There has recently been some controversy in the English-speaking Catholic media about the place and the role of converts in our Holy Catholic Church. It is probably better not to name any names on either side because the debate quickly became acrimonious, and in these ill-tempered days we need to work for charity within the Church, as well as clarity.
Many of us converts who followed the discussion will probably have been more amused than we were chastened to find ourselves being told by certain prominent commentators that, like Victorian children allowed into the parlour for half a scone at teatime, we are expected to be seen but not heard. The argument seems to be that having arrived so late in the day in the vineyard, we should put up and shut up. Those of us who were formerly Anglicans will probably have been told at some stage or another since our reception into the One True Fold of the Redeemer that we shouldn’t carry with us the same battles that we might have fought in the Church of England.
None of this would have come as any surprise to the one of this country’s most famous and best-loved converts. Blessed John Henry Newman was regarded with suspicion and even hostility by many of the old-time English Catholics who had been labouring away in the vineyard under the heat of the sun since early morning. Having been scorned by many of his fellow Protestants as a crypto-papist during his Anglican days, Mister, and then Father, Newman found that after his reception into the Church his reputation was soon being trounced and his name denounced to the Roman authorities by zealots and by certain members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy who questioned his docility to teaching authority and doubted the authenticity of his conversion.
When Newman eventually received his cardinal’s hat in 1879, aged nearly eighty, he exclaimed to his fellow Oratorians in Birmingham: “The cloud is lifted from me forever!” Never again, he believed, could his Catholicism be called into question. That was actually wishful thinking. In the early twentieth century, after heretics had applied an evolutionist interpretation to Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine and claimed Newman as one of their own, the excommunicated Father Tyrrell and others tried to drag Newman down with them in the sinking ship of Modernism following its condemnation in Rome. Even though Pope Saint Pius X confirmed in a letter to Bishop O’Dwyer of Limerick in 1908 that the orthodoxy of Newman’s Catholicism was beyond reproach and wholly uncontaminated by the errors condemned in Lamentabili, and even though that same great Pope lauded Newman for his constancy in defending the cause of the Faith before his fellow country-men, some of the dirt had managed to stick, so that even today there are half-baked theologisers who try to tie Newman’s name to causes which would, quite frankly, have sickened him.
Newman did carry over with him into the Catholic Church the main battle that he had become used to fighting in the Church of England. Whether he found himself in combat with the liberalism of Latitudinarians in the common room of Oriel or with the fundamentalism of fanatical Ultramontanists in the run-up to the First Vatican Council, Newman’s crusade remained always constant: it was a battle for truth. It continued to impose strain on his friendships and to bring him suffering as a Catholic just as it had done while he was an Anglican.
Latecomers to the Faith who are made to feel that their convert status makes them second class citizens in the eyes of some of those who make a profession out of religious commentary can take comfort in the knowledge that Blessed John Henry experienced all of this before them. The sincerity of Newman’s conversion is beyond question to anyone of good faith. As an Anglican he had increased in his sympathy for doctrines such as Transubstantiation and the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin, having considered them individually in the light of their antiquity and of their compatibility with Holy Scripture. When he made his profession of Faith in front of Father Dominic Barberi, however, he was declaring that from now on he would embrace these truths, and every other Catholic doctrine, on the grounds that they were taught by Christ’s Church. He was assenting to his firm belief that the Catholic Church was founded by Our Lord as the pillar and the foundation of saving truth, with divinely invested authority to teach on faith and morals. He brought himself to his knees before an authority which he firmly believed to be at the service of Truth, but he also fell to his knees in the knowledge that in the Church on earth that divinely invested authority is always liable to be abused by fallen men who are prone to sin, and whose intellects are often too dim to appreciate the truths they have been commissioned to teach. But he accepted this. He accepted it because he was willing to suffer for and with the Church, because he loved Her as the Mystical Body of Christ on earth, and He believed Her to be true. Newman is an example to all of us of patience and genuine piety. Suffering with and for the Church is one of the ways we show our love for Christ, and one of the signs that our faith is alive.
For those of us who are converts to the Faith, Newman shows us how to be good converts. We must be docile, and obedient to lawful authority. But we should also be dogged in our pursuit of all truth, and we must be willing to suffer for our insistence on it. The religious submission of mind and will which we owe to the teaching authority of the Church never obliges us to submit ourselves to humbug, bluster and spin, but only to Catholic Truth in its soul-saving fullness.
Fr Julian Large