Sunday, September 19, 2010

Reflections on the Life and Legacy of John Henry Newman

To mark the pope’s beatification of John Henry Newman today in Birmingham, England, I share a number of reflections on the life and legacy of Newman. All but one of these have been published in the last few weeks. I begin with an excerpt from theologian and author Paul Lakeland’s keynote address at yesterday’s Synod of The Baptized: “Claiming Our Place at the Table” in Minneapolis, and end with an excerpt from Pope Benedict’s homily at today's Mass of Beatification for Newman.


In some ways we could think of Newman as a sort of patron saint of this [Synod of the Baptized], even as a forerunner of this event. Yes, he was a priest, not a layperson, but when he was asked about the significance of the laity he said to his fellow priests, “We would look foolish without them.” And although Pope Benedict certainly knows Newman’s famous dictum that “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to change often,” I wonder if he knows that Newman described the papacy of his day, that of Pius IX, as “a climax of tyranny.” The Holy See, Newman said, “was once the court of ultimate appeal,” not “the extreme centralization which now is in use.”

Isn’t it reassuring that someone can say these things and still be beatified?

– Paul Lakeland
From his keynote address at the
Synod of the Baptized: “Claiming Our Place at the Table,”
Minneapolis, September 18, 2010

In terms of the inner politics of contemporary Catholicism, Newman himself was a liberal, and his vision of a healthy church was in many respects the antithesis of Pope Benedict’s. Though punctiliously loyal to the papacy, Newman was a vocal opponent of the definition of papal infallibility in 1870, which he thought unnecessary and a burden to consciences. He denounced the “aggressive and insolent faction” of Ultramontanes who centralised Catholicism too much on Rome. He deplored clericalism, worked to create an educated and active laity, and argued for greater freedom for theology within the church. “Truth,” he wrote, “is wrought out by many minds, working together freely.” He detested, and himself suffered from, trigger-happy dogmatists who tried to pre-empt intellectual exploration by invoking pat formulae and ecclesiastical denunciations. Structures of authority gave the church strength, he conceded, but did not give it life: “We are not born of bones and muscle.” Truth was objective, but had to be sought out by the heart and conscience as well as by the head, and he took as his motto as a cardinal the phrase of St Francis de Sales, “Heart speaks to heart.”

– Eamon Duffy
“Man of Sacristy” Walks in Shadow of John Paul II
The Irish Times September 8, 2010

For me, Newman is an obvious case for sainthood. His life was one of simplicity, sacrifice and conscientious study. He was fearless in the cause of his beliefs and tireless in promoting them. He foresaw, accurately, the impact of a society that decides, to borrow a phrase from Alastair Campbell, not to do God.

– Ann Widdecombe
A Man of Deep Religious Courage
The Telegraph (United Kingdom) September 11, 2010

There are so many stories about [Newman's] warmth and charity it is hard to know where to begin. But here is one. The workers at the nearby Cadbury chocolate works (mostly women) were expected to attend daily Bible classes. The local parish priest forbade Catholics to attend. An appeal was made to Newman to overrule him.

Although he had been ill, and was only a year from his death (he was nearly 90 years old), and although the snow was thick on the ground, he drove straight to Bournville to see the Cadbury brothers (who were Quakers). The brothers were “charmed by the loving Christian spirit with which he entered into the question”; as a result, they set aside a room for Catholic prayers.

– William Oddie
The Lie that Newman was Cold and Aloof Needs to Be Hit on the Head
The Catholic Herald September 2, 2010

The greatest controversy over the soon-to-be-saint . . . may be his intense relationship with his long-time friend Ambrose St. John. “As far as this world was concerned, I was his first and last . . . he was my earthly light,” wrote Newman. Before his death in 1890, Newman made an unusual and strongly worded request. “I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Fr Ambrose St. John’s grave - and I give this as my last, my imperative will,” he wrote. As a result, he is beloved among some in the gay community, who often claim him as one of their own.

– James Martin, SJ
Whose Saint is John Henry Newman?
Boston Globe May 7, 2009

On a wet October day in 2008, an assortment of priests and grave-diggers arrived at the cemetery in Rednal, armed with shovels and a mechanical digger. They planned to transfer Newman’s remains to a tomb back at his church in Birmingham. Nothing was found except the brass name-plate and a few bits of rotten wood. A solution to the mystery was discovered in the archives of the Birmingham Post. A journalist at the burial reported that, on Newman’s orders, the grave was filled with compost to hasten decomposition. His corpse . . . had apparently dissolved into the soil. He had cheated the relic hunters.

– John Cornwell
The Papal Hijacking of Cardinal Newman
The Financial Times (London) September 10, 2010

I have no doubt at all that the attempt to dig up Newman's bones and place them in a separate shrine [from the remains of Ambrose St. John] had a strong homophobic undercurrent. Imagine the discomfort of many magisterially inclined Catholics who buy into the church's hostility to gay human beings heading to Newman's grave to venerate his remains and having to confront, in the burial site itself, the disconcerting memory of his marriage to Ambrose St. John.

And so Newman has worked a miracle, it seems to me, by disappearing in death, by escaping the grasping hands of church officials intent on burying the evidence of his love for St. John, by commingling his flesh with that of St. John in the English earth in which they are buried together, so that the church officials intent on separating them cannot possibly know what atom of dust belongs to the blessed and what to the man he loved. And so that the church officials so intent on separating the lovers must now leave them alone, and leave those who wish to venerate the blessed free to visit their shared grave, if they wish to pray at the spot where this gay saint is buried.

And these reflections are really what, I suppose, I'm winding around to saying yet again as the beatification ceremony nears: John Henry Newman lived and died a gay man. Indubitably so. And that experience is part and parcel of both his legacy and of his magnificent theological heritage. He enjoyed a long-standing committed relationship of love with another man, which he regarded as a marriage. He explicitly asked that he be buried with the man he loved.

The choice to beatify Newman is the choice to beatify a gay saint. It is a choice to beatify a man whose every word about redemptive love is imbued with the loving gay sensibility of a gay man who loved another man intensely and with devotion.

It does seem that Newman was not interested in the Church finding and restoring his physical remains. Perhaps on some level he knew that there was nothing he could do about his ideas, so he asserted his only control about those ideas through his burial--side by side with his beloved companion with no relics left to be manipulated for the 'sainthood industry'. Newman's final message seems to be about the supremacy of the love in his life, and this was not to be overshadowed by the veneration or manipulation of his ideas or his physical body. Truly a message from the grave, but probably not one we will hear from Pope Benedict.

– Colleen Kochivar-Baker
When An Event Admission Ticket is Not An Event Admission Ticket
Enlightened Catholicism September 13, 2010

The debates about Newman are sure to continue long after he is beatified, in part because he is so beloved of so many different Catholics (and Christians of all stripes). . . . Moreover, internal debate is perhaps as much the hallmark of the modern church as anything – and Newman embodies that.

– David Gibson
Pope Benedict to Beatify a Gay Saint? A Conservative Icon? Maybe Both September 18, 2010

Cardinal Newman’s motto, Cor ad cor loquitur, or "Heart speaks unto heart", gives us an insight into his understanding of the Christian life as a call to holiness, experienced as the profound desire of the human heart to enter into intimate communion with the Heart of God. He reminds us that faithfulness to prayer gradually transforms us into the divine likeness. As he wrote in one of his many fine sermons, "a habit of prayer, the practice of turning to God and the unseen world in every season, in every place, in every emergency – prayer, I say, has what may be called a natural effect in spiritualizing and elevating the soul. A [person] is no longer what [he/she] was before; gradually . . . [he/she] has imbibed a new set of ideas, and become imbued with fresh principles" (Parochial and Plain Sermons, iv, 230-231).

– Pope Benedict XVI
From his homily at the Mass for the
Beatification of Blessed John Henry Newman
Cofton Park, Birmingham
September 19, 2010

Recommended Off-site Links:
Pope’s Visit Culminates with Beatification of Cardinal Newman - Stephen Bates (The Guardian, September 19, 2010).
Pope Benedict Leads Beatification Mass for Cardinal Newman As Thousands Gather to Farewell Pontiff - Daily Mail (September 19, 2010).
Pope Benedict XVI's Opponents - BBC News (September 15, 2010).
The Queer Cost of Becoming a Saint: John Henry Newman - Kittredge Cherry (Jesus in Love Blog, September 21, 2010).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
John Cornwell on the "Pontifical Hijacking" of Cardinal Newman
"Something Very Newmanesque"
Poor John
Anwser to a Troubled Liberal

1 comment:

Mareczku said...

Wonderful comments here. Thanks.