Friday, May 8, 2009

Another English Saint For All Seasons

THE DAILY TELEGRAPH in London recently reported that the Vatican had accepted the cure of a Massachusetts man, who had suffered from spinal stenosis, as a miracle attributed to the prayers of John Henry Newman, the Victorian-era cardinal, theologian, and writer.Jack Sullivan, a Catholic deacon in Marshfield, later told the Globe of his overnight cure."The next morning I woke up," he said, "and there was no pain."Sullivan's dramatic healing would fulfill the church's requirement for Newman's beatification, which could take place as early as this fall. (Another miracle is required for canonization.)

Born in 1801, Newman would make both a fascinating and controversial saint.

An eminent clergyman, Newman spent much of his life in the orbit of Oxford University, where he studied and later taught. Ordained in 1824, the brilliant scholar instantly became one of the glittering stars of the Anglican Church.

Over the next decade, he spearheaded the "Oxford movement," which sought to return Anglicanism to more traditional roots. Newman's ultimate decision, in 1845, to convert to Catholicism came on the heels of research that led him to conclude that the Catholic Church had a greater claim to orthodoxy. His conversion horrified much of England.

Even after "crossing the Tiber," however, Newman retained his intellectual independence, freely toggling between traditional and progressive theologies.

Despite his conservative theological leanings, he championed such radical ideas as the rights of the individual conscience at a time when that notion was held in low regard in the Vatican.
("Error has no rights" was the prevailing line of thought.) When he was named cardinal in 1879 by Pope Leo XIII, it was joked that perhaps Rome hadn't read all that he had written.

Because of his protean mind and voluminous writings, then, he is beloved by groups that are often at loggerheads. More traditional Catholics admire Newman's elegant apologias for Catholicism.

Progressives embrace his work on conscience and the "development of doctrine," the idea that church belief on some matters can change over time - for the better. And ironically, many Catholics suspicious of clericalism often quote this prince of the church, who once quipped about the laity, "[T]he church would look foolish without them."

Indeed, one of his most famous articles was called "On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine." (What a novel concept.)

The greatest controversy over the soon-to-be-saint, however, may be his intense relationship with his long-time friend Ambrose St. John. "As far as this world was concerned, I was his first and last . . . he was my earthly light," wrote Newman.

Before his death in 1890, Newman made an unusual and strongly worded request.
"I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Fr Ambrose St. John's grave - and I give this as my last, my imperative will," he wrote. As a result, he is beloved among some in the gay community, who often claim him as one of their own.

Last year, church officials announced that they would unearth Newman's remains from a small rural cemetery in Worcestershire in order to transfer them to a marble sarcophagus in the Birmingham Oratory church.

But diggers found little left of the cardinal. Some charged that the church wanted to move Newman to whitewash his friendship with St. John.

Church officials replied, accurately, that the remains of many saints are often moved to sites that are more appropriate for "public veneration."

Admired by conservatives and liberals, cradle Catholics and converts, as well as anti-clericalists and gays, Cardinal John Henry Newman is destined to be a popular but controverted saint.

Who is the "real" Newman?

It's a bit like the popular quest for the "historical Jesus."
Which one you find depends a great deal on which one you're searching for.


It's most likely an understatement to say that Cardinal Newman will be a popular but controverted saint. In my mind he's a lot like St. Thomas More. St. Thomas is another English saint who seems to be the property of everyone. It takes a real multi faceted saint to be both the patron saint of elected politicians and the only western thinker with a bust in the Kremlin.

I suspect Cardinal Newman, like Thomas More, appeals to so many different kinds of people because both were seriously conflicted with in themselves. Both appear to have been critics of the hierarchy with wide open thinking, while pursuing a very narrow and pious personal life. I can easily see where Cardinal Newman could have been madly in love with John Ambrose and perfectly willing to torture himself with chaste abstinence. Thomas More tortured himself over his sexual inclinations---literally.

Both men extended a compassionate hand and optimistic world view to others, while not extending the same courtesy to themselves. Both were intellectually brilliant and both had a mystical approach to the Eucharist. In fact some of Thomas More's best writing was his last while he was in prison and was a mystical treatise on the Eucharist and Jesus's passion.

Both men seemed to understand that Catholicism at it's best describes a vision of humanity which is in process. Real Catholics work to become better people through the action of Grace on one's reason. One doesn't start out with perfection as the minimal requirement for being seated at the Catholic table.

Somewhere a long the line, aspects of American Catholicism have lost track of that notion. Absolute fidelity has become the minimal entrance requirement for Eucharistic reception. A notion which in and of itself pretty much negates the need for Eucharistic Grace influencing spiritual development. Apparently real Catholics have to be totally developed before they can enjoy being developed through Grace. Cardinal Newman would probably fail to appreciate the logic in that kind of thinking. He would see it as far more Donatic than Catholic.

Over on the National Catholic Reporter one of the "Young Authors" Jamie Manson, has written an interesting piece on why she still calls herself Catholic, even though she's got issues with clericalism and the hierarchy. I can get on board with a lot of what she wrote, especially this part:

The notion that grace perfects nature forms the basis for the uniquely Catholic idea that all finite things in creation are capable of revealing truths about what is infinite or eternal. Catholics have a sacramental view of the world. That is, for a Catholic, all of creation is good, and everything in our finite world can be a vessel of God’s presence and God’s transforming grace. This idea provides the foundation for Catholicism’s rich mysticism and spirituality, its unparalleled social justice doctrine, its care of the poor, and its exquisite legacy of artists and writers.

I would say I consider myself a Catholic because it's through the examples of the Thomas Mores and the Cardinal Newmans that I understood progress in spirituality is a really kind of a wrestling match with oneself. The function of the Sacraments was to support the person in this wrestling, strengthening them and supporting them. Most of our best art and our best writers brilliantly describe this personal growth process, or the stunting there of.

I can remember in high school being profoundly struck by a novel of Graham Greene's in which the lead character decides to commit suicide as the last best choice he has to stop hurting Jesus. The character had committed a number of sexual indiscretions and then compounded his error by receiving communion while in this state of mortal sin. He came to the conclusion he was unforgivable and might as well get it over with and stop forcing Jesus to suffer for him. This was not just a case of losing the wrestling match, but having it spin completely out of control. Only a Catholic could have written this story and only a Catholic could understand that it actually made sense in a weird way. Catholicism can be a strange universe.

Like Thomas More, Cardinal Newman will undoubtedly become all things to all people, and that too is a legitimate part of the strange Catholic universe. Sometimes in our saints there really is a little something for everybody because some of them really do model the big Church idea and the multiple paths to spiritual progress. Cardinal Newman certainly fits that bill.


  1. What you have said of Newman is both a very interesting & balanced commentary.

    But from watching all the "spin" on EWTN about him (and the mass for the re-interment of his mortal remains), one sees the heavy hand of Opus Dei all through this. And obvious what is useful to them of Newman are his defenses of the papacy, infallibility, the magisterium, etc., ad nauseum. The 'other side of the coin' of Newman is virtually ignored.

    When his remains were uncovered we observed this: not only was there "nothing left of him", neither was there anything indicating that his beloved was interred with him - despite all evidence to the contrary. As bones tend not to disappear altogether after only 100 years (as any archeologist will tell you) we come to this conclusion:

    We smell a rat. Or should I say the 'long arm of Escriva'.....!

    Newman is quite useful to the Opus. Both in what he wrote & in how it can be "edited" (ahem!!!) & used as backup for the one thing most dear to them: OBEDIENCE.

    In this wise, it would be critical to them to erase anything which could possibly reek of 'scandal' about Newman's personal life (as they did with Escriva himself). The obvious assertion is that his grave had been violated; tampered with, to eliminate evidence.

    In light of the Gospel, exactly what is wrong with wishing to be buried alongside your beloved?

    The clue is to be found in Escriva's "El Camino": "the end justifies the means".

  2. Newman will survive his present exploitation by horrendous groups such as the Cardinal Newman Society. Sadly Newman scholarship is generally under the spell of a pietistic fetishistic adulation of the man, onto whom are projected the deeply reactionary attitudes of the adulators themselves. Full-blooded engagement with the intellectual, spiritual, human and literary greatness of Newman is very rare. One precondition of such engagement would be a thorough understanding of the history of theology -- one that builds on Newman's own subtle vision of development, rather than going back from it to an infantile and idolatrous view of dogma and the papacy.

  3. Projection does seem to be the major psychological flaw reflected in the current trend to retreat to the mythical past.

    Personally I think folks should get a clue as to how projection works before they go near any theology.

  4. One characteristic of the RCC Leadership that I do not care for is their "one true church" mentality. Inside of that is the belief that the only "real" miracles that can be performed are the ones performed by "true catholics". That mentality makes it impossible for them to recognize that there are many outside of the catholic church who have and continue to perform healing miracles. Ernest Holmes, Charles and Myrtle Filmore, Emily Cady, etal are among the hundreds just in the last century who have not one, but dozens and hundreds who have consistently demonstrated healings through prayer and faith.

    Within Science of Mind, in order for one to be ordained, one has to have proven demonstrations, (note the plural) in addition to knowing the foundational priniciples of the movement.

    What if, the catholic church required the same before anyone could be ordained into the clergy? Answer, the many problems that plague the clergy and the RCC leadership as a whole, would not be possible. When one has a true prayer consciousness, it allows them to fulfill the promise in John 14:12, and the depravity that is the hallmark of the RCC Leadership today simply could not exist within the individual, AND it would not be tolerated by the community.

    todays word is "dings"

  5. Carl, I read somewhere in a historical treatise on the rise of the clerical priesthood that this whole notion came to prominence just as the Gifts of the Holy Spirit seemed to vanish from the early church. That would have been around 250 CE.

    I've always thought that was an interesting point.