Newman in a New Light, Saturday Book Pick: ‘Passion for Truth,’ by Father Juan Vélez

Why a new biography of Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman? Perhaps because, as two disparate thinkers, William Golding (Lord of the Flies) and C.S. Lewis, believe, saints are the most interesting and unique kinds of people to read about. Tyrants, as Lewis wrote, are all boringly the same.

Another reason, for Father Juan Vélez, an Opus Dei priest, physician and Newman scholar, is “to highlight Newman’s constant search for religious truth and lasting happiness … to show the spiritual and intellectual path that led Newman from evangelical Protestantism through Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism.” The main source for his work is Newman’s correspondence, from which he quotes extensively.

Newman grew up in a solid Anglican family. After his father’s bank’s failure and his own illness — and a period of what he thought of as rebellion against God, when he read skeptics Thomas Paine, Voltaire and David Hume — he underwent, at age 15, a religious conversion. This took the form of a Calvinist and evangelical devotion to “God as a personal Being, not an abstract truth.”

And yet this devotion was based on dogma, God’s revelation to mankind, one tenet of which was God’s omnipresence:

“This presence was not that of an impersonal power in creation, but that of an all-powerful and merciful God,” Father Vélez writes. “Newman later described this belief as the luminously self-evident idea that there are only two beings in the world, himself and the Creator. The human person can be sure of this reality and make it the framework for his beliefs and actions. This vivid realization remained with him as an adult and served as a truth upon which his knowledge of sacred Scripture and Christian doctrine were built.”

After this, Newman followed his passion for truth through becoming a priest in the Anglican Church and then becoming the de facto leader of the Oxford Movement, “a revival of the 17th-century Anglican ecclesiastical practices, doctrine and piety,” and especially the doctrines of apostolic succession and episcopal authority. Beset by both evangelicals and liberals and convinced by his own studies, accompanied by much prayer and fasting, Newman joined the Catholic Church and became an Oratorian.

Father Vélez’s book describes Newman’s life and search thoroughly and with just enough historical and religious background to make it understandable for the lay reader. An added bonus is the selection of maps, prints and photographs of settings pertinent to Newman’s life.

Father Vélez’s presentation is at times plodding and rather obvious; Brother Zeno’s John Henry Newman: His Inner Life (1979) is much better written, and I’m surprised it’s not in the bibliography.

However, Passion for Truth, as Father Vélez intended, covers ground that Brother Zeno’s book did not and does it with the same passion as Newman had in his own search. It is a solid biography for someone who has never read about Newman before.

Franklin Freeman writes from Saco, Maine.

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