While considerable media attention in this country has, understandably, been given to the canonisation in October of Australian nun Mary MacKillop, the Catholic Church is also engaged this year in the process of conferring sainthood on another 19th century figure who is better known in the wider secular world and more controversial within Catholicism itself.
The four-day papal tour to England and Scotland, due to commence on September 16, has a specific purpose. An important item on the Pope’s UK itinerary is a solemn mass on September 19 in Birmingham when the Pope is due to beatify John Henry Newman as part of the process of canonisation. That process began as long ago as 1958, and in 1991 it led to Newman being declared “Venerable” by Pope John Paul II.
Newman’s beatification is based on Vatican recognition as a miracle the healing of Jack Sullivan, a 71-year-old American severely disabled by a spinal condition, as the result of praying to Newman. A second miracle is required for sainthood.
Few candidates for sainthood can have been as heavily involved in public affairs as Newman, who during his long life was a pamphleteer, university founder, novelist, essayist, satirist, memoirist and poet. Newman was once sued for criminal libel and lost, though this verdict was widely viewed as the result of a prejudiced jury.
Even fewer potential saints are mature-aged converts. Newman, who was born in England in 1801 and died in 1890, did not become a Catholic until he was in his mid 40s, and for a long time afterwards was regarded by some in the Church hierarchy with suspicion and was even accused of heresy. Even so, Newman was sufficiently respected as a churchman to be made Cardinal in 1879 by Pope Leo XIII.
“To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often”, Newman once wrote. Part of the difficulty of any religious (or, for that matter, political) conversion is having the change accepted by those whose beliefs the convert has rejected and also by those whose beliefs have been newly embraced.
Before Newman was received into the Catholic Church, he was an Anglican vicar whose first published work, produced at the age of 17, was an anti-Catholic verse romance, St Bartholomew’s Eve, which he co-wrote with a fellow Oxford undergraduate.
In subsequent decades Newman’s religious views developed until he became convinced that the central Christian truth lay in Catholicism. Newman was a traditionalist who also believed in flexibility. “Growth”, Newman famously said, “is the only evidence of life”.
In one of his essays on Christian doctrine, Newman described how continuity can be achieved, in part at least, through discontinuity. The philosopher Anthony O’Hear comments that in this essay, “Newman shows that the success of a tradition is related to its ability to assimilate new data, while conserving its past principles and achievements, and also its ability to develop complex sequences of thought and practice while anticipating future development”.
Newman’s belief in the development, as opposed to corruption, of ideas that takes place within a dynamic tradition put him at odds with those in the Church hierarchy hostile to the notion of change. Newman also caused ructions by promoting the involvement of the laity in church affairs.
Though he believed in the infallibility of the Church, Newman was less enthusiastic about the moves being made in his time to define papal infallibility. The best-selling pamphlet Letter to the Duke of Norfolk contains the oft-quoted line in which Newman raises a toast to “the pope if you please - still to conscience first, and to the pope afterwards”.
According to his biographer Ian Ker, Newman “urged a balanced theology of authority and freedom, in which interaction, even conflict, of the magisterium and the theologians was depicted as creative and necessary for the life of the church”.