Cardinal John Henry Newman: Canonisation imminent for ‘greatest of English prose writers’

Teachings on conscience had a big influence on Catholicism

On Friday, November 3rd, 1854, the Catholic University, under its rector John Henry Newman, opened its doors at 86 St Stephen's Green in Dublin to receive its first students. Among those students was a grandson of Daniel O'Connell.

Newman's journey to Dublin began with an invitation in 1851 from Archbishop Cullen of Armagh, later archbishop of Dublin, to advise on the proposed establishment of a Catholic university.

James Joyce declared, through the lips of Stephen Dedalus, that Newman was 'the greatest of English prose writers'

Cullen also asked Newman if he “could spare the time to give us a few lectures on education”. These “few lectures” would ultimately form his essay “The Idea of a University”. Despite Cullen’s disapproval, Newman did not hesitate to appoint a number of Young Irelanders to the staff of the university, including Eugene O’Curry.

In 1858 Newman resigned as rector and, shortly afterwards, the Catholic University was placed in the hands of the Jesuits. In 1886, a few years before his death, Newman wrote to Gerard Manley Hopkins, then teaching classics in the university, urging him to moderate his feeling towards Irish nationalism, saying, "if I were an Irish man, I should be (in heart) a rebel".


The best known graduate from the Jesuit era is James Joyce who declared, through the lips of Stephen Dedalus, that Newman was "the greatest of English prose writers".

Newman was born in London in 1801 at Old Broad Street. He attended Ealing School, followed by Trinity College, Oxford, where, due to overwork and nervous exhaustion, he received a "below-the-line" degree. He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1825 and appointed vicar of St Mary's University Church in 1828.

Newman led the Oxford Movement for reform of the Anglican Church. In 1839, when engaged in a study of the early church fathers, he gradually became convinced that what Protestants termed corruptions were in fact developments of doctrine in the Roman church.

In 1843 Newman resigned as vicar of St. Mary's and withdrew to Littlemore just outside Oxford. It was there in 1845 that he was received into the Catholic Church. In 1847 he was ordained a Catholic priest in Rome.

On his return to England, Newman chose Birmingham for the foundation of a branch of the Oratorians, which had been founded by St Philip Neri. In 1859 he wrote his landmark article, "On Consulting the Faithful on Matters of Doctrine".

Lack of lay participation

It was in Ireland that the lack of lay participation in the church, and the crippling effect which that had on the church, struck Newman forcefully. Probably his best known work, his "Apologia Pro Vita Sua", was yet to appear.

In 1879, Newman was made a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII.

Since his death in 1890, Newman's influence has continued to grow. At the Second Vatican Council, Abbot Christopher Butler (abbot-president of the English Benedictine Congregation) said that he "felt Newman's spirit brooding over the council".

He is referenced in the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" a number of times, including in relation to conscience. Newman's emphasis on the primacy of conscience influenced both the Polish pope John Paul II and the German pope Benedict XVI, who wrote a dissertation on Newman.

It was fitting that Benedict carried out the beatification of Newman at Cofton Park, outside Birmingham on September 19th, 2010, the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.

While Newman has been described as the imperial intellect of modern religious thinking, he was primarily a priest

There are few enough true links between University College Dublin today and the Catholic University of which Newman had been rector. One is the medical school which Newman founded at Cecelia Street. Another is the Literary and Historical Society, or the L&H, founded by Newman for student discussion and debate.

University Church

A physical embodiment of Newman's legacy to Ireland is University Church on St Stephen's Green, dedicated to Our Lady Seat of Wisdom. It was designed by John Hungerford Pollen who was professor of fine arts in the university. Newman loved the church, of which he wrote, "to my taste, the church is the most beautiful one in the three kingdoms".

While Newman has been described as the imperial intellect of modern religious thinking, he was primarily a priest – both as an Anglican and as a Catholic.

As a young priest he worked for the people in his parish. As an old cardinal, he set out in icy weather to talk to the striking Cadbury workers, believing in the importance of personal contact as captured in his motto ‘Heart speaks to Heart’.

Newman will be canonised by Pope Francis in Rome on October 13th.

Dr Finola Kennedy is an economist and author of the 2011 biography Frank Duff: A Life Story