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John Henry Newman - Catholic Convert and Apologist

"Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th' encircling gloom
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home --
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene—one step enough for me."

As the Catholic Church marched into the modern era, controversy increased. Not only was it fighting philosophy and science and sectarian movements from within, but it was also clashing with Protestants in a battle for souls worldwide. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Protestant missionary movement was expanding, and Catholics, whose worldwide mission ventures were already centuries old, were not amused. Whether in Africa or Asia or the Pacific Islands, territorial battles raged. Catholics' eagerness to baptize infants and terminally ill individuals of all ages often led to horror stories that little ones (and others) were being poisoned, and Protestants did nothing to quell the rumors.

While Catholics faced competition from Protestants in world mission, they also competed for celebrity conversions from Protestantism to Catholicism. The much-publicized conversion story of Mother Seton was only equaled by the triumph of John Henry Newman (1801 - 1890), who departed the Church of England to become a Catholic. An Anglican priest and tutor at Oxford University, he was the founder of the Oxford movement that sought to stem the tide of low church liturgy and more closely conform to Catholic liturgy and beliefs, including apostolic succession. In addition to sermons and books, he began writing "Tracts for the Times," defending high-church "ancient" liturgy.

Accused of being too cozy with the Catholics, he insists that he is not. "If there ever was a system which required reformation, it is that of Rome at this day," he argued, referring to the Catholic system as "Romanism or Popery." But as the years pass, he comes more in line with Rome than with the Church of England. In 1841 he publishes Tract Ninety, making the case that the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles are compatible with Catholic doctrine. The tract creates an explosion among Anglicans, and he soon finds himself a cleric without a church.

He remains in limbo for a time even as the Oxford movement disintegrates. Then, in 1845, to the chagrin of his Anglican friends and colleagues, he formally joins the Catholic Church. The following year he is ordained a Catholic priest, helping to establish Catholic schools, publishing treatises, and serving in other clerical roles. In 1879 he is named a cardinal. His intent is not necessarily to pull others away from the Church of England into Catholicism. "You must be patient, you must wait for the eye of the soul to be formed in you," he writes to an inquiring friend. "Religious truth is reached, not by reasoning, but by an inward perception."

In both Catholic and Protestant circles Newman is today remembered as a deeply thoughtful writer in the field of spiritual formation, especially that which intersects with the rationalism and romanticism of his age. In The Grammar of Assent (1870), he makes a case for faith in the face of rational religion. Religious faith, he argues, is a legitimate outcome of cognitive activity. His chief opponents are British empiricists David Hume, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill. His Apologia challenging that philosophy also prefigures C. S. Lewis:

I understood . . . that the exterior world, physical and historical, was but the manifestation to our senses of realities greater than itself. Nature was a parable, Scripture was an allegory; pagan literature, philosophy, and mythology, properly understood, were but a preparation for the Gospel. The Greek poets and sages were in a sense prophets.

Newman's writings have had a long shelf life. Thoughtful Christians in the generations since have looked to him for spiritual direction when facing intellectual struggles and doubt.

Today's reading is from Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church by Ruth Tucker. © 2010 by Zondervan. Used with permission. All rights reserved. The book's title must be included when sharing the above content on social media.

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