John Henry Newman

A Tale of Two Henry’s: Henry VIII and John Henry Newman

In 2009, one Henry is celebrating, posthumously of course, 500-year anniversaries of his coronation and first marriage, with special exhibitions and books. Pope Benedict XVI is preparing the other Henry for beatification as a healing miracle has been attributed to his intercession. Henry VIII, King of England and Venerable John Henry Newman, Cardinal of the Catholic Church personify the history of Catholicism in England after Henry VIII claimed the title of Supreme Head and Governor of the Church in England. The one begins the English Reformation with acts of supremacy and succession and the other signifies Catholic survival after almost 300 years of enduring suspicion, persecution, and martyrdom.

Henry VIII began his reign on April 21, 1509

When his father Henry VII died, married his brother’s widow Catherine of Aragon on June 11 and was crowned on June 24, with Catherine crowned as Queen of England. He was a Renaissance Prince, a loyal Catholic, and a loving husband. When he died on January 28, 1547, he was an empirical tyrant, an excommunicated leader of the Anglican Church and had a bad track record as a husband: six wives (two beheaded, two divorced, one died in childbirth, one survived).

The latter statistic is the key to the first two elements of Henry’s later years

In his quest for a legitimate male heir, Henry was willing to break away from the universal Catholic Church, execute friends, wives, relatives and holy men and women, treat his female children with caprice and cruelty and give free reign to his lust for power.

Once Henry had determined that he had to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn he let nothing stand in his way. When he had turned England upside down, cast off his first wife, bastardized their daughter, beheaded Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher (two shining lights of humanism and Catholicism in England), emptied out the monasteries and vindictively executed anyone else who opposed him in this plan, Anne Boleyn failed to provide him with the male heir she promised. Henry had her executed and remarried within a month. His third wife finally gave him that elusive legitimate male heir.

All the while Henry still considered himself a good Catholic

As Supreme Head and Governor of the Church of England he did not want many changes in religious practice. He wanted the Mass, oracular Confession, an unmarried clergy, and, ironically, tough divorce laws. Although he made the Bible available in English he did not like the idea of people interpreting it on their own. Catholics who upheld papal supremacy suffered execution during his reign, but so did evangelicals who denied the Real Presence in the Eucharist. When he died in 1547 he wanted prayers and Masses offered for his soul for his quick release from Purgatory (although he had banned use of that word).

When John Henry Newman was born on February 21, 1801, England was a thoroughly Protestant country in religion

Roman Catholics had been persecuted or discriminated against for more than 250 years. They had not been able to practice their faith without the threat of fines, imprisonment, capture, torture and execution of priests who illegally went abroad to study and illegally returned to serve the laity. The laity had been completely cut off from public service by various oaths to the crown and against the Pope; unable to attend university; unable to pursue careers as lawyers, doctors, pharmacists or soldiers. At the end of the eighteenth century Parliament had finally eased some restrictions on Catholics, but even the slight freedom of religion allowed created hostility against Catholics–like the Gordon Riots in 1780 after the Papists Act of 1778 allowed Catholics to serve in the military without an oath against the Pope and transubstantiation.

John Henry Newman shared that hostility

In his classic “Apologia pro vita sua” he described the course of his religious development as a young man. As he progressed toward a High Church Anglo-Catholicism and leadership in the Oxford or Tractarian movement one constant was his animosity against Roman Catholicism. Traveling in Europe he was repulsed by what he saw as superstition and idolatry even as he was moved by the grandeur of ancient Rome.

In 1832 and 1833 he would have scoffed at the notion that he would be a Roman Catholic in as little as 12 years. When he came home from his Grand Tour of Europe after being extremely ill he thought God had spared him for a particular work to do. Newman found it in the Oxford Movement, writing tracts and giving sermons in Oxford to emphasize the apostolic foundation of the Anglican Church in spite of it political entanglements in nineteenth century or even sixteenth century England.

Those efforts led him to study the Church Fathers and then Newman began to struggle with the truth he began to see-that the via media of the Church of England he and his Oxford friends had been proposing, between the errors of the Catholic Church and the Luther or Calvinist Reformed churches, was a church made on paper. He left Oxford and settled in nearby Littlemore for more prayer and study until in 1845 he sought acceptance into the one true Church established by Jesus Christ, founded upon the apostles, led by Christ’s Vicar on earth, the Pope.

Since Catholics had finally been emancipated under English law in 1829, Pope Pius IX established a new hierarchy in England (with a typically anti-Catholic reaction from Queen Victoria and her government) in 1850. Newman brought the Oratory movement to England; established schools, founded a university in Ireland, wrote sermons, theological, philosophical and apologetic works, and contributed greatly, although often misunderstood, to what he called the Second Spring of Catholicism in England. He explained newly defined dogmas (the Infallibility of the Pope and the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary) to a rather hostile English establishment. His 1864 “Apologia pro vita sua” finally removed some of the suspicion with which both Catholics and Protestants had regarded his conversion, and Pope Leo XIII offered him a Cardinal’s hat in 1879.

When Newman died on August 11, 1890 public opinion agreed that he had done more than anyone else in his lifetime to dispel the anti-Catholicism of Victorian England. In a way, then, Newman had turned back some of the effects of Henry VIII’s actions centuries ago. Along with many converts, bishops, priests, and laity Newman helped Catholics reclaim their right to practice their faith openly while serving the government and the public. Throughout his lifetime new Catholic cathedrals, churches, schools and monasteries were established, replacing those destroyed, suppressed or occupied in the previous 300 years.

Thus Henry VIII and John Henry Newman do symbolize, like bookends on the shelf of history, the endurance of Catholicism in England from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. King Henry VIII stands for the state’s supremacy over religion in England, demanding uniformity and loyalty to the established Church of England, while John Henry Newman stands for the survival of Catholicism after enduring discrimination and decline.

Source: “Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation” by Stephanie A. Mann (New York, New York: Scepter Publishers, 2009).