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Newman still commands our attention

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Cardinal John Henry Newman (CNS/Crosiers)

Cardinal John Henry Newman will be beatified at a Mass Sept. 19 presided over by Pope Benedict XVI. It will be the first time Benedict has presided over a beatification ceremony, indicating the great reverence in which Newman is held.

Newman, however, commands more than reverence. More than 100 years after his death, he still commands attention. Why? In part, Newman still fascinates because he was the outstanding English prose stylist of his day. In part, we are still in awe at the powerful spirituality of his sermons. In part, Newman’s conversion, which he recounted in Apologia pro Vita Sua, is still a compelling account of an intellectual’s wrestling with a faith that transcended his intellect.

The main reason, however, that Newman still commands attention is that he has rightly been called the “father of Vatican II.” This designation stems from three contributions he made to Catholic thought, contributions that continue to chart the way forward for our 21st-century church.

First, Newman’s method would characterize the ressourcement theology that shaped every document of the council. In the Apologia, in order to cope with his own challenge, Newman returned to the writings of those early Christian writers who had theologized not about the use of condoms but about the divinity of Christ. He discovered that his status as an Anglican was too close to that of the Novationist heretics for comfort, and he swam the Tiber. His followers in the 20th century discovered something else: that the writings of the early church fathers contained a richness of theological metaphor and a wonder at the stupendous claims contained in the Nicene Creed that had been lost in the years, and the minutiae, that characterized certain aspects of scholasticism before the Second Vatican Council.

Second, Newman’s “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine” provided the theological justification for the council’s work. As Pope John XXIII said in his opening remarks, “The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.” John XXIII understood that the church had been weighed down in her effort to proclaim the Gospel by manners of speech and patterns of thought that had ossified and were unrecognizable to the women and men of his time. Newman pointed a way forward.

Third, Newman, like John XXIII, was devoid of nostalgia. Newman’s writings never speak of a golden age that never was, but faced the challenges of his day head-on, with confidence and vigor, and with the glowing conviction that in the central dogmas of the faith, the enigmas of human existence found their resolution. This was no shallow optimism. It was a profound commitment to the central Christian claim that, whatever the achievements of science discovered about the physical nature of the universe, at the heart of reality was a loving God who had revealed himself in Jesus Christ.

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John Allen will be filing reports throughout the Papal visit to the U.K. Sept. 16-19. Stay tuned to NCR Today for updates.

Stories in this series on the papal visit to Scotland and England:

All this week in his Distinctly Catholic blog, Michael Sean Winters is interviewing a variety of Newman scholars:

Related items in Distinctly Catholic:


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