With Newman, the church gains its ‘saint for modern times’

Blessed John Henry Newman widely seen as an architect of the modern church

Oxford, England — When the convert-cardinal, Blessed John Henry Newman, is canonized by Pope Francis on Oct. 13, it will be the culmination of a remarkable religious odyssey stretching back over two centuries.

In his native Britain, Newman (1801-1890) will be the first confessor, or non-martyr, saint proclaimed for more than 600 years, honored for achievements in life rather than death. It will also be a crowning moment for worldwide devotees of a man widely seen as an architect of the modern church.

“Of course, Newman dealt with issues from a 19th-century viewpoint, but his views of the role of laity and development of church doctrine are still of considerable relevance,” said Jesuit Fr. John W. O’Malley, theology professor at Georgetown University. “Though his canonization doesn’t mean he was right in every area, it’s certainly a firm vindication of Newman, and a clear statement that his ideas were not only orthodox but also meaningful for today.”

When Newman was beatified in Birmingham, England, on Sept. 19, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI praised his “keen intellect and prolific pen,” which continued “to inspire and enlighten many all over the world.”

Sure enough, the one-time Oxford University don remains one of the Christian world’s best-known philosophers and theologians, and is said to be the subject of more doctoral studies at Rome’s pontifical universities than any other modern figure.

This may be due in part to his vast output in poetry, hymns, reflections and novels, and in classic works such as his Meditations and Devotions, Parochial and Plain Sermons, and autobiographical Apologia Pro Vita Sua, which are still in print.

It took the Oxford University Press five decades to annotate and publish 32 large volumes of Newman’s letters, while the first of 250,000 extra folios of correspondence, notes and photographs were published this summer, under an interactive digitization program co-organized by Pittsburgh’s National Institute for Newman Studies.

But Newman was also a deeply pastoral figure, experts stress, whose grasp of modern Christian dilemmas still teaches vital lessons.

“He wasn’t just a lofty philosopher — he was also a priest and prophet, who foresaw the difficulties facing Christianity in a coming secular world,” said Fr. Ignatius Harrison, provost of Birmingham’s Oratory of St. Philip Neri, founded by the future saint in 1848. “He was loved in his lifetime not because everyone had read his intellectual masterpieces, for which he later became famous, but because of his pastoral kindness to the poor, unemployed and sick. All of this should become clear with his canonization.”

Longstanding authority, appeal

Born the son of a London banker, Newman was raised in the Anglican Church of England, undergoing a conversion experience, aged 15, to a Calvinist-style faith.

He graduated and taught at Oxford University, serving as vicar of its St. Mary the Virgin church from 1828 to 1843, from where, with John Keble, Edmund Pusey and others, he co-led the Oxford Movement, which sought to rid the Church of England of state interference and revive its pre-Reformation beliefs and rituals.

In 1845, having concluded the Anglican via media, or middle way, between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism was a sham, Newman joined the Catholic Church, founding the oratory and helping set up a Catholic university in Ireland three years later.

Having been influential in Catholicism’s revival in England after three centuries’ repression and restriction, he was appointed a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII in 1879, and his thinking on church history, ecclesiology, the rights of conscience and role of laypeople is widely believed to have anticipated the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council.

O’Malley thinks Newman’s deductions were badly needed by the Catholic Church in the 19th century, when new historical studies of the Bible and Christian history risked compromising its sacred claims.

Paradoxically, however, they had a greater effect in the 20th century, when issues of change and continuity took center stage, especially among English-speaking Catholics.

Disputes over Newman’s intentions continued after his death from pneumonia, aged 89, on Aug. 11, 1890, while claims that he was a homosexual have also surfaced more recently, largely over his relationship with a fellow-Oratorian, Ambrose St. John, in whose grave he asked to be buried.

These have been dismissed by scholars such as Newman’s foremost English biographer, Ian Ker, who insists Newman was called to celibacy and left no written hint of any gay inclination. Newman corresponded affectionately throughout his life with both men and women, Ker points out, while it was not unusual for close friends to wish to be interred together.

He had “plenty of critics, not to say enemies,” Ker noted in his biography. Yet not even the most casual observers read any significance “into an act of loving friendship, and indeed of humility, such as was left to the twentieth century to read into it.”

“Newman’s great achievements in literature, theology, philosophy and education stand firm — as does his important historical role in leading the Oxford Movement and later defining the relationship between faith and reason,” Ker told NCR in an interview. “He saw how, in a pluralist society which was no longer religiously homogeneous, the church also had to adjust its teaching if it wasn’t to become old and false. But he also brought to the church a deep understanding of the importance of personal conversion, giving him a stature which can only grow in years to come.”

Newman’s defense of personal conscience — described in his 1870 Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent as “a moral sense, and a sense of duty; a judgment of the reason and a magisterial dictate” — is acknowledged in the Catholic Church’s 1992 Catechism, along with his writings on faith, Christian beatitude and the sense of the sacred.

It has also been used in a human rights context, and was cited by the White Rose student group of Sophie and Hans Scholl, which bravely opposed Nazi rule in wartime Munich.

Meanwhile, his defense of Catholic rights, set out in 1875 as A Letter Addressed to His Grace The Duke of Norfolk on Occasion of Mr. Gladstone’s Recent Expostulation, have long since entered the Catholic mainstream. So have his thoughts on education, on freedom versus self-will, on the need for dogma as a counter to liberal ideology, and on the compatibility of science and theology as means of understanding the world.

When French theologians Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar and Jean Danielou launched a “nouvelle théologie,” or ressourcement movement in the mid-20th century to shake the grip of dry, anti-modern neo-scholasticism over Catholic theology, they drew on Newman’s appeal to Scripture and early church traditions, and for teachings grounded on real and concrete conditions.

“Some saints are canonized who are models of Christian devotion but don’t really have any significant impact on the church itself. But Newman should be viewed, by contrast, as the great theologian of post-Vatican II Catholicism.”  —Ian Ker, biographer of John Henry Newman