John Henry Newman, who was canonized last Sunday in Rome by Pope Francis, is the most intellectually and culturally significant addition to the church’s calendar of saints in centuries. His literary reputation is international; his major books like An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent and The Idea of a University are never out of print. Nonetheless, Newman’s path to sainthood was highly improbable. Indeed, if it weren’t for American Catholics he might never have been canonized at all.
A brilliant preacher and a leader of the Oxford Movement within the Church of England, Newman’s conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1845 at the age of forty-four enraged English Protestants, prompting Newman’s classic spiritual autobiography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua. It also cost him his deepest personal friendships—his sister refused to speak with him again—and expulsion from his dearest institution, Oxford University, which at that time still barred “papist” students and professors.
Newman’s first few decades as a Catholic brought mostly misery. “As a Protestant I felt my religion dreary, but not my life,” he confided to his diary, “but as a Catholic, my life dreary, but not my religion.” The majority of Catholics in England at the time were poor, undereducated Irish immigrants governed by conservative bishops who regarded their celebrated convert with suspicion. He criticized the dogma of papal infallibility as untimely and unnecessary when it was defined by Vatican Council I in 1870 amid much controversy. He would, he quipped, drink a toast to the pope, but only after toasting conscience first. His conviction that Catholic doctrine had developed over time and is thus historically conditioned was one of many of his positions that were deemed unacceptable under several subsequent popes but were officially embraced seventy-five years later by Vatican Council II.
Despite his controversial theological stands, by the end of his life Newman had won favor in Rome as well as England—including, at age seventy-seven, a cardinal’s hat. At his death upwards of fifteen thousand people accompanied Newman’s body from the Birmingham Oratory, which he had founded, to his grave seven miles away. The Times of London was not alone among British publications in noting Newman’s suitability for canonization.