At age 79, when John Henry Newman heard the news that Pope Leo XIII had made him a cardinal, he said: “The cloud is lifted from me forever.” John Henry Newman is now a saint, but for much of his life he felt like a failure. Fr. Ian Ker reflects on “the saint whose life was ‘a history of failures’”:
John Henry Newman’s life can well be described as one of continual failures, if only because that was how he saw it. “All through life things happen to me which do not happen to others – I am the scapegoat,” he wrote.
He was sad to think, as he looked back on his life, how his time had been “frittered away” and how much he might have done, had he “pursued one subject”. His life seemed to be just “a history of failures”. He had been “so often balked, – brought into undertakings – then left in the lurch”. Plan after plan had “crumbled [in his] hands and come to nought”. When he was 60 he wrote that, although not “true to the letter”, he felt that he could say he had “received no piece of (personal) good news for 30 years and more”, nothing but “sorrows” and “anxieties”; all his works had failed.
As an undergraduate at Oxford, Newman performed disastrously in his finals, failing mathematics and only attaining the lower division of the second class in Classics. Exactly seven years later, he suffered a nervous collapse while examining finals papers and had to withdraw. As a tutor at Oriel College, he wanted to stop the practice of undergraduates having to hire private tutors from among recent graduates and considered it preferable for college tutors to provide tuition as well as the usual lectures. However, the Provost disapproved of the change that Newman and his colleagues introduced in 1828, and Newman was effectively dismissed as a tutor.
Also in 1828 he was invited by the Bishop of London to become one of the Whitehall preachers, an acceptance he subsequently withdrew in 1832 when he discovered the bishop’s theological liberalism. In 1830 he was dismissed as secretary of the Church Missionary Society because of a pamphlet he had written. In 1834 he failed to be appointed to the chair of moral philosophy.
As leader of the Oxford or Tractarian Movement and the principal architect of its theology of the via media, or “middle way”, he began, six years after starting the movement, to have doubts. These culminated in 1841 with the publication of Tract 90, which sought to interpret the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England in a Catholic sense. This was condemned first by the vice-chancellor and heads of colleges and proctors, and then by successive bishops. Finally, in 1845, Newman renounced the via media and the Oxford Movement, convinced that the Catholic Church was the true Church.
The disappointments and failures of Newman’s Catholic years were at least as grim as those of the Anglican years.
I think it can be easy to think that striving for virtue should lead to worldly success, in material and professional and other senses. But it’s probably more often the case that striving for virtue and friendship with Christ fortifies us in facing the failures that will inevitably confront us, in major or minor ways. In so many ways, Newman is a saint of our time as much as he is a saint for every era.
Bishop Barron and others hope Newman will be named a Doctor of the Church. I hope he is.