Beginning in the 1950s and 60s, sociologists more or less uniformly accepted what was known as the “secularization thesis,” which held that as societies become more modern, they inevitably become less religious.
As Peter Berger, perhaps the discipline’s most famous convert from the secularization thesis, has pointed out, five decades later it’s clear his colleagues were right only about Western and Central Europe — and even there, people of faith remain a stubborn “creative minority,” to use the phrase of Pope Benedict XVI, who just refuse to disappear.
There are many reasons why religion continues to thrive, but high on the list has been the capacity of a handful of influential religious thinkers to make their ancient traditions relevant to the contemporary situation — to put those traditions in creative conversation with the questions asked by modern women and men.
In that universe, few Catholic figures have packed a stronger punch over the past century than Cardinal John Henry Newman, the 19th-century British convert from Anglicanism whose carefully reasoned journey to Catholicism continues to inspire and provoke.
One might describe Newman as Catholicism’s “patron saint of relevance,” in that one can agree or disagree with his conclusions, but it’s impossible to dismiss them as the relic of a medieval mind.
Anyone who reads Newman today, and scores still do, immediately recognizes a very modern voice. It’s no accident that one of his best-known works is called precisely Tracts for the Times.
All this comes to mind in light of a story, first reported by the UK-based Tablet, that Newman may be poised for canonization after the Archdiocese of Chicago investigated a miracle attributed to his intercession involving a woman with a life-threatening pregnancy, and passed the results to the Vatican.
If approved, the miracle would clear the way for Pope Francis to declare him a saint.
(Interestingly, the miracle that allowed Newman to be beatified in 2010 also came from the United States, involving the healing of a deacon in Boston with severe chronic spinal problems. In a sense, then, one could say that Brits will have the Yanks to thank if Newman does, indeed, become the first English saint since 1970.)
Newman’s classic writings, including “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” and “Grammar of Assent,” are still unsurpassed as models of Catholic apologetics in the English language, meaning a reasoned defense of the faith. Among other things, it’s a reminder that when Catholics talk about a “New Evangelization,” they could do a lot worse — and, alas, sometimes have — than going back to Newman’s model.
One outfit clearly inspired by Newman is “Catholic Voices,” a project launched for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United Kingdom in 2010, when Newman’s beatification was the last act on the pontiff’s schedule.
Catholic Voices was so successful that it’s gone on to become a global brand, one of the most sought-after and effective programs for Church communicators today.
The idea was to give bright, articulate young Catholics, mostly lay women and men, a crash course in both media literacy and the hot-button issues about the Church, such as women’s rights, gay marriage, and abortion and contraception, and then to make them available for print and broadcast interviews.
In effect, those young Catholics became the soundtrack of Benedict’s trip. They were ubiquitous in the British media, counteracting impressions that Catholicism is on death’s door.
I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating in connection with the spirit of John Henry Newman in the run-up to what may prove to be his imminent canonization.
Because the European clergy sex abuse crisis had exploded in 2009 and 2010, there was a great deal of media interest in Benedict’s trip. Although generally hailed as success, the outing also generated the largest anti-papal uprising in recent memory, as an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 secularists and atheists, gay rights activists, victims of sexual abuse, and others marched through London for a “Protest the Pope!” rally.
I was doing work for CNN during the trip, and thus it was that on Sunday, Sept. 19, the final day, I didn’t accompany the pope to Birmingham for Newman’s beatification. Instead, I remained behind in London to offer color commentary from their studio.
As non-Catholic networks generally do, CNN didn’t carry the entire Mass live, but cut out immediately after Benedict’s homily. I and the crew then went to a nearby pub to celebrate a successful broadcast … though, to be honest, journalists don’t really require a reason to go to a pub.
Because it was a Sunday, there were a number of rowdy English soccer fans on hand waiting to watch that day’s matches. When we first arrived, TVs in the bar were still carrying the final images of the pope’s Mass, and no matter which English network they had on, there were Catholic Voices commentators.
I settled in at the bar next to a couple of guys with thick cockney accents who, having nothing better to do, found themselves listening to the TV, where a young Catholic woman was describing what faith meant to her in daily life. She came off as rational, funny, and, well, just completely normal and sane.
One of the cockney guys said to the other: “Oi! I guess them Catholics ain’t so bleedin’ crazy after all!”
That, in a nutshell, was the legacy of John Henry Newman in action.
Listening to Newman or his 21st-century disciples discuss the faith, one may be persuaded or not, but no one could style the message as irrelevant or anachronistic. Its serene rationality, coupled with its clear relevance to the contemporary world, compels people to engage it rather than to ignore it.
Someday soon, if the Chicago miracle report survives Vatican scrutiny, that legacy may be affixed with a saint’s halo.