Apologia Pro Vita Sua: A Defense of the Heart

Reading Time: 10 minutes

The following was a college essay written by Ben Duphiney. It has been edited and approved by Michael Twhohig. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By Ben Duphiney, The Catholic University of America

St. John Henry Newman is often referred to as the Saint of Friendship.[1] During his scholarly, Anglican life, he cultivated intense friendships. Oxford provided Newman with a profound education that carried him through his priestly and academic life. This environment where Newman grew up affected his life in two ways: prejudices against the Catholic faith were intellectually ingrained; truths gained through friendship laid the groundwork essential for his conversion. This two-fold, rather paradoxical upbringing made his conversion genuine–showing that Newman had to make the assent intellectually, yet the foundation from his deep friendships gave him the courage and strength to journey into the seemingly unknown waters of the Catholic Church.

Friendship is the bond that binds Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Through the eyes of his friendships, his journey to the Catholic faith is more authentic–sometimes deeply personal and raw. Charles Kingsley, a Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, challenged not only Newman’s integrity, but the integrity of the entire Catholic Church. The Apologia Pro Vita Sua was written during a dark time for Newman, especially since he felt rejected by his own friends. Newman had to defend himself and the entire Catholic Church against these claims; he was viewed as the enemy of the Church of England. Newman’s dark night of the soul “was his lowest point”…and at times he even began “to think that he was close to death.”[2] As soon as Newman began to give a defense of his honesty and integrity, he reached out to his friends. These friendships, nourished during his early years, give the Apologia Pro Vita Sua an authentic lens that peers into the very heart of Newman. In addition to his rhetoric and mastery of the English language, Newman displays his vulnerability to show that he felt trapped between his reason and conscience. It is through his vulnerability that Newman proves his integrity. This visible vulnerability manifested in deep friendships, equip Newman with the tools to defend his integrity and intellectual assent to the Catholic Church.

            Newman’s early intellectual impressions, while skewing the truth about the Catholic Church, implanted valuable truths which would be essential for his conversion. Because of the superstitions in England, no one “had ever spoken to [Newman] on the subject of the Catholic religion, which [he] only knew by name.”[3] The Anglican atmosphere surrounding Newman blinded him from experiencing the authentic flavor Catholic faith. By the grace of God, he was raised in a family that read the Bible and when he was fifteen, he received “into his intellectual impressions of dogma, which, throughout God’s mercy, have never been effaced or obscured.”[4] This impression remained with him for the rest of his life, as it also led to the doctrine of final perseverance. Once he received this, with the guidance of Rev. Walter Mayers, he “believed [it] to have come from a divine source.”[5] This interior conversion would not have happened if it weren’t for Newman’s friendship with Rev. Mayers who assigned Romaine’s to read for class. Newman “retained it till the age of twenty-one, when it gradually faded away,” yet it still remained in his heart and would later stir an interior desire to find it once more.[6] This was the first of many friendships that Newman recalls to support and defend his integrity in the Apologia Pro Vita Sua.

During his early years at Oxford, Thomas Scott was a close friend of Newman. Newman “admired and delighted in his writings” and it was Scott who “first planted deep in [his] mind that fundamental truth of religion.”[7] At the time, Newman was sixteen and already he understood the fundamental truth of religion. Scott also inspired Newman with his own conversion from Unitarianism to “zealous faith in the Holy Trinity.”[8] A proverb remained with Newman: “Holiness rather than peace, and growth the only evidence of life.”[9] This proverb formed Newman in his later years and perhaps led to his most famous remark, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”[10] This friendship taught Newman the importance of growth and development. Remaining under the veil of the Church of England, the value of development assisted Newman, leading to his own conversion and other works, such as The Development of Christian Doctrine. Scott’s proverb eventually inspired Newman to courageously develop the truth he so desired.

It was during these undergraduate years that Newman encountered Patristics upon reading Joseph Milner’s Church History, though he viewed them as being “the religion of primitive Christians,” not applying to him in 1816.[11] He also “became most firmly convicted that the Pope was the Anti-Christ” upon reading Thomas Newton’s On the Prophecies.[12] His “imagination was stained by the effects of this doctrine up to the year 1843…[and] remained upon [him] as a sort of false conscience.”[13] He felt them to be true in his heart, yet his mind could not rationally hold them as truth. There was a great “conflict of mind, which so many have felt besides [Newman]; –leading to make a compromise between two ideas, so inconsistent with each other….[causing] many years of intellectual unrest.”[14] This false view of the Pope as Antichrist developed because of Newman’s Anglican environment; however Newman continued towards developing Catholic doctrine that he would later assent to.

Mr. Richard Whately “showed great kindness” to Newman during his years at Oxford, as well as the provost of Oriel, Dr. Edward Hawkins.[15] Newman grew very close with Dr. Hawkins: “I can say with a full heart that I love him, and have never ceased to love him.”[16] Dr. Hawkins also directed Newman’s “bearing upon Catholicism…and that is the doctrine of Tradition.”[17] Rev. William James, a fellow at Oriel, taught Newman the doctrine of apostolic succession “in the course of a walk…round Christ Church meadow.”[18] These three people, whom Newman met during some of the most formative years at Oriel College, formed not only his heart through friendship but also his mind through rigorous study.  It is important to understand that Newman grasped these doctrines through simple, rather mundane events, such as a walk in the meadow or listening to Dr. Hawkins preach at a University pulpit.  This style in Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua “present as frankly and squarely as possible his developing doctrinal views that restrain him from more personal revelations,” thus enhancing “the dramatic tension of the theological story…to follow where truth will lead.”[19]

The friendships that Newman cherished became essential to establishing the Oxford Movement. Though the Apologia Pro Vita Sua is not a written “history of the Oxford Movement…[and] a purely personal account to prove his honesty,” Newman’s friendships with  Robert Issac Wilberforce and Richard Hurrell Froude kept the desire burning in Newman’s heart. Newman’s deep friendship with Dr. Edward Pusey, whom he “could not fail to admire and revere a soul so devoted to the cause of religion.”[20] Newman also met Samuel Rickhard and Henry Arthur Woodgate, both of whom Newman knew as his best friends. “They could tell better than anyone else what [Newman] was in those years” but eventually became “no longer friends.”[21] For example, Rickhard “became alarmed by the Tractarian movement and broke off relations.”[22] Because Newman poured his heart into his friendships, there was a great sadness that followed each friend leaving. There was, however, a mutual desire that Newman found in his “intimate and affectionate” relationship with Robert Issac Wilberforce and Richard Hurrell Froude. These two men “saw around [Newman] the signs of an incipient party, of which [Newman] was not conscious of [himself].”[23] This incipient party was the beginning of Newman’s famous Oxford Movement. John William Bowden was Newman’s closest undergraduate friend at Trinity and was a “keen lay supporter of the Tractarian Movement;” he also “wrote some of the Tracts of the Times”(526). Newman’s friendships, specifically those who supported his passion for the Oxford Movement, follow one of the many definitions of C. S. Lewis: “Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one.’”[24] These deep friendships fueled Newman’s passion, which eventually created a self-sustaining relationship with those who felt encouraged to bring the Church of England back to its Catholic roots. The Oxford Movement may not have happened if it weren’t for Newman’s friendships with Froude and Wilberforce. They both saw something in Newman that he didn’t see–which is why friendship is essential and is at the heart of Newman’s life. These personal relationships nurtured Newman’s conversion and gave him confidence and reassurance, even when many turned their backs on him.

Newman respected Richard Hurrell Froude for his intellectual aspect and proved to be one of Newman’s “most affectionate friendships.”[25] Froude was “a man of high genius, brimful and overflowing with ideas and views…his opinions arrested [Newman] and influenced [Newman], even when they did not gain [Newman’s] assent.”[26] Froude “professed openly his admiration for the Church of Rome, and his hatred for reformers…delighting in the notion of a hierarchical system…and he glorified in accepting Tradition as a main instrument of religious teaching.”[27] Through this deep friendship, Newman’s prejudiced views of Catholicism were being challenged, especially with Froude’s “deep devotion to the Real Presence” and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Newman found it difficult “to enumerate the precise addition of my theological creed which I derived from a friend to whom I owe so much; [Froude] taught [Newman] to look with admiration towards the Church of Rome, in the same degree to dislike the Reformation.” Newman may never have questioned the Real Presence, the importance of Tradition, the Blessed Mother, nor the Roman Catholic Church if he never developed this friendship. Froude, in his strong Catholic principles “fixed deep in [Newman] the idea of devotion to the Blessed Virgin, and he led [Newman] gradually to believe in the real presence.”[28] Although Newman may not have agreed with Froude his heart was being formed because of their friendship–thus allowing him to ascend to these truths intellectually in the future.

This rich friendship he shared with Froude led Newman to “consider the Council of Trent to be the turning point of the history of Christian Rome.”[29] Upon accepting this–because of Froude, Newman was free to appreciate the Catholic Church. Prior to his friendship, Newman thought that worshipping the saints and Mary was “idolatrous.”[30] Upon being abroad in Italy, shrines and places of veneration “impressed [his] imagination. And [his] heart was touched also” (65). Seeing the Catholic faith in its beauty–in its homeland–surprised Newman because of the large prejudices held in England. When viewed as an institution, Newman’s “judgment was against her.”[31] Though Newman’s “reason was not affected at all,”  he couldn’t “refrain from being melted into tenderness, and rushing into communion with it.”[32] Newman, as an Anglican behind enemy lines, was attending Mass, seeing devotions to Mary and the Saints, and recalling Froude’s admiration for medieval history–all of which were looked down upon within the Church of England. Going against his feelings, Newman felt “it to be a duty to protest against the Church of Rome” because of the rather toxic environment of the Anglican Church.[33] He adopted Bernard Gilpin’s argument that Protestants “were not able to give any firm and solid reason for separation besides…that the Pope is Antichrist.”[34] Froude attacked Newman for protesting against this, urging him to protect himself against Popery. Again, Newman’s heart was in the right place, but his mind was afraid and lacked the confidence to break away. His uncertainty was challenging at times, often leading him to “know whether it is a call of reason or of conscience. I cannot make out, if I am impelled by what seems clear, or by a sense of duty.”[35] Newman was stuck in the complexity of not wanting to be viewed as a traitor, yet fully accepting Truth which he found in Rome.

Newman was a man of great integrity. He poured his heart into deep friendships, which reflected his character. The Apologia Pro Vita Sua was not only written for Kingsley, but for Newman’s friends too. Newman insisted that he is “giving a history of [his] opinions [by] showing that [he] has come by them through intelligible processes of though and honest external means” (46). He used rhetoric and vulnerability upon conveying his integrity. Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua “ is [his] duty to tell things as they took place.”[36]

Upon Newman’s conversion, he “had no anxiety of heart.”[37] Newman always had difficulties with doctrines, especially since he was blinded by the true Catholic faith while in England. For example, he had difficulties understanding the Real Presence–explained by Froude–but he “did not believe till [he] was a Catholic.”[38] He had difficulty grasping these truths, similar to his time in Italy; however, he nevertheless assent them fully. Newman was faced with many intellectual difficulties, but that did not mean that he doubted. No matter how many difficulties he faced, “ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt…difficulty and doubt and incommensurate.”[39] Faith requires courage to step into foreign lands, sometimes seen as enemy territory. However Newman cultivated an intimate friendship with God himself, trusting that God would “lead [him] home in childlike faith, Home to [his] God.”[40]

He described his full conversion as “coming into port after a rough sea;” his mind had finally arrived with his heart. John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua proved that Newman “had no intention of returning to the Church of England.”[41] His conversion also reveals its radically when one remembers that Newman was a man of many deep, sincere friendships. The friendships that he poured his heart into must have been destroyed upon entering the Roman Catholic Church. Ambrose St. John was a dear friend, “whom God have [Newman], when He took everyone else away; who are the link between [Newman’s] old life and [Newman’s] new.”[42] Besides him, most of Newman’s dear friends were taken away from him. This also shows that Newman’s conversion was authentic, as he left his seemingly perfect life and profound relationships.

The Apologia Pro Vita Sua was born out of Newman’s dark night of the soul, where he united his suffering to the suffering of Christ crucified. Newman knew deep in his heart that Christ “may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about” (Meditations and Devotions of the Late Cardinal Newman; Hope in God––Creator by William Paine Neville). It is only fitting that his Episcopal motto reads Cor Ad Cor Loquitur––heart speaks unto heart. This motto shows the true heart of Newman because his work is more than a stylish defense; it is a work from his heart. His entire life, from his early years to troubling times, was built upon friendship. The Apologia Pro Vita Sua is an intimate work that reflects the tender heart of Neman. It is through his vulnerability and raw friendships that lay the base of his integrity.

At sixteen, Newman felt a call to a life of celibacy, possibly “missionary work among the heathens.”[43] Newman would have never imagined that he would one day be a missionary in his own homeland, defending the truth and his integrity from those who once called him friend. The Apologia Pro Vita Sua is not an “emotional introspection;” rather, it is a true story of an imperfect man defending his integrity and the perfect Church, built on the foundations of deep, affectionate friendships.[44] Through his mind and heart–his knowledge and love of Christ, Newman triumphantly defended his own integrity and the integrity of his ultimate home: the Catholic Church.


Lewis, C. S. The Four Loves. HarperOne, 2017.

Ker, Ian. “The Significance of Newman’s Conversion.” https://Www.communio-Icr.com/Files/ker22-3.Pdf, www.communio-icr.com/files/ker22-3.pdf.

Newman, John Henry, and Ian Ker. Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Penguin, 2004.

Newman, John Henry, and James Gaffney. Conscience, Consensus, and the Development of Doctrine. Image Books, 1992.

Newman, John Henry. “Lead, Kindly Light.”

Opusdei.org. “Newman, the ‘Saint of Friendship.’” Newman, the “Saint of Friendship”, 11 Oct. 2019, opusdei.org/en-us/article/newman-the-saint-of-friendship/.

[1] https://opusdei.org/en-us/article/newman-the-saint-of-friendship/

[2] John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (London, England: Penguin Books), xv

[3] Ibid., 24

[4] Ibid., 25

[5] Ibid., 25

[6] Ibid., 25

[7]  Ibid., 26

[8]  Ibid., 26

[9]  Ibid., 26

[10]  Conscience, Consensus, and the Development of Doctrine

[11] John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (London, England: Penguin Books), 27

[12]  Ibid., 27

[13]  Ibid., 27-28

[14] Ibid., 28

[15] Ibid., 28

[16] Ibid., 28

[17] Ibid., 29

[18] Ibid., 30

[19] Ibid., xxviii

[20] Ibid., 34

[21] Ibid., 35

[22] Ibid., 525

[23] Ibid., 35

[24] C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves

[25] John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (London, England: Penguin Books), 41

[26] Ibid., 41

[27] Ibid., 41

[28] Ibid., 42

[29] Ibid., 65

[30] Ibid., 65

[31] Ibid., 65

[32] Ibid., 65

[33] Ibid., 66

[34] Ibid., 66

[35] Ibid., 208

[36] Ibid., 51

[37] Ibid., 214

[38] Ibid., 215

[39] Ibid., 215

[40]  John Henry Newman, Lead, Kindly Light

[41] Ian Ker, Newman’s Conversion

[42] John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (London, England: Penguin Books), 250

[43] Ibid., 28

[44] Ibid., xxi

One Response

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Follow Us!