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Newman the Writer, Newman the Saint

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 06, 2009

The Congregation for the Causes of Saints issued a decree on July 3rd clearing the way for John Henry Cardinal Newman’s long-awaited beatification. The decree makes official the Vatican’s acceptance of the miraculous healing of a 69-year-old permanent deacon serving in Massachusetts. Deacon Jack Sullivan prayed to Newman for healing from a serious spinal disease which kept him doubled-over, and he was cured on the Feast of the Assumption in 2001. The Vatican’s medical committee certified on April 24, 2008 that there was no medical explanation for the cure, a conclusion the Congregation has now affirmed in its July 3rd decree.

I am one of the many who rejoice at the prospect of Newman’s imminent beatification. In addition to being an extraordinarily deep and creative Catholic thinker, Newman was a master of the elegant English prose style of the late 19th century. While the richness of his vocabulary, the length of his sentences, and the exquisite balance of his clauses can strike modern readers as very difficult, those who delight in literature will find immense power in what we might call the intense subtlety of Newman’s style. The precision of Newman’s modes of expression and the fine shades of meaning he was able to impart through his extraordinary command of English prose lend Newman’s already profound ideas considerably more impact than they would possess in the hands of a lesser craftsman.

The first work by Newman that I ever read was his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, a book which mines Patristic gold in outlining seven tests by which one may distinguish an authentic development of doctrine from a corruption. I have old lecture notes on this subject from the days when I taught apologetics to undergraduates, and one day I shall pull them out for a quick recap here. I have also taught Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua (A Defense of His Life) in which, simply by answering the charges of his religious adversaries about the motives of his conversion, he provides one of the most dramatic intellectual testimonies ever written to the power of the Catholic Faith.

Newman dealt with this same theme of conversion in a novel entitled Loss and Gain, a more accessible book which we might call “Apologia Lite”. For those not quite up to the challenge of Newman in the thick of intellectual battle, Loss and Gain provides an excellent introduction to many of the same issues in a more entertaining fictional form. The novel’s hero is an Oxford undergraduate in the process of converting to Catholicism.

Although Newman understood the nuances of intellectual life as well as anyone, and his Idea of a University is regarded as a classic, I have never been as fond of it as I am of most of his other writings. Perhaps this is because Idea focuses on the liberal arts and the education of the whole man rather than further exploring the intersection between Faith and life. My taste may simply reflect my deficiencies, but I must confess to far worse, for I have thus far read only excerpts of his great Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, in which he thoroughly examines how the human person comes to believe something, including—most importantly—believing God. This major work is a critical reference point for modern apologetics; I really have no excuse for letting it slip.

Of course, great writing is not the same thing as great sanctity. But to read Newman is to plumb not only depths of style but of intellect, and not only depths of intellect but of the spirit. When I think of the impact John Henry Cardinal Newman has had, as a writer, on my own life, I can compare him only with Saint Augustine. Augustine may have been the greatest of the Church Fathers, and he was certainly one of the greatest of classical rhetoricians. I believe Newman is his equal. The beatification of this nineteenth century Englishman will indeed be a profound joy. Before my own death, I hope also to seek his intercession as an acknowledged saint.

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