Next Thursday Pope Benedict XVI arrives in the United Kingdom for a three day visit that will culminate, on the 19th September, in the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman. In this and two companion articles MercatorNet surveys the controversies surrounding these events and pays its own tribute to the great Englishman.
It is now less
than a week to Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain, which will culminate with the
beatification of John Henry Newman, a 19th century cardinal who died
120 years ago. The beatification of the great Victorian will be a moment to
mark the congruity of so many things which are often kept separate – among them
Englishness and Catholicism, obedience and conscience, faith and reason, change
Newman is also, of
course, a fascinating figure. A cleric who lived in an all-male Oxford college or
a house of celibate clergy, he was also a major intellectual – a novelist, poet
and educationalist – and friend of the Prime Minister. A contemporary of Darwin
and Marx, he was a polemicist, essayist, and apologist, one who explored the
depths of Christian orthodoxy while society around him was secularising. He is,
in many ways, the Christian lynchpin of the contemporary era, the frontline
intellectual in a nation leading the race into the modern world.
today’s secular media with Newman – my current task as Press Officer for his
beatification – has not been not so straightforward. He can seem remote and
forbidding, distant from the lives of ordinary modern folk. How to educate
public opinion? How to plug him into the news? How to ensure that when Pope
Benedict beatifies Newman the people of England believe that the successor of
Peter is honouring one of our own?
people have never heard of Newman and have little interest anyway in religious
matters. The media usually ignore faith, especially when it involves historical
figures. Unless, of course, they sense controversy.
I have some
experience of this. In 2006, while working at the press office of Opus Dei, we
suddenly found ourselves under the brightest of all spotlights due to Dan
Brown’s Da Vinci Code. We were
depicted in a hit book and film – both of which claimed to be true – as murderous
masochistic monks: how did we respond? We decided to take advantage of the
controversy to tell our story, and received the largest amount of (free)
publicity in our history.
Unless Dan Brown
does Cardinal Newman the same favour, a Da
Vinci Code-type searchlight looks unlikely. Yet Newman is far from
uncontroversial. He lived, after all, in the intense heat of religious polemic
and misunderstanding. But even now, when the intensity of the theological
disagreements that swirled around Newman is hard to relate to, there are
controversies which have the potential for stories and comments. I have
The first springs
to mind among many non-religious people as a result of the activist Peter
Tatchell’s claim last year that Newman was gay – something he claimed the
Vatican was suppressing. We will never know what struggles went on inside
Newman’s heart; but we can be sure that he would have found the question very
strange. The idea of “being homosexual” would have been to him an unfamiliar
categorisation. What mattered was what people did; and in that sense, there is
no doubt that Newman lived a life of chastity and never broke his vow of celibacy.
But his many intense friendships, mostly with men in his priestly community of
the Oratory, such as Ambrose St John, are hard to make sense of in our age. In
our sexualised society, the idea of intense, loving and chaste friendships seems
weird, and the temptation to read back into Newman’s age our own preconceptions
will continue to be hard for many to resist.
After the struggle
over Newman’s sexuality comes the battle over his soul: there have been many
attempts to conscript Newman. Some like to emphasize his devotion to dogma, others
his defence of individual conscience. In his biglietto speech Newman said he had spent his life fighting
liberalism in religion, or the idea that one religion was as good as
another. Newman believed
profoundly in the primacy of conscience, but would he really have pitted
conscience against authority? Pope Benedict, speaking this year to the bishops
of England and Wales, said it was “important to recognize dissent for what it
is, and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and
wide-ranging debate”, citing Newman as someone who would have realised this. Author
John Cornwell thinks Pope Benedict is “clearly bent on sanitising Newman’s
progressive Catholicism”. Others suspect Cornwell of trying to hijack Newman
for his own purposes. We can expect this one to resurface as September
Then there is the
question of Newman’s holiness. A prickly character who had trouble getting on
with some people, Newman could be shy, retiring and unfriendly. Yet tens of
thousands of ordinary people, many of them not Catholic, lined the streets of
Birmingham to see his coffin pass: “whether Rome canonises him or not he will
be canonised in the thoughts of pious people of many creeds in England”, The Times wrote at the time. What
does it mean to be holy, if it doesn’t mean to be other-worldly, or inhumanly
perfect? Is it a human construct, or a mirror refracting something of God? And
if the latter, what does that look like? How can we tell, looking at the tracks
in the sand of a person’s life, that God has passed by?
controversy is over the miracle that has paved the way for Newman’s
beatification. In January a journalist claimed that a miracle that serves the
Church’s purpose of proving holiness is per
se dubious; and Cornwell argued more recently in the Sunday Times that the miracle itself was bogus, citing medical
experts to back up his claims. Yet none of the expert witnesses adduced by
Cornwell to study the cure of Jack Sullivan, a Boston-based deacon, can explain
how, on 15 August 2001, after saying a short prayer to Newman, Sullivan was
relieved of his post-operative pain and immobility in a complete, instantaneous
and permanent manner. On the other hand, it is hard for contemporary society,
convinced that the scientifically inexplicable can only be what has not yet
found an explanation, to believe that God intervenes directly in human lives.
Finally, there is
the ecumenical controversy. At the age of 44 Newman made the searing decision
to leave the Church of England to become a Catholic. Does that make him a
symbol of inter-ecclesial division, or a symbol of ecumenical unity? Dr John
Hall, Dean of Westminster Abbey, said in an interview earlier this year that
Newman could help the cause of unity and that Anglicans already celebrate Newman
on the day of his death, August 11. In the Anglican calendar, the entry reads:
“John Henry Newman, priest, tractarian, 1890”.
When Newman was
made a Cardinal in 1879 an Anglican friend wrote to him in emotional terms. “I
wonder if you know how much you are loved by England”, Octavius Ogle said, and
then went on to add, “and I wonder whether this extraordinary and unparalleled
love might not be – was not meant to be – utilized as one means to draw
together into one fold all Englishmen who believe”.
controversies do not lead, easily, to the bright sofas at GMTV. But they
suggest that plugging Newman into the national conversation could be easier
than at first it seemed. The man
the Pope will declare “blessed” is still able to cut across our society’s
values – and to generate stories.
Jack Valero is the Press Officer for the
Beatification of Cardinal Newman.