Cardinal Newman's legacy strong today

  • September 17, 2010
Newman’s Unquiet GraveNewman’s Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint by John Cornwell (Continuum Books, 256 pages, hardcover, $22.95).

Every book has an agenda, sometimes blatant, sometimes unintentional, but always present and needing to be judged at least partly on the question of whether it achieves its goal.

A new biography of John Henry Newman, published mere months before the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to England and Scotland, during which the Pope will beatify the 19th-century cardinal, thinker and theologian, is a natural subject for agenda detection.

After all, Newman is the most famous convert in English history. His mid-life switch from Anglican priest to Catholic cleric and the tumult that followed can’t help but provoke modern-day angst given the divisions within Anglicanism and the suspicions still rampant from the Vatican’s move in the fall of 2009 to open the door to breakaway groups of Anglicans. Like it or not, some will clearly see the beatification scheduled for Sept. 19 as the equivalent of parking papal tanks outside the archbishop of Canterbury’s house.  

Anglican qualms are one thing, but any examination of Newman can make Catholics nervous as well. He has been a figure of controversy. A deeply religious man, he was also keen on explicating the means for modern Catholics to come to grips with their times, their history and their future.
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A firm believer in continuity within the Church, he was suspicious of too centralized an authority. Confounded but resigned to the inevitable spread of atheism and secularism, especially in the Western world, Newman spent much of his intellectual energies creating the mental and spiritual tools needed by believers in the face of unbelief and, more importantly, disbelief. He was, and is, the thinking Catholic who understood the limits of reason.

Catholics either love or hate Newman in roughly the same proportion that are thankful for or regret the results of Vatican II. It was not for nothing that Paul VI described the Second Vatican Council as Newman’s council.

That such a book is written by John Cornwell, a serious Catholic writer and thinker in his own right who is notorious for his attack on Pius XII in Hitler’s Pope, sets the alarms off immediately and sends everyone scurrying to isolate and identify the agendas at work.

Strangely, Cornwell’s take on Newman, examining the revered writer and scholar through the lens of his writings, makes a compelling case for the cardinal’s sainthood. Not so much for his exemplary life, but more for the contributions he made to Catholic thought and perspective.

Newman may have lived in the 19th century but confronting Darwin, the growth of nationalism and atheism as well as the emergence and acceptance of pluralism and secularism made him a thinker for the 21st and 22nd centuries as well.

Cornwell, though, rejects the seemingly logical conclusions of his own reasoning. He dismisses the idea of sainthood, arguing partly that Newman doesn’t make the grade according to the rules, owing to what Cornwell argues is a complete lack of miracles attributed to Newman.

This is contentious — disputed by the Vatican and Newman’s champions for the cause — but takes up little of the book’s weight or argument. There is also a sense of a straw man objection about this. One suspects Cornwell doesn’t buy into the rules for sainthood anyway.

Cornwell’s real qualms about the impending beatification are centred elsewhere. He’s afraid, and worries aloud, that making Newman a saint might be part of a plot to diminish Newman’s import for the modern world. A suspicion, in other words, that the only reason Benedict XVI and the Vatican might be willing to give this giant intellect, this fierce source of not just wisdom but the means to achieve wisdom, a form of imprimatur would be to render him harmless.

I suspect Cornwell’s fear might be overwrought paranoia. Regardless of why others might want to beatify Newman, doing so will bring him to the attention of millions unaware of his thoughts and words. As Cornwell demonstrates with grace and power, Newman is a mind and force that can’t help be of assistance in the age and circumstances Catholics face today.

Read this book. It is like no other life of a saint you will ever encounter. Then move on to the main task and read Newman. I suspect such a result would be pleasing to both Cornwell and Benedict XVI.

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