If the name John Henry Newman is even mildly familiar to you, then it probably means that you had a Roman Catholic friend of two in college. You’re probably also thinking, “isn’t there supposed to be a Cardinal in there somewhere?”
You’re right. In the same way that many of the Episcopal Student Centers on American college campuses are styled Canterbury House or something like that, many, if not most Roman Catholic Student Centers are named in honor of John Henry Cardinal Newman, a former Anglican priest and theologian turned Roman Catholic scholar and proponent of higher education.
In a time when the flow of people and particularly ministers between Christian denominations was not nearly as widespread as it is in the United States Today, Newman’s spiritual, and ultimately vocational, transition from the Church of England to the Church of Rome was both unexpected and somewhat scandalous. Anglicanism, along with most other protestant denominations was understood as progress, a tradition that left behind the trappings of an overly legalistic religion. Why would anyone, much less on who had devoted himself to the doctrine and discipline of the tradition, choose to go back? It would have been one thing for Newman to become a Methodist. Returning to the Roman Catholic Church was seen as regression.
But unknown to many in the church then (and perhaps even now) the Roman Catholic Church had undergone its own reformation of sorts in the years between Luther and Newman. While many of the exterior trappings still remained, much of the underpinnings of Catholic Theology had actually progressed in similar directions as the Church in England. This balance of old and new was attractive to Newman and many other both in his day and today. His departure is not really as surprising as it might seem at first.
So, what are we to learn from the legacy of John Henry (Cardinal) Newman? Certainly, his contributions to higher education in the English speaking world, which I realize I have left completely untreated here, are certainly worthy of recognition and praise. But I think there is also an important facet of his story that is about ecumenical understanding. Though scandalous at the time, Newman’s departure for the Catholic Church was somehow legitimizing and began, or at least continued, the long process by which people of many denominations began to understand denominationalism in the Church not as the setting of impenetrable boundaries between believers but as the coalescing of people of similar faiths into communities of practice and support.