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Expert Comment: Cardinal Newman and Pope Benedict XVI

Stephen Kelly Monday 11 March 2013

In the week that Cardinals from throughout the world gather in Rome to elect a new Pope, following the sudden and surprise resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, Dr Stephen Kelly examines the impact of Newman’s societal thought upon Pope Benedict XVI. 

On 19 September 2010, at a cold and rain soaked Crofton Park, Birmingham, an estimated 50,000 Catholics gathered to witness Pope Benedict XVI declare John Henry Newman ‘blessed’; this is the penultimate step towards canonisation. The beatification was the first to take place under Pope Benedict XVI and the first ever to be performed in Britain. Cardinal Newman’s motto, ‘cor ad cor loquitur’ or ‘heart speaks unto heart’, was the theme for the papal visit, the first to Britain since John Paul II made a pastoral visit in 1982.

At first sight many of the British public thought it strange that Pope Benedict XVI should come to Britain with the specific purpose of ‘nudging’ towards sanctity a man who died 120 years ago and spent a large part of his adult life behind the walls of Oxford colleges and the Birmingham Oratory. But, Newman was no ordinary Catholic. He has claims to being the most influential and revered English-speaking religious thinker and spiritual writer since the Reformation. In September 2010, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the ‘important influence’ Newman has had upon his life and thought, describing Newman as ‘the great English Cardinal’.

Nonetheless, media hype surrounding the event could not help but question the Pope’s motivations for his decision to beatify Newman. The Times reported that as a pope known for his conservative stance on key issues facing the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI’s beatification of Newman will be seen by many as an unusual move. Writing in the Financial Times, John Cornwell implied that Newman’s advocacy of free and open inquiry and his dissenting spirit would put him at strong odds with the Pope Benedict XVI, ‘whose 28 year tenure at the Vatican has been marked by ever more conservative and orthodox views’. Were Newman alive today, Cornwell wrote, he would prove a great thorn in the 83-year-old Joseph Ratzinger’s side. Newman had a ‘jaundiced view of the papacy, especially an ageing one’.

Despite Cornwell’s at times, fallacious assertions, Pope Benedict XVI is a lifelong admirer of Newman. As a seminarian shortly after the Second World War, the young Ratzinger came to realise the importance of Newman’s writings. ‘Newman was not a topic like any other’, the 95-year-old Alfred Läpple, Ratzinger’s former prefect of studies, remembers of those years. ‘He was our passion’. Since then, over the past 65 years, Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly spoken of his own personal theological indebtedness to Newman. Newman much resembles the Pope’s religious hero, St. Augustine, the 4th century theologian.

Both had a fascination with God’s place in their own life stories, which from Augustine brought the autobiographical Confessions, and from Newman the Apologia pro vita sua (1864). Both are renowned as academics and for holding a deep respect for the theological writings of the early Fathers of the Church. Like Newman, Pope Benedict XVI puts ‘holiness before popularity’, which is why he decided it was only right that Newman be made blessed.

What would Newman have made of Pope Benedict’s societal views? Such a question is difficult to judge. Newman loved to read newspapers and keep afloat of contemporary events. Pope Benedict XVI, likewise, is known to read newspapers, watch television news channels on a daily basis, and has even used twitter to communicate to his Catholic flock. Obviously, both men lived in very different centuries. As a member of the Victorian middle-class, Newman’s societal experience was based on a commitment to traditional hierarchical political and social structures, with a strong sense of moral integrity. Pope Benedict’s experience is framed within the prism of two brutal world wars, in which the nature of contemporary society has moved ever more towards secularism. Nonetheless, some insight can be gained by comparing and contrasting their thought on issues involving the Church’s role within society.

Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain had important political connotations as this was the first official state visit by a pontiff to Great Britain. His arrival stirred up not just a theological, but political storm. Not only did his visit coincide with the seventieth anniversary of the Battle of Britain, in which he spoke of the horrors of war, but groups of activists voiced their anti-papal grievances. These included the Pope Benedict’s perceived interference in Britain’s equality laws, and his attempts to woo Anglican priests en masse from the Church of England. Gay activists protested against his condemnation of homosexuality. In political circles, during the May 2010 British general election campaign, the leaders of the three main parties all disagreed with the Pope on homosexuality, contraception and human embryonic stem-cell research.

Pope Benedict’s fullest expressions of his societal sensibilities were articulated in a historic address at Westminster Hall during his official state visit, on 17 September 2011. Speaking poignantly to assembled dignitaries, including past British prime ministers and leading members of the Royal Family, Pope Benedict XVI touched upon several issues; notably education and healthcare, food production, employment and the provision of clean water.
He said religion had a ‘legitimate’ role to play in the public square and condemned attempts to exclude faith from public life. He warned that social consensus alone could not be allowed to determine the moral principles underpinning the democratic process, as he called for dialogue between faith and reason. ‘Religion is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation,’ he said. Very much in the spirit of Newman, he spoke of the tensions between religion and politics and religion and reason and his appeal for dialogue between the two of them.

Most interestingly, the Pope used the words that echoed, without directly quoting him, of Newman’s critique of secularism and defence of moral norms in his Biglietto speech, which he delivered upon his elevation to the rank of Cardinal, by Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) in May 1879. Like Newman, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of precepts of justice, of the natural laws of society and the vital role of played by religion in helping to maintain civic harmony. The Pope asked of what he termed ‘the ethnical foundation of the civil discourse’. ‘If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus’, he said, ‘then fragility of the process becomes all too evident – herein lies the real challenge for democracy’.

Pope Benedict XVI argued that to suggest that the absence in society of a religious, specifically a Catholic inspired ethnic, meant an inevitable descent into a liberal secularism, was to mischaracterise British society, and the views of the majority of the Church’s flock. Are we really ruled, he enquired, ‘by nothing more solid than social consensus?’ In a less pessimistic view of society and mankind then that of which Newman held, Pope Benedict XVI explained that society was not ‘inherently amoral’. Most men and women, he said, remain driven by a clear sense of right and wrong. The ‘marginalisation of religion’, he explained, ‘particularly Christianity, was one of the single greatest threats to the modern world, as was occurring in even the most tolerant of nations’. ‘There are those’, he exclaimed, ‘who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere’.

Pope Benedict’s weariness of a society in which religion has no place, is reminiscent of Newman’s own thought. During his lifetime, confronted by the threat of ‘liberal’ influences, Newman had warned of the fragmentation of society. Pope Benedict XVI has articulated similar sentiments. Preaching to the College of Cardinals in April 2005, at the mass before they entered the conclave from which he himself was to emerge as pope, he used the image of the Church as a boat, ‘tossed on the waves created by ideological currents’. ‘From Marxism to liberalism’, he proclaimed, ‘... from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism ...’, society is driven by ‘... one’s own ego and desires’. Here, his words can be linked with Newman, as he too pondered a world which was ‘simply irreligious’.

Indeed, Pope Benedict’s Westminster Hall Address echoed Newman’s thought, for throughout his life the latter had warned against the marginalisation of religion at the expense of secular ‘Utilitarian’ interests. Like Pope Benedict XVI, over his lifetime, Newman experienced the erosion of Church authority, which was confronted by the wickedness and treachery of an ‘immoral’ society. Newman witnessed the first cycle of the state’s attempts to ‘silence’ the voice of religion during his Oxford days of the 1820s and 1830s. His belief in the Christine doctrine of fall, of original sin, made his convinced that ‘liberal’ politicians of his day were determined to censor the religious teaching of the Anglican Church.

Pope Benedict’s opinions towards society and indeed the fallacy of the political arena are less pessimistic. He is more willing than Newman to encroach upon political affairs, irrespective if such matters are not directly related to religious preoccupations. Newman remained wary of involving himself directly in public matters and would only do so if he felt compelled to defend his religious beliefs.

In reference to the political class, during his Westminster Hall Address, Pope Benedict XVI warned against the dangers of ‘aggressive secularism’ prevalent throughout Britain. He spoke of ‘sobering lessons’ of Nazi atheist tyranny that wished to ‘eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews’. ‘As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century’, he said, ‘let us never forget, how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a ‘reductive vision of the person and his destiny’.

Pope Benedict’s answer, again in the tone of Newman, was for the creation of a ‘tolerant’ state. This theme was endorsed by an accompanying speech by Queen Elizabeth II. She noted that the freedom to worship was at ‘core of tolerant society’. It is vital, she said, to ‘encourage a greater mutual, and respectful understanding ... We hold that freedom to worship is at the core of our tolerant and democratic society’. Over a century before, Newman had spoken of his desire that the English state would allow religious freedom among Christian denominations. As a member of a religious minority in England, the Catholic Church, he valued the positive ideal of a ‘neutral’ state, which respected the religious liberty of all men.

In relation to Newman’s social though, Pope Benedict XVI also paid tribute to Newman’s influence as an educationalist. Speaking during the ceremony to celebrate Newman’s beatification, the day prior to his Westminster Hall Address, the Pope spoke of Newman’s ‘vision’ for education, which he described as having ‘done so much to shape the ethos that is the driving force behind Catholic schools and colleges today’. Pope Benedict XVI said that Newman had firmly opposed an outright ‘utilitarian approach’, and instead sought to achieve an educational environment in ‘which intellectual training, moral discipline and religious commitment would come together’.

Beside his impact upon theology, the subject of education, arguably more than any other of Newman’s fields of interest, retains a particular importance within today’s society. His concept of ‘Liberal Knowledge’, sought to get the balance right between a liberal education, which would prepare good members of society, and a utilitarian training, which would provide experts skilled in their professions. Central to this concept was the idea that students of higher education should acquire the habits of critical thinking and the versatility of intellect required to pursue and contribute to their chosen profession.

Today, there is hardly a humanist educator who has failed to quote the significance of Newman’s idea of Liberal Knowledge. The mania for specialisation at university level, with its consequent result of narrow-mindedness and inability to communicate with those not of the same intellectual discipline, has led to a greater awareness of the necessity for a liberal education, which Newman so skilfully portrayed.

In conclusion, may I pose the following question: how would Newman have viewed today’s society? The tendency towards secularisation and the huge fall off in church numbers in all Christian denominations would have certainly left him feeling bewildered. But he would not have been surprised. Newman lived through the first wave of the modern phenomenon of the separation between church and state. He experienced the influences of Utilitarianism and Erastianism and realised that the political and social liberal forces of the Victorian era were rapidly replacing the conservative foundation blocks of society.

In over a century since Newman’s death, this process has entered a new phase. In today’s world, as Pope Benedict XVI warned, God’s message is constantly censored by secular and materialistic preoccupations, in which personal opinions supersede divine law. Although Newman would have certainly greeted this steady transition to secularism with hostility, like Pope Benedict XVI, he was realistic enough to appreciate that its arrival was inevitable.

Liverpool Hope is hosting a two day symposium on Cardinal Newman on 25th and 26th April. Further details are available here.


Image: Cardinal John Henry Newman, Brompton Oratory, South Kensington, London. Copyright nikoretro (2006) Licensed under CC BY-ND.

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