ROME – England’s first modern saint, Cardinal John Henry Newman, was a prolific author and theologian, and a notoriously complex thinker not easily reduced to ideological categories. Yet in the 21st century, that certainly isn’t stopping Catholic Twitter from trying, with both liberals and conservatives trying to claim Newman as their own in battles over Pope Francis.
Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, who’s called for the pope’s resignation over claims of a cover-up of abuse charges against Theodore McCarrick, and who now says he’s had to go into hiding in fear for his life, has quoted Newman to justify his criticisms of the pope.
“If I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, I shall drink — to the pope, if you please — still, to Conscience first, and to the pope afterwards,” Newman once famously said.
However, Father Ignatius Harrison, the Provost of the Birmingham Oratory, founded by Newman, and the postulator of his sainthood cause, believes that this instrumentalization is not “fair to Newman.”
According to the priest, who was in Rome for Newman’s canonization Sunday, when the saint offered that toast, he “made it clear that he didn’t see the teachings of the Church and of our conscience in conflict with each other. And he himself expressed his unshakable belief in the infallibility of the pope.”
“Loyalty to the Church was central to his spiritual life,” the provost said. “I think that was one of the reasons why he grew dissatisfied with the Church of England and increasingly felt drawn to the Catholic Church: it was a question of ecclesiastical authority.”
In Newman’s thought, Harrison told a small group of journalists on Friday, including Crux, “what’s right and what’s wrong is not something that can be decided by a vote.”
“Doctrine by democracy,” he said, is something Newman wouldn’t understand. But he did see the importance of councils, and today he would understand a concept of collegiality, assuming it’s “based on the primacy of faith being shared by all.”
The Church’s teachings, Harrison said, explaining the late cardinal’s thoughts, are not decided by the will of the majority.
“Collegiality is the work of the spirit based on the faith of each individual,” he said. “But the faith of each individual must be in harmony and coherent.”
Asked about Newman’s thoughts on an ongoing debate regarding the ordination of married men for the priesthood, which is one of the many things being considered during the Oct. 6-27 Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, Harrison said he didn’t think the cardinal would “understand the reasons.”
“For Newman himself, the 100 percent commitment to serving Christ was the essence of the priesthood … he didn’t understand how that would be compatible with having a family,” Harrison said. For Newman, he said, this was simple practicality: “A married man is above all concerned for this family, quite rightly, while the non-married man can dedicate himself completely to the Lord.”
In the case of Newman, Harrison, said there was also a “strong spiritual component to his commitment to chastity,” which wasn’t about things one cannot do, but “part of his devotion to Christ.”
“This is something we need to remember today,” he said, adding that there’s a “deep connection between chastity and celibacy for the clergy and their relationship with Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.”
Harrison also told reporters that despite the fact Newman has been “in the background” for the past 130 years, the time has now come for his theological influence to revive.
Particularly, he pointed to three things: his teaching on conscience, which, though “nothing new,” emphasizes that conscience is a part of a person’s spiritual life and “not a black-and-white decision.” Second, Harrison believes Newman’s teachings on the role of the laity are key, as he was convinced that there was a need for an “articulated and well-informed laity.” The saint included lay people in the faculty of the university he founded in Ireland, which at the time was perceived as “dangerous.”
The third element of his theology that’s important today, according to Harrison, is the “true development of Christian doctrine.”
“If he were alive in the Church now, I don’t think that it would be possible to label him either as a traditionalist or a liberal, but I think that he would insist on the coherence of whatever is being taught nowadays with the Church’s living tradition,” Harrison said.
Jack Valero, spokesman of Newman’s canonization cause and the co-founder of Catholic Voices, agrees.
“Newman has something to say to people who consider themselves very conservative, people who consider themselves very progressive. He has something to say to all these people. He brings them close to God and close to each other,” he told reporters Oct. 11.
“To me that’s a gift in this time of polarization of the Church,” Valero said.
Asked about a hypothetical relationship with Pope Francis, the provost said that the Argentine would have made Newman a cardinal too, and he would have recognized the prelate’s “subtle and flexible mind.”
“The Holy Father has often used the word ‘rigidity’,” Harrison said. “And I think he means that it’s dangerous for hearts and minds to freeze and to fix in hard positions. We could never accuse Newman of that. He was open to where the light of the Holy Spirit led him, and he was willing to be led step by step.”
In 2011, Melissa Villalobos’s husband had taken two holy cards of Newman to their home in Chicago, and she would often say little prayers to him when she passed them, one in the master bedroom and one in the family room.
In 2013, Villalobos started bleeding during the first trimester of a pregnancy. At the time she had four children – aged 6, 5, 3 and 1 – and a previous pregnancy had ended in miscarriage. An ultrasound showed the placenta had become partially detached from the uterine wall. She had also developed a blood clot in the fetal membrane two-and-a-half times the size of her baby.
A few days later, she went back to the emergency room because the bleeding had worsened. The doctor put her on strict bed rest, which she couldn’t fully observe with four small children and a working husband. Miscarriage was deemed likely, and if the baby survived, she would be premature.
A few days later she woke up in a pool of blood while her husband was aboard an airplane for a mandatory business trip. She collapsed on the bathroom floor, with no phone nearby to call 911. She hoped her children would find her, but when they didn’t, she prayed to Newman: “Please, Cardinal Newman, make the bleeding stop!”
It did indeed stop, and Villalobos says she was overcome by the strongest scent of roses she ever smelled in her life. Gemma, her daughter, was born Dec. 27, 2013, weighing 8 pounds 8 ounces, with no medical problems.
“Randomly, she sometimes shouts ‘we’ve been healed’!” Villalobos told Crux Oct. 11. Together with her husband and her seven children, she’s in Rome to take part in the canonization. It was her healing that provided the second miracle required for sainthood.
Villalobos thought of Newman during her time of need because he was “such a loving person,” she said. Beyond being a brilliant theologian and a colossal genus, she said, he also loved regular people.
She was particularly inspired by his article, “On the fitness and glories of Mary,” in which he described the mother of God as a loving, nursing mother.
“Here he is, this Oxford scholar, but he sees the tenderness of a mother as extremely important,” she said. “And as a mother, I felt that he could understand what I go through and the difficulties that I face and be very helpful and loving to me. And he has.”
Speaking about miracles and the people who don’t believe in them, Villalobos said that she’s living proof.
“If people believe in the resurrection and the assumption, that miracles have happened say, 2,000 or more years ago, why would you say God suddenly stopped? … He certainly didn’t become less capable or less loving.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma
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