Folks by now know that even more than C S Lewis, John Henry Newman is my spiritual and theological and ecclesial (= “church-conscious”) hero. Finally, he is to be formally canonized as a saint. My big question is whether or not he will also be declared (as Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI thought he should be) a “Doctor of the Church.” No one in the last two hundred years deserves that title more.
Newman was a convert to the Catholic Church at age 44, after being a priest in the Church of England, a leading proponent of Church reform from his base at Oxford, and a preacher of great eloquence. Why did he leave his home? The answer is one word: conscience. He was convinced in his conscience, after years of study and prayer and fasting, that the Church of England was not part of the Catholic Church and that the Church of Rome was. He left all that was comfortable to him, including his friends, for a religious body that was not to his taste, and with no Catholic friends
–because he was convinced it held the Truth in ways without which he could not live. In short, he made a tremendous personal sacrifice in order to be faithful.
Yet during much of his Catholic life he was regarded by many Catholics, especially those who were also converts from the Church of England, as suspect, unsound: “the most dangerous man in England.” Among other reasons, he believed in two principles—the primacy of conscience (rightly understood) and the importance of the laity. Both these went strongly against the “ultramontanist” mentality of many in the Catholic Church in the mid- and late 19th century: a time when glorification of the pope as absolute and sole authority was THE acid test of being faithful. This was a time when the infallibility of the pope was solemnly defined; it was a time when the best (only right?) practices devotional and liturgical were Roman. Notions like collegiality and inculturation (sanctioned later, at Vatican II) were utterly rejected. Newman would have none of this, and so he was, as he put it, “under a cloud.”
His rehabilitation came when Pope Leo XIII named him a cardinal—he was 79 years old. As he put it, “The cloud has been lifted from me forever.” Even then, his enemies tried to thwart the appointment! Nevertheless, writings like his “On Consulting the Faithful,” “Essay on the Development of Doctrine,” “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk,” and “The Idea of a University” set the intellectual stage for Vatican II 100 years later; his sermons (especially his Anglican ones, preached at Oxford’s university church, St Mary the Virgin) remain spiritual masterpieces. Yes, he is my hero.
His canonization will be Sunday, 13 October, in a solemn Mass at St Peter’s. I will be there! His cardinal’s motto was Cor ad cor loquitur—the heart speaks to the heart. Newman’s heart has long spoken to mine, and I’m thrilled to see that the cloud has really been lifted. Might I add, with a sense of unholy satisfaction, that his primary opponents are now simply historical footnotes to the Cardinal’s life? His is teaching of great clarity and timeliness—thanks be to God!