Blessed John Henry Newman on Conversion

Sep 20th, 2010 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Yesterday, John Henry Newman was formally beatified by Pope Benedict XVI. Newman is considered by many to be the (de facto) patron saint of converts. In what follows, I will share some of Newman’s insights on conversion, particularly as concerns the intellectual reception and expression of Catholic doctrine on the part of the convert.

Newman wrote various books and treatises on the subject of conversion, to the end of helping to clear the way for others to find what he earnestly believed that he had found: the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Among the most obvious examples of such works are Difficulties of Anglicans and Letter to Dr. Pusey. Some of the more personal aspects of Newman’s spiritual journey are related in the books, Loss and Gain and Apologia pro vita sua. The former is a work of fiction. Although it is intended to reflect Newman’s own experiences, it is not simply a pseudonymous retelling of those experiences. The famous Apologia is an autobiographical account of the developments of Newman’s religious opinions up to his conversion to Catholicism. The Letter to Dr. Pusey is a tract largely concerned to explain and thereby explicate the Catholic doctrines and devotions pertaining to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

In the latter work, Newman (then more than twenty years a Catholic) offers the following description of the duties and prerogatives of the convert. First, and most fundamentally, is the movement of submission and reception:

Of course, as you say, a convert comes to learn, and not to pick and choose. He comes in simplicity and confidence, and it does not occur to him to weigh and measure every proceeding, every practice which he meets with among those whom he has joined. He comes to Catholicism as to a living system, with a living teaching, and not to a mere collection of decrees and canons, which by themselves are of course but the framework, not the body and substance of the Church. And this is a truth which concerns, which binds, those also who never knew any other religion, not only the convert. By the Catholic system, I mean that rule of life, and those practices of devotion, for which we shall look in vain in the Creed of Pope Pius. The convert comes, {19} not only to believe the Church, but also to trust and obey her priests, and to conform himself in charity to her people. It would never do for him to resolve that he never would say a Hail Mary, never avail himself of an indulgence, never kiss a crucifix, never accept the Lent dispensations, never mention a venial sin in confession. All this would not only be unreal, but would be dangerous, too, as arguing a wrong state of mind, which could not look to receive the divine blessing. Moreover, he comes to the ceremonial, and the moral theology, and the ecclesiastical regulations, which he finds on the spot where his lot is cast. And again, as regards matters of politics, of education, of general expedience, of taste, he does not criticize or controvert. And thus surrendering himself to the influences of his new religion, and not risking the loss of revealed truth altogether by attempting by a private rule to discriminate every moment its substance from its accidents, he is gradually so indoctrinated in Catholicism, as at length to have a right to speak as well as to hear…. (Letter, p. 18-19.)

As a convert, I am slightly abashed by much of this. How alarmingly easy it is to criticize and controvert and attempt “by private rule to discriminate every moment [the Catholic Faith’s] substance from its accidents.”

It is frighteningly easy and often tempting for lay Catholics to “use pure unaided logic” to draw inferences from the Deposit of Faith in order to draw a circumference labeled “orthodoxy” around private judgments that have not been explicitly endorsed by the Church. One sometimes wants to run ahead of the development of doctrine; that is to say, it is tempting to carry on as though one’s own speculations, or those peculiar to a particular school of thought within the Church, were dogma. As a matter of fact, the Church is generally broader than any line of speculation or school of opinion tolerated, or even for a time predominant, within her ranks. A large part of becoming Catholic is learning how to become catholic.

Over time, however, the perceptive convert can learn to distinguish substance and accident in matters that have not yet been explicitly defined. That is to say, through becoming catholic, he becomes more and more Catholic in his own private judgment. Some extraordinary individuals, and Newman is one of these, can even make significant contributions to the Church’s ongoing development of doctrine. Thus, Newman describes a second movement within the convert:

Also in course of time a new generation rises round him; and there is no reason why he should not know as much, and decide questions with as true an instinct, as those who perhaps number fewer years of life than he numbers Easter communions. He has mastered the fact and the nature of the differences of theologian from theologian, school from school, nation from nation, era from era. He knows that there is much of what may be called fashion in opinions and practices, according to the circumstances of time and place, according to current politics, the character of the Pope of the day, or the chief Prelates of a particular country;—and that fashions change. His experience tells him, that sometimes what is denounced in one place as a great offence, or preached up as a first principle, has in another nation been immemorially regarded in just a contrary sense, or has made no sensation at all, one way or the other, when brought before public opinion; and that loud talkers are apt to carry all before them in the Church, as elsewhere, while quiet and conscientious persons commonly have to give way. He perceives that, in matters which happen to be in debate, ecclesiastical authority watches the state of opinion and the direction and course of controversy, and decides accordingly; so that in certain cases to keep back his own judgment on a point, is to be disloyal to his superiors. (Letter, p. 19-20.)

John Henry Cardinal, now Blessed, Newman is rightly considered a standard-bearer and an inspiration for converts to the Catholic Faith. For some of us, it is all too easy to use his legacy in a polemical way. It would be better to follow his example, by taking one step at a time, not assuming that perfect reception of the Catholic Faith is the work of a day, nor a matter of the private application of logic alone to the “mere collection of decrees and canons.” Blessed Newman, as much as anyone, has has shown us how to think about the Church as an empirical entity that is also a spiritual kingdom. As attested by his recent beatification, Newman has also demonstrated how to live and think in submission to and in support of the Church, in the hope of eternal life and for a witness to the world.


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  1. Thank you very much.

    Having been a Catholic for about 38 years, I recognize the ground that you covered with Newman. For me, there were the ups and downs, the references to the catechisms I used (Fr Hardon’s and now the Catechism of the Catholic Church), and regularly inhibiting myself from being the authority I once was as a Protestant. There were the Masses, the other sacraments and liturgical functions, the beads, the prayers in front of the abortuary, and the plain standing up for being Catholic in the polemical situations. The repetition hammered being Catholic into me. To be sure, I wanted to be Catholic but – and memory is always suspect – that my idea of being Catholic 38 years ago is significantly different than it is now. The surrender is deeper. The willingness to pick up the beads is quicker. The ability to forgive a slight is easier. The desire that my enemies will be in heaven is greater (and also pertains to the fact that I hope to arrive at that location myself).

    There are the prayers for the dead, and a desire to once again be in the company of those who have gone before me, in particular my parents and younger brother.

    I hope to see the face of the Lord and be welcome. I hope to see His mother’s face and be welcome with her as well. I want to meet Peter and Francis of Assisi and others who are heroic to me as imitators of our Lord. I hope to meet Newman who helped me over a particular hump with a particular explanation, and who is a blessing in my continuing conversion as a son of the Church Christ Jesus founded.

    Thank you again.

  2. Donald,

    Thanks for the comment. Reminds me that the Church is a family, in heaven and on earth.


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