Kathryn Jean Lopez: What was it like being there today for the beatification of John Henry Newman?
Leoni Caldecott: It was incredible. The rain let up just as the Holy Father arrived, and the beatification was extremely moving for those of us who had awaited it for years—to get to this moment at last! Even more so because this most Newmanian pope actually came here, to England, and to our diocese, to beatify a man in his own place and among his own people.
Lopez: Why is Blessed Cardinal Newman important to Catholics and specifically British Catholics?
Caldecott: He encompasses the whole reach of the British Christian experience in his 90 or so years of life. Evangelical, mainstream Anglican, Anglo-Catholic, Catholic. Also he stands in a prophetic place in the 19th century which was such an important cultural moment for the British, the height of the industrial revolution, the challenges to religious faith, Darwinism, which Newman understood and was well-placed to respond to (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, the book in which John Henry Newman wrote himself into the Catholic Church, is a kind of origin of species for theology). He embodies the best of what it means to be British — intellectual integrity, pragmatic approach, a sense of courtesy particularly with regard to debate and contention. But he is a gift to the Church universal because he prophesied and understood the crisis of modernity, he responded in a balanced way, and if not exploited by either side, is a force for meaningful discourse between right and left tending positions among Catholics. This is why he gets ‘claimed’ by both conservatives and liberals. Yet he saw very keenly the perils of liberalism, just as he says the perils of rigid (as opposed to “ressourcement,” can’t think of another way of describing it) conservatism.
Lopez: How integral is he to your historic identity?
Caldecott: As I said above, he embodies a crucial moment in our history, the rise of the modern period, a time when Britain was immensely powerful, yet he saw the seeds of our potential self-destruction too. And right in the middle of the 19th century, the reestablishment of the Catholic hierarchy, the catholic literary revival, all of that is spanned by Newman’s experience and writings.
Lopez: “Heart speaks unto heart,” we have been told, was Cardinal Newman sealing his homosexuality on his grave, in being buried with Ambrose St. John. Well, is it?
Caldecott: In a word, no! It is taken from St. Francis de Sales, another remarkably balanced spiritual figure. It refers in the first place to the discourse between the human and the Divine heart. So to prayer, understood as a personal relationship with the Lord, the experience of being perfectly understood by our creator, of being truly ourselves with Him. However it extends to human relationships, in that dynamic correspondence indicated by Jesus when he summed up the commandments in two moments: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Also we need to pay attention to the “Loquitur” of the phrase: closeness to God ultimately makes it easier for us to communicate with one another, to hear one another. The heart of God makes eloquence possible…
Newman loved Fr. Ambrose with a very intense love, the love of two compagnons de guerre who had been together since conversion at Littlemore and through all the trials thereafter. I believe somewhere he wrote, when it was suggested that this kind of friendship risked being a “particular friendship” discouraged in enclosed religious houses, that he did indeed love Fr. Ambrose more than the others, but that it was his fervent prayer that he would come to love all of them as much as him. I believe he meant this and put it into practice: he had too much integrity to do otherwise.
Lopez: How deep has this theme taken hold in Britain?
Caldecott: Deep. The two major television “documentaries” about the pope shown in the week before he arrived, were made by openly gay men. One of them was just over the top, the other was good in parts, but the gay issue seems to be such a sticking point wherever you turn. (I believe it is, for example, one reason Anne Rice gave for quitting the Church again). It’s a particular fault-line in British culture. Not sure why — that needs a deeper analysis than I am capable of now.
Lopez: Is it an outgrowth of something going on there, and in the West? About the state of love in the Western world?
Caldecott: Yes, definitely! We have ceased to understand pure love, by which I don’t mean in the puritanical sense. I mean purified, as described most pertinently by Pope Benedict in Deo Caritas Est when he says that even Eros has its part to play. Disinterested for oneself as much as possible, not self-gratifying. Yoked to the love of God. Contained within the love and presence of God. Given by God, not taken for ourselves. The Victorians had deep friendships which they were not ashamed to speak of in fairly intense terms, as Newman speaks of Fr. Ambrose especially after the latter’s death. The Romantic Movement was just an extreme of this but I sometimes wonder whether all Victorians were to some extent in the sway of the Romantic idiom in speaking of those they cared for. You need to understand Victorian culture to understand what is going on here. The contemporary gay “rights” culture is ahistorical in its grasp of something like this, as much contemporary commentary is. Plus we are now obsessed with sexuality in isolation from the rest of the personal/psychological landscape, which makes it impossible to believe that one can live deep friendship without a physical (self-gratifying/genital/whatever) component. Result we ricochet from Puritanism to absolute license and back, without ever passing by the person and having confidence in God’s plan for the interaction of persons with all their dignity.
Hence the crucial importance of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI: One continues and fills in where the other left off, there is a continuity and complementarily in their anthropology and understanding of human nature. I believe these two pontificates give us the opportunity to understand all this much more deeply in the light of Christ — there is more work to be done. Certainly the scandals, not just the child-abuse ones, but the apparent license some priests have accorded to themselves, which is no different from the world, are symptomatic of what JPII called “the culture of death” just as much as abortion and end-of-life contempt. Added to this, a kind of covert homosexuality (even if not active) can cause an unbalanced emotional response to the “other.” which prevents a priest developing fully into a father. And we have never needed fatherly priests as much as we do now. Or fathers in general. There is a crucial question that the Church needs to answer: what is the place of “sexual orientation” in the holy soul? Or to put it another way, if the culture is putting the cart before the horse, how can we switch that around in a salvific context, without knee-jerk condemnations or, on the other hand, complacency about the status quo?
Lopez: Has your impression of this pope changed during the course of the visit?
Caldecott: I love him more than ever! My husband and I happened to have an experience of him before he became pope, which made us ready to celebrate when he was elected. He is a Mensch, as they say over the pond. A fine mind, a fine soul and a fascinating man.
Those who didn’t like him before the visit, though, may have had their pigeonholing slightly knocked, at least, by his demeanor during this visit. If only all priests and bishops had this quality of humanity (many do!) we would have no problems!
Lopez: The Holy Father had some clear messages for laypeople, youth, religious. What do you take your marching orders as in the wake of the visit?
Caldecott: Keep a hold of the truth—but in charity and with attentiveness to the position and concerns of your interlocutors. Do not be afraid to witness—but make sure that witness is witness to Christ, and not to your own preoccupations. Let Christ transform you and trust He will not let you down. Do nothing without prayer. Only Love will overcome . . .
Lopez: What makes you happiest as your reflect on this visit from the pope to your homeland?
Caldecott: It is always easier to carry on a struggle when something holy has entered into the context of that struggle. I just need to think of his face in the places I know, in Scotland and in London and in the beautiful surroundings of an English park surrounded by English oaks, to take heart in the future. And to remember him talking to my compatriots, interacting with everyone from the Queen to the smallest schoolchild, to feel I too, even as a Catholic, a pariah in many circles, do have a meaningful role to fulfill here.
It made me happy to hear our prime minister say: “You have challenged the whole country to sit up and think. And that can only be a good thing.”
Besides, one of my favorite games is “bust the stereotype.” It always makes me happy to watch him do that one!