Canonisation of St. John Henry Newman, England's new Saint


The Rev. Fr. David Palmer is a priest of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, and the parish priest of the parish of St. Paul's, off the Lenton Boulevard, to the west of Nottingham City. Father Palmer was one of several of the clergy of the Diocese who found their way to Rome for one of the most important recent events pertaining to the Church in England - the canonisation of Cardinal John Henry Newman of the Birmingham Oratory. What follows is Father Palmer's own appreciation of the canonisation.

I had the joy of being in Rome on Sunday the 13th of October, 2019, for the Canonisation of St. John Henry Newman, and have been asked to write a piece for the priests of the diocese… I toyed with writing “my holiday in Rome” but decided it might be more useful to write about St. John Henry Newman himself… because not everyone will have had the same devotion to him as I have had. I am not a Newman scholar (in any shape or form) but he has been a significant figure to me from the days before I became a Catholic, and he was indeed one of the key influences on my journey from Anglicanism to the Catholic faith.

St. John Henry Newman was born in 1801 and quickly rose to prominence in English society, by his late 20’s he was known nationally, he was an Anglican Clergyman, a Fellow at Oxford University, a noted and much respected Theologian and the leader of a powerful and influential movement within the Church of England. He was living at a time when the Church of England was very much the establishment Church, and the Catholic Church was viewed with deep suspicion (its hierarchy in England wasn’t restored until 1850), and only 20 years before Newman’s birth the “Gordon Riots” took place.

To place these in context, in 1778, the Catholic relief act was passed by parliament; it was moderate (in the extreme), it didn’t grant freedom of worship to Catholics; it did however allow Catholics to join the army and purchase land if they took an oath of allegiance. So, nothing dramatic. However, among many Protestants this was an outrageous surrender to popery. In 1780, Lord George Gordon called for a repeal of the Catholic relief act. On the 2nd June Gordon led a crowd of 60,000 to the House of Commons to present a petition stating that the legislation encouraged “popery” and was a threat to the Church of England. Anti-Catholic riots ensued, lasting many days, as the masses vented their anger. Protests were violent and aimed at Catholic targets, such as homes and chapels; bizarrely they also attacked the Bank of England (not quite sure how that fitted in). Eventually the army had to be called in to suppress the rioting. There were 300 - 700 deaths as a result.

So, this was the world into which John Henry Newman was born: while Catholics had gained some limited freedoms, the general atmosphere was very hostile to Catholics, albeit gradually moving in the right direction, and the Church of England was very much the Church of the Establishment, and not just in name only, but in reality too.

John Henry Newman was born on the 21st of February, 1801, at 80 Old Broad Street in the city of London, his father was a banker and his mother was the daughter of a paper maker.

At the age of 7, John Henry was sent to a private boarding school in Ealing. His upbringing was that of a good, respectable Anglican of the time. He wrote, “I was brought up from a child to take great delight in reading the Bible; but I formed no religious convictions till I was 15. Of course I had a perfect knowledge of my Catechism”.

At the age of 15, Newman had something approaching an “Evangelical conversion” of a somewhat Calvinistic stripe: he believed that he was pre-destined to salvation. Of course, the other side of the Calvinistic doctrine, that some are pre-destined to salvation, is that others are pre-destined to damnation. Newman later said that at the time he hadn’t really thought much about that; it was his sense of being held in God’s providence that held him. By the age of 21, he had moved out of his semi-Calvinistic phase, and came to regard it as a “detestable doctrine”, yet he always was grateful for the sense it gave him of “making me rest in the thought of two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator”. For while Newman was to leave his early Evangelicalism far behind, he never lost that sense of God’s divine providence and presence in his life, guiding and sustaining all that he did. Nor was he ever to lose the sense of awe at God’s overwhelming mercy shown to him as an individual.

Newman moved to Oxford University and studied at Trinity college, he didn’t do brilliantly in his first degree, being awarded a lower second class BA in Classics. However it was widely believed this was due to his overwhelming anxiety at his final oral examination, as all the previous evidence had led people to expect a much higher result, and this comparative failure caused barely a blip in his academic career. On the 12th of April, 1822, he was elected a fellow at Oriel college and on Trinity Sunday, 1825, in common with many young men at Oxford, he was ordained as an Anglican Clergyman. As an Oxford fellow and an Anglican clergyman, he rose to a very respected and comfortable position in the establishment. He had honour, respect, numerous admirers, and a very comfortable life in his beloved Oxford. Newman, along with Pusey (another fellow and Anglican Clergyman at Oriel) and others, came to found what became known as the Oxford movement.

The Oxford movement (so called because its founders came from Oxford) believed that the Church of England was not “Protestant” but the true catholic Church in England, they believed the Anglican Church to be a sort of “middle way” or “Via Media” between what they saw as the superstitious extremes of the “Roman Church”, and the Protestants. Anglicanism was quite clearly the Church as Jesus would have intended it - a delusion that could perhaps be held due to the influence of the British Empire, Britain being the most influential power in the world at the time - so clearly the Church of England must be the best Church…

The idea that the Church of England was not protestant, but the Catholic Church in England outraged many in the Church of England who very much believed her to be Protestant. So the Oxford movement began writing a series of pamphlets or “tracts” arguing for the Catholic nature of the Church of England. Hence the movement also became known as the “Tractarians”. It should be remembered that when they talked of “Catholic” they were not meaning “Roman Catholic” which they would refer to as “The Roman Church”, they would accept that Rome was “part” of the Catholic Church, but she had been corrupted, the Roman corruption on one side, the protestant corruption on the other. The Church of England was the middle way, the Catholic Church in all her pristine glory.

The leaders of the Oxford movement were both feted and reviled, in almost equal measure. Yet, as we know, Newman was eventually to leave behind his position, influence and beliefs and enter the Catholic Church. What led to his conversion? Well it’s quite hard to summarise, he himself wrote a whole book (his most famous book, “Apologia Pro Vita Sua”, “a defense of my life”) explaining his movement to the Catholic faith. So it can’t be snappily explained, but it seems to me there were at least three major turning points for him.

Firstly, the issue of the “Jerusalem Bishopric”.

Secondly, the “Via Media”.

Thirdly, the controversy over “Tract 90”.

So to explain these in more detail:

The Jerusalem Bishopric

The Oxford movement had been arguing that they were genuine inheritors of the Catholic Church in England, they were not Protestants, but had rather retained Bishops and Apostolic Succession, which they saw as essential to their claim to be “Catholic”. They were genuine inheritors to the Church Jesus had founded on the apostles, unlike the protestants who had broken the succession and no longer had Bishops (remember this was before the papal bull Apostolicae Curae was issued by Pope Leo XIII, declaring Anglican orders “absolutely null and utterly void”).

So, in 1841, Parliament passed an Act called the “Bishops in Foreign countries act”. What happened was that an Episcopal see was founded in Jerusalem through a joint agreement between the Church of England and the United Evangelical Church in Prussia.

Newman was horrified for two reasons: firstly, he had always believed the church of England to be the Catholic Church in England, he believed the “Roman” Church to be the Catholic Church in Rome, and in Jerusalem the Orthodox Church was the Catholic Church there. By setting up this Bishopric, the Church of England was institutionally declaring that they were something different to these other ancient Christian bodies… there should be no need of a specifically “Anglican” Bishopric in a country that also had an ancient Church, if the Anglican Church was genuinely part of the same Church, here she was in competition. Secondly, by uniting with protestants, she was institutionally aligning herself with the one group who had clearly (in Newman’s eyes) broken apostolic succession, Newman and the Tractarians had long been contending that the Church of England was NOT protestant. What now?

The Via Media

Newman’s belief in the Via Media took a serious battering through his study of the early Church and the Church Fathers. What he came to realise was that, time and time again, throughout the history of the Church, it wasn’t the “middle way”, (the via media) that was proved to be right, but rather Rome. So, for example, Rome in her battle against the Arians. Rome, on one side, contended that the divine nature of Jesus was true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the father. The Arians, on the other side, contended that Jesus was a created being, not of the same substance with the Father. In the middle were the Semi-Arians, who believed they were steering a middle path: Jesus (or more accurately “the Son”) was of “similar” substance to the Father. Newman realised that the via media in this debate were the semi-Arians… who were also heretics. As he looked at controversy after controversy, he came to the sobering realisation that Rome stood where she always stood as she resisted heresy and the groups that took the Via Media were simply a toned down version of the heresy, but none-the-less still heretical. He came to see that in his time Rome was still Rome, the Protestants were (so to speak) the Arians, and the Anglicans were the semi-Arians. In other words, the middle way isn’t right if it is simply mixing the truth with falsehood. The fact that Anglicanism stood mid-way between the Roman Church and the Protestant Church didn’t make her right, any more than the Semi-Arians were right because they stood somewhere between Rome and the Arians.

Tract 90

The final straw for Newman was the controversy over the publishing of Tract 90… so called because it was the ninetieth Tract published by the Oxford movement. The Tracts were published anonymously on behalf of the Oxford movement, and were written by several authors including Pusey, Keble and Newman. Tract 90 was the final Tract to be published, and is known to have been written by Newman. He had been increasingly struggling to remain an Anglican, and this was (as it were) his final cry from the heart. He attempted to go through the 39 Articles in the Book of Common Prayer, and show that they could all be interpreted in a way consistent with the Catholic faith; in other words, that it was possible to be an Anglican and a Catholic. It was a bold, but futile attempt. The outcry was instantaneous and vociferous. What hurt Newman most was the Condemnation from Anglican Bishops. Newman had argued that Anglican Bishops were true Catholic Bishops in Apostolic succession, and thereby the foundation of the Oxford movement’s claim that the Church of England was catholic, if these very Bishops denounced his catholic understanding of the Church of England, then there could really be no future for him in the Church of England.

I am not saying that there weren’t other reasons for his conversion, but these were certainly three of the key catalysts.

After the fall out over Tract 90, Newman, with a few others, withdrew from public life and at the age of 41 (in 1842) Newman moved to a place called Littlemore (on the outskirts of Oxford) to try and set up a small Anglican community a place where he and other like-minded travellers, battered by all the controversies, could withdraw to study and pray.

But even this caused great outrage and scandal in the Establishment, for he was accused of trying to set up a monastery and monasticism was viewed with deep suspicion. Then on the 9th of October, 1845, John Henry Newman bowed to the inevitable, he was visited by an Italian Passionist priest, who had a great love for England, called Fr. Dominic Barberi. Newman had written to friends saying how he intended to ask Fr Dominic to receive him into the Church, with these words, “Littlemore, October 8th 1845. I am this night expecting father Dominic, the Passionist…. he is a simple, holy man; and withal gifted with remarkable powers. He does not know of my intentions; but I mean to ask of him admission into the One Fold of Christ”.

Newman later relates how Barberi arrived that evening, soaked by the rain and, as he was warming himself by the fire, Newman knelt before him and asked to be received into the Catholic Church.

For the years that followed, John Henry Newman suffered in many ways, he lost his position, his beloved Oxford and his reputation. To the English establishment he had become a persona non grata, and in his new Church he was often viewed with suspicion, and this once great and admired theologian found himself in seminary classes with teenage boys being lectured by seminary professors who probably knew less than he did. Nevertheless, despite all his losses, the real presence of Jesus more than made up for them, this was the true treasure he had sought, his true master. He wrote the following to an Anglican friend after his conversion, “I am writing next room to the Chapel – It is such an incomprehensible blessing to have Christ in bodily presence in one’s house, within one’s walls, as swallows up all other privileges … To know that He is close by – to be able again and again through the day to go in to Him …”.

As you will no doubt be aware, Newman went on to become an Oratorian, eventually spending the best part of 40 years (apart from a four-year spell living in Ireland) living as an Oratorian priest in Birmingham. He continued writing though, his most famous work being his Apologia.

Years later, Cardinal Newman (as he became in later life) was recognised as the great Theologian that he was within the Catholic Church too, he had given up family, lands and friends, to serve Jesus, only to be blessed by God in this life and the one to come. He had shown that he had only one master, and this good master blessed him with more than he had previously had. However first he had to go through the wilderness, of stripping himself of all that was not God.

Key themes in his life

The fight against liberalism in Religion: Newman saw himself as having a life-long battle against what he called “liberalism in religion”, which is ironic because many who would claim him would consider themselves “liberals”, what he meant by “liberalism” he clarified in (what is called) his Biglietto speech, which he made after being made a Cardinal in 1879. He called it “the one great mischief” against which he had set his face “from the first”.

He explained what he meant in several propositions:

Liberalism was then:

  1. “the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion,”
  2. “that one creed is as good as another,”
  3. that no religion can be recognized as true for “all are matter of opinion,”
  4. that “revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective faith, not miraculous,” and
  5. “it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strike his fancy”.

These propositions he saw as being utterly opposed to catholic truth.

The development of Doctrine

Newman is famous for his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine; this may be one of the reasons he is sometimes considered a liberal, but this would come from a misunderstanding of what he was saying. To put it simply he argued that divine revelation itself doesn’t change, but our understanding of it grows and develops. So, for example, an oak tree is very different from an acorn, yet everything that was needed for the oak tree was present in seed form in the acorn. Also an acorn cannot become an apple tree, only an oak. Development of doctrine cannot actually contradict itself. Newman calls this the “Unity of Type”.


“I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please,—still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.”

This is probably one of Newman’s most quoted sayings. It arose from the declaration of papal infallibility, which many English Catholics (including Newman) were uncomfortable with (not that he denied its truth… rather he saw the declaration as “inopportune”). After the declaration, William Gladstone (who had been Prime Minister, and would be again, but wasn’t at the actual time of the declaration), wrote a pamphlet which argued that such a declaration would force Catholics to choose between loyalty to the State or the Church. That it would force a convert to “forfeit his moral and mental freedom”.

The quote of Newman was in a letter to the duke of Norfolk, a leading Catholic layman, who was also peer of England.

Newman was in something of a quandary perhaps, as he had always argued for the primacy of conscience, yet also the truth and reality of the Catholic faith.

To simplify his argument (if I have understood it correctly), he argues that conscience is the immediate voice that must be obeyed. To deliberately go against conscience, is to deliberately go against that which is the “aboriginal” voice of God in our lives. Newman said, “He who acts against his conscience loses his soul.” Yet though conscience is a “principle planted within us, before we have had any training… such training and experience is necessary for its strength, growth and due formation”.

“The sense of right and wrong”, Newman explains, “is so delicate, so fitful, so easily puzzled, obscured, perverted, so subtle in its argumentative methods, so impressible by education, so biased by pride and passion, so unsteady in its course, that, in the struggle for existence amid the various exercises and triumphs of the human intellect, this sense is at once the highest of all teachers, yet the least luminous; and the Church, the Pope, the Hierarchy are, in the Divine purpose, the supply of an urgent demand.”

In other words, we must always obey our conscience in the moment, however we should strive to form our conscience in the light of the teaching of the Church, the Pope and the hierarchy. The magisterium.

He however warned against a misunderstanding of conscience, it doesn’t mean just doing “what feels right to me”, rather conscience is the voice of God, the voice of the divine lawgiver, and if we lose that sense of the right of God over our conscience, then conscience comes to mean something else to what it is in the divine plan, it instead becomes “self-will” which isn’t really conscience at all. Therefore, says Newman, “did the Pope speak against Conscience in the true sense of the word, he would commit a suicidal act. He would be cutting the ground from under his feet. His very mission is to proclaim the moral law, and to protect and strengthen that ‘Light which enlighteneth every man that cometh into the world.’"


“If the pope prescribes lying or revenge, his command would simply go for nothing, as if he had not issued it, because he has no power over the moral law.”

The bottom line then is that the Pope can only speak infallibly if he is speaking according to divine law, if he contradicts divine law he can’t be speaking infallibly (by definition) … think back to his doctrine of development.

Newman summarises his letter by saying, “there are extreme cases in which conscience may come into collision with the word of a Pope, and is to be followed in spite of that word.”

Hence the quote we started with:

“I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please,—still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.”

Reality in Religion

Newman found in Catholicism a religion that was tangible, physical, or to put it in his word, “Real”. He contrasted his previous Anglicanism as a religion of ideas and concepts, For him Catholicism (whilst also having ideas and concepts) was “real” also. After converting to the Catholic faith, I attended a Maundy Thursday service at the Cathedral with another recent convert, as Bishop (then) Malcolm processed with the Blessed Sacrament to the Altar of repose, surrounded by thurifers, Acolytes, clergy and the people. I was suddenly overwhelmed by a sense that this wasn’t just a performance, or a show or a re-enactment, but a reality. I was suddenly overwhelmed with the awareness of the real presence of Jesus, but not just Jesus, but the whole company of heaven. I was caught up in a heavenly reality. I turned to my fellow recent convert and said, “this is real religion”. “Yes,” he said, “it is.”

Just before Blessed John Henry Newman died, he wrote his own epitaph for his grave, it said:

Joannes Henricus Newman
Ex umbris et Imaginibus
In Veritatem

John Henry Newman
Out of the shadows and symbols
into the truth.

To see him “raised to the Altars” is one of the defining moments of my life so far.

St John Henry Newman… pray for us!