The Rational Faith of Newman
A month after his Beatification
The Beatification of John Henry Newman by Pope Benedict XVI in Birmingham on 19 September  was the Beatification not only of a holy priest who lived and worked as a pastor in nineteenth-century England but of a universal figure whose cult is global. Newman continues through his writings to teach and inspire countless people throughout the world. His cardinalatial motto cor ad cor loquitur, "heart speaks to heart", well expresses his own continuing personal spiritual influence, an influence that has led so many from disbelief to belief, from partial to full communion with the Catholic Church, and that has wonderfully renewed the faith of so many Christians. Those words he borrowed from another great Christian humanist, St Francis de Sales, pictures of whose life adorn the walls of the Cardinal's private chapel at the Birmingham Oratory.
Often called "the father of the Second Vatican Council", Newman in his theological classic An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine teaches that the Church has to change or develop not in order to be different but to be the same. The Council, then, needs to be interpreted authentically in continuity not in rupture with the Church's tradition. Newman's theology of conscience that had such a deep effect on Pope Benedict XVI as a young seminarian after the horrors of Nazi totalitarianism reminds the Church of the distinction between a genuine conscience which hears the echo of the voice of God and a "counterfeit" conscience, which is no more than "a long-sighted selfishness ... a desire to be consistent with oneself". "When men advocate the rights of conscience", Newman wrote, "they in no sense mean the rights of the Creator, nor the duty to Him, in thought and deed, of the creature; but the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humour, without any thought of God at all". Accordingly, in a secularised society, he observed ironically, "it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations".
The Second Vatican Council's call to all baptized Christians to live in accordance with a well-informed conscience and to strive for holiness was more than anticipated by Blessed John Henry's famous preaching as an Anglican in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford in which he unremittingly exhorted his congregation to the pursuit of perfection. These deeply Scriptural homilies still speak powerfully to Christians and are rightfully seen as one of the classics of Christian spirituality.
The most seminal of modern Catholic thinkers, Newman sought to reconcile reason with faith in his
Anglican Oxford University Sermons, in which he challenged the Enlightenment's impoverished understanding of reason. His justification of religious belief as wholly reasonable was completed in his Catholic magnum opusAn Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. Newman ranks as one of the major philosophers of religion, whose thought strongly resonates with the concern of Pope Benedict XVI with the reconciliation of religion with reason.
Newman's Christian humanism recalls his fellow countryman St Thomas More, the author of Utopia, but Blessed John Henry was also a true son of the Renaissance saint Philip Neri, the founder of the Oratory, who resisted the "violent effort ... to set the human genius, the philosopher and the poet, the artist and the musician, in opposition to religion". In his Idea of a University Newman insisted that "Knowledge and Reason are sure ministers to Faith" and that the Church "fears no knowledge" since "all branches of knowledge are connected together, because the subject-matter of knowledge is intimately united in itself, as being the acts and the work of the Creator". There can be no genuine conflict between religion and science since "truth cannot be contrary to truth".
As is well known, St Thomas More died on the scaffold with a joke on his lips. So too Newman, although not a martyr like More, never lost his joyful Philippine humour in all his sufferings as an Anglican and as a Catholic, endeavouring as he did, whatever the cost, to follow "the kindly light" of truth. Once, when hailed by a lady admirer as a saint, he joked that he was not fit to clean the shoes of the saints in Heaven.
St Thomas More was a statesman and a scholar, Lord Chancellor of England and a friend of Erasmus. But he was also a devoted family man. Called mysteriously to a life of virginity at the age of fifteen, Newman nevertheless rejoiced in a close family of friends and reminds us of the concept of friendship that has been almost lost in a secular culture that practically recognizes only so-called "relationships".
Both in his Anglican parish of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford and in the parish of the Birmingham Oratory, Newman was always a pastoral priest. But, as his copious letters attest, his parish extended far further. All those who wrote to him with their inquiries and their anxieties unfailingly received an answer, however unimportant. His immense courtesy and humility to all is by itself eloquent testimony to his sanctity, a sanctity that the Church has now formally recognized.
Weekly Edition in English
27 October 2010, page 11
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