Soon-to-be saint had ideas that were ahead of his time.
Marr, who spoke with Aleteia about Newman’s life and what his thought has to offer to the Church today, also believes there’s a good chance that once Newman is canonized, the Vatican will take a further step, declaring him a Doctor of the Church. Newman’s specific expertise was in explaining the importance of conscience, and his writings are likely to have much to say today, when many people believe that conscience takes precedence over the pursuit of truth.
Who was John Henry Newman?
Cardinal Newman’s life spanned almost the entire 19th century, from 1801 to 1890. The first half of his life was spent in the Church of England. In 1845, he was received into communion with the Church of Rome. He was a prolific poet, theologian, educator, and philosopher, and so he had his hands in a lot of different pots. When Pope Paul VI talked of Newman, he said he was especially to be remembered for his pursuit of the truth. I think you can see that in that Newman was a prominent Anglican, he was a fellow at Oxford, and a well-known minister, and he left behind career prospects and friendships to convert to Rome. That was the driving passion of his life; I think that’s why he’s remained an inspiration for a lot of people.
What does his thought have to offer the Church today?
One thing that stands out for me from his writings is that he recognized there was a growing skepticism in society at large. So he was really deeply concerned to give an account of faith that responded to some of the challenges of the modern day. He was concerned not simply for intellectuals but all people of faith. Newman said that he wrote his Grammar of Assent (1870) to defend the faith of the simple and unlearned. He argued that it was reasonable for such persons to believe in God even if they had not studied all of the arguments for God’s existence. Newman noted that in other areas of life there are many beliefs we come to hold that we cannot demonstrate using strict logical proofs. Just as an experienced farmer is able to recognize the signs that point to an impending storm, so also the committed believer draws upon an array of evidence (what Newman called “converging probabilities”) to conclude that there is a loving God who created all things. In Newman’s view, putting one’s trust in God is a reasonable commitment to make, even though most of us don’t have the time to weigh all of the arguments involved or to study the history of theology in depth.
Newman put a strong emphasis on what I call the urgency of holiness, and he recognized that this is for all people. You could really see a precursor to the Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on the universal call to holiness.
Why is he being declared a saint?
For me, as this news has unfolded, I was thinking back to the way canonizations used to be done. In the early Church and through a large part of the Middle Ages, there wasn’t the formal process we have today. If the Church added a saint to the liturgical calendar, it was a confirmation of devotion that already existed on the ground. And I think that’s really the case with Newman. Catholic student centers on college campuses are called Newman Centers. Here in Pittsburgh, we have the Pittsburgh Oratory [Newman was an Oratorian], and it’s a center of great devotion and communal life of prayer.
So I think for a lot of scholars, for a lot of Catholics who come to the faith or come back to the faith in college, they’ve already felt the impact of Newman’s intercession. And I think that Pope Francis making this decision is a confirmation that there are already places, certainly throughout North America but also around the world, where Newman’s legacy, both as an intellectual but also as a man of deep personal sanctity, is already felt.
Is there anything controversial about him or the cause for canonization?
During the modernist crisis in the early 20th century, when Pope Pius X condemned modernism, there was a bishop in Ireland who wrote a letter to Pius and said, “Does this condemnation fall upon Newman as well?” Pius wrote that it doesn’t. I think that some folks, looking back in their minds, have found Newman to be a liberal or progressive because he talked about the development of doctrine, because he talked about consulting the faithful—ideas that really didn’t come into their own fully until the 20th century. But if you read Newman’s speech when he was declared a cardinal by Leo XIII, he was quite insistent that the thread running throughout his entire life was in opposition to liberalism. He meant something different by that than how we think of the term today. He was thinking of liberalism as the notion that doctrine doesn’t matter, that a person could believe whatever he wants or be a part of this, that or other religion. Newman was opposed to that idea.
There are conversations about Newman’s sexual orientation. He had a very close, intimate friendship with Ambrose St. John, who was another Oratorian. Talking about this relationship in terms of sexual orientation is anachronistic, really. It’s a testament to the fact that in our own day and age, we don’t have good models of same-gender friendships among men. That says more about us than it does about Newman.
Since he was a convert from the Church of England, were there concerns about offending Anglicans by advancing his cause?
Not that I’ve heard of. After he became a Catholic, he did occasionally have some blunt words regarding the Church of England. In our own context some of those can sound kind of unecumenical. But the ecumenical movement didn’t take off in full until the 20th century.
I don’t think Anglicans are going to find themselves offended. I’ve met a lot of Anglicans who see Newman as one of their own. He has a huge body of writings that he composed as an Anglican. He was a leader of the Oxford Movement [in the 1830s, which sought to draw Anglicans to their Catholic roots]. So Anglicans, especially those who are Anglo-Catholic, continue to revere Newman, to study his writings and to see him as part of the Anglican heritage, not simply as a Catholic. So I think that especially for that group, Newman’s canonization is kind of a confirmation of their own sort of devotion to this great figure from the 19th century.
Who are some of the people most likely to be happy about this news?
Any community of Oratorians around the world is certainly excited. When he came into the Catholic Church he was wondering what sort of religious order he should join, and he eventually settled on the Oratory communities, which trace their heritage back to St. Philip Neri.
A lot of scholars too. Some have suggested that Newman may be the patron saint of scholars, or intellectuals. He wrote a famous book called The Idea of a University. He talked a lot about what it means to love God with all your mind.
And I think a lot of Catholic converts have a devotion to him. His Apologia Pro Vita Sua (A Defense of My Life) is one of the great modern spiritual autobiographies. I’ve talked to a lot of individuals who came into the Church from Protestant communities, and Newman helped them to work through some of the theological questions they were wrestling with.
Is there any talk that he may eventually be proclaimed a Doctor of the Church?
Yes there is. I think there will be some discernment around that after a canonization date is determined. One of the founders of the National Institute for Newman Studies is Fr. Drew Morgan, who is an Oratorian here in Pittsburgh. He wrote an article several years ago saying that Newman should be and may be declared the Doctor of Conscience. Especially around the time of the First Vatican Council, Newman wrote a great deal about what is the proper understanding of conscience, and what does it mean to follow your conscience in light of the fact that we’re part of a Church that says there’s this authority that we have to listen to in our lives.
How would you explain his teaching on conscience?
Newman described conscience as “the aboriginal vicar of Christ.” What he meant is that it is through our conscience that we first hear the voice of God speaking to us. Building off this point, Newman was insistent that we are compelled to follow our conscience at all times. Doing otherwise would undercut the ability to live a coherent moral life. The Church, Newman argued, would be foolish to attack the importance of following conscience. In doing so, the magisterium would be in effect sawing off the very branch that it sits upon, because it is precisely through heeding conscience that persons are able to recognize the truthfulness of Catholic moral theology and follow the path to sanctity.
All that being said, Newman also warned against a false understanding of conscience, which understands conscience as “the right of self-will”—the prerogative to define right and wrong for oneself. In this light, it’s not enough to talk about the primacy of conscience without addressing the importance of having our consciences properly formed. Those who pit conscience against Church teaching fail to see how God has providentially ordained the Church as a trustworthy guide in the moral life. Conscience and Church authority exist in a reciprocal, not competitive relationship.
What book or books of Newman’s might serve as a good introduction for someone who knows nothing about him?
When folks first approach me about where they should start, I usually point them to his sermons. Especially from his Anglican days, he has six volumes of Parochial and Plain Sermons. Those can be really helpful resources for meditation.
Another great resource is his Meditations and Devotions, which is a collection some very beautiful, profound prayers.