September 19th, 2010
02:44 PM ET

Dispatch from pope's UK trip: Benedict's beatification controversy

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.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • Europe • Pope Benedict XVI • United Kingdom

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soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. tbubb1

    Oye. It's DairmAid MacCulloch, not DairmUid. And he's also not an Anglican. He's a "friend" of Christianity. Super cool guy. Bad blogger/reporter.

    September 20, 2010 at 11:15 am |
  2. Reality

    The call to common sense and history: (for new members only)

    Mohammed was an illiterate, womanizing, lust and greed-driven, warmongering, hallucinating Arab, who also had embellishing/hallucinating/plagiarizing scribal biographers who not only added "angels" and flying chariots to the koran but also a militaristic agenda to support the plundering and looting of the lands of non-believers.

    This agenda continues as shown by the massacre in Mumbai, the assassinations of Bhutto and Theo Van Gogh, the conduct of the seven Muslim doctors in the UK, the 9/11 terrorists, the 24/7 Sunni suicide/roadside/market/mosque bombers, the 24/7 Shiite suicide/roadside/market/mosque bombers, the Islamic bombers of the trains in the UK and Spain, the Bali crazies, the Kenya crazies, the Pakistani “koranics”, the Palestine suicide bombers/rocketeers, the Lebanese nutcases, the Taliban nut jobs, the Ft. Hood follower of the koran, and the Filipino “koranics”.

    And who funds this muck and stench of terror? The warmongering, Islamic, Shiite terror and torture theocracy of Iran aka the Third Axis of Evil and also the Sunni "Wannabees" of Saudi Arabia.

    Current crises:

    The Sunni-Shiite blood feud and the warmongering, womanizing (11 wives), hallucinating founder.

    September 20, 2010 at 10:58 am |
  3. Iqbal khan

    Muslims call for prayer, How others call for prayer?

    September 20, 2010 at 12:29 am |
  4. benedict

    How come Muhammad is the only non Jew in the line of all Jewish Prophets?

    September 19, 2010 at 11:53 pm |
    • Iqbal khan

      Want to know more check

      September 20, 2010 at 12:27 am |
  5. Iqbal khan


    September 19, 2010 at 10:49 pm |
  6. Iqbal khan


    September 19, 2010 at 9:55 pm |
    • benedict

      Not so impressive dude!! Try harder next time....

      September 19, 2010 at 11:48 pm |
  7. Iqbal khan

    Thats how muslims call for prayer what about other religeons


    September 19, 2010 at 7:57 pm |
    • benedict

      That is so weird and depressing!! I prefer praying in private and not making it a big deal.

      September 19, 2010 at 11:50 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.