This week Pope Benedict XVI is in Britain for an unprecedented state visit, meeting the Queen at Holyrood House and giving an address at Westminster Hall. The occasion for this historic event, however, is not Church or international politics – although political issues will doubtless be touched upon – but the beatification of John Henry Cardinal Newman. Newman, whose long life spanned most of the 19th century, was perhaps the greatest religious figure of the last 200 years of British history.
Converting from Anglicanism to Catholicism at the age of 44, he wrote cogently and beautifully under both religious affiliations, and was a lightning rod in the passionately argued religious controversies of his time, such as the infallibility of the Pope or the legitimacy of Anglicanism as the state church.
Valuing his religious influences as a thinker and evangeliser of the highest calibre, Pope Benedict has made an exception of his thus far universal practice of not participating in beatification ceremonies. Hence his trip to Britain.
En route to this honour were the standard ecclesial steps: the examination of Newman’s life and writings; a declaration that he had lived a life of extraordinary virtue; and official approval by doctors and theologians of a miraculous cure after prayers that Newman would intercede with God on the sufferer’s behalf.
The miracle in question is the recovery in 2001 from a debilitating back condition of the Massachusetts lawyer and deacon Jack Sullivan. His cure was a very modern “media miracle” provoked by a series on Newman on EWTN, Mother Angelica’s Catholic broadcasting network. At the end of each episode, a prayer card for Newman was displayed on the screen. Mr Sullivan prayed for the long-dead cardinal’s intercession before God for a cure. The rest (following rigorous medical and ecclesial examination) is now history.
Although Newman was a devout and humble man of great personal warmth and sensitivity, it is difficult to think of him apart from his public career. The author of seminal books of theology and philosophy, such as The Development of Doctrine and A Grammar of Assent, he also dashed off the greatest autobiography in English, Apologia pro Vita Sua (a media sensation in his time), in a matter of weeks after personal attacks on his honesty.
Newman’s experience in helping found what is today the University College of Dublin inspired his extended argument for a classical liberal education, The Idea of a University. He also wrote novels of religious conversion and hymns still sung in both Protestant and Catholic churches, such as “Lead, Kindly Light”.
He also won early (and continuing) renown as a brilliant preacher. The atheist novelist George Eliot memorised the whole of one of them, “The Second Spring”, and would recite it at the drop of a hat at private salons.
As a young and ardent Anglican priest, Newman and like-minded others originated the Oxford Movement in an attempt to revive the ancient doctrines and zeal for the “old religion” in an increasingly liberalising Anglican Church. From the early 1830s up to his conversion to Catholicism in 1845, Newman battled the yielding spirit of Anglican toleration for indifferentism, which manifested itself in the belief that one religion was as good as another.
When his arguments were rejected by his Anglican superiors and he came to believe that his continued membership in the Church of England separated him from what he had now come to regard as the true Church, he converted to Catholicism and was ordained in Rome. Returning to England, he settled in Birmingham, where he founded the Oratory of St Philip Neri, from which came the famous London Oratory.
Newman died in 1890 popularly considered a saint. Over a century later, the Church is vindicating this judgment of the people of Britain and the whole English-speaking world. Pope Benedict’s decision to preside over Newman’s beatification reflects his love and respect for a fellow theologian whose work he has studied from his seminary days, and whose influence on the Second Vatican Council made him perhaps the most influential theologian on the council, even though it was meeting more than 70 years after his death.
Yet what is most intriguing about Benedict’s visit to England is its ecumenical significance. Pope Benedict has established very cordial relationships with Orthodox patriarchs and bishops (a long-held ambition of John Paul II as well). At the same time, he has made a remarkable and controversial offer to members of the Anglican Communion throughout the world to be received into the Church, singly or in whole congregations, bringing with them their liturgical traditions and even their pastors and bishops, if those clergymen were properly received into the Catholic Church.
If Pope Benedict’s outreach meets even limited success, perhaps tens of millions of fervent Evangelical and Pentecostal “Bible” Christians may want to re-examine more closely this ancient Church as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation draws near in 2017. The mutual momentum towards reunion may be irresistible.
Fr John McCloskey is a Church historian from Washington DC. This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal