A saint for our times

In the wee hours of yesterday, at Rome, John Henry Newman, who had been elevated from “Cardinal,” to “Blessed,” was further elevated to “Saint.” Gentle reader who is not a Catholic may nevertheless vaguely intuit what is involved. Saints are neither born, nor made, in human terms. By granting this title, Holy Church declares that she has come to recognize a fact, and must acknowledge it from this time forward. By miracles she has, so to say, got the memo from Heaven. There is a bureaucratic process down here on Earth. It will normally take many years to get through the paperwork. Benedict XVI, whose interest in Newman was never casual, began the formal process in 2010. Newman’s “cause” is now completed.

It can be argued that Newman was the greatest theological and philosophical mind since Thomas Aquinas. (He considered himself neither theologian nor philosopher.) As English-speakers, we may notice that he was among our greatest writers of prose, and also, like Thomas Aquinas in Latin, of verse. He was instrumental in reviving Catholicism as a living, thinking force throughout the Anglosphere. But beyond it, he decisively influenced men like Ratzinger — among the most brilliant in Europe and beyond.

Far from revealing or contributing to a breach between ancient and modern, his Development of Christian Doctrine perfectly reconciled them — to that development from acorn to oak, in which we do not find contradictions. In each of Newman’s many other books (I count thirty-four currently on the shelves in the High Doganate), he wrestled with the beast of our “modernity,” which can only embrace “reason” by eschewing depth and faith. Newman’s own conversion extends beyond its moment in time. One might say his whole life was Conversion, implicating that Anglosphere.

For in the dance of history, taking the long view, it may even be the English-speaking turn to lead a return to the faith of our far Catholic ancestors, now that we have exhausted the possibilities of our schismatic spirit.

One might instead observe Newman’s many continuities: that, for instance, through decades when he was for all practical purposes banned from the place, he remained the quintessential Oxford man, the perpetual earnest scholar under her dreaming spires. He was, at his core, citizen of an England not national but timeless.

He was a man who aspired to Truth, and lived it. The man’s courage in exchanging all of his dignity and social standing as a treasured member of the British establishment, for the title of “traitor” and the wayfaring life of a despised Catholic, equivalent to a peasant Irishman, inspired others to take courage. He was creating a path, through his own person — a temporal wormhole, as it were — back to behind the premisses of the Northern Reformation. Yet he was no mere curmudgeon or controversialist. He desired to recover Christianity, whole, for himself and for others. With genius he found what he was seeking, in a renewed understanding of what, with all her newsy, passing flaws, the Church … Is.

In person he was shy, and hated fame and spectacle, and only his high sincerity could move him to play his crucial worldly rôle. I am struck by accounts of his demeanour; by memoirs of his style in delivering Oxford homilies, celebrated later as if they were oratory. He would write them out, carefully, then read them at the pulpit in a monotone, for up to an hour, while fidgeting with his glasses. Their splendour is better appreciated by the leisured reader.

For many years I did not read him, because I was afraid. I “knew,” to use no stronger term, that he threatened my own comfortable life as an Anglican. Simply glancing, through the book mentioned above, had already damaged my complacency. I avoided contact, though leaving several of Newman’s books to torment me in plain sight. I invite others who may not be Catholic to surrender as I eventually did. Read them and stop pretending that they can be bracketed.

To me it has by now long seemed quite obvious that Newman was (and is) a Saint. But I do not like getting ahead of the Church in these matters. As of yesterday, the Church has caught up. Yes, Newman has come home.