Although the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain this week is a state visit with all the appropriate ceremonies and events arranged according to the right protocols, the undoubted highlight will be the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman in Birmingham on Sunday. The penultimate stage in the process that leads to his canonization - being added to the canon or list of the formally declared saints - Newman's beatification has been long in the coming.
But it is not without controversy. Not that there are many opposed to his progress along the sainting track, only that views of Newman exist that are diametrically opposed to each other - an unsettling sign of the culture wars that pit Catholics against Catholics.
The preservationists see in Newman's beatification a confirmation of their own orthodoxy and of the institutional church's reclamation of the high ground in its war against secularism. Newman's firm rejection of latitudinarianism, of that liberalism that denies the dogmatic principle and undercuts the authority of the organic tradition, emboldens them to define Newman as the primary intellectual bulwark against the waves of innovation and subversion that have battered the Catholic Church since the end of the Second Vatican Council in 1965.
In addition, they read in his loyalty to Rome a countersign to those contemporary theologians who dare question the magisterium (the teaching authority of the Catholic Church), seek to delimit the power of the Vatican, and are all too willing to compromise doctrine in the interests of "progress."
They want to preserve him the way many contemporary Chestertonians want to preserve Gilbert Keith Chesterton: in aspic. And it won't do.
The revisionists, in contrast, see in Newman the arch-liberal, the prophetic advocate for gay rights, the Ultimate Catholic who fought for liberty of conscience against the tyranny of Pius IX's Rome, the agent and champion of change in Catholic doctrine, and the sublime behind-the-scenes architect of the Second Vatican Council itself.
They have created a Newman that is not much more than a mirror image of their own aspirations for, and disgruntlement with, the Catholic Church. A Newman such as this is more than a caricature; it is a violation.
As the preservationists and revisionists war over the correct interpretation of Newman the man and his legacy - a war that they must respectively win if the church is to survive as the Catholic Church in their view - the historical record suggests otherwise.
Owen Chadwick, the eminent Anglican scholar, nicely encapsulates the often slippery and elusive Newman when he labels him a conservative innovator. Newman's greatness as a thinker - and he was indubitably a great Victorian thinker - lay in his tolerance for novel and conflicting ideas, in his sturdy faith in the evolutionary capacity of ideas, and in his conviction that truth need fear nothing. In his An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845) he notes with his typical poetic élan that "in a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often."
He further observed in Letter to Rev. E.B. Pusey on Occasion of His Eirenicon (1866) on the matter of dealing with great ideas that he personally prefers that "wherever possible, to be first generous and then just; to grant full liberty of thought, and to call it to account when abused." Such a liberality of perspective has not been a defining feature of recent Catholic life and ecclesial governance.
Newman was no dilettante; he disliked fashion and whim; he was a conservative thinker who eschewed fossilized doctrine and pastoral practice. And he knew something personally of the long shadow of Rome's displeasure. He was not one to despise authority or its rightful exercise. He had, after all, defended the authority of Rome against its numerous detractors by examining its apostolic record, its critical role during the doctrinal crises of the patristic period, and its claim of continuity with the early church. But he was also an outspoken defender of the "free and fair play" that characterized the Medieval Schools where "the disputants were not made to feel the bit in their mouth at every word they spoke, but could move their limbs freely and expatiate at will."
Newman deplored Rome's often censorious and constrictive modus operandi. But he also understood the consequences of a discipleship that is grounded in a communion, a tradition, an assembly of faith. Religion, for Newman, was not reducible to the status of a sentiment.
What the preservationists and the revisionists have both missed is the fact that the attraction of Newman for many Catholics can be discovered in his paradigmatic significance as a modern Christian. The French theologian Yves Congar was fond of quoting fellow Dominican Henri de Clerissac that it is hard to suffer persecution for the church, but harder still to suffer persecution at the hands of the church. Newman would understand as he often found himself the underdog, the faithful servant unappreciated and maligned.
If the beatification is his final vindication, it is also a reminder that he is a cipher of these turbulent times in the Catholic Church.
Michael W. Higgins is vice-president for Mission and Catholic Identity for Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Conn.
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