Luther, Newman, and Conversion

To the delight of philatelists and dismay of traditionalists, word was the Vatican’s post office would issue a stamp to commemorate Martin Luther and the 500th anniversary of his Ninety-five Theses.  On that day in October, 1517, when he nailed up his now famous Theses, Luther began securing a place in history, but needless to say, a Vatican postage stamp highlighting his schism could make some people believe that there is suddenly ice skating in Hell.

For converts from Protestantism to Catholicism, Luther remains an unavoidable name in the background, a kind of ancestor:  He began the break that their conversions are small steps in repairing.  For someone whose Protestantism was outside Lutheranism, Luther looms as an odious and ominous figure; a fat, arrogant Scripture scholar who raged against anyone who was not open to his way of being inflexible.

With providential quirkiness, October marks not only the split between Luther and Rome, but also one of the more famous conversions to Catholicism.  More than 300 years after Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, John Henry Newman, an Anglican clergyman who taught and preached at Oxford, sought out a Catholic priest and was received into full communion with Rome.  Two years later Newman was ordained to the Catholic priesthood, and thirty-four years later he was made a cardinal.

“After October, 1845,” wrote Henry Chadwick, “Newman was never in doubt that his decision for conversion was correct,” and yet Newman “quickly discovered that the path of a convert can be uncomfortable, even miserable.”  Amidst his frustrations as a Catholic, Newman remained a prolific spiritual writer.  His prose tends to Victorian heaviness, the soporific lull of sunlight through gauze curtains in a widowed aunt’s parlor on a warm Sunday afternoon.  When his writings are not suggesting a prim and tedious author, they are challenging the reader to consider just how much more converting, how much growing closer to Christ, one must face.

Between 1834 and 1842, Newman preached in the university church at Oxford, the result being eight volumes entitled Parochial and Plain Sermons.  Still admired by Protestants and Catholics alike, those sermons pulled no punches.

In one entitled “The Religion of the Day,” Newman described English Christianity as having become genteel:  “Everything is bright and cheerful.  Religion is pleasant and easy; benevolence is the chief virtue; intolerance, bigotry, excess of zeal, are the first sins.  Austerity is an absurdity; even firmness is looked on with an unfriendly, suspicious eye.”

Such shallowness developed, Newman explained, because Scripture’s wrath of God was dismissed as an anthropomorphism, but God’s love was not.  Heavenly glory was to be enjoyed here on Earth, so Christ dying on the Cross seemed like a gauche and outdated metaphor.  It was a faith of being nice, a polite piety reflected in Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild.”

Other Protestants in Newman’s day and later had hymnals that flexed with more robust lyrics.  While those sterner Protestants’ churches had no crucifixes, their hymns left no doubt about what happened on Calvary.  “There is a fountain filled with blood,” began a hymn by William Cowper, “drawn from Emmanuel’s veins/And sinners plunged beneath that flood/Lose all their guilty stains.”

With Newman’s lukewarm Anglicans, though, those more hardy Protestants shared reverence for the King James Version of the Bible, with its poetic glimpses of a wild, primeval world:  “Their wine is the poison of dragons, and the cruel venom of asps” (Dt 32:33); “He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn” (Ps 29:6).

When a Protestant converts to Catholicism, it is often because of what Newman put so succinctly in the Introduction to his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845):  “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.”  Study of the Church Fathers, such as Newman undertook, can lead one to see that their Church was the Church that Christ founded when He gave the keys of the Kingdom to Peter.  From those keys, through the days of Clement of Rome and Gregory the Great, the historical trail takes one through to the present day and to an old man in a white cassock on a balcony in Rome.

By tracing the path from Peter’s keys to Peter’s successor, one encounters a variety of characters.  One sees a saint like Pope Leo the Great stare down Attila the Hun, and one hears a sensualist like Pope Leo X, who eventually excommunicated Luther, blurt out, “God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it!”

That continuity carries a price, namely meeting unpleasant people, such as anti-Semites and pedophiles; throughout Church history, they turn up with disturbing regularity.  There are also tiresomely well-meaning people who insist that being a good Catholic means sharing their love of Baroque art or the music of the Saint Louis Jesuits, or who think that just a little more conversion will make one give up preferring The Federalist Papers to the Berrigan brothers, Joseph Conrad to Flannery O’Connor.

Along the way, one must leave behind a lot that is congenial and familiar.  Gone is the fountain filled with blood, gone are the unicorns.  Still, amidst the resulting drabness, what counts, Newman would say, is that vital continuity.  Its vitality means change as well as continuity, since all living things change, but even that change occurs within an established pattern.  Apple trees grow and mature (change) but end up producing apples, not artichokes.

Owen Chadwick, older brother of Henry, quoted above, said that Newman’s outlook on life could be summed up, “expect change because change cannot but happen to society, but see that the change grows out of and conserves the best of the past.”  He added that this perspective “was the thought of Edmund Burke, and thereafter of all sane and moderate conservatives.”

Sanity and moderation are not words historians consistently apply to Luther, but they fit Newman at his best.  (At his worst, he could be, like many scholars, prickly and pedantic.)  Whatever their respective inner steadiness, both men were deft and sinewy poets, Luther writing about God as our “mighty fortress,” and Newman about “that flesh and blood/Which did in Adam fail,/Should strive afresh against the foe,/Should strive and should prevail.”

One hundred twenty years after his death, the Catholic Church beatified Newman, and ironists await the day when Vatican postal meters will mark Luther cancelled.

Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

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