Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Interpreting Newman’s Beatification: Reactions from Key Figures

Theologians and philosophers from around the world have been putting on record their reactions to Newman’s impending Beatification. We are delighted to be able to offer our readers an initial survey of these important and stimulating reflections. We hope soon to be able to present further material of this kind as commentary on the Beatification continues to flow in.

‘A prophetic act within the life of the Church and the world’

Father Tom Weinandy OFM Cap, the Executive Director of the US Bishops’ Secretariat of Doctrine, has concentrated on the contemporary significance of Newman’s life-long preoccupation with the grounds of Faith.

How does the Catholic Faith relate to human reason and conscience? Fr Weinandy believes that Newman’s account of these fundamental issues means that his Beatification is ‘a very significant event at this juncture in the history of the Universal Church’. Stressing the affinities between Newman’s thought and the teaching of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Fr Weinandy explains that for Newman ‘reason is not an adversary to faith, but advances and confirms the rationality of the act of faith. In turn, the doctrines of the faith are the richest and most satisfying mysteries upon which reason may ponder.’

Recalling Newman’s profound historical and theological investigations of how ‘the faith of the Church has developed and matured within the fertile soil of Spirit-guided reason’, Fr Weinandy concludes that Newman’s Beatification should be regarded as ‘a prophetic act within the life of the Church and the world – calling every rational person to faith in Christ and in the Catholic Church.’

Monsignor Roderick Strange, Rector of the Pontifical Beda College in Rome, sounds a similar note, recalling the depth and richness of Newman’s appreciation of the human context of Faith.

‘Newman did not want just to win the argument’, Mgr Strange explains, ‘but to touch hearts and move people to believe. As he declared in his Grammar of Assent, ‘I say plainly I do not want to be converted by a smart syllogism; if I am asked to convert others by it, I say plainly I do not care to overcome their reason without touching their hearts’.

Mgr Strange emphasises how Newman was concerned ‘not just with teaching in the narrow, technical sense, but in the broader sense which seeks to give people a fuller, more adequate understanding of their faith and so equip them better to give an account of what they believe in their own society and culture.’ Because Newman foresaw, in his own words, ‘a world simply irreligious’, Mgr Strange suggests that his Beatification ’sets the seal’ on Newman’s guidance of the Church in her mission of being ‘firm in faith, wise when we question, and prepared to give an account of the hope that is in us.’

‘The Doctor of the post-conciliar Church’

Newman’s importance to the future of Catholic Christianity is a theme dwelt upon by Father Ian Ker of the University of Oxford.

He writes that ‘Newman will be seen, I am convinced, as the Doctor of the post-conciliar Church, who not only anticipated the teachings of the Second Vatican Council but who also in his theology was insistent on what Pope Benedict XVI calls “the hermeneutic of continuity”’.

A key challenge for the contemporary Church, Fr Ker suggests, is to sustain her reception of the theological and liturgical developments of the past fifty years in ways which retain organic continuity with the wisdom of Christian history. He argues that Newman is a theologian whose thinking is of crucial importance to this undertaking.

‘Newman was a deeply historical theologian’, says Fr Ker. ‘In his classic Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, he wrote that to be ‘deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.’ Mutatis mutandis, he would say today the same of Catholics who see Vatican II as a kind of new dawn, analogous to the Reformation as seen by Protestants’. Newman’s profoundly historical theology, according to Fr Ker, ‘is extremely enlightening for a true perspective and understanding of Vatican II, its achievements and its limitations.’

‘The great counter-fascination of purity and truth’

Several commentators have chosen to focus on the intimate connection between Newman’s intellectual achievements and his personal holiness. It is one of the deepest elements in Newman’s legacy that he brought out into the open, in so many different ways, the essential, mutually re-enforcing connections between the intellectual, moral and religious capacities of the human being. Intellectual work in any domain, Newman insists, if it is to attain the goal of truth, demands the most sensitive obedience to conscience and, ultimately, openness of mind and heart to the Mystery of God.

Father Keith Beaumont of the French Oratory in Paris, who is the President of the Association Française des Amis de J. H. Newman, writes that Newman ‘is not only one of the leading Christian thinkers of the modern era, he is also – as experience of teaching and preaching retreats over many years has amply demonstrated – an outstanding spiritual guide, an aspect of his work all too often neglected in purely academic studies.’

The exemplification of the unity of intellectual and spiritual depth, not only in Newman’s teaching but also in his life, leads Fr Beaumont to ‘look forward to his eventual canonization and also, I fervently hope, to his being declared Doctor of the Church.’

‘The witness of Newman’, writes Fr Jonathan Robinson, ‘like that of his patron St Philip Neri, the Founder of the Oratory, was based on personal holiness, a holiness that was rooted in the conviction that sanctity is only possible through the imitation of Christ, and in the acceptance of the suffering this inevitably brings.’

Fr Robinson, the founder of the Toronto Oratory, is a philosopher and a student of the spiritual and ascetical tradition of the Church. He wishes to emphasise how Newman’s apologetic force, his lifelong defence of Christianity against a ‘hostile and dangerous world’, is fundamentally connected to the same personal quality Newman himself identified in St Philip Neri: ‘the great counter-fascination of purity and truth’.

‘Newman’s purity’, he continues, ‘was not only that of a chaste priest, although it was certainly that, but there was in addition a purity of mind and intention that led him to seek for the truth no matter what the cost. ‘The Cross of Christ’, to use the words of one of his Anglican sermons, is the measure of the world’; and this measure, or standard, was one he unflinchingly adopted as his own.’

Fr Robinson concludes his thoughts by recalling that, in a way that is surely unique among the saints, we are able to appreciate Newman’s holiness as disclosed in the vast body of his correspondence and private reflection.

‘The news of the impending Beatification’, says Fr Robinson, ‘comes as the final volumes of the great edition of The Letters and Diaries of Newman attain completion. The late Father Stephen Dessain, then Superior of the Birmingham Oratory, began this enormous work expressly as an adjunct to Newman’s Cause. Fifty years after the formal opening of the Cause and the publication of the first volume of the Letters and Diaries both initiatives of the Fathers of the Birmingham Oratory have been brought to a triumphant conclusion. We are all in their debt.’

Source: The Cause for the Canonisation of John Henry Cardinal Newman » Interpreting Newman’s Beatification: reactions from key figures

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: