Soon-to-be-saint John Henry Newman on marriage and celibacy

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Soon-to-be-saint John Henry Newman on marriage and celibacy

By Donna Orsuto

Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman will be canonized by Pope Francis during a celebration in Rome Oct. 13. A prolific writer and orator, Cardinal Newman’s theological reflections helped to shape and articulate contemporary theological thought on an array of topics that are widely studied and discussed still today.

Less well known amid his many writings are his thoughts on marriage and celibacy. In the sermon entitled, “Love of Relations and Friends,” delivered at St Mary’s in Oxford on the feast of St. John the Evangelist,[1]Cardinal Newman speaks on how marriage and family life are like a school of love that teach us how particular love and friendship with those around us lead to a more universal love. 

His message is simple, yet profound: what happens in the home is a school of love that prepares us for a more profound love of God and others. Beginning from the conviction that grace builds on nature, Newman explains that, “to honour our parents is the first step towards honouring God, to love our brethren according to the flesh, the first step towards considering all men our brethren. Hence our Lord says, we must become as little children, if we would be saved; we must become His Church, as men, what we were once in the small circle of our youthful homes.” The domestic circle becomes the place where the bonds of intimacy and mutuality are nurtured.

Newman also suggests that an inbuilt asceticism is part of marriage and family life that guards against selfishness that is the opposite of charity. For example, by its very nature, marriage, where people of different tastes are “obliged by circumstances to live together, and mutually to accommodate to each other, their respective wishes and pursuits,” leads to a natural “self-denial” that is so necessary for cultivating Christian love. 

Newman had many married friends, in particular his best friend from his Oxford days, John William Bowden, and his wife, Elizabeth Swinburne, who had four children. 

After Bowden’s death, Newman kept in close contact with the family. We get a glimpse of the closeness of Newman to that family in an unedited sermon included in Newman’sOratory Papersfrom 12 January 1854. This sermon, preached for the religious profession of Mary Anne Bowden, who entered the Visitation Convent of Westbury in 1852, not only offers insights into Newman’s ideas about virginity and the meaning of religious profession, but also some beautiful insights into marriage.

Following the Council of Trent, it was common during Newman’s time to extol virginity at the expense of marriage. Interestingly, Newman preaches in this sermon about the “lesson of the marriage ring,” even for those committed to the religious life. In a beautiful passage, Newman states:

“The very idea of matrimony is possession — whole possession — the husband’s is the wife and no other’s, and the wife is the husband’s and none but his. This is to enter into the marriage bond, this is the force of the marriage vow, this is the lesson of the marriage ring.”[2]  

The marriage bond becomes for the couple the particular way that they move from fragmentation to harmony and integration. It is this “one central and supreme attachment” that is the key to their happiness. Newman continues:

“Two mortal creatures of God, placed in this rough world, exposed to its many fortunes, destined to suffering and death, join hands, and give the faith to each other that each of them will love the other wholly unto death. Hence each is made for the other — each has possession of the other in a transcendent way; each loves the other better than anything else in the world, each is all in all to the other: each can confide in the other unreservedly, each is the others irreversibly.”[3]

Newman recognizes that human beings have a great intellectual and affective capacity that needs to be channeled. He insists though that what brings integration and wholeness in life is not to merely love the many, but to “have one central and supreme attachment, to which none other can be compared.” As the “perfection of human nature,” marriage, which is divinely ordained and thus is considered a sacrament, provides a natural way to express this desire and so come to fulfillment.

“Man has great capacities: he has an intellect, and a heart for many things; his nature is expansive, nor can you say how many things he can know, how many things he can love, but he must begin from some fixed points. It is by the law of nature, the happiness of everyone, man and woman, to have one central and supreme attachment, to which none other can be compared. An affection, one, mutual. Sovereign, unalterable, is earthly happiness and his earthly strength.”[4]  

The passionate and exclusive love, the expressions of mutual self-surrender and possession, as expressed in marriage also have a message for those who are called to live a life of celibacy.

Celibacy as mere asceticism or self-denial leads to “melancholy, isolation and independence,” and as such has nothing to do with the Gospel notion of virginity. We were “made for sympathy, for the interchange of love, for self-denial” for the sake of another. 

Underlying Newman’s teaching is the conviction that spousal love is what most characterizes God’s relation with humanity. And so, when Newman talks about celibacy, he sees it in terms of spousal love with Christ. His language becomes lyrical as he speaks of a Christian notion of celibacy: “It is to have Him ours wholly, henceforth, and for ever — it is to be united to Him by an indissoluble tie — it is to be His, while He is ours...”[5]  

In 1879, when Newman became a cardinal he chose, as the motto for his coat of arms, the words “Cor ad Cor loquitur”— heart speaks to heart — words, originally of St Francis de Sales, that are an invitation to a personal communication that reaches the depths of the other, expressed in simplicity, without duplicity, rooted in love. This is the sort of communication that Newman proposes for our relations and friends. 

Newman was convinced that, in this way, the circle of love would grow: “We are to begin with loving our relations and friends about us, and gradually to enlarge the circle of our affections, till it reaches all Christians and then all…” 

Donna Orsuto is the director of The Lay Centre and a professor of spirituality at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

The Lay Centre will host a lecture with Rev Dr Ian Ker, Senior Research Fellow Blackfriars, Oxford University, on "The Significance for the Catholic Church of Newman's Canonisation" Dec. 6. Father Ker is considered the world's authority on Cardinal John Henry Newman. For more information, contact

About the text:

The article above is a summary of an article by Donna Orsuto, “‘Heart Speaks to Heart’: Blessed John Henry Newman on Marriage and Family Life as a School of Love,” first published in Italian with the title:«John Henry Newman: Matrimonio e vita familiare come scuola d'amore», in Aldegonde Brenninkmeijer-Werhahn, A cuore aperto: riflessioni sul significato del matrimonio, Roma, Città Nuova, 2014, 223-232. The article was later republished in English and German. 




[1]Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. II, 5. “Love of Relations and Friends.”  (unless indicated, all further quotations refer to this sermon).

[2]Newman the Oratorian, p. 277.

[3]Newman the Oratorian, p. 275.

[4]Newman the Oratorian,p. 275.

[5]Newman the Oratorian,p. 277.

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