 Newman expressed clearly and directly why there could be no fusion: “The Anglican and the Catholic are two religions. I have professed both, and must know better than those who have professed one only. It is not a case, then, that one believes a little more, and the other a little less; and therefore that they could unite. The religions never could unite; they never could be reconciled together.” He goes on to expound on this by listing a large number of points where the two religions crucially differ, for example in respect to a living authority, one centre of jurisdiction, the sacraments, and the question of ordination, concluding as follows:
“It is a dream then to think of uniting the two religions; I speak from experience of both. And, in finding this to be the case, I am recording no disappointment on my part. I joined the Catholic Church to save my soul; I said so at the time. No inferior motive would have drawn me from the Anglican. And I came to it to learn, to receive what I should find, whatever it was. Never for an instant have I had since any misgiving I was right in doing so – never any misgiving that the Catholic religion was not the religion of the Apostles.”
It is because Newman held that conversion was a vitally important matter and, as he put it to Mrs. Lucy Agnes Phillips, the widow of an evangelical clergyman, “the Catholic Church claims absolute submission to her in matters of faith,” that he insisted that a decision must be made. On the one hand, as he wrote to many correspondents, and to Mrs. Phillips herself in 1851, “unless you believe her doctrines, as the word of God revealed to you through her, you can gain no good by professing to be a Catholic – you are not one really.”
On the other hand, Newman emphasised the seriousness and urgency involved, and the danger of delaying beyond a certain point. As he wrote in 1873 to another prospective convert, Mrs. Newdigate, “If your mind has been clear for some time that the Church we call Catholic is the one true fold of Christ, and if you can acknowledge all her teaching, what she teaches and shall teach, it is your simple duty to ask for admittance into her communion, and you cannot delay your actual reconciliation, except the priest to whom you go tells you to delay.” Newman kept preaching, especially to converts, that there was only One True Fold, that to belong to it was the key to one’s eternal salvation, whereas to postpone endlessly one’s conversion might inure one into the treacherous habit of living in sin, the sin of schism. As he wrote to Lord Charles Thynne, another prospective convert, “Two different bodies cannot form a single body: one or other is not the Church, or, to use your language, one or the other is in schism…The question is, whether, were you dying, you would be satisfied in your not having joined Rome.”
So, to return to the question put earlier, has the Church changed its teaching on this issue? Not at all. One only needs to look at the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, especially the Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) and the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio), together with a number of important post-conciliar documents. These would include, in particular, the following texts issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: Mysterium Ecclesiae (1973); Notification on the Book of Father Leonardo Boff, “The Church: Charism and Power” (1985); Dominus Jesus (2000).
The latest summary and clarification of all of this is contained in the same Congregation’s document, Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church, issued on 29th June 2007. The crucial passage is the following:
“Christ ‘established here on earth’ only one Church and instituted it as a ‘visible and spiritual community,’ that from its beginning and throughout the centuries has always existed and will always exist, and in which alone are found all the elements that Christ himself instituted. ‘This one Church of Christ, which we confess in the Creed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic... This Church, constituted and organised in this world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him’
In number 8 of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium ‘subsistence’ means this perduring, historical continuity and the permanence of all the elements instituted by Christ in the Catholic Church, in which the Church of Christ is concretely found on this earth.
It is possible, according to Catholic doctrine, to affirm correctly that the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial Communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them. Nevertheless, the word ‘subsists’ can only be attributed to the Catholic Church alone precisely because it refers to the mark of unity that we profess in the symbols of the faith (I believe... in the ‘one’ Church); and this ‘one’ Church subsists in the Catholic Church.”
In addition, in the Notification on Leonardo Boff, referred to above, the essential points are made very clearly indeed. In response to Boff’s assertion that the one Church of Christ “is able to subsist in other Christian Churches,” the Notification states that “the Council chose the word ‘subsistit’ specifically to clarify that the true Church has only one ‘subsistence,’ while outside her visible boundaries there are only ‘elementa Ecclesiae’ which – being elements of the same Church – tend and lead to the Catholic Church.” This is all part of the connection between Christ and his Church. The real reason the Church is One is because Christ is One. The voice of Christ is not preserved by Churches that contradict one another.
In addition to all of the above teaching, there is now the Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on 6th October 2007 and dealing with the implications for mission. This is completely in line with the documents referred to above.
So, when we look at Newman’s reflections on conversion and its nature we can be confident that we are looking at the truth. In addition to the teaching of the Church on this question there is, of course, the force of logic. As that expert on Newman, Fr. Stanley Jaki, writes, “Newman’s words were so many reminders that the Son of God, in whom alone there is salvation, established only One Fold, which therefore had to be the sole True Fold. After all, if God was one, and the Son was Only begotten and took flesh in only one specific moment in space and time, then the uniqueness of that Fold had to appear a matter of elementary logic.”
Finally, there is no better way to express the Catholic faith on this issue than was done by Newman himself in 1851 in a letter to an unnamed woman:

“Dear Madam, Of course, my only answer to you can be that the Catholic Church is the true fold of Christ, and that it is your duty to submit to it. You cannot do this without God’s grace and therefore you ought to pray Him continually for it. All is well if God on our side.”

(Especially recommended on Newman’s guidance to prospective converts is Professor Stanley L. Jaki’s Newman to Converts: An Existential Ecclesiology (2001), published by Real View Books and available from the publishers at

No comments: