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Dear Friends,


It would be difficult today to find many people who look to religion as an intelligent reasonably seductive source of wisdom that might draw a person deeper and deeper into a search for the truth of their own identity and the relationship between the human person and the rest of creation.


In our world many, many religious people actually believe that they have the truth of their own identity and the truth of everything else all wrapped up in a neatly closed box with no key or, probably the majority, would consider religious faith to be childish fantasy that helps people escape from the truth of their lives rather than find it.


In between there are a whole lot of people who, in my nephew’s words, just want to know where the beer is.


Well, I like beer and vodka , too, and I do enjoy some childish fantasy from time to time but I also find the Catholic Tradition to be a very seductive draw in my life toward the truth of my identity-and I am not finished yet, nor are you. I know all of the flaws and foibles of Roman Catholicism, but I still find it to be a marvelous source of inspiration and wisdom as I make my way through this adventure.


That is why I want to tell you about Newman.


John Henry Cardinal Newman (b.1801-d.1890) was canonized a saint by Pope Francis last Sunday. Newman in my mind has a great deal of credibility because he was concerned about the relevancy of Catholicism so he wrote and taught about real world issues that continue to make a real difference in the Catholicism that I practice and in which I find a great deal of meaning.


As a child John Henry found books and the ideas that they contained to be important, as he matured drawing on his reading developed an understanding of the possibilities that religion and spirituality had in transforming people and institutions making the world a better place more consistent with the heart of the Creator as well as the serious possibilities that religion has in distorting the significance of the human person and the institutions that they create and within which they make the world worse rather than better as a consequence of what they consider to be their faith.


In the 19th century, religion in England as in the rest of the western world was taken very seriously and was at the heart of higher education and university life, politics, and culture in Protestant Christianity but not in the Catholic Church.


While religion was very important to Catholics it was lived and experienced in what I call a defensive mode, a bunker mentality, concerned with shoring up papal authority as the only valid and reliable source of truth of any kind.


19th century Catholicism was very anti-intellectual and considered education and learning a threat to authority of the Church which reached for sovereignty in all things and in all places.


As an illustration Harvard and Yale were originally founded to educate Protestant clergy and laity together, Harvard in 1636 and Yale in 1701, Notre Dame wasn’t founded until 1842. Almost 200 years separated the presence of Catholic higher education from Protestant higher education in this country.


Newman and his writing and scholarship and his personal quest for meaning and identity was a singular force in the return of Catholicism to the world of scholarship and research after an absence of maybe 500 years, a dark age of the Catholic Church not at all unlike today and that is one reason why I find the canonization of Newman to be a sign of hope.


At the age of 15 Newman had a religious conversion experience and embraced Protestant evangelicalism which then as today offers a literal interpretation of the Bible and a black and white, either/or understanding of the world, religion, God, and the human person.


A binding force among evangelical Protestants was outright hatred and disdain for Roman Catholicism. They held the pope and Catholics in general with very low regard, perhaps even contempt, because of their allegiance to and belief in the pope as a idolatrous human figure with exceptional connections and likenesses to the God above every other human being in everything.


But Newman the thinker and voracious reader, soon outgrew evangelicalism and moved onto the Church of England that had dogmas and doctrines unlike evangelical Christianity which had more portable culture based prejudices.


The rituals and ceremonies, the liturgies, of “higher church Christianity” that allowed for some small element of mystery on the edges of faith intrigued Newman and the idea of a faith life that was not cast in stone, that was not totally black and white but had various shades of gray continued to seduce him.


Newman was discovering that the really important questions of life were, indeed, complex and that while there are some basic assumptions that can be made about God and humankind, there is more unknown than known about the human experience of God, far more questions than answers.


Writing poetry helped him recognize the truth and beauty of the most ordinary offerings of life which richly and deeply reflected a God who was experienced more in absence than in presence luring all creation toward a fulfillment that often seemed too remote to ever be realized.


Ordained an Anglican priest in 1824 he continued his scholarly efforts studying and writing in order to make Christianity’s truth more relevant to people as a force in higher education and to people through his preaching and ministry in a typical Anglican parish serving as a pastor in churches close to Oxford and he took a trip with a friend to Italy including Rome where he found, “ (Rome) "the most wonderful place on Earth", but the Roman Catholic Church as "polytheistic, degrading and idolatrous."


However, that was a provisional judgement because Newman found his way into Roman Catholicism and converted in 1845 and was ordained a Catholic priest in Rome by an Italian cardinal in 1846.


Newman’s understanding of Catholicism stressed the primacy of conscience over law and, even, dogma and, in regard to dogma, he believed that while God’s revealed truths are firm and unchangeable the understanding and expression of those truths can and does evolve so the apprehension and appreciation of them changes.


This following quote comes from Newman’s, The Idea of a University, a text which contributed to the return to value higher education for Catholics, clergy and laity, in the 19th century:


“A university training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society…It is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them and a force in urging them.” 


The original idea of a university was born toward the end of the first millennium and grew out of the monasteries of France, Britain, and Germany contributing to the rise of a Europe rooted in Christianity which was expressed exclusively through the Roman Catholic Church for over 500 years.


Beginning in the 16th century or thereabouts scholars began to question the hegemony of Rome over the expression of the teachings of Christ and the advent of a scientific empirical approach to exploring created reality.


This was unnerving to the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the Catholic Church circled the wagons, closed the windows, and ratcheted up the message that the Roman Catholic Church was “a perfect society” and had no need of education. Case closed.  


Honest, my depiction does not take note of nuance and exception but if not for Newman we could be just like the Amish.


Almost all of the Catholic colleges and universities that we are familiar with today in our country were founded in the wake of Newman’s affirmation of the need and purpose of a Roman Catholicism that was out of the closet and at the table of education, politics in order to be an advocate for and influence of the common good.


Today, in my opinion, many American Catholic colleges and universities are known not so much as institutions of higher education and theological scholarship but as businesses marketing and selling a version of success that has nothing to do with the teachings of Christ except in the most theatrical and superficial manner.


Increasingly, Catholic universities and colleges of any size find that there is little if no market for Catholic theological study and research. It is no small contributing factor to this and many other unfortunate developments in the Church that Pope John Paul II reserved many, many issues to himself and took theological study and research completely off the table.


The “bunker” version of the Catholic Church in his wake tilts at windmills while Francis I tries to open the gates, he struggles against a woefully uneducated clergy and theologically destitute, very wealthy laity who want to keep his teachings away from any college curriculum or thinking young person at all costs especially the Pope’s critiques of western economic and financial values and the moral imperative that he places on addressing climate change.


So, sincere young people seeking the truth of their lives will not, more than likely, actively be Roman Catholic, but they will be disciples of Christ, for sure.


Perhaps, the canonization of Newman will bring a new springtime to Roman Catholic theological scholarship. Perhaps.



Father Niblick