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Ireland has produced many saints, and John Henry Newman is the latest. Newman was not Irish, of course, but his canonization is as much an Irish as an English event, an opportunity to reflect on the state of Catholicism in a country where he intermittently spent several years between 1851 and 1858.

Newman’s time in Dublin was unhappy and has been generally reckoned a failure. He was rector of a university that divided the Irish bishops, he thought naively that Oxford could be recreated on St. Stephen’s Green, and he fell out with his patron, Archbishop Paul Cullen. Yet he wrote that his “dear friend” Charles Russell of Maynooth had “more to do” with his conversion “than anyone else.” His university eventually flourished in other hands. He built what is still one of the loveliest churches in Dublin, and his most mature account of higher education, The Idea of a University, was delivered as a series of lectures in the Irish capital. Newman left a mark on Ireland, and Ireland on him.

Newman arrived in Ireland in the middle of one devotional revolution and is being canonized in the middle of another. In 1851, Ireland was rediscovering its Catholic faith. Now, it seems to be losing it. In 1851, the institutional foundations were being laid (Newman’s university among them) for a century and a half of evangelical triumph: churches built, parishes formed, schools opened, seminaries packed, priests ordained, missionaries dispatched, hospitals established, nuns veiled, and rulers at the ready.

Today, those foundations are being dismantled one by one. One seminary remains open to train a trickle of students: The rest have closed. Convents lie empty like ghost ships on a receding sea. Schools preach secular values. The constitution (enacted in 1937 “in the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred”) now permits same-sex marriage and abortion. A Church once central to Irish life seems at best peripheral. Newman’s second spring has turned to winter.

Perhaps St. John Henry Newman would have been less surprised by this than we might think. He knew the volatility of moral atmospheres and the fickleness of the human heart. He also knew that the educated pride themselves on their intellectual currency, on being “woke.” The abandonment of the Church by the Irish chattering classes has all the appearance of fashion, a Dublin 4 orthodoxy enforced by RTÉ, The Irish Times, and the rest of the opinion-forming elite.

Newman also knew the dangerous allure of public esteem. He deplored those who “can give no better guarantee for the philosophical truth of their principles than their popularity at the moment.” As one who left his Anglican world behind, who parted with friends, who chose exile over preferment, he can hardly be accused of that. On the contrary, he never took the easy path and often found the hard one. Newman had a “rigid consistency of mind”—Chesterton’s phrase—that allowed little room for compromise or even, at times, personal feeling. Yet that was the secret of his greatness. He used reason, Chesterton thought, but it would be more accurate to say that he allowed reason to use him. It led him to lonely places, but it brought him to the truth. 

Newman’s resistance to easy applause has lessons for the Irish Church. The first is the need for courage. Looking back on the revolution of the last generation, even progressive Catholics have been startled by the speed with which Church leaders embraced the zeitgeist that threatened to sweep them away. Writing in the 1980s, Desmond Fennell, a man of the left, satirized what lay beyond satire:

The Catholic Church collaborated in every way it could [with the spirit of the 1960s]. In sympathy with the switch from abstemiousness to consumerism, it ended the Friday abstinence, the Lenten fast, and the night-long fast before Communion. Its teaching of Christian sexual morality evaporated; or at least by the end of the seventies, few people believed their children were being taught that it was sinful to have sexual intercourse outside marriage. . . . In the Republic [of Ireland] it was often difficult to distinguish between a religious talk on radio and the patter of a nice, compassionate disk jockey.

Offered a choice between a trendy Church and the trends, many Irish people chose the trends.

This is not to say that the Church must stand apart from the society it serves. It was precisely because it was able to speak to the Ireland of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that the Catholic Church enjoyed the authority that it did. A people stunned by famine, emigration, population loss, rural dislocation, demographic imbalance, and political and social unrest found in it a voice, a protector, and a friend. The coming together of nation and Church resulted in one of the most extraordinary periods in the history of global Catholicism, a century and a half when Ireland created a spiritual empire to rival the political empire—Britain’s—that many people in Ireland sought to overturn.

It takes wisdom to read the signs of the times and to be, simultaneously, a sign of contradiction. A culture will not be converted by a sneer any more than by a syllogism. The peculiar achievement of Irish Catholicism has been precisely its rootedness in the soil, its closeness to the flock, its capacity to transform the mundane into the magnificent. The good news is that the Church in Ireland continues to do its work day after day, comforting, healing, forgiving. Its current leader, Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, is a man of brilliant intellectual and spiritual gifts. Half a million people braved wind, rain, and warnings of sore feet to welcome Pope Francis last August. Vocations seem modestly on the rise. There is a difficult story to tell, but a good one, too.

Nor is despair the answer. What Ireland needs is a devotional revolution resembling, at least in spirit, that first extraordinary moment a century and a half ago when a faith was rediscovered and renewed. For that to happen, it will need priests and people to work together. It will need “a wisdom safe from the excesses and vagaries of individuals, embodied in institutions which have stood the trial and have received the sanction of ages.” It will need Catholic men and women “who have no need to be anonymous, as being supported by their consistency with their predecessors and with each other.” And it will need the inspiration of the saint who penned those words in Dublin in 1852—John Henry Newman.

Dermot Quinn is an associate professor of history at Seton Hall University. 

Photo by Robert Linsdell via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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