The Magazine

Bound for Rome

Newman's long goodbye from the Church of England.

Nov 6, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 08 • By EDWARD SHORT
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The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman

Volume IX: Littlemore and

the Parting of Friends

May 1842-October 1843

Edited by Francis J. McGrath

Oxford, 880 pp., $165

In a letter to Mary Holmes, the governess with whom he would correspond throughout his life, John Henry Newman remarked that "religious truth is reached not by reasoning but by an inward perception." Readers of Volume IX of Newman's Letters and Diaries, covering May 1842-October 1843, when Newman resigned his living at St. Mary's church in Oxford and delivered his last Anglican sermon, will marvel at how he managed to receive this "inward perception" at a time when, as he said himself, the Oxford Movement was "going so fast that some of the wheels [were] catching fire." But manage he did, though the cost was considerable.

"All my then hopes," he wrote in Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864), "all my satisfaction at the apparent fulfillment of those hopes, was at an end in 1843."

About Newman's career at Oxford, Gladstone said that there was "no parallel in the academical history of Europe, unless you go back to the 12th century or the University of Paris." Now that it was ending, Newman felt a kind of death. To his sister Jemima he wrote, "My life is done, before it seems well begun." These are not the typical thoughts of a man in the prime of life, even a religious man. Yet for Newman, unsure about his future but well enough aware that his old Anglican life was winding down, death became an understandable preoccupation.

Newman was born in London in 1801. His mother was of French Huguenot stock and his father was a banker in the city. He had three sisters and two brothers. In 1822, he was elected a fellow of Oriel College. In 1828, he became vicar of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. There he gave the sermons that would stay with those who heard them for the rest of their lives. He helped to launch the Oxford Movement in 1833 to reinvigorate the Church of England. Advanced by a series of tracts, the Movement also became known as Tractarianism.

In seeking to defend Anglicanism, Newman gradually came to the conclusion that Roman Catholicism was the true church. He converted in 1845. After being ordained in Rome, he returned to England and founded the Birmingham Oratory. In 1853 he founded the Catholic University of Ireland in Dublin, and in 1859 the Oratory School, where Hilaire Belloc spent his schooldays and Gerard Manley Hopkins was a master. Newman was made a cardinal in 1879 and died in 1890.

Brilliantly edited by Francis McGrath, an Australian Marist brother and the author of John Henry Newman: Universal Revelation (1997), this volume opens with the Tractarians reeling from the outcry against Tract 90. To keep Anglo-Catholics from leaving the Anglican Church for Rome, Newman argued that the Thirty-Nine Articles, to which all Anglicans were required to subscribe, "do not oppose catholic teaching; they but partially oppose Roman dogma." He was, in effect, arguing for the original Elizabethan inclusiveness of the Articles. Yet this was not how the Anglican bishops saw matters. For them, as for most of the English, the Articles were unambiguously Protestant and Newman was trying to subvert them. Indeed, some were convinced that it was Newman's plan to Romanize the English Church, and when that failed, to abscond with as many converts as he could. Newman was only telling the truth when he told Maria Giberne, a lifelong friend, "I am aiming at no idea at all."

Although increasingly convinced that the Church of Rome was the "true" church, he was still vicar of St. Mary's and sworn to uphold the Articles. As he wrote to his fellow Tractarian Henry Wilberforce in 1843, "I wish to be out of hot water [but] something or other is always sousing me again in it. It is so very difficult to steer between being hypocritical and revolutionary."

This book amply documents not only the rancor but the lunacy that gripped England after the publication of Tract 90. McGrath is particularly good at showing the paranoia that Newman inspired in some Protestant compatriots. He quotes a public letter from inhabitants of Blackburn to their bishop, in which they wrote: