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The Pope and the battle for ownership of the soul of John Henry Newman

2010 September 18
by Paul Vallely

The high point of the visit of Benedict XVI to Britain, so far as the pontiff himself is concerned, is Sunday’s ceremony to beatify John Henry Newman.  So much so that he is breaking his own rules to do it. To distance himself from the snowstorm of saint-making of John Paul II his successor announced that henceforth he would not beatify, only canonise. That he is making an exception is a mark of his esteem for the man who is on course to become England’s first non-martyr saint since the Reformation.

And that is fitting for Benedict the theologian as Newman is perhaps the greatest Catholic thinker of modern times. He produced reams of essays, tracts, sermons, letters, novels, hymns and poetry. Some of his books, like The Idea of a University –that it should be about reasoning, rather than just a utilitarian preparation for a particular career –  are more relevant today than ever. His concept of the Via Media is vital to the flourishing of Christianity in all denominations today. His Apologia Pro Vita Sua, is a spiritual classic and one of the great autobiographies in the English language.

His luminous prose led James Joyce to dub him the greatest stylist of the Victorian age. He was so compelling and charismatic a preacher that crowds would pack the university church at Oxford to hear him speak. His theology was literary rather than systematic, and says his biographer John Cornwell “alive with creative connections”, which is why he appeals still to a wide educated audience.

But there is a problem with such universality. Newman has become all things to all believers. Conservatives and liberals, Anglicans and Catholics, gays and straights, all now lay theological claim to the man.

To conservatives, like Pope Benedict, he has a number of attractions. He is a poster-boy convert. Newman gave up a brilliant academic career at Oxford, in which he had re-emphasised sacramentality within Anglicanism, to become a Roman Catholic in 1845. His pursuit of spiritual truth cost him friends, jobs, possessions and much he held dear. The Pope sees in Newman’s teachings, he said on the eve of his visit, “a source of inspiration for ecumenism in our times from which all of us can draw”.

Benedict mentioned Newman’s gentle wisdom, integrity and personal holiness. But many Anglicans will note with ambivalence that this is a particular kind of ecumenical journey which ends, as Newman did, in Rome. The Pope’s decision to create a Roman Ordinariate for Anglo-Catholic priests who oppose the ordained ministry of women sits uneasily with most people’s notion of ecumenism, even if the Ordinariate is now on the backburner and some detect furious back-pedalling going on.

Yet Newman is much more than a recruiting sergeant for the Vatican. Newman’s progress from the prickly Calvinism of his youth to his liberal Anglicanism and thence to Rome is a rebuttal of the notion that all denominations, indeed religions, are the same. There is indeed, his progress avers, such a thing as objective truth and we must strive to find it – a belief that Benedict repeatedly emphasises in his blasts against moral relativism.

The Pope also sees Newman as an exemplar of unquestioning allegiance to the papacy. In February he told bishops from England and Wales when they visited Rome that Newman was an example to the world of opposition to dissent. “In a social milieu that encourages the expression of a variety of opinions on every question that arises,” he said, “it is important to recognise dissent for what it is, and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate.”  The crisis among English Catholics, the Pope appeared to be saying, was that they had followed their own uninformed consciousness, or self-serving prejudices, rather than being guided by papal teaching.

To liberals this is a massive rewriting of the historical facts which turns on its head the core principle of the man who famously said, when asked to toast the Pope by the Duke of Norfolk after dinner: “I shall drink to the Pope, if you please – still, to conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.”

Newman, was not a man who turned his back on his Anglican past when he switched churches. More than a decade after he became a Roman Catholic he republished the eight volumes of his Anglican homilies and made very few changes. And Newman was certainly a dissident when it came to papal authority. He wrote strongly against papal infallibility – and indeed may have had some influence in limiting it – warning that it would creep out beyond its tight doctrinal definition. He saw that when a pope had been in office a long time:  “He becomes a god, has no one to contradict him, does not know facts, and does cruel things without meaning it.”

He believed, unlike the present Pope, that the church should be run,  not by a clerical caste, but by lay people; “the Church would look foolish without them,” he once quipped. But above all it is his insistence on the primacy of conscience which most defines him – and his influence can be detected in the changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council one of whose documents defines conscience in Newman-like words as a person’s “most secret core and sanctuary” where “he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths”. No wonder the Vatican in his day was so suspicious of him that one Curia official branded him “the most dangerous man in England”. It was relatively late in the day that a new pope, Leo XII, made Newman a cardinal.

Even the gay community has claimed Newman as its own. Rome’s insistence two years ago on the reburial of Newman’s relics in a grander location brought to general notice the fact that, at his specific instruction, he was buried with his lifelong companion Father Ambrose St John. Newman wrote of him: “As far as this world was concerned, I was his first and last . . . he was my earthly light”. Much debate has ensued over whether their relationship was platonic.

The symbolism of that debate is important. Sexuality is the great faultline running through the modern church as last weekend’s BBC poll of Britain’s Catholics shows. What has probably come as a shock to the Pope is the number of English Catholics who stand on the other side of that line. Almost half think he should drop his insistence on clerical celibacy. And nearly two-thirds think women should have more authority and status within his Church.

On Thursday an ITV poll showed that only 4 per cent of British Catholics agreed with the papal ban on artificial contraception and 44 per cent believed that abortion should be allowed in some circumstances. Only 11 per cent accepted the teaching that homosexual acts are intrinsically evil. Many British Catholics clearly think official church teaching is based on an outdated anthropology. In the BBC poll 52 per cent of Catholics said that the handling of the sex abuse scandals had shaken their faith in the leadership of the Church.

Yet, for all that, Catholics do not feel in sympathy with the values of secular society. Almost one in six, according to the BBC poll , feel that their faith is not “generally valued” in British society.  It will be interesting to see if Pope Benedict’s visit gives outsiders any greater understanding of the good side of Catholicism – that St Vincent de Paul volunteers last year put in a million hours working with the poor, that Catholics pay £200m into the state education system in addition to their normal taxes, that they contribute £47m to combat international poverty through Cafod, that the Church has countless groups working with the homeless, refugees, asylum-seekers, orphans, widows and strangers.

There will be other interesting questions. Will conservatives and liberals have gained any insights into the values and contribution of the other? Will aggressive new atheist critics be any nearer an understanding that “man is not a reasoning animal,” as Newman wrote, but is “a seeing, feeling, contemplating, acting animal”?  Will the Pope himself have listened and learned anything about the extent of the damage to the moral authority of the church which has been done by the Vatican’s dilatory and lukewarm response and its addiction to secrecy? Will he have a greater understanding of the sensus fidelium?

“In a higher world it is otherwise,” Newman wrote, “but here below to live is to change; and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

from the Church Times

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