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Pope Benedict trip: Why move John Henry Newman toward sainthood?

Pope Benedict XVI plans on Sunday during his state visit to Britain to beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman, who converted to Catholicism from Anglicanism.

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The respected National Catholic Reporter columnist John Allen pointed out to CNN today that the pope needs to be concerned it not appear to be “poaching” Anglicans while on this trip.

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But regarding the beatification of Newman, British Catholics are thrilled.

“He’s a heroic figure, an Anglican star who became Catholic, showing we can be both very British and very Catholic,” says a Benedictine theologian.

To some theologians, his beatification involves a “reinterpretation” of Newman – harmonizing his thinking to suit a church and a pope turning in a far more orthodox direction than Newman would have countenanced.

In a Financial Times article, “The papal hijacking of Cardinal Newman,” Newman biographer John Cornwell writes that Newman’s advocacy of free and open inquiry and his dissenting spirit would put him at strong odds with the pope, whose 28 year tenure at the Vatican has been marked by ever more conservative and orthodox views.

Mr. Cornwall writes: “Why had Benedict, a rigid conservative, seen fit to hasten the beatification of a man who has an iconic stature for liberal Catholic intellectuals throughout the English-speaking world? All becomes clear with Benedict’s revision of John Henry Newman’s legacy. Pope Benedict and Catholic officialdom are presenting Newman as an exemplar of unquestioning papal allegiance. ... Addressing the bishops of England and Wales in Rome this February, he declared that Newman was an example to the world of opposition to ‘dissent’. It was like saying that Churchill had been a Trotskyite all along.”

Several Catholic writers who say that Newman’s views are less liberal than Cornwall suggests have attacked Cornwall’s article.

Gabriel Fackre, emeritus professor at the Andover-Newton Theological Academy in Boston, and well-known in the ecumenical community, argues “the heart of ecumenism [or interfaith work] is when each tradition brings its own gifts to the other.”

Newman, Mr. Fackre argues, was known for the idea that theological ideas have a “trajectory” in which “you don’t abandon the teachings but let them flower – the ordination of women might be an example. It is a very supple concept of doctrine that is a long way from Benedict, who seems to rigidify doctrine.”

The pope, however, is showing a willingness to change and adapt in the Newman case, analysts point out. By tradition popes do not beatify individuals. Popes by rule only “canonize” – the next step after beatification, in a long process toward sainthood. But in Newman’s case, which has been sped up, Benedict is making an exception.