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Canonization, Flashpoints and John Henry Newman

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 31, 2008

The impending beatification of John Henry Cardinal Newman, though no date has as yet been announced, has become a flashpoint of controversy, as beatifications and canonizations often are. Newman was one of England’s greatest literary and spiritual figures. When and if he is canonized, he will be the first Englishman so honored since the age of the English martyrs following the English Crown’s defection from the Faith.

It is always interesting to see who will arise to oppose the beatification or canonization of a major figure. Quite apart from the legitimate questions, study, discussions and debates through which the heroic virtue of a candidate must be established, potential saints become flashpoints of discontent whenever the candidate’s elevation is seen to work against some group’s self-interest or ideological viewpoint. Thus, for example, the question of the holiness of Catholic martyrs during the Spanish Civil War gives fits to those who see that conflict as a war against enlightenment, with the Church on the wrong side.

Cases in Point

Four current individual cases reveal the same pattern, even among Catholics. Thus the causes for canonization of both Mother Teresa and John Paul II have been roundly criticized by Traditionalists. They object strenuously to Mother Teresa’s openness to the inherent goodness of the non-Catholic poor she sought to serve, without demanding their conversion; and similarly to John Paul II’s extensive ecumenical initiatives as well as his failure to discipline. Essentially the argument is that if the candidate did not follow “my” program for the Church and the world, that is proof of a lack of holiness. Conversely, if the Church should canonize such a person, it would reflect badly on “my” program. Biased critics have a tendency to prefer needles to haystacks, however hard they are to find.

The same problem besets the Church from the surrounding culture. The most famous current example is the cause of Pius XII, who was Pope during the Nazi era leading up to World War II. During the years immediately following the War, both the secular press and Jewish leaders in a position to know regarded Pius as a hero of their cause, who had risked much to save hundreds of thousands of Jews from extermination. But the ideological sentiments of many Jewish leaders and most secularists have changed markedly since the 1950’s, and it is now considered essential to doubt the Pope’s commitment to saving Jews, and to give credence to all manner of articles and books attacking Pope Pius XII. These currently-popular screeds have in all cases been amply refuted by the best scholarship in the field, and have sometimes even been later repudiated by their own authors.

All of this testifies to the uncanny spiritual importance of the Church’s beatification and canonization processes, and the significant psychological and spiritual power of those she raises to her altars. My fourth example is John Henry Newman, and he is no exception to the rule. In Newman’s case, it is the gay lobby that has opposed his cause, once again very clearly for their own purposes. I will return to this and its somewhat humorous outcome in a moment.

Cardinal Newman

John Henry Newman was born in 1801 and was, from a fairly early age, deeply religious. He was a brilliant student who, after an extensive education leading to ordination as an Anglican priest, became an intellectual leader of Anglicans at Oxford. However, Newman grew concerned about the direction of the Anglican Church, particularly its tendency to progressively abandon important elements of tradition and authority which he believed put it in an indefensible intellectual position. Along with other Anglican scholars at Oxford, Newman was instrumental in developing a movement to emphasize the apostolic roots, apostolic authority, doctrinal solidity, and spiritual fervor that he understood to be proper to the Anglican Church. Not surprisingly, this was called the Oxford Movement, and it led more than one of its members ultimately to Rome. Since Newman and others wrote “Tracts for the Times” to advance their views, they were called Tractarians.

As time went on, Newman became convinced that his own ideas of ecclesiastical authority were insufficient, and that the Anglican argument for apostolic authority was untenable. It was primarily his reading of the Fathers of the Church which made the matter clear to him, and he had something of a conversion experience while reading Augustine. In an important book written shortly before his conversion, his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Newman sought to clarify how doctrine properly develops without contradicting itself, and how we can tell legitimate developments from corruptions. The result was not only a very Catholic argument but also a decision to convert to Rome.

A Catholic Champion

He was heavily criticized for this decision. Catholic were invariably associated with the lower classes in England, and their Church had long been suppressed. Since the Anglican establishment in the sixteenth century, England had been mission territory; it had no ordinary hierarchy of its own until five years after Newman’s conversion in 1845. In many theological circles, conversion to Rome was proof of instability or dishonesty, especially since Catholic moral theology was widely caricatured as justifying lying. Nonetheless, Newman entered the Church, travelled almost immediately to Rome in 1846 to be ordained a Catholic priest, and returned home in 1847 as an Oratorian Father—a member of the order founded by St. Philip Neri. Interestingly, he immediately helped establish the London Oratory with the renowned apologist Fr. Frederick Faber as its Director.

From this base he began a new series of tracts on “The Present Position of Catholics in England”. Newman was no stranger to either controversy or polemical writing; he vigorously defended the Church against the increasing attacks and smears occasioned by the reestablishment of the hierarchy. One particularly trying episode in his life involved an ex-Dominican friar who was assisting the Protestant attack by making slanderous accusations against the Church. Newman found it necessary to counter these lies, emanating from one portrayed as an “insider”, and he did so by exposing the ex-friar’s own reprehensible moral conduct. In a colossal mistrial, later acknowledged to be gravely unjust, Newman lost a related libel suit, and was forced to pay a fine of 100 pounds plus 14,000 pounds in expenses. Fortunately, Newman’s work was by then so well-known and loved in Catholic circles, that the costs were defrayed immediately by a public subscription.

Newman wrote innumerable sermons, tracts, letters, essays, books and even poems, including the well-known “Lead, Kindly Light”. He is universally regarded as one of the greatest masters of English prose, though his style may be found difficult by many today, for the exquisite balance of the phrases and clauses which made up Newman’s long sentences can sometimes overburden those who are habituated to the clipped rhetoric of modern advertising, sound bites, and even fine Christian writers such as C. S. Lewis. But Newman used his command of English vocabulary, grammar, and syntax to explore many complex problems with astonishing insight and precision; his works handsomely repay the required effort.

Among his best-known major works, in addition to the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, are An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, in which he examines how it is that we come to believe; his Idea of a University which remains a liberal arts classic; his Apologia Pro Vita Sua (Defense of His Life), in which he recounts his conversion while refuting the slanders of his detractors; and a more accessible (less strenuous) novel he wrote on this same conversion theme, Loss and Gain. Newman was rumored to have written the novel in order to save the publishing company Burns & Oates, run by another convert. Whatever the case, there is no question that it was Newman’s popularity which kept his publisher going.

Popularity and Unpopularity

Newman was no ultramontane. He did not try to settle every question by appeal to Rome, though he had no doubt of Rome’s authority. He broke new ground in philosophical, psychological and theological reasoning about many subjects, and he generally hoped to win others over more by effective argument and explanation than by appeal to authority. He held that the recently-proposed definition of papal infallibility—which he had understood and believed since his conversion—was ill-advised, given contemporary attitudes toward the Church, and he sometimes complained of the party that was pushing for the definition.

Once Vatican I defined papal infallibility, of course, Newman had no problem with it, and many who attempted to demonstrate that he was fundamentally uncomfortable in the Catholic Church learned to their dismay that Newman was more than willing to use his rapier-pen to prove them wrong. Still, his position on this and some other issues—for example, Newman did not believe, as many Catholics did at the time, that all education should be in the hands of the clergy—caused Pope Pius IX to somewhat distrust the Englishman. Moreover, the most influential English prelate of the day, Cardinal Manning—a widower, doctrinally aggressive, the champion of the working man, and primarily a pastor of souls—did not get along particularly well with Newman, a life-long celibate, adept at long and intricate discussions, and a university don much given to reading, writing and debate.

Thus it was not until the election of Leo XIII as pope that Newman was made a cardinal in 1879, a signal honor since Newman was not even a bishop. Newman continued his writing with even greater celebrity thereafter, including significant works on St. Athanasius, the inspiration of Scripture, and the development of religious error. Eleven years later at the age of 89, he died of pneumonia at the Oratory in Birmingham. He was later buried in the small cemetery attached to the Oratory’s country house in Rednal. By his own request, his body was placed in the same grave as his disciple and life-long friend and fellow Oratorian, Ambrose St. John, who had died 15 years earlier.

The Contemporary Controversy

It is precisely this burial that led to the quarrel with gays during Newman’s cause for beatification. The Rednal cemetery is both ill-suited to large crowds and somewhat insecure. There has been no little wrangling with the town over the erection of a fence around it to prevent continued acts of vandalism, and the caretakers have been increasingly concerned about the growing numbers visiting Newman’s grave. Accordingly, the Vatican wished to move the body to a tomb in the Oratory headquarters in Birmingham prior to his beatification. The request to do so was duly granted by all the relevant authorities, but the gay lobby raised public objections.

It seems the gays wish to make out that Newman himself was gay. Because Newman was celibate, because he lived his life mostly in male enclaves, and because he had deep male friendships, he must have been gay. In addition, many have noted that Newman possessed a somewhat sensitive nature, considered a feminine trait. He was, as I have said, no boon companion to the more typically hearty and robust Manning. But in Newman’s day, men and women were educated separately, and if they were teachers they continued to educate others separately, maintaining their own gender-divided schools and associations. Anglican priests do not always marry, and Catholic priests in the Latin Rite must of course be celibate. It is the norm under such circumstances, especially for a wise and holy priest, that friendships should tend to develop considerably more with men than with women.

Unfortunately, our age has by now all but lost the ability to imagine deep friendships among persons of the same sex. We even fear to speak about affections of this type lest they be misinterpreted. Newman did indeed have very close friendships with some of his associates, particularly those who looked up to him as an intellectual guide. This was definitely the case with Ambrose St. John, though St. John preceded Newman into the Church. When his great friend of over 30 years died in 1875, Newman wrote: “I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband’s or a wife’s, but I feel it difficult to believe that any can be greater, or any one’s sorrow greater, than mine.”

It is extremely difficult for modern gays—and for those whose understanding of friendship has been distorted by the contemporary homoerotic interpretation of just about everything—to read these words without seeing Newman as at least a closet homosexual. The problem, of course, is that there is no evidence from his life or writings that this was the case, and even this particular quotation suggests that Newman ordinarily viewed the strongest human bond as that between husband and wife. Nonetheless, British gays insisted loud and long that Newman should be allowed to rest in peace with his “lover”, and that this man, who had made obedience to Christ’s Church his first priority, would not want that same Church to interfere with his desire to share a grave with his friend.

In the End, There are Three Things that Last

I mentioned earlier that all this has had a somewhat humorous outcome. For contrary to what had been assumed, Newman was not buried in a lead-lined coffin. Therefore, when Newman’s body was exhumed earlier this year on October 2nd, it was found that his remains had entirely disappeared. There were some brass, wooden and cloth artifacts, yes, but nothing of Newman himself. In damp ground, this is quite normal for wooden coffins. So Newman was not lying forever with his friend in a common grave after all, not even what was left of him, for there was nothing left of him.

The Church, of course, understands this nothingness to be only a material reality. The absence of Newman’s body is not an impediment to Newman’s cause. Rather, the Church is quite convinced—on the evidence of the holiness of Newman’s life, the spiritual depth of his writings, and some well-attested miracles—that what is left of John Henry Newman is very much alive in Heaven, still glorifying God, and hopefully in the company of his very good friend, Ambrose St. John.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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