John Henry Newman: Saint for scholars?


By Corinne Winter

On Sept. 19, in England, Pope Benedict will beatify John Henry Cardinal Newman. Beatification is an official statement by the Church that a person is recognized, after diligent investigation, to have lived a holy life and is considered a close candidate for canonization — a declaration that s/he is recognized by the Church as a saint. 

Within a few years after Newman’s death in 1890, his name was associated with college and university education as Newman clubs and centers were established at those institutions. The clubs/ centers were named in honor of Newman because of his insistence that religion and intellectual life were not only unopposed but mutually essential. He went so far as to suggest that a university at which theology was not part of the curriculum ought not claim to be a university since knowledge of God must be part of “universal knowledge,” which is what a university ought to provide for students.

Since the announcement of plans for Newman’s beatification, a number of groups have engaged in discussions of his significance for schools, scholars and Catholics in general.  On a number of topics, readers can quote Newman in support of diverse and sometimes seeming opposing positions. Newman’s work has been cited in support of the work of Vatican II that gave new emphasis to the important role of the laity in the church because he did write an essay “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine,” in which he cited the process by which the Assumption of Mary was declared a dogma as an example of the laity’s role in maintaining a sense of the faith. On the other hand, his discussion in that essay is rather complex with regard to any “authority” being accorded to the laity.

He believed strongly in the importance of liberal university education and was appointed by the pope to lead efforts to establish a Catholic University in Dublin (which attempt came to nought), but he also suggested that teaching and the pursuit of new knowledge are such different charisms that they are seldom found in the same person. A teacher ought to concentrate on passing on existing knowledge and leave research to others who are members of the academy.


With regard to theological scholarship, a Catholic contemporary of Newman’s convinced Pope Pius X that Newman’s work supported the pope’s suspicions and condemnations of many scholars. Newman left the Protestant community to join the Roman Catholic Church where near the end of his life he was made a Cardinal in recognition of his contributions. And he deplored the divisions among Christians, encouraging the quest for unity among them.

He accepted papal infallibility (having earlier opposed the move to make it a dogma), and he insisted on its limitations (using among his examples the fact that Pope Paul IV had blessed the Spanish Armada and opposed the accession of Elizabeth I to the English throne). And in a letter to the Duke of Norfolk, he especially cautioned that those who are not authorized to do so ought not impose on others any particular interpretation of a papal pronouncement.

So is Newman a hero for scholars or for those suspicious of scholarship? I suggest that his beatification ought to serve as an encouragement for scholarship in the following way.  Careful reading of his life and work serves among other things as a caution against oversimplifying.  There has been a temptation to do that to saints. St. Therese of Lisieux is sometimes presented only as the modest “Little Flower,” in a way that ignores her desires to do far grander things and the frustrations she sometimes suffered because of those desires. St. Francis of Assisi can be painted as the mild-mannered friend of birds and wolves while we ignore the ways in which he challenged materialism and unjust social structures of his day. 

Saints are people who live holy lives, and those who are canonized as saints by the Church are those whose virtues have caught the attention of others who hold them up as an example and encouragement for the rest of us as we strive to fulfill our own call to holiness. But they are first of all human and human holiness is not perfection. Indeed, one reason that stories of the saints and devotions to them became popular is that when we see in them both human weakness and human ability to cooperate with God’s grace; we can, as humans, aspire to the same.

As we look at Newman, then, we ought not ignore the fact that he was a man of his times engaged in controversies that existed in the world and in the Church. His language and his arguments reflect his experiences and ought to be read carefully in context rather than being reduced to poster quotations in support of contemporary positions — or oppositions.

(Corinne Winter is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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