September 10, 2010

Cardinal John Henry Newman to be beatified on Sept. 19

By John F. Fink

Cardinal John Henry NewmanPope Benedict XVI will beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman on Sept. 19 during his trip to England. The significance of this event can be seen in the fact that this will be the first time that Pope Benedict has officiated at a beatification. He usually lets cardinals do that while he officiates at canonizations.

Cardinal Newman’s beatification is seen as a great day for people throughout the world who have been campaigning for just such an event for decades. Among them are the members of the Cardinal Newman Society, which sponsors seminars to study his works.

Newman Clubs on secular college campuses are named after Cardinal Newman.

Many devotees consider Cardinal Newman to have been the greatest theologian of the 19th century, and probably much longer. They not only expect him to be canonized some day, but also to be named a doctor of the Church, an honor bestowed on only 30 male saints and three female saints.

Some people treat what Cardinal Newman wrote as respectfully as Scripture, reading and meditating daily on his writings.

Why is this man so revered?

He was born on Feb. 21, 1801, in an England that had known persecution of Catholics since the days of King Henry VIII. Catholics were scorned by most Englishmen. They were few in numbers. Those who did practice their religion were not allowed to vote until 1829. They could not send their children to Oxford or Cambridge. There was no English Catholic hierarchy until Pope Pius IX restored it in 1850.

Newman grew up with all the prejudices against the Catholic Church. At first a skeptic concerning Christianity, he experienced a conversion when he was 15. Ordained a priest in the Anglican Church, he was put in charge of St. Mary’s, the Oxford University church, where he soon earned a reputation as a great preacher.

He began to study early Church history, especially the teachings of the Fathers of the Church, and discovered many Catholic doctrines that had been abandoned by the Anglicans. In 1833—the same year he wrote his prayer-poem “Lead, Kindly Light”—he and some colleagues began a movement to restore some of those doctrines. Eventually, this became known as the Oxford Movement.

Those spearheading the movement began to issue a series of pamphlets called “Tracts for the Times.” They called for acceptance within Anglicanism of various doctrines that had been considered “Romish,” but which Newman insisted were part of an authentic Christian faith.

Newman considered Anglicanism as the via media, the “middle way” between the Catholic Church, which he thought had added doctrines to those of the early Church, and Protestantism, which had abandoned doctrines of the early Church.

When Newman issued “Tract Ninety” on Feb. 27, 1841, though, his bishop thought that he had gone too far. This tract explained how the fundamental document of Anglican theology, the “Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion,” should be interpreted in a Catholic sense.

As bishop after bishop condemned this tract, Newman was forced out of St. Mary’s. He continued to study and write. Much of his writing consisted of letters to men to try to convince them to remain in the Anglican Church.

He began to write a book-length Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, which he thought would demonstrate that the Catholic Church corrupted authentic Christian doctrine. He said that he was trying to decide where a reincarnated St. Athanasius or St. Ambrose might find himself religiously at home.

In the essay, he discriminated between healthy development of an idea from its corruption and decay. He wrote, “There is no corruption if it retains one and the same type, the same principles, the same organization; if its beginning anticipates its subsequent phases, and its later phenomena protect and subserve its earlier; if it has a power of assimilation and revival, and a vigorous action from first to last.” He then enlarged at length on each of those points.

Newman began that essay as an Anglican. He finished it as a Catholic. Convincing himself through his own writings of the truth of the Catholic Church, he formally became a Catholic on Oct. 9, 1845. It has been said that many people have converted to Catholicism through their reading, but Newman converted through his writing.

He had been an Anglican for 44½ years; he would be a Catholic for 44½ years. Numerous Anglicans, clergy and laity followed him into the Catholic Church.

He studied in Rome for ordination as a Catholic priest, which happened on May 30, 1847. Then Pope Pius IX asked him to found an Oratory in England such as St. Philip Neri had done in the 16th century. He established the first house in a suburb of Birmingham, where he continued to preach and write. His lectures drew large crowds, and many people were converted to Catholicism.

In 1854, the Irish bishops asked Newman to become the first rector of the newly established Catholic University in Dublin. He resigned after four years, but out of this experience came his book Idea of a University, which has remained a classic in this field ever since. It advocated the “training of the intellect, which is best for the individual himself and best enables him to discharge his duties to society.”

He wrote, “If a practical end must be assigned to a university course, I say it is that of training good members of society. Its art is the art of social life, and its end is fitness for the world.”

In the 1860s, Newman became embroiled in a public dispute with Rev. Charles Kingsley, an Anglican minister, who, in Macmillan’s Magazine, accused the Catholic clergy of dishonesty and Newman of commending such dishonesty. After replying with a letter to the editor only to receive more accusations, Newman wrote a defense of his life.

Apologia pro Vita Sua (“A Defense of My Own Life”) has been called the greatest spiritual autobiography since St. Augustine’s Confessions. It was more than an autobiography; it was a powerful defense of Catholicism. Before it was published in book form, it was serialized in newspapers across England for seven weeks in 1864.

Newman’s reputation grew steadily. In 1879, when he was 78, Pope Leo XIII named him a cardinal. For his coat of arms, he chose the motto “Cor ad cor loquitur” (Latin for “Heart speaks to heart”).

Besides his prose, he is known for his poetry, particularly for his “The Dream of Gerontius,” later set to music.

Newman died on Aug. 11, 1890, at age 89.

Throughout the 20th century, his influence continued to grow. He is sometimes called “The Father of Vatican II” because many of his published ideas were adopted by the Second Vatican Council. Pope John Paul II was an admirer who quoted him frequently, as has Pope Benedict. He is quoted four times in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

(John F. Fink is editor emeritus of The Criterion.)

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