The Catholic John Henry Newman

By Rev. Dom Damian Kearney


Father Damian Kearney, O.S.B. (b.1928 – d.2016) was monk of Portsmouth Abbey, a scholar and beloved teacher in the Department of English at Portsmouth Abbey School. Fr. Damian entered Portsmouth Abbey (then Priory) School in the First Form in 1940, graduating early as a Fifth Former in 1945 because of the war. He earned a B.A. degree from Yale University in 1949 and entered the monastery in 1950. Fr. Damian was ordained to the priesthood on May 26, 1956.


In the Portsmouth archives, there are two memorabilia of Newman: one, a signed photograph of the aged Cardinal, and the other, an autographed letter written by Newman from Littlemore on May 11, 1845, to a Mr. Parry, expressing his thanks for the kind words contained in his letter, his pleasure that Mr. Parry “has attained the object you sought”, and that “a Divine Blessing will accompany your labours.” It was at this time that Newman was writing his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, the book which was to settle his doubts about the validity of the Anglican Church and lead to his decision to become a Catholic. Accordingly, a few days after its completion, on October 9, 1845, in the small chapel at Littlemore, an Italian Passionist priest, Dominic Barberi, beatified by Pope Paul VI, received Newman into the Church. This was the end of a tortuous path that had begun with an “inner conversion” he had experienced at the age of 15, when he felt a call from God to live a celibate life. The decision to become a clergyman was solidified during his undergraduate studies at Trinity College in Oxford, and became a reality after his election to a fellowship at Oriel College. Upon his ordination, he soon became Vicar of the University Church of Saint Mary’s, where his Sunday evening sermons attracted ever larger congregations. It was at this period, in a sermon entitled “National Apostasy” preached in St. Mary’s by John Keble, that the “Oxford Movement” was inaugurated, and led to the series of articles on the state of the Church of England called, “The Tracts for the Times,” written chiefly by Newman and his friends, E.B. Pusey and Keble. The final and most controversial Tract Number 90 by Newman, asserted that the 39 Articles of the Established Church, could be given a Catholic interpretation, and became a turning point in the Anglo-Catholic movement, accelerating Newman’s exit from the Oxford that he loved, and the Church into which he had been ordained. Pusey and Keble were to remain in the Anglican fold, but Newman retired to the nearby village of Littlemore, and established a small college where he was joined by a group of like-minded disciples, among whom was Ambrose Saint John, his closest friend.

Newman had resigned from his position as Vicar of St. Mary’s and his fellowship at Oriel, and after completing his treatise on Christian Doctrine, he made his submission to Rome, preceded a few days earlier by Ambrose Saint John. Shortly after this, he and Ambrose left for Rome where they were ordained a year later, and joined the Oratorian Fathers, an Order which had been founded in the 16th century by St. Philip Neri. Newman found many common interests in this saint, both in his intellectual bent and in his ministry to the needy. On his return to England, Newman established an Oratory in Birmingham, where his friend and a former monk of Downside Priory, Msgr. Ullathorne, was bishop. Here he and those who joined him ministered to the poor, the sick and especially to the many Irish immigrants, victims of the Potato Famine then at its peak in their homeland. Concurrently, Newman started a school in response to the urgent need to provide a place to prepare boys for entrance into the universities. After an unfortunate choice of Headmaster, he appointed Father Ambrose to take charge, while at the same time keeping a close eye on the administration, in which he showed himself surprisingly practical and efficient. The school would embody many of the same principles enunciated in his later lectures on a liberal education. On the faculty of the Oratory School were Thomas Arnold, a recent convert and son of the celebrated Headmaster of Rugby, Doctor Arnold. Although not too successful a teacher, he gave the school the desirable publicity attached to his name. For a brief period, Gerard Manley Hopkins taught classics, and among the most prominent students in later life was Hilaire Belloc, who in many ways epitomized what Newman was attempting to produce in his students, excelling as he did in his studies at Oxford, later becoming involved in politics, and achieving a reputation as an historian and Catholic apologist.

Shortly after founding the Oratory, Newman had been approached by Archbishop Cullen of Dublin, representing the Irish hierarchy, to become Rector of a new University in Ireland. This venture proved abortive, but it led to the writing of a book on education which remains a relevant and valuable contribution to educational philosophy: The Idea of a University, in which a liberal education is defended and insists that courses of study should be pursued for their own sake rather than for practical or vocational considerations. Recently, this book was referred to extensively in the baccalaureate address of President Levin of Yale and in his Annual Report by the former president of Harvard, Dr. Rudenstine. Even though Newman was considered a prize convert by the Church, he was still looked upon with distrust by many as one who remained sympathetic to Anglicanism in many ways. By his former co-religionists, he was regarded as a turncoat and renegade, one who had been a crypto-Catholic while still a member of the Established Church. To allay these suspicions and vindicate his integrity, Newman found an ideal opportunity when the popular writer (and clergyman), Charles Kingsley, wrote an ill-advised pamphlet questioning Newman’s honesty, “What then does Dr. Newman Mean?” (A decade earlier Kingsley had written a novel called Hypatia, celebrating marriage, love and the family in early Christian times. Newman responded to this by finishing a novel that he had begun ten years earlier, set in the proconsular province of Africa during the 3rd century, which upheld chaste love as the Christian ideal.) Now, in 1863, Newman began writing his most celebrated work, his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, in response to Kingsley’s public statement that, “Truth, for its own sake, had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy. Father Newman informs us that it need not, and on the whole ought not, to be….” Newman’s lengthy rebuttal was a closely reasoned, step-by-step analysis of the long, gradual process which led him into the Catholic Church, leaving no doubt as to the sincerity of his convictions. Its publication the following year in book form was greeted with acclaim from both Catholics and Anglicans, and did much to dispel the suspicions and disfavor of his adversaries.

But again Newman aroused misgivings in Rome by declining Pope Pius IX’s invitation to attend the session of the Vatican Council dealing with the question of infallibility, a doctrine which Newman held but did not see the need to define, considering this to be “inopportune.” The publication of his study of the relationship of faith and reason in The Grammar of Assent only increased Roman distrust. But, once again, an opportunity presented itself when an issue of national concern arose and demanded a response for which Newman was deemed to be the most qualified to deliver. The issue was an inflammatory accusation made by the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, that Catholics were divided in their allegiance, placing the Pope above their country and their monarch and consequently were potentially disloyal subjects. Newman’s reply was in the form of a Letter Addressed to the Duke of Norfolk, as the most prominent English Catholic layman, in which he explained with overwhelming arguments the Catholic position. This Letter had the effect of permanently eliminating the cloud which had hovered over Newman ever since his conversion, both among Catholics and Anglicans. Cardinal Manning, a fellow convert and former friend but an Ultramontane and a bitter foe on many issues dear to Newman’s heart, was reconciled to Newman and their friendship restored.

At this time, the long reign of Pope Pius IX finally came to an end, and a new, more open era in the Church began with the accession of Pope Leo XIII. Through the powerful influence of the Duke of Norfolk, who was an Old Boy of the Oratory School, and with Manning’s support, the highest honor to be conferred by the Church was bestowed on Newman: the Cardinal’s hat, a belated but timely recognition of the profound effect he had had on the Christian faith in England for half a century. Earlier, friendly overtures had come from Oxford, the place he had loved best and the place where he had spent his happiest years, and which had inspired much of the educational philosophy contained in The Idea of the University. Trinity College made him its first honorary fellow, and Oriel College placed his portrait in the Common Room, both tokens of amity which he deeply appreciated.

It is fitting to end with a brief word about Newman as a poet and literary influence. His poem, “Lead Kindly Light,” has become a favorite ever since its composition in 1833, written at sea during a period of doubt and uncertainty, while en route from Italy to England. Hardy used this poem effectively in his novel, Far From the Madding Crowd, shortly after it had been set to music. Somerset Maugham admired his prose for its stylistic perfection and James Joyce maintained that Newman had deeply influenced his “Ulysses.” Elgar, later knighted, composed an oratorio for The Dream of Gerontius (1865), Newman’s most ambitious poem and one which is reminiscent of the medieval play, Everyman, describing as it does the final hours in a man’s life, beginning in fear and doubt, but ending in peaceful acceptance and trust in God’s saving mercy. It creates a fitting reflection on the vicissitudes that beset Newman for most of his life, but concludes on a similar note of hope and tranquility found in his final years, appreciated at last and admired by all. †