One of the world's leading Newman scholars, he is based in Oxford, England, and spoke with Register correspondent Raymond J. de Souza on a recent visit to Rome for a conference celebrating the 200th anniversary of Newman's birth.
De Souza: What impression did those who met Cardinal Newman have of him?
When people met him they noticed that there was an air of mystery about him. Perhaps this was because he had very pronounced masculine and feminine qualities, as they would have been called then. He was a tough, strong man. He was virile, was not afraid of controversies, and he fought many battles. His critics would say he was intransigent.
On the other hand, he was very sensitive, he had an enormous affectivity. He had very keen senses — he was chosen to be the wine-taster at Oriel College.
That is a rare combination in a person — strength alongside extreme sensitivity. I think it speaks to his fullness as a person, something most human beings only achieve by getting married.
People also remembered his voice. When he was vicar of St. Mary's, Newman read his sermons, as was the Anglican practice, with his eyes firmly fixed down, and he read very fast, with long, pregnant pauses which were very striking.
But people remember his thrilling voice — this low, musical, thrilling voice. They remembered this for years afterwards.
He also had a great sense of humor, but he was a shy man.
Sometimes people who met him, like Baron von Hugel, said, “Oh, he's not going to be made a saint, he's so sad.” Well, I dare say that I would have been a bit sad if I had to meet Baron von Hugel!
He was not a melancholy man?
No. He was very sensitive and he felt things very deeply, but even at the worst times of his life he maintained his sense of humor.
If you read his letters during his worst trials — when he was an Anglican and felt he had to leave the Anglican Church, or when he was a Catholic and was under the blackest of clouds in Rome — there is always an exuberant sense of humor.
When Gerald Manley Hopkins went to see him about becoming Catholic, he was astounded that Newman even used slang — he could be a casual, informal man. He was not a brooding figure.
Newman was such a great figure in so many fields — as a priest, a scholar, historian, philosopher, theologian, man of letters, controversialist — how would you sum him up?
He was preoccupied with the human mind. He was fascinated by the workings of the human mind. He was fascinated with how his own mind worked, how other people's minds worked, and with the mind of the Church.
He still has the classic book on higher education, The Idea of a University. Cardinal Avery Dulles has called him the “most seminal” Catholic theologian of the 19th century. “Seminal” because his ideas came to fruition at the Second Vatican Council. And he is one the great Catholic spiritual writers.
Is Newman's most important legacy his writings on conscience, and by extension, religious liberty?
Here we come to a very delicate area, because Newman is often misused on the matter of conscience. He has also been misused on the issue of consulting the faithful on matters of doctrine — he said “faithful” not “laity,” and there is a difference.
On conscience, he has very often been thought to say that you can do whatever you like. To the contrary, he simply was repeating classic Christian doctrine that you would find in St. Thomas Aquinas, namely, that conscience is the voice of God speaking in us, and that we hear an echo of that voice. Sometimes echoes are wrong, so we can have false consciences. But in the end, we have to follow our consciences as best we can.
Was he a saint?
Yes, he's a saint. I am sure that he will be canonized, though it is not as easy to get people like Newman canonized as it is, say, for someone like Mother Teresa.
When he is canonized he will be declared a Doctor of the Church, and he will be seen to be the doctor of the time in which we live, namely the post-conciliar era. He will be known as the “doctor of Vatican II” in the same way that St. Robert Bellarmine is the “doctor of the Tridentine period.”
How does Newman help us in understanding Vatican II?
We are living in the light, or the shadow, of Vatican II at the moment. Newman is the model of the Second Vatican Council — that's always been acknowledged — but his influence has not ended. He has much to say about the contemporary Church, and the correct interpretation, as opposed to the corruption, of the Second Vatican Council.
He said after Vatican I that there may be a false interpretation of the definition of papal infallibility, and I have no doubt whatsoever that he would have said that there have been many major false interpretations of what happened at Vatican II.
In the years leading up to the Second Vatican Council, the “Catholic Newman” was the most important Newman for the Catholic Church. Of course, as a Catholic, Newman was comparatively liberal. He was faced with extreme Ultramontanes and so he did emphasize rights of conscience and many things that were taken up at Vatican II — for example, ecumenism and entering into a dialogue with the modern world.
But it seems to me that in the post-conciliar period what we need now is the “Anglican Newman,” who was a much sterner figure, a more severe figure fighting liberalism in the Church of England. We are facing this in the Catholic Church today, for example, with a false emphasis on justice and peace, on a false opposition between Gaudium et Spes and Lumen Gentium, which is, I believe, the central document of the Council, and which Newman anticipated in a very powerful away.
The “Anglican Newman” is much more important for us today, because the “Catholic Newman” has been digested by the Church, has been taken into the magisterium. That was the controversial Newman in his day. What we need today is the Anglican Newman who struggled against theological liberalism and false pluralism, and who opposed vehemently any kind of secularization of Christianity.