Who Is Saint John Henry Newman? A Conversation with a Follower

Msgr. Richard M. Liddy is Director of the Center for Catholic Studies, Seton Hall University and Former President of the Newman Association of America. He worked on the Birmingham Diocese Historical Commission in preparation for the beatification of John Henry Newman, who is to be canonized a saint this Sunday.

How is the Newman Association of America responding to Newman’s canonization?
Members of the Association have been praying for this and working for this for years. I know that this news [of his canonization] fills them with joy. For many years I have dreamed of attending Cardinal Newman’s canonization.

Who was John Henry Newman?
He was the most well-known teacher and preacher in England in the middle of the 19th century. At the age of 44, in 1845 he became a Roman Catholic, leaving family and friends to join a faith that at the time was poor and despised in England. In 1847 he was ordained a Catholic priest and subsequently wrote a number of classic books, including The Idea of the University, which is still considered the finest book on the nature of the university education. He could be clear and intellectual and at the same time poetic and loving. James Joyce called him the best writer of prose in the English language. He died in 1890, much beloved by the English people. Of him, The Times of London wrote: “Of one thing we may be sure, that the memory of his pure and noble life, untouched by worldliness, unsoured by any trace of fanaticism, will endure, and that whether Rome canonizes him or not he will be canonized in the thoughts of pious people of many creeds in England. The saint and the poet in him will survive.”

Why is he important?
His writings influenced virtually all the major Catholic theologians of the 20th century, including Pope Benedict XVI. He took history, development, and change seriously, while remaining committed to the Catholic faith and creed. His vision included reaching out from the faith to all areas of the modern world.

What does Newman have to say to the churches today?
In his influential book, The Development of Christian Doctrine, he wrote, “to live is to change and to be perfect is to change often.” He saw the presence of Christ in the heartbreaks of life and in the wrenching changes of history. While wholeheartedly committed to the Church in history, he saw the need for Catholics to communicate to the modern world in ways that could be understood.

Yes, Newman is famous for defending development of doctrine. But also for having said “I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion.” How to explain the seeming contradiction? Was Newman a conservative or a liberal?
Newman transcends both of these categories. As an Anglican he staunchly resisted the secular spirit which would reduce the Church to the current world. As a Catholic he believed that it was important to have a theological vision, an articulate faith rooted in Christ, that was able to speak to the world. He could make the skeptics’ case better than they could, and because of that, he could speak to them. Because of that, he was considered by some “a liberal,” but Pope Leo XIII made him a cardinal of the Church just the same.

What did Newman mean by ‘liberalism’?
Basically, you make it all up. Your individual judgment is paramount, not the faith of the Church coming from the apostles.

Newman’s understanding of development of doctrine was rather cautious, and he downplayed historically documented changes in his theory. And of course, he didn’t have to deal with the Second Vatican Council’s advances (if not contradictions) in religious liberty and ecumenism. Does Newman’s theory still hold up?
I do not think Newman would have had any trouble with Vatican II, although the contexts are worlds apart. The great Catholic theologian, Bernard Lonergan, once wrote: the new age in theology – that takes history and development seriously – “dates not from 1965 when the second Vatican council closed, but rather from 1845 when Newman completed his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.”

What were Newman’s thoughts about the Anglican Church which he left to become Catholic? Why did he switch?
Basically, he kept all that was good in the Anglican Church when he became a Catholic. He would have gone out of his way to point out all the genuine elements in the communion he left. At the same time, he felt that the fulness of doctrinal and spiritual life was to be found in the Catholic Church.

Did Newman speak to liturgical questions?
I probably should not answer this question because I am no expert in this area. I remember him once writing that the Mass was an “action” and therefore should “move along” without delay.

Newman opposed the definition of papal infallibility, but then accepted it after the First Vatican Council defined it. What did he really think?
He did think the definition was “inopportune” but did not oppose it when it was defined.

Church teaching and conscience is a hot topic today. What does Newman have to say to us about this?
Newman’s anthropology involved a strong affirmation of conscience as a deep and serious call from God to be listened to from our depths. His famous toast, “I will drink to the Pope, but I will drink to conscience first,” was only an affirmation of the inviolability of conscience seriously seeking authenticity.

Time to speculate. What would Cardinal Newman think of Pope Francis?
I think he would like him and respect him. I think he would appreciate his loving and prophetic spirit seeking to reach out through the Church to all peoples.

Anthony Ruff conducted the interview for Pray Tell by email. This interview was first published in February, 2019.


  1. For Newman’s views on papal infallibility before, during and after the Vatican Council, I highly recommend “What Will Dr. Newman Do?” by John R. Page.

    For another perspective on Newman’s take on conscience and authority, here is a quote from his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine:

    “all Catholics agree in other two points, not, however, with heretics, but solely with each other: first, that the Pope with General Council cannot err, either in framing decrees of faith or general precepts of morality; secondly, that the Pope when determining anything in a doubtful matter, whether by himself or with his own particular Council, whether it is possible for him to err or not, is to be obeyed by all the faithful. And as obedience to conscience, even supposing conscience ill-informed, tends to the improvement of our moral nature, and ultimately of our knowledge, so obedience to our ecclesiastical superior may subserve our growth in illumination and sanctity, even though he should command what is extreme or inexpedient, or teach what is external to his legitimate province.”

    The above quote is certainly a snapshot and doesn’t represent Newman’s full thought on the subject, but I offer it as a contrast with the more oft cited quote about drinking to conscience first.

  2. A good place to start for Newman’s views on the liturgy is an article in the Spring 2016 edition of the Newman Studies Journal by Fr Joseph Alencherry entitled: “Newman the Liturgist: An Introduction to the Liturgical Theology of John Henry Newman”. The same edition contains a review of Fr Ian Ker’s book “Newman on Vatican II”.

    Another place to look is Tract No 3 of the Tracts for the Times, which is entitled “Thoughts Respectfully Addressed to the Clergy On Alterations in the Liturgy.”


    More generally, I think that Newman’s work as a pastor and priest deserves at least as much attention as his work as a thinker and writer. And though I am not exactly an impartial observer, his role as the founder of the English Oratory, and as the renewer of the Phillipine Oratory worldwide, is something which should not pass by unnoticed. He would, I think, have been pleased to see the English Oratory flourishing in the way that it is, and to see that the Oratory of St Philip Neri is the only one of the older established religious congregations to have grown in size by nearly 100% since the 1960s.

    1. That growth is quite an achievement. I imagine that, at least in the English-speaking world, Blessed Newman has been important to that growth–and I know that he was read by a young Joseph Ratzinger.

      I would be interested in knowing what role, if any, the liturgy has played in the growth of the Oratory over the last few decades. I know that St. Philip Neri considered it quite important.

      1. The liturgy has certainly played an important role in the development of the English Oratory, and those formed from them, e.g. Vienna. Many a tale could be told of people who come to hear the music, and who have been subsequently drawn, one might say enticed, into a deeper spiritual life. Indeed, my own “discovery” of the Oratory started when I went to hear Faure’s Requiem sung in a liturgical context. Four years later, I went to seminary.

        But it would be a mistake to think that all Oratories have a uniform approach to the liturgy. Some of the German Oratories, for example, were in the vanguard of the Liturgical Movement in the 1930s, and it is not without significance that Romano Guardini is buried in the Munich Oratory.

        My own view is that the growth in the Oratory worldwide has as much to do with the desire of priests to live some sort of community life as anything else, and also because the Oratorian model is sufficiently stable and flexible as to facilitate a wide range of pastoral initiatives. And the stability also enables one to develop a relationship with the people one serves that is not disrupted by being moved about every so often. That is also something that is very attractive.

  3. I think its a bit of an oversimplification to say that Newman would have had “no trouble” with Vatican II. The thesis of Fr Ian Ker is in “Newman on Vatican II” is that “Newman would undoubtedly have aligned himself with the moderates … and all those who wished to interpret the Council in accordance with the hermeneutic of reform in continuity.” (p 159).

    On conscience, Fr Ker writes:

    “The frequently voiced claim, then, that Newman allowed for conscientious dissent from Church teachings is incorrect. He did not: he only allowed for disobedience to orders. And the celebrated toast at the end of the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk concerns papal orders not teachings … Newman was concerned with the charge that, by virtue of the definition of papal infallibility, Catholics could no longer be regarded as loyal law-abiding citizens since they were now subject to papal decrees and orders which they were bound to obey, however immoral … the famous toast was never intended by Newman to mean that a Catholic may be led by his conscience to dissent from Church teachings. ” (p120).


  4. Thank you – and yet, the bottom line is that the distinctions between papal *orders* and church teachings continue to create most of the *tension* today. Suggest that most folks would be unable to clearly define and distinguish between orders and teachings e.g. dogma, doctrines or the whole hierarchy of truths; the various levels of papal teachings, etc.
    Recent example is the papal use of *intrinsic evil* – is that a papal order or a church teaching – guess it depends upon who you ask and who is doing the interpretation.
    In fact, your own use of the term – reform in continuity – only highlights how various *camps* have interpreted that term.

  5. Re Newman’s vision of matters liturgical: if you read German, there is my 1984 dissertation, on the liturgical thinking of the early Tractarians, Newman prominent among them. Published as “Liturgie — Spiegel der Kirche”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *