George Weigel Discusses St. John Newman’s Rich Legacy

The author and political analyst said that Newman’s canonization should remind the fathers at the Pan-Amazon Synod that doctrinal development is not a break with tradition.

George Weigel, shown speaking at the Oct. 12 conference, spoke in Rome this week of the enduring legacy of St. John Henry Newman.
George Weigel, shown speaking at the Oct. 12 conference, spoke in Rome this week of the enduring legacy of St. John Henry Newman. (photo: Newman Canonisation )

ROME — “Lead Kindly Light: The Story of a Saint” was the title of George Weigel’s speech given in homage to Cardinal John Henry Newman on the day before his much-awaited Oct. 13 canonization by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square.

Weigel was speaking at a one-day conference hosted by the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, also known as the Angelicum, on the theme “Newman the Prophet: A Saint for Our Times.” Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham, England, and Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney also took part in the conference.

In his address, the author of the best-selling biography on John Paul II Witness to Hope and Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., suggests that despite the many and drastic changes the Church’s newest saint made in his own life, Cardinal Newman’s legacy remains irreducibly marked by a spirit of continuity. Such a spirit of continuity, rooted in an insatiable quest for truth, is further examined in this interview with the Register, in which Weigel discusses Newman’s intuitions and intellectual courage in light of the current confusions over the Church’s moral teachings.


Some Church leaders regret the fact that, on the eve of his canonization, John Henry Newman is being co-opted, and even instrumentalized, by Catholic ideologues. What do you think?

There seems to me far more of an effort to co-opt Newman from the left, particularly through misrepresentations of his teaching on conscience and the development of doctrine. Newman did not believe that “conscience” is a faculty of “choice,” as the 21st-century understands that term, and he did not believe that the Church does “paradigm shifts,” as some would claim; a genuine development of doctrine is always an organic outgrowth of Christian truth, not a “paradigm shift.”

This attempt to recruit Newman to the project I’ve called “Catholic Lite” is quite unpersuasive, even bizarre — for, throughout Newman’s entire religious journey (from evangelicalism, through High Anglicanism, to Catholicism), he insisted on the imperative of teaching and preaching the Creed in full. No serious reader or student of his university sermons, which are, after all, from his Anglican years, could imagine Newman as a prologue to the preoccupations of progressive theology today. He would be particularly critical, I think, of the notion that history judges revelation, rather than revelation judging history, which was the issue beneath the issues in the debates over the nature of marriage and worthiness to receive Holy Communion at the synods of 2014 and 2015. 

And, of course, Newman’s Idea of a University is not what prevails on such self-consciously progressive Catholic campuses as Georgetown. Newman believed that education must include formation, and that idea has largely dropped through the cracks in many Catholic institutions of higher learning.

Then there is the attempt by some activists to co-opt Newman as a patron saint of the cause of so-called “gay rights.” This is nothing but the imposition of 21st-century “LGBT” ideology on patterns of male friendship in the 19th century, and it ought to be called out for what it is: ideological kidnapping in service to the dictatorship of relativism.


Why would you say that his conception on the development of doctrine and the primacy of conscience were subject to misunderstandings?

Newman’s rich, complex theory of doctrinal development and his similarly nuanced description of conscience and its vital role in the Christian life are being misinterpreted and misunderstood because they are being “read” through the filter of religious liberalism: the notion that religious truth is but a matter of personal opinion. This is more than a little ironic, in that Newman flatly rejected what he termed the “spirit of liberalism in religion” throughout his entire life: a point he underscored in Rome in 1879 on being formally notified of his enrollment in the College of Cardinals. As he said then, he had made many mistakes in his life, but he “rejoice[d] to say, to one great mischief I have from the first opposed myself. For 30, 40, 50 years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion. Never did Holy Church need champions against it more than now.” This was perhaps underestimating the gravity of the situation we face today, in, say, the Church in Germany, which was presciently described by Newman in that 1879 “Biglietto speech” in Rome: “Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed in as good as another. ... 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.” One can hear echoes of this kind of “Catholic Lite” through the Synod on Amazonia, which is being heavily influenced by German thought — and German money.


In your speech, you suggested that Newman’s thought has to be seen in its historical context. But what can he teach to our current Church, society and culture?

He can teach us that human beings are theotropic: ordered to faith and worship. And he can remind us that, given that built-in dynamic of our human nature, false gods will be worshipped if the true God is not embraced and affirmed. Newman’s keen analysis of the dynamics of belief in the Grammar of Assent is also very powerful ammunition against the new atheists and their silly concept of religious belief as superstition or psychopathology. 

Newman’s life coincided with the lives of many 19th-century thinkers whom Father Henri de Lubac described as the “atheistic humanists.” Their claim was that rejection of the God of the Bible would lead to a more mature humanity, liberated from ancient prejudices and moral shackles. Yet that atheistic humanism, which denied humanity’s theotropic nature, helped bring on two world wars in the 20th century, and it is eroding the foundations of Western civilization today. Newman would have been deeply saddened by the sharp rise in the incidence of suicide among young people today. But he would have known at least one of its sources, which is the claim that we can live happy and fulfilled lives in a world without windows, doors or skylights. The truth is that such a world is stifling and ultimately demeaning of the glory of the human person, which is our capacity to be seized by the truth that is God and to know in that encounter that the divine Truth is also divine love and divine mercy.


What fascinates you the most about Newman’s personality and legacy?

I’m amazed by Newman’s energy over the more than six decades [of his work reflecting his life as a man of faith]. The vast correspondence alone — and letter-writing was one of his favorite forms of spiritual direction and pastoral care — is simply staggering. And that’s before we get to the books! I’m also impressed by Newman’s equanimity in some of the controversies in which he was involved. I was recently re-reading his correspondence with former Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, at the time when Newman was writing his “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk” in response to Gladstone’s attack on Vatican I’s definition of papal infallibility. Gladstone used some rather high language in his “Expostulation” on Vatican I, calling the definition of papal infallibility an insult to both reason and history. But in Newman’s private correspondence with Gladstone, as in the “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk,” there was no snark; his “voice” was never raised. He remained a gentleman, and Gladstone responded in kind. There’s a lesson in that for the Twitterverse and the rest of the shout-at-the-top-of-your-voice social-media crowd. 


Newman is sometimes considered a Ratzinger of the 19th century — or perhaps more accurately, Ratzinger is a Newman of the 20th century. Yet Newman is to be canonized by Pope Francis. Do you see similarities between Francis’ thought and Newman’s?

I think the similarities with Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict are rather more evident, although Newman would have applauded Pope Francis’ call for us to be a Church “permanently in mission.”

Ratzinger was, of course, impressed by Newman’s writings on conscience when he read them in the aftermath of World War II. Even more striking, in some respects, was Newman’s long-range influence, over a span of almost a century, on the young anti-Nazi activists of the White Rose movement, including the most famous member of that group, Sophie Scholl. The White Rose youngsters — all university students in the Third Reich — were deeply impressed by Newman’s sermons, two volumes of which Sophie Scholl gave to her boyfriend, Fritz Hartnagel, when, after being drafted into the Wehrmacht, he was sent to the Russian front during the war. Fritz wrote back to Sophie: “We know by whom we are created and that we stand in a relationship of moral obligation to our Creator. Conscience gives us the capacity to distinguish between good and evil” — words that British author Paul Shrimpton noted “were taken almost verbatim from a famous sermon of Newman’s called “The Testimony of Conscience.” When Sophie Scholl was tried before the notorious “People’s Court” in Munich by Roland Freisler, a Nazi gangster masquerading as a judge, she testified that it was her conscience, and her Christian conviction, that had led her into nonviolent resistance to the Hitler regime and its wars of aggression. And Sophie Scholl’s Christian conscience was formed in part by a serious intellectual and spiritual encounter with John Henry Newman. 


The canonization of the holy spouses Louis and Zélie Martin, parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, during the 2015 family synod, was meant to reaffirm the sanctity of the sacrament of matrimony. How can Newman inspire the work of the Amazon synod?

There is some feeling in Rome these days that the results of the Amazonian synod were likely settled before the synod met, so I don’t think that this canonization will have any great impact on the synod’s final report. But the canonization should remind the Synod fathers that doctrinal development is just that, development, not rupture.

This is, of course, one of the ongoing debates about the Second Vatican Council: Was it a council of change amid continuity, or a council marking a rupture with the past? Pope Benedict XVI, in his 2005 Christmas address to the Roman Curia, insisted that Vatican II was a council of development in continuity with the Church’s Tradition. That was a very Newman-like statement; so, we see that Newman influenced, not only the Council itself, but the ongoing debate over the Council’s proper interpretation. 


This conference is taking place at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, where John Paul II once studied. What would be, in your opinion, the Thomistic part of Newman’s thought, besides the relation between faith and reason?

I would say that St. Thomas’ willingness to engage the “new learning” of his day, including Aristotelian science, parallels Newman’s attempt to make the act of faith credible in a post-Darwinian age skeptical of religious authority. 

Solène Tadié is the Register’s Europe correspondent.