Most Americans may not have noticed the ascent of John Henry Cardinal Newman up the exacting heights of the blessed and toward the officially saintly, a progress that will bring Pope Benedict XVI to England this month. There have been juvenile indiscretions by waggish factota in the Foreign Office, and an uproar from the gay community that Newman should not have been disinterred from the grave he shared with a fellow Oratorian (there is not the slightest evidence that Newman was homosexual in orientation, much less in practice). Yet the pope’s visit to Britain and the cardinal’s beatification, the last stop before canonization (sainthood), approach inexorably.
The canonization process is rigorous and laborious, and far from the hocus-pocus pop-chart rise the Church’s enemies — the sort of people who responded to the late clerical-abuse scandal by urging the Roman Catholic Church to ”rebrand itself” — imply. It will make him the first Englishman since the 17th century to be recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as a saint; pretty thin canonical gruel for a country whose Roman Catholics still whisper hopefully about England as “the dowry of Mary.”
This occasion underlines that Newman must rank among the very greatest Englishmen of any time or faith. Newman’s distinction as a man, intellect, writer, and philosopher would be no less if there were no thought of his possession of saintly and miraculous powers. It rests on his moral and intellectual courage, his genius and worldwide influence as a writer, educator, and theological philosopher, and his personification of many of the most admired characteristics of the English people, as both they and the world perceive them. In his years in the Church of England, Newman did his best to justify its claim to be part of the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church,” and conceived (with Keble, Froude, and other Tractarians) the Via Media, which understood the Church of England as a halfway house between Rome and popular Protestantism, between what Protestants traditionally regard as Rome’s exaggerated claim to authority and the Nonconformist view of spontaneous religiosity.
When attacked by the Anglican bishops for his popish tendencies in Tract 90, Newman agreed to refrain from further controversial tracts. The bishops did not, however, though they had undertaken to do so, refrain from attacking him. At the age of 40, he was effectively cast out, and violently attacked throughout Protestant Britain as a papist agent. He became a Roman Catholic in 1845 at the age of 44, but was at first mistrusted in much of the Roman world as an exotic and tempestuous itinerant, from a country that was apostate and whose Roman Catholic community had endured 300 years of fluctuating but almost unbroken discrimination.
Having, while still in the Church of England, decried its tendency to seek “the channel of no meaning, between the Scylla and Charybdis of yes and no,” foreseeing its long struggle to determine whether it was Catholic or Protestant, which still continues, Newman found himself a party almost of one, isolated and despised. “Blessings of friendship to my door, unasked, unhoped, came. They came and they went. They came to my great joy. They went to my great sorrow. He who gave took away,” he wrote. He went from the pulpit at St Mary’s, Oxford, and the high table at Oriel College, to the Spartan obscurity of Littlemore, and then, after a sojourn in Rome, to the seclusion of Edgbaston in Birmingham and the establishment of the Oratorians in England. “I have not seen Oxford since, excepting the spires as they are seen from the railway,” he wrote nearly 20 years later, in 1864. (He did happily return 14 years after that, and became the first honorary fellow of Trinity.)