Rorate Caeli

The Feast of St. John Henry Newman: The Smile of Sadness and Hope for the Future

 Even though the feast of St. John Henry Newman is officially only on the calendar of England and Wales, how could not one celebrate his feast on October 9 wherever one is given  the state of the Church in which we find ourselves?  Newman is one of the great Catholic intellects and saints of the 19th century and a man of deep and thoughtful faith. 

Newman’s opposition to the definition of Papal Infallibility before it was solemnly defined in a famous thunderstorm in Rome in 1870 is well known.  His opposition was not to the doctrine itself, which he believed.  He feared that the Ultra-Montanists of his time would make the definition so broad that the Pope could say: “L’Eglise, c’est moi.!”  The definition  of Papal Infallibility proved to be much more modest than some like Cardinal Manning (who I confess is another hero of mine but in a very different way) would have hoped.  Cardinal Avery Dulles sums up Newman’s understanding of infallibility quite authentically:

Infallibility, as distinct from revelation or inspiration, was a mere assistance, and at that a primarily negative assistance. It served to prevent the Church, in certain of its acts, from falling into error. …..And in saying with Vatican II that under certain strictly limited conditions "the charism of the infallibility of the Church itself is individually present" in the successor of Peter..

Newman was vehemently opposed to liberalism in religion. In his Bigletto speech in Rome on the occasion of his receiving the red hat, the symbol of his being made a Cardinal, Newman said these words;

Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion.

Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy. Devotion is not necessarily founded on faith. …Since, then, religion is so personal a peculiarity and so private a possession, we must of necessity ignore it in the intercourse of man with man.

Newman’s prescience in what would happen more than one hundred years after giving this speech is both astounding and sobering.  For we live in a time when Christian dogma, that is, things to be believed, is under serious attack.  The “world’ of the West, which had been for a good part of two millenia in a real sense Christian, has been replaced quite rapidly in the past fifty years by a radically individualistic ethos that makes faith as Christianity has understood it as the enemy to be fought. For in the brave new world in which we live the “I” must always triumph over the “we”.  The very idea of a common belief—and this extends beyond religious belief—and the acceptance of that common belief and subordinating oneself to living one’s life according to that belief:  this is not the majority view of things in the world in which we live, the Western world.  For indeed religion, and specifically Christianity, today must be ignored “in the intercourse of man with man”. 

What would Newman think of Pope Francis?  He would recognize him with great sadness.  Not because the Pope is a bad man, for he seems to genuinely care for the forgotten and the downtrodden of this world.  The Pope would make Newman sad, because he is the religious leader of the West who has become an active protagonist in the collapse of Christianity in the West.  Francis was in many ways the inevitable Pope after the 1960s. One can understand the secularism of much of the West as the result of the collapse of the Christian faith as the inner force driving the culture and conscience of the West.  But this Pope is also what Newman did not dare to fear:  the Rock of Peter that has forgotten that the Rock is not Peter but Jesus Christ.  His now famous rambling conversations with reporters on airplanes that were spiced by phrases like “who am I to judge?”  that for a while endeared him to the liberal secular press have grown stale and boring to a world that has already written him off.  Francis is a product of the Spirit of Vatican II, which has less to do with that Council than the drive to secularize and modernize (like the living room of the Brady Bunch) the Catholic Church.  His nastiness in his latest Motu Proprio, Traditionis Custodes (the irony of whose title is lost on the Roman bureaucrats) against those laity and priests who have found a pearl of great price in the Traditional Roman Liturgy, "sacred then and sacred now":  if it were possible for a saint to be sad—notice the subjunctive—it would make St. John Henry Newman sad.

But Newman is not sad, for he knows that despite the “facts” as reported by pollsters that only 23% of Catholics go to Mass regularly, and that most Catholics no longer believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and that the German synodalists will debate whether the priesthood is necessary for the Catholic faith: the fact is that there are so many seminarians and young priests and young lay people and families who have discovered the beauty and transcendence of the Traditional Roman Mass as the antidote to the shallow egotism of this age and who are rediscovering their Catholic faith in a way that those in charge thought they had suppressed and gotten rid of.  Angelus News just very recently published an article claiming that Pope Francis’ approval rating(!) has not declined in the past few years.  That may be.  But they did not speak to the young of all walks of life who have found a pearl of great price and will make that pearl the center of their lives and do it with great happiness and faith. And once again:  Beauty will save the world. 

Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla