John Henry Newman once stated that, “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Newman’s great degree of “perfection” is readily evident in Walter E. Conn’s thought-provoking work. Conn, a Professor of Theology/Religious Studies at Villanova University, has written many insightful books on mainstreaming and Christian conversion. In his latest volume, Conn examines what he calls four great conversions in Newman’s life. Conn defines conversion as a positive change, and he admits that it is a kind of “development, more or less radical, that shifts the direction of one’s life” (p. 7). The life of John Henry Newman certainly reflected the radical change that Conn describes.
Although most Christians have an awareness of Newman’s conversion from the Church of England to Roman Catholicism in 1845, the great theologian had actually experienced two prior conversions: one in his youth (1816), which Conn describes as a “prime example of basic Christian moral conversion, with important affective, cognitive, and religious dimensions” (p. 8). Newman’s second conversion, from Evangelic faith to Anglo-Catholicism constituted the basis for more change, “the political Tractarian movement that sought to transform the Church of England” (p. 8). Conn later admits that Newman’s cognitive conversion parallels “a new, more accurate understanding of the nature of one’s knowing, most radically in the realization that therion of truth is not external but within one’s own drive for self-transcendence” (p. 27). Conn also analyzes Newman’s complex move “from Oxford to Rome, his ecclesial conversion from the Anglican Church to the Roman Church” (p. 8). Here, the author suggests a new interpretation in which there is a distinct difference between a negative deconversion away from something, and a positive conversion to something else. Newman’s negative deconversion is exemplified by a letter that he wrote to the Oriel provost, where he asked that his name be stricken from the books of the Anglican Church. His positive conversion then, arose when Newman was received into the Roman Catholic Church in October of 1845.
Chapter Four is a fascinating look into Newman’s Roman Catholic conversion and conscience. Here, the reader learns of Newman’s 1850 lecture on Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching. Newman critiques the Anglican Church for Anglo-Catholics. He goes on to argue that “the Roman Catholic Church is the church of the Fathers, the real church” (p.98). Newman equates the liberal Anglican Church to a fantasy, or a dead Erastian (those who deem that the church should be controlled by the state) branch. If Newman’s lecture on Difficulties was an attempt to aid Anglo-Catholics, then his Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England was an attack on the Protestant Anglicans for their Catholic bigotry. Newman’s accusations resulted in criminal charges being filed against the theologian, but after a year-long court battle Newman was merely fined a hundred English Pounds. Newman considered the sentence “a great relief,” and viewed it “as a moral victory” (p. 98).
Conn’s volume on the conversions of John Henry Newman is highly recommended for both the serious student of Newman, and those who wish to examine their own conversion experiences. The book is well organized and researched, with a chapter dedicated to each major stage of development in Newman’s conversion process. Those wishing to begin a study of John Henry Newman will find that Conn has compiled an extremely user-friendly volume on the theologian, with many recommendations for further reading for the advanced student.