Newman's Significance Today
The year 1979 is the centenary of John Henry Newman's elevation to the cardinalate. Newman, who had been an Anglican churchman, was converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845.
The circumstances which led to Newman's defection from the Protestant movement caused a great stir in the mid-nineteenth century. His influence has not waned. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church says, "His influence, within both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, has been immense."1 The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says that "his genius has come to be more and more recognized after his death, and his influence can hardly be exaggerated."2
The Western church was divided in the sixteenth century over the doctrine of justification by faith. John Henry Newman saw the Church of England as standing between Romanism and Protestantism. He became the spokesman for a via media theology — a theology which tried to synthesize Romanism and Protestantism. Newman succeeded in antagonizing the evangelicals and disturbing the old-fashioned High Churchmen. He consequently felt more at home in Rome than he did in Canterbury.
In some respects Newman was a man before his time. His work had great ecumenical significance, but the nineteenth century was not ready for ecumenism. It now appears that Newman's hour has come. Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars are working to find a via media and to synthesize the theology of Rome and the Reformers. The sentiments of John Henry Newman are being voiced again by leading Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians.
In April 1975 a convocation of 150 Newman scholars met for a symposium in Rome. They were granted an audience with Pope Paul VI. In his address to these scholars on April 7, the Pope said:
Many of the problems which he [Newman] treated with wisdom—although he himself was frequently misunderstood and misinterpreted in his own time—were the subjects of the discussion and study of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, as for example the question of ecumenism, the relationship between Christianity and the world, the emphasis on the role of the laity in the Church and the relationship of the Church to non-Christian religions. Not only this Council but also the present time can be considered in a special way as Newman's hour.3
1 Art. "Newman, John Henry (1801-1890)," in J. D. Douglas, gen.ed., The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, p.703.
2 Art. "Newman, John Henry (1801-90),"in F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, p.966.
3 Pope Paul VI, "Cardinal Newman's Thought and Example Relevant Today," L 'Osservato's Romano, 17 Apr.1975.