Msgr. Richard M. Liddy is Director of the Center for Catholic Studies, Seton Hall University and Former President of the Newman Association of America. He worked on the Birmingham Diocese Historical Commission in preparation for the beatification of John Henry Newman, who is to be canonized a saint this Sunday.
How is the Newman Association of America responding to Newman’s canonization?
Members of the Association have been praying for this and working for this for years. I know that this news [of his canonization] fills them with joy. For many years I have dreamed of attending Cardinal Newman’s canonization.
Who was John Henry Newman?
He was the most well-known teacher and preacher in England in the middle of the 19th century. At the age of 44, in 1845 he became a Roman Catholic, leaving family and friends to join a faith that at the time was poor and despised in England. In 1847 he was ordained a Catholic priest and subsequently wrote a number of classic books, including The Idea of the University, which is still considered the finest book on the nature of the university education. He could be clear and intellectual and at the same time poetic and loving. James Joyce called him the best writer of prose in the English language. He died in 1890, much beloved by the English people. Of him, The Times of London wrote: “Of one thing we may be sure, that the memory of his pure and noble life, untouched by worldliness, unsoured by any trace of fanaticism, will endure, and that whether Rome canonizes him or not he will be canonized in the thoughts of pious people of many creeds in England. The saint and the poet in him will survive.”
Why is he important?
His writings influenced virtually all the major Catholic theologians of the 20th century, including Pope Benedict XVI. He took history, development, and change seriously, while remaining committed to the Catholic faith and creed. His vision included reaching out from the faith to all areas of the modern world.
What does Newman have to say to the churches today?
In his influential book, The Development of Christian Doctrine, he wrote, “to live is to change and to be perfect is to change often.” He saw the presence of Christ in the heartbreaks of life and in the wrenching changes of history. While wholeheartedly committed to the Church in history, he saw the need for Catholics to communicate to the modern world in ways that could be understood.
Yes, Newman is famous for defending development of doctrine. But also for having said “I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion.” How to explain the seeming contradiction? Was Newman a conservative or a liberal?
Newman transcends both of these categories. As an Anglican he staunchly resisted the secular spirit which would reduce the Church to the current world. As a Catholic he believed that it was important to have a theological vision, an articulate faith rooted in Christ, that was able to speak to the world. He could make the skeptics’ case better than they could, and because of that, he could speak to them. Because of that, he was considered by some “a liberal,” but Pope Leo XIII made him a cardinal of the Church just the same.
What did Newman mean by ‘liberalism’?
Basically, you make it all up. Your individual judgment is paramount, not the faith of the Church coming from the apostles.
Newman’s understanding of development of doctrine was rather cautious, and he downplayed historically documented changes in his theory. And of course, he didn’t have to deal with the Second Vatican Council’s advances (if not contradictions) in religious liberty and ecumenism. Does Newman’s theory still hold up?
I do not think Newman would have had any trouble with Vatican II, although the contexts are worlds apart. The great Catholic theologian, Bernard Lonergan, once wrote: the new age in theology – that takes history and development seriously – “dates not from 1965 when the second Vatican council closed, but rather from 1845 when Newman completed his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.”
What were Newman’s thoughts about the Anglican Church which he left to become Catholic? Why did he switch?
Basically, he kept all that was good in the Anglican Church when he became a Catholic. He would have gone out of his way to point out all the genuine elements in the communion he left. At the same time, he felt that the fulness of doctrinal and spiritual life was to be found in the Catholic Church.
Did Newman speak to liturgical questions?
I probably should not answer this question because I am no expert in this area. I remember him once writing that the Mass was an “action” and therefore should “move along” without delay.
Newman opposed the definition of papal infallibility, but then accepted it after the First Vatican Council defined it. What did he really think?
He did think the definition was “inopportune” but did not oppose it when it was defined.
Church teaching and conscience is a hot topic today. What does Newman have to say to us about this?
Newman’s anthropology involved a strong affirmation of conscience as a deep and serious call from God to be listened to from our depths. His famous toast, “I will drink to the Pope, but I will drink to conscience first,” was only an affirmation of the inviolability of conscience seriously seeking authenticity.
Time to speculate. What would Cardinal Newman think of Pope Francis?
I think he would like him and respect him. I think he would appreciate his loving and prophetic spirit seeking to reach out through the Church to all peoples.
Anthony Ruff conducted the interview for Pray Tell by email. This interview was first published in February, 2019.