Unlike many of Francis’s recent actions, the decision to make Newman a saint has won praise from both conservative and liberal Christians. Scratch the surface, though, and it’s easy to find deep disagreements about the life and legacy of this modern saint, who is often invoked to praise and condemn the pope’s vision.
Newman often appears in controversies concerning the role of conscience and authority in the church. Conscience has become a contested term during Francis’s papacy, especially following his 2016 exhortation “Amoris Laetitia.” Writing about love and marriage, the pope stated: “We need a healthy dose of self-criticism.” He admonished readers that “we are called to form consciences, not to replace them,” a view the pope’s critics say gives individuals a license to decide right and wrong for themselves without the counsel of the church and its teaching.
Progressives cite Newman in support of the pope’s view of conscience. As Austen Ivereigh, a biographer of Francis, wrote on Twitter: “One cannot help but imagine that Cardinal Newman, a famous opponent of papal infallibility, would delight to be canonised on Oct 13 by a pope who admits mistakes, calls himself a sinner, dislikes being put on a pedestal, & has restored the role of conscience.”
But Francis’s opponents have been equally quick to invoke Newman’s statements about conscience. Explaining his widely publicized decision to call for Francis’ resignation, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò told The Washington Post, “I was inspired by Blessed Cardinal Newman, who said, ‘If I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, I shall drink — to the pope, if you please — still, to Conscience first, and to the pope afterwards.’”
In addition, conservatives have looked for inspiration in Newman’s comments on “liberalism.” Newman called liberalism “false liberty of thought,” or the attempt to find truth through reason alone independent of faith and devotion. He characterized his life as one long campaign against this view in his spiritual autobiography. Some have already invoked Newman’s criticism of liberalism against the Amazon synod, which is meeting at the Vatican to advance the ecological effort Francis called for in his encyclical letter “Laudato Si’.” Newman insisted on maintaining the unique authority of the church and its doctrine. So he is being invoked to criticize the Amazon synod for “blurring the lines” between Catholicism and nature worship by celebrating “Mother Earth,” biodiversity and indigenous spirituality.
Newman’s own sexuality also figures into contemporary debates. “It’s not unreasonable to think [Newman] might have been homosexual,” wrote the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author who recently met with Francis to encourage greater support for LGBTQ Catholics. And in 2010, when Pope Benedict XVI beatified Newman, the decision to move Newman’s remains ignited criticism from the LGBTQ community.
Newman had been buried by his request in the same grave as his friend Ambrose St. John, whom Newman called “my earthly light.” Although the Vatican said it planned to move Newman’s remains from Rednal, England, to the Birmingham Oratory church for “public veneration,” some called the decision an attempt to cover up a same-sex relationship.
In the end, gravediggers disinterred some brass, wood and cloth and moved them to the Birmingham Oratory. But Newman’s body could not be moved; it had completely decomposed.
Newman wasn’t just any controversialist. He also believed that “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” He was sensitive to the idea that arguments and facts rarely change anyone’s mind, something both scientific research and experience have confirmed in our increasingly tribal era.
Newman wrote: “The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination.” He explained: “Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us. Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion.” His hundreds of sermons, hymns, poems and dozens of books (including two novels) attempt to reach the deeper, more imaginative sources of our most important convictions.
In Newman’s most popular work, his 1865 spiritual autobiography titled “Apologia Pro Vita Sua,” he didn’t attempt to prove his Catholic beliefs to his (mostly non-Catholic) audience. Instead, he tried to show he was sincere every step of the way as he slowly became convinced of the truth of Catholicism. Newman gained a variety of admirers, many of whom didn’t share his convictions. After reading the Apologia, famous agnostic writer George Eliot, for example, found herself surprised at “how close a fellowship” she felt with Newman’s “spiritual needs and bur[d]ens.”
Some say Newman’s richer, more literary side has the most to offer to us. For example, Stanley Hauerwas, a professor emeritus at Duke Seminary and renowned theologian, has said: “The role of a theologian is to help us recover what extraordinary and odd things we believe as Christians.” He has mentioned that Newman was uniquely able to achieve this task because he was one of the best writers of his era. “Newman was extraordinary,” Hauerwas told me, “because he recovered a way to do theology that was as fresh as the theology of the early fathers. He never failed to write from the gut.”
It seems inevitable that as Francis’s papacy continues to spark controversy, the contest for Saint Newman will continue and this great controversialist will continue to be invoked by the pope’s critics, as well as his advocates. We can hope that the subtler Newman will prevail and that, as with the gravediggers at Rednal, he will keep slipping through their fingers.
Brett Beasley received his doctorate from Loyola University Chicago and writes about the intersection of language, ethics and religion. His work has appeared in Salon, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Sojourners, Notre Dame Magazine and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @Brett_Beasley.