The canonization of British theologian John Henry Newman

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Though it is often tempting to import political categories of “progressive” and “conservative” or “left” and “right” into ecclesial life, the communion of collective prayer, worship and thought (along with its inherent pluralism) that believers exhibit does not make such mapping an easy or completely appropriate task. A case in point has arisen in the last few weeks, with the celebratory announcement that John Henry Newman will be canonized on Oct 13. A favorite of Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., high church Anglicans, and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the British theologian Newman will be “raised to the altars” instead by Pope Francis, not only because of his miraculous intervention in saving the life of a pregnant Chicago woman and her unborn child, but also because of his role as forefather to Vatican II, what Paul VI once famously referred to as “Newman’s Council.” In the multi-dimensional person of Newman, widely divergent ideological and ecclesiological viewpoints can find an ally and representative.

As I once outlined in a series of these columns for this paper on Newman’s thought years ago, the modern church’s appreciation for historicity, the development of dogma, and a commitment to rigorous study of Scripture and the patristic period can be traced to his genius, or at the very least, be recognized as resonant with it. And as noted Newman scholar Ian Ker puts it, the soon-to-be-saint “had clearly seen that there was a real need for renewal and reform within the church as well as for an engagement with the modern secular world, such as the Syllabus of Errors had refused but which Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes was to undertake.” This was not a popular or widely held stance in the wake of the crumbling European ancien régime and its resultant centripetal forces of ultramontanism in the latter half of Pius IX’s pontificate. But Newman offered a counterbalancing voice, one undoubtedly fluent in the “grammar of assent,” yet also focused on the laity and the charismatic spiritual vibrancy of Christianity that no dry legalism or papal claims to temporal power could ever eradicate.

Theologian Joseph Bracken has recently described the church as an “evolving life-system with reciprocal causation among its members in the common task of spreading the message of the Gospel to the contemporary world” (Theological Studies, May 7, 2019). This “evolution” brings to mind Newman’s pithy claim: “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” As our age demands us to be flexible and agile, responding to needs and technological developments that no one could have predicted as little as 25 years ago, we must put forward a disposition of willingness to allow ourselves to be molded evermore into the creatures and community that God wishes us to be. If anyone wants to espouse a religion that demands stasis and resting inertia in place of dynamic transformation both individually and collectively, whatever it may be that they are describing, it is assuredly not Christianity. Newman had his finger on the pulse of this reality of development at least a century before most theologians.

Newman wrote extensively on a wide variety of topics, Catholic education being one of his favorites. As we come to understand more and more that all in the church are called to be both teachers and learners, come October, contemporary Christians of all denominations can turn for inspiration and illumination to an erudite and saintly figure to understand more fully what an engaged, thoughtful and historically-astute faith in action looks like. And with the hope of doing their best to emulate it in our current context.

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, PhD., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.