One of the leading intellectual lights of Victorian England will be beatified in England later this year. An unholy row has broken out over his significance.
In September of this year
Pope Benedict XVI will beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890),
the famous convert from Anglicanism who was one of the leading
in Victorian England. Liberals and Conservatives each wish to claim
Newman for their side. Which was he? MercatorNet interviewed Fr Juan
R. Vélez to find out. Fr Vélez is co-author with Michael Aquilina
of a forthcoming book, “Take Five: Meditations with John Henry Newman.” He is also
preparing a biography on Newman titled
“Passion for Truth: John Henry Newman.”
MercatorNet: The Pope was accused
of hijacking Cardinal Newman to prop up the cause of conservative
Liberal or conservative? Which was he?
Newman did not think in the
terms “liberal and conservative”. What he did think about was the
danger of rationalism: he saw rationalism as an enemy of Christianity.
By rationalism he understood the philosophy which substitutes man’s
ideas and conclusions for God’s revelation. He strongly contested
the notion that religion is something man made which has no lasting
claims. He was against subjectivism in religion. As a young Anglican
clergyman at Oxford until the time he was named a cardinal of the Roman
Catholic Church, he fought against a subjective religion that was not
based on objective truths revealed by God to men.
Newman was against the
minded theologians at Oxford who did not adhere to the Tradition of
the Anglican Church. He was also against excessive display or reliance
on feeling in religion characteristic of Evangelicals of his day. Both
the liberals and Evangelicals of his day down played the importance
of doctrine and hierarchy in Christianity. Newman thus was opposed to
a religion that was man made or emotive, but he did not refer to himself
as conservative. However, he was gradually more and more upset by the
High Church Anglicans, who for the most part did not promote the
and devotional aspect of the Christian religion, adhering primarily
to the external forms of worship, often skipping things for the sake
of expediency. Newman observed this “soft religion” when as a young
clergyman, his bishop chided him for not having officiated the wedding
of young woman who a few years earlier had refused to be baptized.
MercatorNet: In 1845, immediately prior
to his reception in the Roman Catholic Church, Newman finished his Essay
on the Development of Christian Doctrine. What is development in
For 20 or so years, while a
student and teacher at Oxford, Newman studied the changes in doctrines
and practices of Christians throughout the centuries. For many years
he accepted the Protestant notion that Catholic doctrines and practices
were a corruption of primitive Christianity. However, his study of
and the actions of the Anglican Church led him to examine his position.
He began to understand that over time Christianity incorporates some
doctrines and corresponding religious practices. He saw that these
had a good explanation.
For instance, he saw that the
belief in Purgatory was a “development” in the Christian understanding
of God’s forgiveness obtained through the sacrament of penance. It
constitutes a remedy for penance that is not completed on earth.
cleanses the soul from any attachment to sin remaining in a soul that
dies in the state of grace. Although Purgatory is not specifically named
in the Bible, the doctrine about this purification can be trusted
of the nature of genuine development in Church teaching.
MercatorNet: But according to Newman
does Church teaching change?
Yes and no. To be more precise,
Church teaching undergoes development. This is not the same as teaching
which “evolves.” Evolution implies one thing changing into something
else -- the Church’s teaching does not evolve into something else.
To ascribe this to Newman is a mistake. Newman explained that
can be good or bad. A bad development in doctrine is called a corruption
in Christian teaching. An example of a good development was the actual
exercise of authority that the successor of St. Peter grew to have.
The contrary was in fact the corruption, namely disregard for the office
of Peter established by Christ himself.
Newman believed that religion
is a definite set of doctrinal truths and practices which do not change
substantially; forms or external elements can change or develop, but
only in keeping with the original reality. In addition a better
of these truth and a deeper understanding can be reached.
MercatorNet: What is the point of handing
down fossilized dogmas as Tradition without questioning them?
Here we must distinguish
Tradition in religious beliefs and social and political traditions.
The first originates directly from God whereas the second are man made
traditions. Christian tradition is the oral and written transmission
of what God revealed to the Church through the Apostles and their
under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Within this tradition there
is Apostolic Tradition stemming from the time of the Apostles or their
disciples. Ecclesiastical tradition is the tradition that grew in the
subsequent centuries also under the guidance of the Holy Spirit promised
by Christ to the Apostles and their successors.
Catholics believe that Christ
transmitted to the Apostles and their immediate successors the doctrines
that He wished them to hand down to the bishops who would succeed them.
Tradition consists in the oral preaching, example and institutions such
as the sacraments administered by the Apostles. The Holy Spirit inspired
some men to write down some of this Tradition, which has become the
New Testament. Both Tradition and the Scripture form the one deposit
of faith, which contain the truths that God wishes men to believe and
practice. For any development in doctrine to be faithful to what God
has revealed it must be faithful to Tradition and Scripture.
MercatorNet: How did the doctrine of
early Christianity come to be put into question or to be rejected?
Starting in the 16th
century Ecclesiastic Tradition and later Apostolic Tradition were put
into question for a variety of reasons. This was the result of reactions
against abuses by Churchmen, excessive confidence in human reason with
the start of the Renaissance, and a gradual break with the authority
of Rome. In 19th century England there were two wide spread
practices that derived from the Protestant Reformation: the practice
of a Bible Religion excluding what is not explicitly found in the
and the exercise of “Private Judgment” in religious matters.
Newman was a historian of early
Church history. His in-depth study of this period and of the writings
of the Church Fathers gave him first hand knowledge of the Church’s
Tradition. He discovered that the Fathers were witnesses of the Church’s
Tradition and teaching on Scripture. His study of the Fathers enabled
him to avoid these errors and to point them out to others in his sermons
MercatorNet: What are some applications
of Newman’s ideas on development? How would the criteria that he laid
out support or preclude important changes in Catholic doctrine or
We could ask ourselves: would
Newman accept some type of Church government in which the Pope did not
have authority? Newman struggled with this idea for years before
Catholic. He finally came to realize that the authority of the pope
was a development of the power given by Christ to Peter. Therefore any
denial of this authority would be contrary to the initial doctrine and
would be unacceptable.
In a subject altogether
we might ask, would Newman accept the use of contraception? Naturally
he would not accept this as true development in moral teaching. He would
find that the sanction for such behavior had no grounding in Sacred
Tradition or Scripture. In fact such behavior was prohibited such as
in the case of Onan.
On an even more contested
these days, would Newman accept a change in the practice of celibacy
for Catholic priests of the Latin rite? To begin Newman would note that
St. Peter and some but not all of the Apostles were married. St. John
and St. Paul were celibate men. He would be quick to quote the passage
of St. Matthew’s Gospel in which Jesus teaches that some are given
the gift of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Next, it
is likely that he would argue that guided by the Holy Spirit, the Church
soon recognized the benefit for celibacy. About the year 300 in the
West celibacy began to become the norm. The Church had developed a
understanding of the spiritual and pastoral requirements for celibacy.
In any event, Newman would look to Tradition and Scripture as understood
by the Church’s teaching office to judge about the validity of any
MercatorNet: What then would Newman
true development in the Church’s doctrine?
Newman would probably see as
true developments of Catholic doctrine various social teachings of the
Church such as the notion of common good and subsidiarity, as well as
Vatican II’s teaching on the collegiality of bishops.
Newman himself contributed
to a number of developments in Catholic theology such as a more
understanding of Purgatory and a deeper understanding of role of the
laity in the Church. There is a lot to be said about both of these
and especially of Newman’s influence in fostering an educated Catholic
laity resonating with the later teaching of Vatican II. This council
also underlined, as Newman had done earlier, that all Christians are
called by God to live holy lives.
To the question, then, of:
“Was Newman a liberal (in hiding) or a conservative?” one must answer
that Newman was neither. He was a man anchored in the Church’s Tradition
and Scripture who looked to the authoritative Teaching of the Church
to teach, guide and decide in doctrinal matters. Newman provided future
Christians and theologians with tools to judge about the soundness of
developments in doctrine. He shows us that any true development is
rooted in Tradition and faithful to Scripture as well as subject to
the Church’s teaching authority.
MercatorNet: The gay community in Britain
is also trying to portray Cardinal Newman as a latent homosexual? How
would you respond to that?
Newman’s close and life-long
friendship with some of his male peers and students has been construed
as an indication of homosexuality. This is part of the modern bias of
seeing friendship primarily in terms of sexual relations. As the Newman
scholar Ian Ker has argued there is no evidence to suggest that Newman
suffered from same-sex attraction. Having said that, the Catholic Church
teaches that homosexual inclination per se is not sinful. All
persons, whether married or single, are called by God to live chastity,
each according to his state in life.
MercatorNet: Critics have also said that
Newman utterly opposed the idea of his beatification and that he even
took steps to ensure that it would be impossible to make a cult of his
remains. Is the Pope making a mistake in beatifying him?
Newman was keenly aware of
his failings, such as pride and over sensitive reactions. With the
of years his awareness of falling short of God’s graces gave him an
even greater sense of God’s holiness and his own nothingness. The
thought of being considered a saint or called a saint would thus have
been naturally repulsive to him. True saints don’t consider themselves
holy; rather they see themselves as repentant sinners. Pope Benedict,
after a careful study of Newman’s life and work, has rightly recognized
the holiness of Venerable Newman, and will soon declare him one of the
Juan R. Vélez is a Los Angeles Catholic priest. Before becoming a
priest, he worked as a physician.