The great British theologian John Henry Newman was born into a family in the evangelical wing of the Church of England. After he went up to Oxford, he moved up the scale, becoming a leader of the high-church faction in the Anglican denomination. He and others in the “Oxford Movement” began issuing a series of pamphlets, “Tracts for the Times,” in which increasingly they repudiated the Protestant Reformation arguing that their church stood in direct succession to early Christianity. Finally, Newman recognized the absurdity of his position, and made the move over to Rome. He took a number of earnest young men with him, but generally there was now a drawing back and in a sense a relief that the boil had burst and that now the rest of the Anglicans could get on with their lives.
It is hard now to realize what a dramatic move it was for Newman to convert. English Catholicism goes back to the Reformation, and was confined to a number of noble families and those around them in various often somewhat-isolated parts of the country. Generally, as Linda Colley shows in her great book Britons, the country defined itself by its anti-Catholicism. It was this that made Britain a country and it was this that made Britain Great – whether it was fighting off the Spanish Armada in the 16th century, kicking out Catholic King James the Second in the 17th century, or giving the boot to Bonnie Prince Charlie in the 18th century. Even those on or over the edge of nonbelief, like David Hume, were Protestant nonbelievers and not neutral about Catholicism.
In the 19th century, Britain had had to come to terms with Catholicism somewhat, because of Ireland. That country had remained defiantly Catholic, except for those parts in the North where large numbers of Scottish Presbyterians had settled. Being a Catholic was no longer a barrier to being in Parliament or to voting—although of course most people didn’t have the vote anyway. But it was only coming to terms. It was not embracing. For most Britons, Catholicism meant the Irish, congregated in the large cities like Liverpool and London, breeding nonstop, drinking too much, and useful only when the really dirty work was needed. Punch, the humorous magazine, was always making fun of the Irish “navvy,” who was used to dig canals and railway embankments and so forth. (The term “navvy” comes from “navigator” or “navigational engineer” and refers to the role of the laborer in building routes of transportation.)
I hardly need say that we hear echoes in America today, with our huge population of people from Mexico and South America, used by the country to do its dirty jobs and given about as much status as the Irish in Victorian Britain. I mention this to emphasize what an incredible thing it was that Newman did in converting. It was not like Tony Blair, who converted to Catholicism after he stepped down as Prime Minister, and whose action basically raised only a few jokes—and, of course, the eternal scorn of Richard Dawkins. Newman’s was really a heroic act, leaving the most comfortable and secure place in the Kingdom, the University of Oxford, and becoming one of a despised minority, and as it happens pushed off to Dublin where he set about founding a university, and then later to Birmingham, in the British Midlands, where he spent much of his later life.
Slowly but certainly Newman made his way back into the affection of his countrymen. The old wounds started to heal, and his integrity and courage began to be appreciated. The novelist and Christian Socialist Charles Kingsley made deprecating remarks, and this spurred Newman to write his autobiography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, recognized as one of the masterpieces of the English language. In respects Newman had more trouble within the church of his own choosing, because the other famous 19th-century English convert, Henry Manning, became the leader of the British Catholics, and (not liking Newman) did all he could to block his way. It was only late in life that Newman was recognized for what he was and made a Prince of the Church, a cardinal.
If you sense from what I write that I have admiration for Newman, you sense correctly. I like much that he wrote on the science-religion relationship, especially in his The Idea of a University, his lectures based on his work in Dublin. He was always science friendly, wrote devastatingly of crude biblical literalism in the Tracts, and my suspicion is that, in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, he drew on contemporary biological science in his articulation of the way in which religious claims can change and mature. In particular, he took the archetype theory of the anatomist Richard Owen, the theory that there was an original archetype or groundplan, that then evolves into different forms, like (like the vertebrate branch of life) humans and dogs and fish and birds and so forth, and applied it to Christian dogma. It is not that the basic ideas change, but that they develop over the years into new forms and ways of thinking. Not outright evolution like Darwinism, but change or variation on a theme.
This week Pope Benedict is in England and one of the things that he is doing is beatifying Newman, the first step on the way to sainthood. I have very mixed feelings. On the one hand, I think all Christianity is false, and I think contemporary Catholicism is particularly daft with its obsession about creating saints. All of this scouring for medical miracles when the real miracle, for believer and nonbeliever, is existence and life itself. I also think it tactless, given the troubled relationship between the Church of England and the Catholic Church, that the Pope should come to England and shove it to the Archbishop of Canterbury by putting an English convert from Anglicanism on the road to sainthood. On the other hand, I so admire a man who did what Newman did, because he thought it was right, no matter the personal consequences. I cherish the fact that he is getting recognition. And I think on balance that is what counts for me—that others share my admiration for a truly great human being.