September 19th, 2010
02:44 PM ET
CNN Senior Vatican Analyst John L. Allen Jr. filed this report from London.
When Benedict XVI was elected to the papacy more than five years ago, there were a number of quiet changes signaling that the new pope would be a less dominating personality than his charismatic predecessor, John Paul II. Chief among them was that the pope would no longer celebrate beatification ceremonies, marking the penultimate step before sainthood.
Instead, Benedict decreed, beatifications would be celebrated outside Rome, to indicate that the person being beatified belongs to their local church.
As the saying goes, however, “it’s good to be king.” Benedict today broke his own rule by personally celebrating his first beatification in Birmingham, England, for the 19th century English theologian and controversialist Cardinal John Henry Newman.
The fact that Benedict was willing to step outside his own skin indicates just how important Newman is to the pope, who as a young German theologian studied Newman’s works carefully.
It also, perhaps, offers some insight into the politics of sainthood, because Newman’s legacy remains a hotly debated topic in Catholic circles, and some believe the pope is deliberately trying to distort it.
Newman’s life covered virtually the entire 19th century; he was born in 1801 and died in 1890. An Anglican convert to Catholicism in 1845, Newman remains a widely influential figure because of his vast writings, including two landmarks books: Apologia Pro Vita Sua and The Grammar of Assent.
Theologically, Newman is often seen as a hero to more liberal Catholics because of his emphasis on the development of doctrine, suggesting that church teaching can change, and on conscience, suggesting that individual Catholics may occasionally be compelled to challenge official formula.
That liberals remain an important constituency within the Catholic fold was driven home today by a poll published in Britain’s Sunday Independent, which showed that solid majorities of Catholics in the U.K. disagree with the pope on a wide range of issues, including abortion after rape and contraception.
The bold headline: “You’re Wrong, Catholics tell Pope.”
Some liberals have complained that Benedict is trying to “tame” Newman by spinning away a liberal icon.
British Catholic writer John Cornwall, whose earlier claim to fame is as the author of Hitler’s Pope, suggested in a Sept. 10 piece in the Financial Times that Newman has been “pontifically hijacked,” meaning co-opted by Benedict to suppress dissent rather than to encourage it.
Oxford church history professor Diarmuid MacCulloch, an Anglican, called this a "political beatification" by Benedict, playing down Newman's opposition to "papal monarchy" and his role as a pioneer of the liberal reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), including recognizing church/state separation, outreach to other Christian churches and other religions, and a greater role for the laity.
This morning in Birmingham, where Newman spent much of his life teaching and caring for the poor, Benedict praised him as an apostle of “the vital place of revealed religion in civilized society.”
The pope particularly praised Newman’s passion for education, offering a classic Newman quote: “I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it.”
That seems to be the Newman that the pope wants to hold up as a role model for Catholics of today.
If nothing else, this debate over a 19th century cardinal confirms that William Faulkner could well have been thinking of the Catholic Church when he wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
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