2cornucopias

Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman: Why he is important today by Fr. John McCloskey

In 11 The Constant Church on 2013/06/09 at 12:00 AM

Newman is important today for so many reasons. It would take a very long article to number and develop them all. However, I would say that Newman’s revolutionary emphasis on the role of the layperson in the Church is his most important contribution. He abhorred clericalism and insisted on the need of a well-educated and active lay faithful, insisting that holiness and evangelization are the goals of all in the Church, and not power plays for dominance or redefining Church teaching. He was quoted in the preliminary documents in the preparation for the Second Vatican Council more than any other theologian. How did he come to these history-making insights?

Newman was a profoundly religious man by temperament. This much is quite clear from his autobiographical account. However, he did not come from a long line of clergymen, as did a goodly number of his contemporaries in the Oxford movement. During his university years he clearly felt a call to the clerical life and indeed even to celibacy, which was not all that common at that time. Yet in many other ways he was a man of the world. He drank deeply of the classics and history during his undergraduate years, formed many deep friendships, and had a keen interest in the world of music, literature, and politics. He chose the wine for his college. He played the violin, a hobby to which he returned in later life. He exercised vigorously with frighteningly long walks, enjoyed the fresh air of the sea by sailing (his close friend Hurrell Froude was to die of a chill caught as a result of one of those excursions). He was a poet, a novelist, a Latinist of the highest order. (Vatican curial officials were astonished at the level of his classical Latin in their correspondence with him. He was able to express in a paragraph what took them a page!) And he was arguably the greatest master of English prose style. All of this simply serves to emphasize that while Newman was eminently religious, he was not at all monastic.

His choice of the Birmingham Oratory as the best setting for himself and his followers to live their priesthood was predicated in part on the idea that the life of the Oratory was most suited for men from university backgrounds who chose to live their dedication more clearly in the world. Any follower of St. Philip Neri, the great Roman saint of the Baroque and the Catholic reformation, would clearly have a deep appreciation for the secular. In short, Newman was in the world, but not of it. As such, his views on the role of the laity were not simply theoretical, but based on experience and observation.

For Newman, the enemy was the world, the flesh, and the devil in its classical formulation. Certainly he waged a life-long struggle against liberalism in its religious sense, which he defined simply as religious indifferentism. Indeed he tells us at the end of his life, upon receiving the Cardinal’s hat:

And I rejoice to say; to one great mischief I have from the first opposed myself. For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion. Never did holy Church need champions against it more sorely than now, when, alas! It is an error over spreading, as a snare, the whole earth. Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another…it is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion as true… revealed religion is not a truth but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous, and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.

Newman’s call for a devout, educated Catholic laity was not set in a vacuum. He realized, in a truly prophetic way, the absolute necessity of holy lay people in the world–not only as a good in itself, but also in order not to let the world fall completely under the sway of liberalism. How at home he would feel waging the battles of the early 21st century as we approach the millennium! After all, he had clearly foreseen them all.

As Russell Shaw, a well known Washingtonian Catholic journalist put it:

Clericalism assumes that clerics not only are but are also meant to be the active, dominate elite in the Church, and laymen the passive, subservient mass. As a result, the laity is discouraged from taking seriously their responsibility for the Church’s mission, and evangelization is neglected. So are efforts to influence the structures of secular society on behalf of the values of the gospel–the evangelization of culture as it is called…Clericalism deepens the confusion about lay and clerical identity…perhaps as the most serious of all, clericalism tends to discourage laymen from cultivating a spirituality that arises above a rather low level of fervor and intensity. As the clerical mentality sees it, the serious pursuit of sanctity is the business of priests and religious. Minimalistic religious practice and legalistic morality are all that are asked of laymen and all many ask of themselves…”

As an example of his defense of the laity, in a notorious incident following the failure of Newman’s attempt to found an Oratory in Oxford as a sort of Catholic chaplaincy for the students, ultramontanists both in Rome and in England attacked Newman. He was supported in an open letter signed by 200 leading British Catholics, including all the Catholic members of Parliament, and nearly all the Catholic peers. This famed cleric was backed by a totally lay group of Catholics, whose defense reflected their appreciation for his teaching.

It was this incident that provoked the attacks of Msgr. George Talbot, an English curial official in Rome and enemy of Newman, to say in an hysterical outburst that “if a check be not placed on the laity of England they will be the rulers of the Catholic Church in England instead of the Holy See and the Episcopate…Laymen are beginning to show the cloven hoof.” Talbot then delivered his most famous lines:

What is the province of the laity? To hunt, to shoot, to entertain? These matters they understand, but to meddle with ecclesiastical matters they have no right at all…Dr. Newman is the most dangerous man in England, and you will see that he will make use of the laity against your Grace.”

Of course, Newman did not see the laity interfering in “ecclesiastical” matters, but certainly his conception of the role of the laity in the Church as well as in the world was on another level from that of Msgr. Talbot (who finished his days sadly in an insane asylum). At an earlier time, as a result of a controversy at The Rambler, Newman confronted his ordinary, Bishop Ullathorne of Birmingham. According to Newman, “[the bishop] said something like ‘Who are the laity?’ I [Newman] answered (not these words) that the Church would look foolish without them.”

Newman was not only a holy man, as now recognized officially by the Church, but also a revolutionary prophet as regards the laity. He looked backward to the primitive Christianity of the early centuries to recover a new paradigm for the 21st.

Would you like to pay him a visit? The Catholic Information Center at 15th and K Street, NW in Washington, DC has the only statue in town.

First appeared in Washington Post in the September 18, 2010 issue.  

©CatholiCity Service http://www.catholicity.com  Re-published with permission.

Videos by Fr. John McCloskey


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