Last Friday, Father Richard John Neuhaus, in a piece about the possibilities of reconverting the nation of England to the ancient faith, made a passing reference to Cardinal Newman’s diffidence about actively seeking Anglican converts to the Catholic Church and specifically cited Newman’s principle: “I am afraid to make hasty converts of educated men lest they should not have counted the cost & should have difficulties after they have entered the Church . . . . The Church must be prepared for converts, as well as converts prepared for the Church.”
Taking a snapshot of Newman’s position at any one time is always risky¯not, to be sure, because he changed his mind every other day, like a weathervane spinning around in a high wind, but because his thought was always, even in his early evangelical days, so gossamer-subtle (to which his gossamer-subtle prose serves as the perfect mirror). Thus there is real truth in what Father Neuhaus says here: “This reluctance to press for conversions was a constant in Newman’s thought, as was his view that the Church of England was, while not part of the one true Church of Christ, a valuable ‘bulwark’ against infidelity. This was joined, as students of Newman know, with his distinctly uncomplimentary view of the leadership of the predominantly Irish Catholicism in the England of that time. He did not think that leadership was up to replacing the religious and cultural establishment rooted in the Church of England.” While certainly not a false description of one part of Newman, I would add that so much more can be said¯and this too throughout Newman’s life.
I got to thinking about this issue of Anglican conversions recently when I happened to come across a book by Stanley Jaki on just this theme, Newman to Converts: An Existential Ecclesiology (available, but apparently not online, from True View Books, 4237 Kinfolk Court, Pinckney, MI 48169), a very large account (529 pages!) of Newman’s correspondence with converts and potential converts (mostly Anglican but some Dissenters). I would love to quote at length from this vast sea of scholarship, but let me cite just two letters of Newman’s from two widely separated decades after his own conversion. To one woman (unnamed in the letter), dated November 12, 1851, he writes:
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 is on our side.
Then, in a letter to one Canon Lougham, penned on December 21, 1882, he writes: “Few days pass without my having letters from strangers, young and old, men and women, on the subject of the Catholic religion. I answer them that it is the one and only true and safe religion.” Anyone who reads through Father Jaki’s vast tome, or even takes in just a few pages of it, will immediately be struck by Newman’s consistently used term for the Catholic Church: “the one, true fold” (or slight variants thereof). In fact, the first full-length book he wrote after his conversion in 1845 was the 1850 work Lectures on Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Submitting to the Catholic Church (also available in the abbreviated title Anglican Difficulties ). Here he explains, in perhaps his mostly clearly worded manifesto, his exact attitude toward the real, albeit limited, value of the Established Church of England, together with the overriding necessity of Anglicans to convert to the “one, true fold”:
For us Catholics, my brethren, while we clearly recognize how things are going with our countrymen, and while we would not accelerate the march of infidelity if we could help it, yet we are more desirous that you [Anglicans] should leave a false church for the true, than that a false church should hold its ground. For if we are blessed in converting any of you, we are effecting a direct, unequivocal, and substantial benefit, which outweighs all points of expedience¯the salvation of your souls.
That said (and here the subtlety of Newman’s mind displays itself in all its difficult-to-pin-down splendor), he immediately concedes that “elements of grace,” as we now say, are located in the Established Church:
I do not undervalue at all the advantage of institutions which, though not Catholic, keep out evils worse than themselves. Some restraint is better than none: systems which do not simply inculcate divine truth, yet serve to keep men from being utterly hardened against it, when at length it addresses them; they preserve a certain number of revealed doctrines in the popular mind; they familiarize it to Christian ideas; they create religious associations; and thus, remotely and negatively, they may even be said to prepare and dispose the soul in a certain sense for those inspirations of grace, which, through the merits of Christ, are freely given to all men for their salvation, all over the earth. It is a plain duty, then, not to be forward in destroying religious institutions, even though not Catholic, if we cannot replace them with what is better; but , from fear of injuring them, to shrink from saving the souls of the individuals who live under them, would be worldly wisdom, treachery to Christ, and uncharitableness to His redeemed. (emphasis added)
This last sentence especially, I believe, helps to contextualize Newman’s opposition to building a Catholic church in Oxford, or at least it allows us to cast light on his reasons for diffidence about the idea. Perhaps he was wrong in both the opposition and the diffidence in that particular case. But I think his overarching principle, one that he fully enunciated in his Apologia pro Vita Sua , is the right one: “There are but two alternatives, the way to Rome, and the way to Atheism. Anglicanism is the halfway house on the one side, and Liberalism is the halfway house on the other.” Not that such a principle was the whole story, not by any means. For he also knew that those in the Church of England who shirked from “swimming the Tiber” would sooner or later lapse into liberalism, which in turn would spell the end of Anglicanism as anything recognizably Christian and lead to a nation that was, in reality if not in name, atheist. (Obviously, he was right: Fewer than half a million Anglicans attend church on Sunday in a nation of 67 million.)
Accordingly, Newman was not even remotely naïve about the future of the Church of England. (Although I think not even he, with his remarkable gifts for sociological prophecy, could have imagined an Archbishop of Canterbury calling the introduction of Islamic law in the United Kingdom “unavoidable.”) For him its doom was already inscribed on the walls of history with Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy of 1534, when the Church in England became the Church of England by divorcing itself from papal authority. Even as early as his 1845 Essay on the Development of Doctrine , written while he was still an Anglican but already more than halfway out the door (he became a Catholic while the book was still in the printery), he was defending the idea of infallibility, and precisely as a bulwark against infidelity in all its forms:
A revelation is not given if there be no authority to decide what it is that is given . . . . If Christianity is both social and dogmatic, and intended for all ages, it must humanly speaking have an infallible expounder. Else you will secure unity of form at the loss of unity of doctrine, or unity of doctrine at the loss of unity of form; you will have to choose between a comprehension of opinions and a resolution into parties, between latitudinarian and sectarian error. You may be tolerant or intolerant of contrarieties of thought, but contrarieties you will have. By the Church of England a hollow uniformity is preferred to an infallible chair; and by the sects of England an interminable division. Germany and Geneva began with persecution and have ended in scepticism. The doctrine of infallibility is a less violent hypothesis than this sacrifice either of faith or of charity. It secures the object, while it gives definiteness and force to the matter, of the Revelation.
The subtlety both of Newman’s thought and his prose¯together with his personality, so naturally attuned to subtlety in all areas of psychology, life, and thought¯has provoked an enormous range of reactions, from almost hyperdulic adulation to deep loathing (a point I once drew attention to here ). But all too often, the emotional reaction obscures the underlying theological point Newman was trying to make. Why, for example, was Newman so scathingly critical (even sarcastic) of the Established Church in Anglican Difficulties and yet so genuinely (if moderately) appreciative of the genuine graces given to him during his days as a member of the Church of England in the Apologia ? There is an answer to that question, but to find it one must first look at a question more fundamental to his thought: the tension between his defense of the exclusive (and entirely legitimate) claims of the Catholic Church and his recognition of the presence of grace outside her boundaries.
Although this recognition of “extraterritorial grace,” so to speak, is another feature of his thought that so remarkably anticipated Vatican II, I don’t think it is sufficiently appreciated by Newman scholars, who tend to focus, for understandable reasons, on his ecclesiology and religious epistemology. But in fact Newman’s significance sweeps wider than that, for he throws much light on that burning issue which now goes under the umbrella label of “relativism,” an often vaguely used term that I tried to define here .
The first point to stress is how consistently Newman held to his concept of universal revelation . For example, in the second volume of his Essays Critical and Historical , he speaks in these forthright accents:
[T]he doctrine of a Trinity is found both in the East and in the West; so is the ceremony of washing; so is the rite of sacrifice. The doctrine of the Divine Word is Platonic; the doctrine of the Incarnation is Indian; of a divine kingdom is Judaic; of Angels and demons is Magian [Zoroastrian]; the connection of sin with the body is Gnostic; celibacy is known to Bonze and Talapoin [Burmese and Cambodian Buddhists]; a sacerdotal order is Egyptian; the idea of a new birth is Chinese and Eleusinian [pagan Greek]; belief in sacramental virtue is Pythagorean; and honors to the dead are a polytheism.
But, far from threatening him or leading him to a shopworn and lazy relativism (never his sin!), Newman saw these assorted proto-revelations as themselves signs, not just of the presence of God’s logoi spermatikoi in all of human society but also as pathmarkers for the Church’s evangelizing pilgrimage through salvation history, a journey he describes in one of the most magnificent passages in his Essay on Development :
What man is amid the brute creation, such is the Church among the schools of the world; and as Adam gave names to the animals about him, so has the Church from the first looked round upon the earth, noting and visiting the doctrines she found there. She began in Chaldea, and then sojourned among the Canaanites, and went down into Egypt, and thence passed into Arabia, till she rested in her own land. Next she encountered the merchants of Tyre, and the wisdom of the East country, and the luxury of Sheba. Then she was carried away to Babylon, and wandered to the schools of Greece. And wherever she went, in trouble or in triumph, still she was a living spirit, the mind and voice of the Most High, “sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions,” claiming to herself what they said rightly, correcting their errors, supplying their defects, completing their beginnings, expanding their surmises, and thus gradually by means of them enlarging the range and refining the sense of her own teaching. So far from her creed being of doubtful credit because it resembles foreign theologies, we even hold that one special way in which Providence has imparted divine knowledge to us has been by enabling her to draw and collect it together out of the world.
This might be the juncture where I could take issue with Karl Rahner’s concept of the “anonymous Christian,” which I do not find entirely helpful, despite its obvious similarities with the passage above. But rather than go off on that tangent, I will just say that he was surely trying to get at what Newman said, in my opinion, much better. Be that as it may, Newman’s own theology of conversion comes into perhaps its clearest light in another brilliant passage in Development (there are so many!):
True religion is the summit and perfection of false religions; it combines in one whatever there is of good and true separately remaining in each . . . . So that, in matter of fact, if a religious mind were educated in and sincerely attached to some form of heathenism or heresy, and then were brought under the light of truth, it would be drawn off from error into the truth, not by losing what it had, but by gaining what it had not, not by being unclothed, but by being “clothed upon.” True conversion is ever of a positive, not a negative character . (emphasis added)
So rich is this theme in Newman’s thought throughout his life that it became the subject of a fine monograph by Francis McGrath, John Henry Newman: Universal Revelation , whose frontispiece is graced with a quotation from the evangelist of the twentieth century who surely best exemplifies Newman’s approach. I am of course speaking of Pope John Paul II, and here is what he had to say to the Australian Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders at Blatherskite Park in Alice Springs, Australia on November 29, 1986:
For thousands of years you have lived in this land and fashioned a culture that endures to this day. And during all this time, the Spirit of God has been with you. Your “Dreaming” [the revelational foundation of aborigine religion], which influences your lives so strongly that, no matter what happens, you remain forever people of your culture, is your own way of touching the mystery of God’s Spirit in you and in creation. You must keep your striving for God and hold on to it in your lives. Some of the stories from your Dreamtime legends speak powerfully of the great mysteries of human life, its frailty, its need for help, its closeness to spiritual powers, and the value of the human person. They are not unlike some of the great inspired lessons from the people among whom Jesus himself was born. It is wonderful to see how people, as they accept the gospel of Jesus, find points of agreement between their own traditions and those of Jesus and his people . (emphases all in the original text)
I don’t know whether I will live to see the day when John Henry Newman might be canonized, which I pray for every day. But should that day come, then I have a second prayer to wend to heaven: that at (or after) his canonization he will also be named Patron Saint of Converts.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago.