Appeared in Fall 1996, Vol. XXII, No. 3
A paper presented at the Academic Celebration
on the 150th anniversary of the conversion of
John Henry Newman: Christendom College,
Front Royal, Virginia, October 9, 1995.
There could not be a better time to examine Cardinal Newman’s life and thought as it pertains to the priesthood and the laity. We are celebrating this 150th anniversary of his conversion to the Catholic Church at a time when many hundreds, even thousands, of his former co-religionists-both priests and lay people-are following his example. Indeed, both in England and in the U.S. we have the example of, respectively, Graham Leonard of London and Clarence Pope of Fort Worth, two Anglican Bishops who have been received into full communion with the universal Church. Even the Duchess of Kent, a member of the royal family of England, was recently received into full communion with the Church and has had an audience with the Holy Father.
These conversions are in many ways harbingers of the quest towards unity that is so clearly the work of the Holy Spirit as we cross John Paul II’s “threshold of hope,” and enter the third millenium. The Holy Father has repeatedly, both publicly and privately, voiced his hope for the reunion of Rome with the Eastern churches so that the Church might “breathe with both lungs.” Indeed, this is perhaps the greatest temporal goal of his pontificate. We only have to look at one of his more recent encyclicals,Ut Omnes Unum Sint, to see how deep are his yearnings. I believe it safe to say that if this hoped-for reunion takes place, we can expect a large number of those Christians of good will who adhere to Protestant denominations to follow suit, either corporately or individually.
If and when these reunions take place, we will find Cardinal Newman’s thought and life constantly invoked, perhaps not only intellectually, but also as regards the powerful example of a life of heroic virtue. John Henry Newman was decreed Venerable by the Vatican in 1991, incidentally just a few months after Blessed Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei.1 A very interesting investigation would be a comparison of the life and work, contrasts and similarities, of these two great men of the Church of the last two centuries whose thought played such an important role in the development of the documents of the Second Vatican Council. Fr. George Ruder, a Newman expert of renown and convert from Anglicanism, once named Newman as the invisible peritus of the Council and Escriva as the anonymous one!2Included in this investigation might be the person and thought of Karol Wojtyla who, as John Paul II, has shown so much appreciation both for Blessed Josemaria and the Venerable John Henry and who, as a young bishop, actually participated in the Council. The fact that Newman was cited four times in the new Catechism and once in Veritatis Splendor tends to highlight the current high regard in which he is held not only by the Holy Father but by the whole Church.
The importance of Newman’s thought and life for today’s world is also underlined when we see how clearly Newman, in his prophetic role, foresaw what he considered to be the inevitable clash between the Church and liberalism. All of the other varieties of both Christianity and agnostic thought he saw merely as sideshows to the showdown between the forces of God and the fallen world, between Catholicism and atheism.
As we approach the end of the millennium and witness this tendency towards Christian unity in the universal Church, and atthe same timewitness the collapse of Marxism along with ideologies such as Darwinism and Freudianism, who could doubt that we are involved in an epochal struggle? We only have to look at the heroic stand of the Church at the Cairo Conference on Development and Population and the Beijing Conference on Woman, virtually alone against the forces arraigned on the side of the “culture of death,” to see that we have arrived at the mo ment that Cardinal Newman so clearly foresaw.