John Henry Cardinal Newman – a political beatification
His cause has taken half a century of research, consideration and procrastination. And you can understand why. As an Anglican vicar and (third-rate) Oxford scholar, the Rev John Newman subscribed to the letter of the XXXIX Articles, manifested a distinct hatred of the Roman Catholic Church and held a personal conviction that the Pope was the Anti-Christ. Indeed, he once wrote: “If the Pope is not an Anti-Christ, he has bad luck to be so like him.” The Rev John Newman began his ministry at the University Church of St Mary’s (with which His Grace is only too familiar) and manifested a distinctly low-church conviction. Over the years, he became increasingly high-church, leading ultimately to his participation in the foundation of the Oxford Movement or Tractarians, as they were more commonly known.
The rest, as they say, is history.
But John Henry Newman is not a model of holiness for the Church in the United Kingdom. His was known to have worldly ambition, to possess a frightful temper, to be reclusive and selfish, and, in the words of his contemporary Cardinal Manning, to be ‘a hater’.
He is also rumoured to have suffered from what Pope Benedict XVI terms an ‘objective disorder’ and to possess a tendency towards an ‘intrinsic moral evil’.
All of these foibles and failings might be considered to pale into insignificance against the brilliance of his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, or the belief that he was a prophet of Christian unity, or the realisation that many of his writings on the laity and his personal beliefs on Church reform foreshadowed the conclusions of the Second Vatican Council.
When he was created a cardinal in 1879, he chose to speak against ‘liberalism’ in religion. This is the theme to which Pope Benedict XVI has dedicated his pontificate, though he prefers the term ‘relativism’. For if truth be what you make it, and these truths are mutually exclusive, what then becomes of truth? And if there is no authority to adjudicate between these competing truths, the Church is destined to fracture and fragment. And what is that authority if it be not apostolic? Dogma is secure. St Peter is on his throne. Semper Eadem.
John Henry Newman was a remarkable Anglican in many ways, and perhaps an even more remarkable Roman Catholic.
But although the process towards his beatification has been rigorous and arduous, Newman is not pronounced ‘Blessed’ today as a result of the moral or intellectual courage he displayed in his conversion, or the worldwide influence he continues to exert as a theologian and scholar, or even the services he performed for the poor or in the founding of an oratory.
He is beatified today solely because some bloke in Massachusetts had a bad back and doesn’t any more.
Without this ‘miracle’, Pope Benedict would not be in Birmingham. And without another, the Blessed John Henry Newman cannot become a fully-fledged saint. This is the anti-reason hocus pocus which belies much of what His Holiness has said about the relationship between faith and reason. It is not, of course, that miracles may no longer be divinely ordained or experienced on earth: it is His Grace's belief that they most certainly may. But you would think that the life and teachings of Cardinal Newman might be sufficient alone to merit spiritual recognition and honour: and he could have done something a little more convincing than the quite unexceptional healing of a bad back – which is, statistically, the most common ailment in the UK. And speaking of the UK, you might also think that this most English of saints could at least have healed an Englishman. His ways may not be ours, but why choose an American?
To revive and affirm the ‘special relationship’, perhaps?
There are undoubted saintly merits in the life of John Henry Newman. But it cannot be ignored that this beatification follows hard upon the ‘personal ordinariate’ invitation to Anglicans to swim the Tiber en masse, and Pope Benedict XVI will not want his papacy to pass into the annals of history without realising his religio-political objective of achieving Church unity, first between East and West, and then by absorbing the Church of England into the Church in England. John Henry Newman becomes the first Englishman born since the 17th century to be set on the path to sainthood. So significant is this for Pope Benedict that he has set aside the customary subsidiarity and has himself declared Newman ‘Blessed’. And the new feast day is not to be the customary date of death (or birth into heaven), but the date of Newman's conversion to Rome - 6th October. If His Holiness had wanted to be a little more generously ecumenical about it, he could have chosen the date of Newman's baptism - 11th August. But we must not forget that the Church of England is not a church 'in the proper sense'. Pope Benedict clearly recognises Newman's conversion to Rome as as the crucial regenerative event, being the undoubted fount of the theological wisdom in which His Holiness is himself steeped and greatly influenced.
So do not let the blinding papal spectacle and profound religious fervour blind us to the politics of this beatification.
Or to the certainty that the canonisation will swiftly follow.