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Cardinal Newman and Apologia Pro Vita Sua
By Joe Ely Carrales, III

The question of religion has been the driving force of mankind since the idea of a Supreme Being was first proposed. Some live by it, some live for it and many die for it in some way or another. During the nineteenth-century, as new fields of thought presented themselves to the human experience ( i.e., Darwinism, new social theories and science), the question of religion, namely Roman Catholicism and Anglican Christianity, was undergoing an usual metamorphosis. John Henry Cardinal Newman is increasingly recognized as one of the great minds of the nineteenth century. In his conversion from the Church of England to Roman Catholicism, he created a bridge from the Protestant to the Catholic world. Caught in the center a dogmatic debate, Newman held to his convictions and searched for religious authorization in the works of Anglican and traditional Christian sources. Newman, born in the Protestant Anglican tradition, remained firm to his denomination throughout his youth until events, including criticisms from the Anglican hierarchy and controversy brought on by his writings, led him to a life in the Roman Catholic priesthood. Cardinal Newman documents his conversion in Apologia Pro Vita Sua, where he presents his quest for authority and his religious convictions. This essay will explore Cardinal Newman’s quest for authority in Chapter 3 of Apologia Pro Vita Sua through his use of Biblical allusion and the authority of his critics.

Cardinal Newman opens his Chapter 3 with a contemplation of his past. There exist some degree of similarity between his struggle and the various struggles in the Bible, specifically Moses in the Book of Exodus. It is unknown whether Cardinal Newman intended this to operate in that context, however it serves to add a degree of authority to his writing. Newman begins with a justification of why and how he came to his decision. Newman replaces the figure of Moses, the child that comes into the Egyptian Pharaoh’s court as a baby, with himself, a boy born into the Anglican Protestant faith. This can be seen when Newman traces his conversion to demonstrate that one’s beliefs can bring a person’s past into conflict with his future. In the Book of Exodus, Moses come to harbor feelings for his people and acts with respect to these feelings placing his past and his future at odds with each other. This is seen in Exodus 2:11-12 where Moses acts according to his future calling.

“ One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. Glancing this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”

This is a revolution of mental, emotional and spiritual ties that eventually cause Moses to leave Egypt. The actions of higher authorities force Moses into exile, as is seen in Exodus 2:15, where it is written that “When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian, where he sat down by a well.”

Newman too makes such a change. He writes,

“And now I am about to trace, as far as I can, the course of that great revolution of mind, which led me to leave my own home, to which I was bound by so many strong and tender ties, I feel overcome with the difficulty of satisfying in my account of it, and have recoiled from the attempt, till the near approach of the day, on which these lines must be given to the world, forces me to set about the task.”

This is not unlike the passage in Exodus 2:11 where Moses chooses to murder the Egyptian. At that point, Moses severs all his “strong and tender ties” to his king and his family. Newman makes clear that his religious convictions divide him from his homeland, England, and the church that marked his early youth. When one’s beliefs come into conflict with one’s religious denomination, the pain of separation can be great.

Later in the same paragraph, Newman, in regard to his 25 years of Protestant work and support, describes the “perplexity and dismay which weighed upon him” and “light” given to him “amid the darkness.” Like Moses in the time following his expulsion from Egypt, Newman entered a depressed state, but like Moses, he would come see the light. Newman, in those 25 years, spoke avidly against the Church of Rome, but soon came to respect many of the Catholic doctrines. In a similar way Moses came to respect the Hebrew slaves that were, as a matter of fact, “of his own people.”

Newman felt a need to explain the pain associated with the documentation of his religious opinions using the Latin phrase “infrandum dolorem”, meaning “grief beyond words”, and claiming that his work was to be the “boldest” thing of many bold things he had done in his life. Newman feels somewhat like and outcast from the people and places he knew from even his earliest days, Moses felt this to when he says, "I have become an alien in a foreign land" in Exodus 2:22. This is similar to Moses on the mountain and during his return to Egypt to free the Hebrew slaves. The emotional pressure on these two men during their respective religious revolutions must have been great. During their flowering in their new found soils abroad, Newman and Moses have both left a place where they were somewhat comfortable, suffered emotionally and gone on to be greater than where they started. Newman’s writings parallel Moses sufferings and, thus, propel the Cardinal to a far greater place in Roman Catholicism than he had endured in Anglican circles.

After Cardinal Newman offers this somewhat parallel reference to the Bible and Moses, he offers a view of his position in the Anglican Order and other works cited by his critics to enhance his authority. Cardinal Newman begins by describing the position he held in the Anglican Order and the persons that he felt were using the church doctrines to support their, and only their, given ideas. Feeling that the direction of the Anglican Church had been misdirected by the party political structure of the various factions, Cardinal Newman offered a reason for the sowing his of disgust with the Anglican Church. “In the spring of 1839,” Cardinal Newman writes, “…my position in the Anglican Church was at its height.” He goes on to express that he was confident in his “controversial status” (Newman again using Latin, “status” in its original Italic usage as a device to give more credibility). This was short lived due to the fact that he began to draw opposition to the Oxford movement from high-ranking clergy. He expresses his regrets that his own bishop, His Excellency Richard Bagot of Oxford (whom Newman had respected and admired) spoke out against Newman’s works published by the Anglo-Catholic group (or Oxford movement).

From this point, Newman isolates and describes the opponents that he finds the most discontent with. The Evangelicals, the chief opponents of the Oxford movement, interpreted Newman’s works as favoring many Roman Catholic doctrines. The Evangelicals did not favor this; they could not allow Newman to continue with out some criticism. Upon examination of their wittings and arguments, Newman found them to be supported by twisted quotations from Anglican works of past centuries. Newman then explained that, while his views on the size and purpose of the church were “very unlike the Protestantism of the day”, he had as much right to speak as any. Newman then used the authority of past Anglican ministers to support his claims and doctrines. Newman was promptly criticized for adjusting the words of great Anglican authorities, a point of contention that Newman accused the Evangelicals of doing to promote their respective doctrines. As a result Newman had created a situation in which, if his authority were challenged, so would be all others. Newman chose to use various Anglican authorities of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that he found concurred with him on matters of the Saints, of the Mass and of the other sacraments. He felt he had the right to speak aloud as all the others had, and did. He wrote,

“Two can play at that’, was often in my mouth, when men of Protestant sentiments appealed to the Articles, Homilies, or Reformers; in this sense that, if they have a right to speak loud, I had the liberty to speak out as well as they, and had the means, by the same or parallel appeals, of giving them tit for tat.”

This led to the publication of Tract 90; a formulation entitled “The State of Religious Parties”. Here Newman used the very testimonies of his enemies to support his claims and demonstrates that the populace would grant him final authority over them all. Newman writes, “Lastly, I proceeded to the question of that future Anglican Church, which was to be a rebirth of Ancient Religion. And I did not venture to pronounce on it. About the future, we have no prospect before our minds, good or bad.” Here, in an excerpt he includes from his Tract 90, Newman uses the ideas and theories of the Anglican Church parties to discredit the Evangelical parties while maintaining a somewhat neutral position. Newman finally cements his authority by appealing to the populace. Newman claims that the “ inroads upon the clergy” made by the Evangelicals could not be accepted by the populace and the menace of Puritanism had been lost in a “maze of words”, demonstrating that the rudiment of his opponents is the instrument of their undoing.

In retrospect it is evident that John Henry Cardinal Newman’s justification for his conversion is twofold, his representation of the Biblical allusion with Moses of Exodus and his clever use of Anglican Church doctrines to support his points while they discredit and attacker. Perhaps the best way to conclude this excursion into the third chapter of Apologia Pro Vita Sua is to end with a portion of a prayer by Cardinal Newman, he wrote, “GOD HAS CREATED ME, to do him some definite service. He has committed some work to me, which he has not committed to another. I HAVE MY MISSION, I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.” It is with this thought that Moses turned from a prince to a profit, and Newman turned from suspension of belief to faith.