Those fortunate enough to have taken in Pope Benedicts celebration of Cardinal Newmanat both Saturdays prayer vigil , and the Mass and beatification early Sundaywere not disappointed. The solemnity of the occasion, the readings and beautiful hymns sung, the sacred processions and tributes, all hit a note of perfect synchronicity. It is difficult to see how the two-day event could have been any better.
Many things were accomplished during these ceremonies, but perhaps the most important was this: Benedict has reclaimed and reaffirmed the real John Henry Newman.
And not a moment too soon.
For decades, progressives in the Church have tried to claim Newman as one of their own , depicting him as some kind of anti-papal rebel, who supposedly would have been at home with every type of modern dissent. One would think, listening to the Catholic dissidents, that were Newman living today, he would be standing shoulder to shoulder with Charles Curran and Hans Kung. The strategy to remake Newman a modern liberal is familiar: take a few isolated citations from Newmans voluminous writings (particularly on the role of conscience and the laity), rip them from their proper context, distort their meaning, then re-deploy them to justify dissent from authoritative Catholic teachings.
In his book, Newmans Challenge , the late Fr. Stanley Jaki , winner of the Templeton Prize for Religion, demonstrates just how dishonest these efforts really are, analyzing Newmans actual words, where liberals misuse them, with devastating effect. More recently, Ian Ker, Newmans great biographer , has done the same against those who would pit Newman against Benedict . But some people just wont listen, and among them is the famously unreliable John Cornwell, who has made a last-ditch effort to salvage Newman for the anti-papal crusaders, but without success. During their excellent coverage of the papal trip to Britain, EWTNs Raymond Arroyo, Fr. Robert Sirico and Joseph Pearce did a masterful job refuting Cornwell, point-by-point; and, with the message getting out, spirited letters have appeared in the press, contradicting Cornwells claims, and documenting Newmans unequivocal submission to the Pope .
Cornwells attempt to debunk the miraculous healing of Deacon Jack Sullivan , credited by the Church to Newmans intercession, was also swiftly answered ; and it was fitting that Deacon Jack himself got the final word, when he spoke at the beatification, mentioning the other-worldly powers that he believes led to his healing.
The elevation of Newman also marks a personal triumph for Pope Benedict, who has long championed the great Cardinal in his writings and lectures. Contrary to Professor Eamon Duffy, who offensively claimed that Newmans vision of the Church, is the antithesis of the current pontiffs, Benedict is very much in the Newman mold . The similarities are striking: a personal piety and humility; belief in the harmony of faith and reason; a love for learning and scholarship; a defense of the objective moral order revealed by God; a determination to oppose every form of relativism; a belief in the continuity of essential Catholic teachings; a proper understanding of conscience , led and fortified by the Magisterium; and above all, a defense of the supernatural against the onslaught of secularism.
Newmans traditional credentials are so secure that an entire book of his sermons was published some years back with the appropriate title, Newman against the Liberals. Any one of the texts therein would shock the sensibilities of a religious progressive; even the ones delivered as an Anglican are fierce: Does not our kindness too often degenerate into weakness, and thus become not Christian charity, but lack of charity, as regards the objects of it? he asked in Tolerance of Religious Error. He continued:
Are we sufficiently careful to do what is right and just rather than what is pleasant? do we clearly understand our professed principles, and do we keep to them under temptation?
. . . I fear we lack . . . firmness, manliness, godly severity. I fear it must be confessed, that our kindness, instead of being directed and braced by principle, too often becomes languid and unmeaning; that it is exerted on improper objects, and out of season, and thereby is uncharitable in two ways, indulging those who should be chastised, and preferring their comfort to those who are really deserving. We are over-tender in dealing with sin and sinners. We are deficient in jealous custody of revealed Truths which Christ has left us. We allow men to speak against the Church, its ordinances, or its teaching, without remonstrating with them. We do not separate from heretics, nay, we object to the word as if uncharitable; and when such texts are brought against us as St. Johns command, not to show hospitality toward them, we are not slow to answer that hey do not apply to us.
If any Anglican divine or Catholic priest, let alone a pope, preached words like that today, would not they be denounced as frightful reactionaries by liberals? Yet this is what Newman believed, drawing his strength from the Gospel, and he never shrank from saying so.
Progressives who claim Newman for themselves have not listened to his own words honestly: For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion, he declared upon receiving his Cardinals hat. Never did Holy Church need champions against it more sorely than now, when, alas! it is an error overspreading, as a snare, the whole earth.
As for his loyalty to the papacy, after becoming a Catholic, there are mountains of quotations one could pile upon the Cornwells of this world, none better than this from a sermon Newman preached as Rector of the Catholic University of Dublin:
Deeply do I feel, ever will I protest, for I can appeal to the ample testimony of history to bear me out, that, in questions of right and wrong, there is nothing really strong in the whole world, nothing decisive and operative, but the voice of him, to whom have been committed the keys of the kingdom and the oversight of Christs flock. The voice of Peter is now, as it ever has been, a real authority, infallible when it teaches, prosperous when it commands, ever taking the lead wisely and distinctly in its own province, adding certainty to what is probable, and persuasion to what is certain. Before it speaks, the most saintly may mistake; and after it has spoken, the most gifted must obey.
This is the real John Henry Newman, the faithful priest and theologian, not the liberal imposter too often imagined; this is the man whose intellect and witness remains a lantern to the world, and who we are now privileged to call— thanks to Pope BenedictBlessed.