On the way to Rome

John Henry Newman

Rev. Robin Ward, Principal of St. Stephen’s House, the Anglican seminary of Oxford, England, teachers future Anglican pastors the history of the Oxford Movement founded by John Henry Newman, the eminent theologian whom Benedict XVI will beatify next September 19. Rev. Ward graduated from Oxford University, where also Newman studied. He obtained his PHD in patristics at London University; he served for ten years as vicar in Sevenoaks parish (Kent). Canon Ward is a honorary theologian in Rochester’s Cathedral and a member of the Anglo-Catholic congregation, which is close to the Catholic Church. Silvia Guazzetti interviewed him for SIR Europe.

Why does the Pope consider Newman so important that he decided to beatify him in person?
“Newman is so important for two main reasons. First of all as a thinker: he is a fundamental theologian in the history of the Church. His thought initiated the Second Vatican Council. The second reason is that Newman’s theological background is similar to the Pope’s. Newman studied patristics alongside the development of the Church and her doctrines from the first centuries, up to the present times. He wasn’t interested in the Middle Ages or in Saint Augustine, for example. Also the Pope nurtures a deep interest for patristics”.

Could you tell us about Newman’s theology?
“An example is the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which was to become a pre-eminent aspect of Catholic faith. Newman explored its development along with the devotion of the faithful, which reached the point of viewing Mother Mary as the new Eve. Cardinal Newman distinguished himself also from the theologians there were popular in Rome at the time, such as Giovanni Perrone, who granted special relevance to a philosophical approach of theology. For Newman it was important to understand how the dogma of the Immaculate Conception developed in history, how it referred to the doctrines of the early Church years and originated from them. In his 1845 essay titled ‘An essay on the development of Christian doctrine’, Newman investigated the development of Catholic doctrine until present times, starting from the first centuries. For Perrone the historical perspective was less important. He studied the dogma in a speculative manner, examining where it came from and how it was linked to the other doctrines”.

Was this Newman’s distinctive trait, which distinguished him from his companions in the Oxford movement who instead decided to remain in the Anglican Church?
“Yes, Newman’s approach is completely different from that of Protestantism, which draws its faith content from the Bible and criticizes the Catholic Church for having betrayed first-century Church adding new doctrines and new religious tenets. Edward Bouverie Pusey and John Keble, who co-founded with Newman the Oxford Movement, which laid the foundations of the Anglo-Catholic branch of the Church of England, decided to remain in the Anglican Church”.

What is the role of the faithful in the development of Christian doctrine?
“In the pamphlet titled ‘On consulting the faithful in matters of doctrine’, Newman wrote that the faithful’s consensus can serve to preserve important Church doctrines. This is a stand which values the laity and which was recovered by the Second Vatican Council”.

Thus was the thought of the laity important to Newman?
“Newman didn’t believe that the laity was to decide on Catholic Church doctrine. However, he was convinced that consulting the faithful constituted an important benchmark for the Church. Thus being updated on the thought of the laity would enable to follow the life of the Church as a whole. Newman was strongly attached to the Anglican Church when was still Anglican and grew attached to the Catholic Church after his conversion to Catholicism. He embraced Catholicism because he understood that religion needed an authority and that only the Catholic Church was truly authentic”.

Could you tell us more about Newman’s conversion and of how he stood in the Catholic Church?
“What’s amazing is that Newman decided to convert to Catholicism only by reading and studying theology since he was persuaded that the Catholic Church was the repository of the truth. He arrived to Rome via intellectual routes. He didn’t have close friends who were Catholic and had never attended a Catholic church. His decision wasn’t motivated by personal relations but by a spiritual conviction”.

At times we read that he was unhappy in the Catholic Church.
“I don’t think it was the case. At times Newman complained, but this is a typical English behaviour. It’s the habit of devaluing one’s activity. In fact, he was always very committed even after his conversion, a sign that he was happy with his life. In 1854 he was nominated dean of the Catholic University in Dublin and continued being keen about his work. As a Catholic priest he developed his pastoral commitment, and devoted a lot of time to his parishioners, to confessing and to preaching”.

Some people present Newman as the champion of progressive awareness against authorities. What is your opinion?
“I think it’s an erroneous interpretation. His famous phrase: ‘I cheer first to the conscience and then to the Pope’, was not read correctly and was used by the more liberal wing of the Church to state that Newman preferred the authority of conscience to that of the Pope. In reality Newman believed that conscience, in which he fully believed, would always bring him to the Church, leading him to accept what the Church presents as the truth. For Newman conscience was like a window on the wall on which Church authority could be seen. Newman considered important for conscience to freely reach conversion through personal conviction, which is inevitable”.

And the allegation that Newman was homosexual because he is buried in the same tomb as his friend Ambrose St. John?
“It’s a ridiculous and ungrounded speculation, which brings nowhere. It can be explained with the fact that our epoch in unable to understand the kind of friendship that was developed by men in the Victorian epoch. These were intense and affectionate friendships, completely void of sexual implications whatsoever”.

England: the Pope’s Visitation is confirmed

It’s official: from September 16 to 19 Benedict XVI will visit Great Britain. His stops include Edinburgh, Glasgow London and Birmingham. The news was released by the Holy See press office. This is the text of the announcement made July 5th by the Vatican spokesman father Federico Lombardi: “Accepting the invitation of Her Majesty Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom, and of the bishops’ conferences of England and Wales, and of Scotland, His Holiness Benedict XVI will make an apostolic trip to the United Kingdom from 16 to 19 September. The Pope will visit the queen at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, Scotland. The Pontiff will also preside at the celebration of the Eucharist in Bellahouston Park in Glasgow. In London he will meet representatives from the worlds of politics, culture and business in Westminster Hall. The Holy Father will participate at an ecumenical celebration in Westminster Abbey, and preside at a Eucharist celebration in Westminster Cathedral and at a prayer vigil in Hyde Park. Finally, he will preside at the celebration of the rite of beatification of Venerable Cardinal John Henry Newman at Cofton Park, Birmingham”.

(7 July 2010))

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