John Henry Cardinal Newman: The bridge between Catholics and Protestants

John Henry Newman, by Emmeline Deane, 1889. Photo: Public Domain.

Pope Francis on Sunday will pronounce the formal canonization of five people, including the John Henry Cardinal Newman. Cardinal Newman is a curious figure in Church history, especially as pertaining to the divide between Roman Catholicism and the Anglican/ Episcopalian churches.

Certainly one of the most influential men to emerge from the Anglican tradition, Cardinal Newman serves an intriguing bridge between Catholicism and Protestantism, having a lasting impact not only on the Catholic Church in Great Britain, but also demonstrating how the two separate faith traditions, when having mutual influence upon a person, can produce someone altogether unique in their approach to the challenges of the world.

Matthew Briel. Photo:

For more on this matter, Catholic Digest spoke with Matthew Briel, an assistant professor of theology at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Cradle Anglican

Cardinal Newman was born in 1801 to an Anglican family at a time when the open practice of Catholicism in England was still a crime. Catholics were disbarred from engaging in politics, attending most universities, or serving in the government. This would only be changed with the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829, which effectively ended de jure discrimination against Roman Catholics, though anti-Catholic sentiment persisted thereafter.

At the age of 14, Newman began to seriously invest himself in religion, initially led down the path of Calvinist, low-church Anglicanism. However, his focus gradually changed to the more Catholic-esque traditions of high church Anglicanism as his education furthered and he grew more mature.

By 1824, he was ordained an Anglican priest and soon took up an additional profession as a tutor in the town of Littlemore near Oxford University, where he developed a great deal of personal influence. For the next 15 years, Fr. Newman dutifully performed his station as a priest of the Anglican Church. But with similarly-minded men he began to grow increasingly skeptical of the state of the Anglican church, especially the removal of so much Catholic ritual and theology from the institution throughout the 16th and early 17th centuries.

[Fr. Newman] began to grow increasingly skeptical of the state of the Anglican church.

In 1845, Fr. Newman converted to the Catholic Church, losing most of his friends and contacts in the process. Nonetheless, he managed to keep his position as priest and writing in support of the Catholic Church in England while anti-Catholicism persisted among the general populace.

He also wrote and lectured on a variety of topics and even helped found what is now the largest university in Ireland, the Catholic University of Ireland (now University College Dublin). He was proclaimed cardinal in 1878 and died in 1890, a champion of English Catholicism and a widely respected writer and orator.

University College Dublin in Dublin. Photo: haireena/Shutterstock

Impact on education

When Catholic Digest asked Briel to explain what he felt to be the most important aspects of Cardinal Newman’s life, his focus however was not as much on Cardinal Newman’s place as a middle way between Anglicanism and Catholicism, but rather the influence he had on education.

In an age when education was rapidly becoming more widespread and subsequently standardized and regimented in much of Great Britain, Cardinal Newman instead fervently supported a more personal form of education. It’s a form where a pupil is crafted through their relationships to their teachers, and where all areas of knowledge are not relegated to separate spheres of influence, but are instead synthesized together.

All knowledge is not only important, but possessing a strong understanding of any given subject such as chemistry or physics, in turn provides a window into understanding other subjects entirely, such as history or theology.

This was an important topic to Cardinal Newman, living at a time when many feared that scientific advancement would render any manner of spiritual understanding of the world obsolete.

John Henry Cardinal Newman. Photo: Morphart Creation/Shutterstock

“A superficial person in the 19th century might think that evolution disproves Christianity — but rather biology and theology have to learn to relate to each other instead,” Briel said.

On matters such as these, Cardinal Newman put his trust in human reason and an education guided by faith to find a way through the challenges presented by our rapidly changing understanding of the world.

A focus on education was necessary for Cardinal Newman, for he lived in an age of growing confusion over what constituted true knowledge. To this end, he proposed two different types of knowledge — implicit and explicit.

The latter is those facts which are empirically measurable and comprise the majority of our school-learning. Important dates, fundamental formulae, the nuts and bolts of life.

Explicit knowledge is the understanding of those things which are not purely empirical, but are rather personal, learned through our daily lives and, while innately knowable, is not something that can be so easily taught as the sciences or humanities.

Distinguishing between these two kinds of knowledge was important to the modern Christian. Christianity found itself not only confronted with a world which was being rapidly reinterpreted through different scientific advancements, but which was also drastically reconstituting its understanding of what the human person was and what it was both deserving and entitled to possess.

Cardinal Newman cautioned against the growing emphasis in Christian circles around him on an overreliance on individual conscious, fearing that such a demeanor would lead to an abolition of reason and a surge in moral relativism.

These threats, Cardinal Newman contested, should be countered not simply through explicit knowledge, but required a strong implicit knowledge. It necessitated strong friendships lived in accordance to the Gospel, and a faith which was not merely understood, but lived openly and unabashedly every day. The faith would not flourish merely through academic scholarship, but required a wisdom which cannot be taught.

“Strangely enough, reading Newman has given me a much better respect for non-theologically inclined Christians,” Biel said. “There are so many saints who are not as smart as I am, but they are all wiser than I am. I have so much to learn from them.”

Reading Newman has given me a much better respect for non-theologically inclined Christians.

Briel framed Newman’s entrance into Catholicism as a respite from the growing instability of the world.

“Newman’s home was in Anglicanism, but he saw it as a compromise with Protestantism. He said that the Catholic Church was like finding a port in a storm … what he found was the security of God-given authority which he found lacking in Anglicanism,” Biel said.

“And yet even then, there were still some things which Catholics could learn from Anglicans, namely their strong Scriptural focus as well as their use of reason without falling into the pitfalls of unalterable rationalism.”

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