The papal hijacking of Cardinal Newman

Pope Benedict XVI is set next week to honour the Victorian churchman and writer Cardinal John Henry Newman, by beatifying him – bringing him to the penultimate stage of full sainthood. The ceremony, at a park near Birmingham, will be performed before a 70,000-strong congregation, and a global English-speaking audience of millions, via the media.

Newman, who shocked Britain by converting from Anglicanism to Catholicism in 1845 (“perverting”, staunch Protestants called it), does not enjoy a grassroots international cult following, unlike Saint Francis of Assisi. Since his death in 1890, his following has consisted mostly of university educated Catholics in Britain. He also has a sizeable circuit of devotees among the 65-million-strong faithful in the US, while educated Catholics venerate him in large numbers throughout Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and especially in the Irish Republic, where he is remembered as founder of the country’s first Catholic university. (Benedict will also be addressing millions of Anglicans and Episcopalians, in the hope of wooing them over to Catholicism. In autumn 2009, he made it easier for entire wavering Anglican parishes in England to come over to Rome.)

Crucially, Benedict will wish to deliver a strong take-home message to the vocal liberal wing of the English-speaking Catholic Church, which tends to be critical of papal teaching on issues such as homosexuality and contraception. Liberalism in religion, Benedict believes, is a besetting vice of Anglophone Catholics and a prelude to every kind of corruption.

Paradoxically, in view of his imminent beatification, John Henry Newman has always been a source of inspiration to Catholic liberals for his tendency to see both sides of every question and to follow conscience wherever it may lead. Such views are to be found in English language Catholic journals with international reach. In Britain there is The Tablet; in the US, the National Catholic Reporter, America, and Commonweal. One of Benedict’s first acts on becoming Pope was to have the Jesuit editor of America fired for his progressive editorials. Ironically, Newman himself was sacked from the editorship of the liberal mid-19th century Catholic magazine, the Rambler for running articles critical of the papacy.

Newman’s path to beatification has taken half a century – the process began in 1958, on the insistence of the community of priests at Birmingham Oratory, founded by Newman – and it is an arcane, macabre process at the best of times. The candidate’s physical remains are procured and enshrined. Across Catholic Europe, bits of bone and hair of blesseds and saints are treasured in satin-lined gilt receptacles. Cadavers are venerated in glass-sided coffins, their faces reconstructed with wax and enlivened with rouge. Relics signify power, and miracles are sought in their presence, acknowledging the holy ones’ intercessory credit with the Almighty. Then there are the hagiographies: embellished stories of the holy ones’ lives for the edification of the faithful. So what is Newman’s story?

John Henry Newman is simply the most electrifying religious thinker and writer in English of the past 200 years – subtle, imaginative, deeply learned, at times maddeningly paradoxical and dialectical. James Joyce and Gerard Manley Hopkins claimed that he was the finest English prose stylist of the 19th century. His range is prodigious: poetry (“The Dream of Gerontius”), fiction, history, hymns (famously, “Lead, Kindly Light”), many hundreds of published sermons, as well as profound works of theology and philosophy. His Apologia Pro Vita Sua is by common consent the greatest spiritual autobiography since Augustine’s Confessions. A literary workaholic, he prayed with a pen in his hand. Believing in Christianity, he thought, was like falling in love. His motto was “Heart speaks unto Heart”; bullying and clever arguments, he said, do not bring us to God.

Newman spent the first half of his adult life as a scholar and preacher in Oxford, where he led a movement to renew the Anglican Church. He spent the second half working as a Catholic priest in industrial Birmingham, head of his community of Oratorians. As a Catholic, he continued to write prolifically; but the Vatican was suspicious of his writings: they were too independent, too English. A Vatican monsignor said he was “the most dangerous man in England” and should be “crushed”. Newman complained: “If I put anything into print, Propaganda [the Vatican] answers me at once. How can I fight with a chain on my arm? It is like the Persians driven to fight under the lash.”

Despite the suspicions and the oppression, Newman was made a Cardinal as he approached 80. A remarkable new Pope, Leo XIII, recognised his value for defending Christianity in a secular age. But there was opposition. Pope Leo spoke of prelates accusing Newman of being “liberal”, the dirtiest word in the Vatican’s vocabulary. John Everett Millais painted him in his Cardinal’s scarlet silks; like the drowning Ophelia in Millais’ famous depiction, Newman’s robes appear to be dragging him under. But Newman’s surreal cardinal status gave him immunity from censure in old age, and grudging toleration from the Vatican after his death.

As for Newman’s relationships, his friendship with a priest, Ambrose St John, was not widely known until recently. He was interred in St John’s grave, in Rednal, on the outskirts of Birmingham. “I wish with all my heart,” Newman had written, “to be buried in Father Ambrose St John’s grave – and I give this as my last, my imperative will.” There is no evidence of an active homosexual relationship, but Newman and St John ignored the clerical ban on “particular friendships”. They were like a married couple in all but the marital bed. They would lie together in death, but they would not be left in peace.

Newman’s beatification was still dragging on fitfully when Pope Benedict fast-tracked him two years ago. On a wet October day in 2008, an assortment of priests and grave-diggers arrived at the cemetery in Rednal, armed with shovels and a mechanical digger. They planned to transfer Newman’s remains to a tomb back at his church in Birmingham. Nothing was found except the brass name-plate and a few bits of rotten wood. A solution to the mystery was discovered in the archives of the Birmingham Post. A journalist at the burial reported that, on Newman’s orders, the grave was filled with compost to hasten decomposition. His corpse (someone described him in great age as toothless and shrivelled like “a shrimp”) had apparently dissolved into the soil. He had cheated the relic hunters.

Final papal go-ahead for the beatification came in July 2009, after Rome announced that a miracle had been deemed “authentic.” An American court official called Jack Sullivan, struggling after an operation for a back problem, had experienced a rapid return to pain-free walking after praying to Newman for help. Indications are that Benedict had the “miracle” rubber-stamped with less than usual regard for due rigour.

But why had Benedict, a rigid conservative, seen fit to hasten the beatification of a man who has an iconic stature for liberal Catholic intellectuals throughout the English-speaking world? All becomes clear with Benedict’s revision of John Henry Newman’s legacy. Pope Benedict and Catholic officialdom are presenting Newman as an exemplar of unquestioning papal allegiance. The Cardinal has been pontifically hijacked.

The contrast between Newman and the official version of his life was illustrated by the Pope’s opening statement on his proposed visit to Britain. Addressing the bishops of England and Wales in Rome this February, he declared that Newman was an example to the world of opposition to “dissent”. It was like saying that Churchill had been a Trotskyite all along.

“In a social milieu that encourages the expression of a variety of opinions on every question that arises,” said Benedict, in an extraordinary disavowal of the essence of free speech, “it is important to recognise dissent for what it is, and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate.” Loyal Catholics, in other words, keep their mouths shut. Religious truth is “articulated”, he went on, by “the Church’s Magisterium”, which, in papal speak, means the teaching of the popes. “Cardinal Newman realised this,” Benedict concluded, “and he left us an outstanding example of faithfulness to revealed truth by following that ‘kindly light’ wherever it led him, even at considerable personal cost.”

Even Newman’s image of the “kindly light”, penned when he was still a young Protestant, is cited to mean not the light of Christ, but the light of papal magisterium. It tells us much about the anxieties of Benedict as he heads for Britain.

More than 10 years ago, I spoke to Pope Benedict briefly, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger – then head, since 1982, of the office of Vatican orthodoxy watchdogs, formerly known as the Inquisition. I accosted him in Saint Peter’s Square as he walked towards his office: a smallish, neat man with white hair and a scholar’s stoop. We talked about the Christmas crib outside the basilica, and he struck me as a gentle priest: nothing pompous or domineering. But his jaw hardened when I asked him about a priest I knew, Father Jacques Dupuis, who had been suspended from teaching for writing a book saying that the Catholic Church does not possess the fullness of truth – an attribute it shared with other faiths. On mention of Dupuis, Ratzinger excused himself with a smooth farewell.

Were Newman alive today, he would prove a greater thorn in the 83-year-old Ratzinger’s side than Father Dupuis. Newman had a jaundiced view of the papacy, especially an ageing one. “It is anomaly,” he wrote, “and bears no good fruit. He [the Pope] becomes a god, has no one to contradict him, does not know facts, and does cruel things without meaning it.”

Newman described the papacy of his day, Pius IX’s, as a “climax of tyranny”. He even accused him of heresy, for “narrowing the lines of communion, trembling at freedom of thought, and using the language of dismay and despair at the prospect before us”. Benedict believes the Church should rid itself of the naysayers and critics. He also denies that the Church should change, whereas Newman wrote: “Here below, to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Their differences abound. Benedict downgrades the laity, while Newman believed the laity should participate fully in the running of the Church: “The Church would look foolish without them,” he once quipped to a sceptical bishop. Benedict jealously protects the pyramidal structure of the Church, with the Pope and the Vatican at the apex. “The Holy See,” Newman lamented, “was once the court of ultimate appeal” and not the “extreme centralisation which now is in use.”

The most dramatic difference between Newman and Benedict involves the role of conscience in the life of a Catholic. What should a Catholic do when individual conscience and papal teaching are at variance? Newman wrote that conscience must always be the final arbiter. If he were to make an after-dinner toast, he wrote, “I shall drink … to conscience first and to the Pope afterwards.” A person who fails to follow conscience, he wrote, “loses his soul”. For Benedict, however, allowing conscience to be the final arbiter of moral behaviour is to invite moral relativism.

Benedict has decided that Newman meant the opposite to what he wrote. Papal authority, says Benedict, is not in opposition to conscience “but based on it and guaranteeing it”. In other words, the voice of conscience for a Catholic is the voice of God; and, in truth, the voice of the Pope is the voice of God, since he is God’s representative on earth.

This papal reworking of Newman’s views was echoed by the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, in a recent BBC radio broadcast. Citing Newman’s description of the relationship between individual souls and the Church as like the action of a foundry, Nichols claims that the smelting process is the shaping action of the infallible magisterium on individual rationality, thus creating the “pure steel of truth”. Newman, however, clearly states that the foundry is the Church past and present, rather than papal infallibility, and that there is a constant struggle between the two.

Why is Benedict giving a skewed account of Newman? Would it not have been more honest to decline to beatify him?

The key to the conundrum is Ratzinger’s own peculiar theological history. As a young priest-scholar, Ratzinger was influenced by a group of progressive French theologians, who had in turn been influenced by Newman. Since the 1930s, they had urged decentralisation of Roman rule, fuller participation of the laity, and a historical critique of Christian doctrine. In the early 1960s, Ratzinger became an important adviser at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and a firebrand for reform. A token of Newman’s influence on the Council was endorsed by Pope Paul VI, who called it “Newman’s hour”.

Then, in 1968, students burst into Ratzinger’s lecture theatre at Tübingen, chanting blasphemous slogans. Ratzinger thought he had glimpsed a new Dark Age; it now struck him that the enthusiasts for the greater freedoms promised by the Second Vatican Council were intoxicated by the false optimism of the sixties. Their misinterpretation of the Council’s true intentions was destroying the Church. The Council’s rhetoric, he wrote in 1982, had led Catholics to slam the door on the Church’s past: “Gradually, we have become aware that behind the closed doors are concealed those things that we must not lose if we do not want to lose our souls as well.” He carried this backward-looking view into his new Vatican job, as overseer of Catholic orthodoxy.

For Ratzinger, and for conservative Catholics, the teachings of Newman are as problematic as the reforms of the Council which he helped inspire; neither can be ignored or undone. Both require reinterpretation. The conservative view claims that nothing of any consequence was changed at the Council: it is back to business as usual. In the case of Newman, the conservative view claims him for its own by selective out-of-quotation context: unfortunately, the dialectical nature of his writings – his “saying and unsaying”, as he called it – make him vulnerable to such reactionary revisions.

The nub of the Catholic crisis, according to Ratzinger, is that Catholics have been following their private judgment rather than allowing themselves to be guided by papal teaching. Newman was opposed to such an all-embracing view of papal infallibility. He agreed that conscience needed guidance, but that papal teaching itself required the authorisation of the entire faithful before it could be said to be authentic Christian doctrine. Progressive Catholics argue that papal teaching against contraception, published in 1968, has still not been endorsed 40 years later.

Ironically, when the Pope speaks in Westminster Hall next week, he will be standing where Thomas More, facing trial for his life in 1535, invoked that selfsame authority of the entire faithful. More refused to acknowledge Henry VIII as Sovereign of the Church in England, not because the pope was against it (although he was, of course), but because the majority of the faithful of Christendom had condemned Henry’s claim as heresy. More had his head chopped off in defence of that conviction.

Benedict’s problem is that Newman’s emphasis on conscience, and the authority of the faithful, can be extended to a range of contemporary issues, besides contraception: human embryonic stem cell experiments, homosexuality, divorce, same-sex unions, and the ordination of women. Newman’s views thus stand in need of major papal revision if they are not to offer comfort to the Catholic liberals and progressives.

In 1864, irritated by distorted versions of his life, Newman published his famous autobiography. He wanted to explain himself, so that “the phantom may be extinguished which gibbers instead of me”. The real Newman, of course, is to be found throughout his published work and letters. But will his beatification reveal his dynamic and inspiring approach to the Christian faith? Or will it portray a conservative travesty? Newman, by his own frequent admission, warned that he was no saint. Perhaps his reluctance stemmed from commendable modesty. More likely, he had foreseen that beatification would mean the conjuring up, yet again, of a gibbering phantom instead of the reality of his life, his beliefs and his teachings.

‘Newman’s Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint’, by John Cornwell, is published by Continuum

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