Sunday, September 12, 2010

John Cornwell on the "Pontifical Hijacking" of Cardinal Newman

In his September 10 London Financial Times article, “The Papal Hijacking of Cardinal Newman,” John Cornwell outlines the story of John Henry Newman – the “most electrifying religious thinker and writer in English of the past 200 years” and a figure of inspiration to progressive Catholics.

Newman, who died in 1890, is set to be beatified by Benedict XVI during the pope’s upcoming visit to Britain. Beatification, as Cornwell notes, is the “penultimate stage of full sainthood.” Yet amidst this process it appears Newman’s legacy is being “revised.”

“Pope Benedict and Catholic officialdom,” writes Cornwell, “are presenting Newman as an exemplar of unquestioning papal allegiance. The Cardinal has been pontifically hijacked.”

John Cornwell is the author of Newman’s Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint. Following are excerpts from his September 10 article.


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.

. . . [W]hy 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. . . . 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.

. .. Newman had a jaundiced view of the papacy, especially an aging 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 skeptical 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.

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.

. . . 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.

To read Cornwell’s article in its entirety, click here.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
“Something Very Newmanesque”
Poor John
Answer to a Troubled Liberal Catholic

Recommended Off-site Links:
Heart Speaks to Heart: Cardinal Newman in the 21st Century – Juan R. Vélez (, September 9, 2010).
There's Nothing Weird About Being Catholic and Liberal – Matthew Bell (The Independent, September 12, 2010).
Newmania 17: Conscience and Its Counterfeit – Joseph A. Komonchak (Commonweal, September 13, 2010).
Standing Newman on His Head – William D. Lindsey (Bilgrimage, September 25, 2009).
And More Synchronicity: Newman Again – Misappropriating and Misrepresenting the Facts – William D. Lindsey (Bilgrimage, September 26, 2009).
Another English Saint for All Seasons – Colleen Kochivar-Baker (Enlightened Catholicism, May 8, 2009).
Keep It Secret – Karen Doherty (Nihil Obstat, September 15, 2009).

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