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.

Catholic Church/AP
Pope Benedict XVI intends to beatify 19th Century Anglican convert Cardinal John Henry Newman, shown here in this undated portrait, in a move that could unleash new tensions among churches already divided over issues like the ordination of women and gay bishops.

The state visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain has placed him with the queen, prime minister, and given him a prized platform to argue for a deeper religious meaning in an overtly secular land.

Yet the culmination and purpose of Pope Benedict's trip is Sunday when he will beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman in a huge celebration in Birmingham, England.

Cardinal Newman, a 19th century writer and theologian, is a convert from the Anglican Church who made being British and being Catholic acceptable, scholars say. He was made a cardinal at the age of 80.

His “doctrine of development” argued that theological ideas evolve into new manifestations. Newman retained skepticism of papal infallibility, famously saying, “Drink to the Pope, if you please, still, to conscience first.”

The pope's trip to beatify a star convert to Catholicism comes at a sensitive time for British Anglicans. The church is bitterly divided over gay marriage, female priests, and religious authority. Traditionalist Anglicans, such the writer GP Taylor, have converted to Catholicism, and the Anglican bishops of Rochester and Chichester have threatened to leave.

Last fall the pope shocked the Anglican establishment by announcing that large chunks of their “disillusioned” faithful could convert to the Roman Catholic Church; clergy could stay married.

The sudden offer, made after Vatican meetings with Anglicans behind the back of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, was described by Oxford church historian Diarmaid MacCulloch as destroying decades of careful ecumenical work.

“As in various other controversial personal initiatives of his pontificate, to do with Muslims or condoms in Africa, the pope has jumped into a delicate situation regardless of consultation with those in the Vatican who have charge of such matters,” Mr. MacCulloch wrote in the Guardian.

Archbishop Williams told Vatican radio after a meeting with the pope that he didn’t think the Vatican was conducting a “dawn raid” on the Anglican communion but said he wished he had been consulted prior to the announcement.

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.

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.

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