Blessed Newman: An Almost-Saint for a Universal Church

Unless you live under a rock, you probably know the pope is in England where he will preside over the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman. Newman, who will probably be canonized in my life time, was a towering 19th century theologian, with a controversial life and a controversial legacy. He’s the perfect saint for a deeply-divided, still little-c Catholic Church.

Newman, who was born in England, was a Catholic convert. Born an Anglican, Newman was a leader in a conservative movement within the Church of England called the Oxford Movement, whose goal it was to bring the Anglican Church back to its Catholic roots in terms of faith, morality, and in particular, worship. The Oxford Movement was by no means an effort to make the Anglican Church become Catholic, and, in fact, Newman published many harsh words against his Roman brethren. Nevertheless, he converted in his 40’s to the Roman Catholic Church (after retracting many of his former anti-Catholic sentiments).

In many ways, though Newman is often remembered as a Conservative, he was actually considered quite a progressive voice within the Church. He is famous for his emphasis on conscience and his criticism of papal infallibility (“I shall drink to the pope, if you please, but to conscience first”). If you read a lot of the recent articles on Newman, they will claim that this criticism of papal infallibility makes him a hero among liberal Catholics who want to oppose Benedict on various issues like gay marriage, liturgy, etc. In fact, it is quite consistent with Catholics, conservative and liberal alike, to be skeptical of papal infallibility. Thomas Aquinas himself was wary of giving any bishop so great a power, and indeed, the infallibility of the bishop of Rome was not even defined dogmatically until the First Vatican Council in 1870. The doctrine developed in order to check the power of the pope, not expand it, and papal infallibility has only been used once since Vatican I, in order to dogmatically define the Assumption of Mary into Heaven in 1950.

Infallibility does not mean the pope doesn’t err, nor that Catholics can just listen to him or the magisterium for whatever they hold to be true. And Newman reminds us of this. Conscience reigns, and that inner sanctuary where God judges our thoughts and actions, is a sacred core both of our humanity and of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Newman is a bridge between those who would emphasize authority and infallibility to the neglect of conscience, and those who would emphasize the freedom of thought and opinion (by no means equivalent with conscience) to the neglect of authority and the objectivity of truth.

Newman is, in a way, already the patron saint of scholars and of the liberal arts. In The Idea of the University, Newman warns of the dangers of overspecialization and the dismissal of theology from the university curriculum, an increasing danger in the US, especially in light of the financial turmoil our country seems to be in. Fewer people are choosing to study the humanities, instead tending towards the more profitable disciplines of finance, communications, medicine, and law. Newman, recognizing the importance of the practical and servile arts, still also recognized the need of the humanities (the “liberal” arts) to train professionals in how to be human. And of those liberal studies, theology was queen. Theology unified the various sciences and directed each toward its proper telos. Newman is the bridge between those who are so practical and profitable to the neglect of pursuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and those whose knowledge is so ethereal and irrelevant that they forget to be practical.

The most recent news is that Newman was possibly gay. There is no hard evidence that he was, but there are speculations. I don’t know, but even if he was, it simply makes Newman more of a saint for a divided and still-universal church. The Catholic Church is big enough for gay people who are saints, big enough for critics of the pope and fans, big enough for scholars and workers, big enough for converts and lapsed. Newman is the man the Church needs now, a nuanced voice that both conservatives and liberals (whatever those titles may mean in the RCC or in Christendom at large) can both claim as their own. So, Blessed Newman, for this church of ours, we ask you to pray for us.

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3 comments so far

  1. Kevin on

    Wonderful post Beth! I completely agree with you. Well said.

  2. Nate on

    I am so glad that you like Newman. I guess you can’t since he was such a great mind and a Catholic to boot. The religious world will miss him. You know there are two teachers at ACU that both did dissertations on Newman? One is an English prof and the other is Fred Aquino. I just know you would fit in there…;-D

    • everydaythomist on

      I would just love to end up at ACU, Nate, in so many ways. It seems like such a wonderful school, and I can tell that Newman has had at least an implicit influence in the structure of the new core curriculum. The liberal arts will need to return to Newman if they are to survive in our increasingly-more profit-driven world. I can’t wait until he becomes Saint Newman.


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