Controversy on Cardinal Newman


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John Henry Newman will be beatified by Pope Bendictus XVI within a week. In this article Jack Valero surveys the controversies surrounding this event and pays its own tribute to the great Englishman. The author is Press Officer for the Beatification of Cardinal Newman.

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Controversy on Cardinal Newman

  1. 1. Jack Valero: On the Beatification of John Henry Newman London, 9-9-2010 1 NEWMAN IN THE 21ST CENTURY A man of endless controversy
  2. 2. Jack Valero: On the Beatification of John Henry Newman London, 9-9-2010 2
  3. 3. Jack Valero: On the Beatification of John Henry Newman London, 9-9-2010 3 articles MercatorNet surveys the controversies surrounding these events and pays its own tribute to the great Englishman. It is now less than a week to Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain, which will culminate with the beatification of John Henry Newman, a 19th century cardinal who died 120 years ago. The beatification of the great Victorian will be a moment to mark the congruity of so many things which are often kept separate – among them Englishness and Catholicism, obedience and conscience, faith and reason, change and commitment. Newman is also, of course, a fascinating figure. A cleric who lived in an all-male Oxford Next Thursday Pope Benedict XVI college or a house of celibate clergy, he was arrives in the United Kingdom for a also a major intellectual – a novelist, poet and three day visit that will culminate, educationalist – and friend of the Prime on the 19th September, in the Minister. A contemporary of Darwin and Marx, beatification of Cardinal John Henry he was a polemicist, essayist, and apologist, Newman. In this and two companion one who explored the depths of Christian
  4. 4. Jack Valero: On the Beatification of John Henry Newman London, 9-9-2010 4 orthodoxy while society around him was I have some experience of this. In 2006, while secularising. He is, in many ways, the working at the press office of Opus Dei, we Christian lynchpin of the contemporary era, suddenly found ourselves under the brightest the frontline intellectual in a nation leading the of all spotlights due to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci race into the modern world. Code. We were depicted in a hit book and film – both of which claimed to be true – as But engaging today’s secular media with murderous masochistic monks: how did we Newman – my current task as Press Officer for respond? We decided to take advantage of the his beatification – has not been not so controversy to tell our story, and received the straightforward. He can seem remote and largest amount of (free) publicity in our forbidding, distant from the lives of ordinary history. modern folk. How to educate public opinion? How to plug him into the news? How to ensure Unless Dan Brown does Cardinal Newman the that when Pope Benedict beatifies Newman same favour, a Da Vinci Code-type searchlight the people of England believe that the looks unlikely. Yet Newman is far from successor of Peter is honouring one of our uncontroversial. He lived, after all, in the own? intense heat of religious polemic and misunderstanding. But even now, when the Most British people have never heard of intensity of the theological disagreements that Newman and have little interest anyway in swirled around Newman is hard to relate to, religious matters. The media usually ignore there are controversies which have the faith, especially when it involves historical potential for stories and comments. I have figures. Unless, of course, they sense identified five. controversy.
  5. 5. Jack Valero: On the Beatification of John Henry Newman London, 9-9-2010 5 The first springs to mind among many there have been many attempts to non-religious people as a result of the conscript Newman. Some like to emphasize activist Peter Tatchell’s claim last year his devotion to dogma, others his defence of that Newman was gay – something he individual conscience. In his biglietto speech claimed the Vatican was suppressing. We Newman said he had spent his life fighting will never know what struggles went on inside liberalism in religion, or the idea that one Newman’s heart; but we can be sure that he religion was as good as another. Newman would have found the question very strange. believed profoundly in the primacy of The idea of “being homosexual” would have conscience, but would he really have pitted been to him an unfamiliar categorisation. conscience against authority? Pope Benedict, What mattered was what people did; and in speaking this year to the bishops of England that sense, there is no doubt that Newman and Wales, said it was “important to recognize lived a life of chastity and never broke his vow dissent for what it is, and not to mistake it for of celibacy. But his many intense friendships, a mature contribution to a balanced and wide- mostly with men in his priestly community of ranging debate”, citing Newman as someone the Oratory, such as Ambrose St John, are who would have realised this. Author John hard to make sense of in our age. In our Cornwell thinks Pope Benedict is “clearly bent sexualised society, the idea of intense, loving on sanitising Newman’s progressive and chaste friendships seems weird, and the Catholicism”. Others suspect Cornwell of temptation to read back into Newman’s age trying to hijack Newman for his own purposes. our own preconceptions will continue to be We can expect this one to resurface as hard for many to resist. September approaches. After the struggle over Newman’s Then there is the question of Newman’s sexuality comes the battle over his soul: holiness. A prickly character who had trouble
  6. 6. Jack Valero: On the Beatification of John Henry Newman London, 9-9-2010 6 getting on with some people, Newman could adduced by Cornwell to study the cure of Jack be shy, retiring and unfriendly. Yet tens of Sullivan, a Boston-based deacon, can explain thousands of ordinary people, many of them how, on 15 August 2001, after saying a short not Catholic, lined the streets of Birmingham prayer to Newman, Sullivan was relieved of his to see his coffin pass: “whether Rome post-operative pain and immobility in a canonises him or not he will be canonised in complete, instantaneous and permanent the thoughts of pious people of many creeds manner. On the other hand, it is hard for in England”, The Times wrote at the contemporary society, convinced that the time. What does it mean to be holy, if it scientifically inexplicable can only be what has doesn’t mean to be other-worldly, or not yet found an explanation, to believe that inhumanly perfect? Is it a human construct, or God intervenes directly in human lives. a mirror refracting something of God? And if the latter, what does that look like? How can Finally, there is the ecumenical we tell, looking at the tracks in the sand of a controversy. At the age of 44 Newman made person’s life, that God has passed by? the searing decision to leave the Church of England to become a Catholic. Does that make The fourth controversy is over the miracle him a symbol of inter-ecclesial division, or a that has paved the way for Newman’s symbol of ecumenical unity? Dr John Hall, beatification. In January a journalist claimed Dean of Westminster Abbey, said in an that a miracle that serves the Church’s interview earlier this year that Newman could purpose of proving holiness is per se dubious; help the cause of unity and that Anglicans and Cornwell argued more recently in the already celebrate Newman on the day of his Sunday Times that the miracle itself was death, August 11. In the Anglican calendar, bogus, citing medical experts to back up his the entry reads: “John Henry Newman, priest, claims. Yet none of the expert witnesses tractarian, 1890”.
  7. 7. Jack Valero: On the Beatification of John Henry Newman London, 9-9-2010 7 When Newman was made a Cardinal in 1879 an Anglican friend wrote to him in emotional terms. “I wonder if you know how much you are loved by England”, Octavius Ogle said, and then went on to add, “and I wonder whether this extraordinary and unparalleled love might not be – was not meant to be – utilized as one means to draw together into one fold all Englishmen who believe”. These five controversies do not lead, easily, to the bright sofas at GMTV. But they suggest that plugging Newman into the national conversation could be easier than at first it seemed. The man the Pope will declare “blessed” is still able to cut across our society’s values – and to generate stories. Jack Valero is the Press Officer for the Beatification of Cardinal Newman.
  8. 8. Jack Valero: On the Beatification of John Henry Newman London, 9-9-2010 8 This and other presentations can be found on: CSR: Culture Science and Religion