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The Pope and Newman

· On the eve of the Beatification ·

In England's green and pleasant land saints have been thin on the ground of late, at least those recognised by the Church. So English Catholics will take a particular pleasure in the forthcoming beatification of John Henry Newman. It has drawn a Pope to our shores again, and one much in tune with the spirit and ideas in Newman's writings.

Yet Newman's life and thinking highlight the gulf that separates us from his world of the 19th century. His national celebrity as a theologian, his abiding preoccupation with what was religiously true, the forensic reasoning and depth of historical scholarship that led him to leave the Anglican Church for Rome, the furore at his departure, belong to another time. Of course people are still moved by intellectual assent to Catholic Faith. People still make this journey – in a less spectacular way. I should know. But elegantly written and subtle theology does not make you a public figure or get you into the headlines in 2010. Are his ideas, then, still relevant to us today?

Newman ranked spiritual truth above all other values. He was willing to alienate anyone, old friends and future ones, in its pursuit. While preparing formally to enter the Catholic Church he wrote: “No-one can have a more unfavourable view than I of the present state of Roman Catholics”. Not the most diplomatic of sound-bites. The point was that this made no difference to him whatsoever. He would do what he thought right however uncomfortable or unpopular it would be.

You have to admire this intellectual courage. It is something many Catholics glimpse in Pope Benedict XVI. Nor do Newman's ideas translate easily into a few short paragraphs in a newspaper. “A man of conscience is one who never acquires tolerance, well being, success, public standing and approval on the part of prevailing opinion, at the expense of truth”, he wrote. This is tough counsel in the contemporary world where opinion is so overwhelmingly shaped by the mass media.

Newman notoriously toasted conscience first – before the Pope. But he did not mean that the voice of conscience made choosing a true and right path an easy matter, or one that dispensed with the authority of the papacy. “Our sense of right and wrong... is so delicate, so fitful, so easily puzzled, obscured, perverted... so biased by pride and passion”. This was where the teaching authority of the Church comes in with its gift for discerning and defining to correct and adjudicate. So while the gulf between us and Newman's world is great, nonetheless, he wrote of matters with which every Catholic and every politician has to grapple.

Newman was first to put the concept of development on the map. His understanding of how doctrine developed proved extraordinarily influential in his time. He made development a key idea both inside and outside the Church. We probably would not be using the terms “Millennium Development Goals” or “international development” today if he had not first used the word in his theology.

For the life of the Church today, Newman's reflections on the development of ideas evidently have no less profound implications. He concluded it was impossible to fix a point at which the growth of doctrine in the Church ceased. By implication it is still going on today, and not in a vacuum. “The idea never was that throve and lasted, yet like mathematical truth, incorporated nothing from external sources”, he wrote.

Deciding whether something was a “true” development was, of course, the prerogative of the teaching of the Church. But Newman also described the consensus of the whole “body of the faithful” on matters of doctrine as the “voice of the Infallible Church”. I doubt if this voice is yet taken seriously enough on moral questions, or if we have yet fully digested the implications of these ideas. The tendency of some religious leaders to bundle a large number of different ideas into a bag marked “secularism”, then treat it as a sinister package, is divisive in pluralist societies. It cuts the Church off from possibilities of new developments in thinking. The Pope's past dialogues with prominent secular thinkers provides a very different example.

I think Newman would be a staunch ally in promoting different forms of inter-religious dialogue because of his theory of development. This might sound counter-intuitive. Newman, like Pope Benedict, was fiercely opposed to relativism. But the interfaith work that my Faith Foundation undertakes rests on, and generates, the opposite of relativism.

I have found that it affirms people in their different faiths, while building respect and understanding for the faith of others. Whether in our linking of schools and faiths around the world, or drawing universities into consortia around an inter-disciplinary course on faith and globalisation, or working in interfaith pairs to promote the Millennium Development Goals, those sharing our vision find that they want to deepen their knowledge of their own faith.

In my life-time, the Church's developing understanding of the nature and importance of inter-religious dialogue has produced a flowering of ideas, and especially in the last decade, we have seen a development that encourages the Church to embrace the spiritual significance of other religions. The Bishops of England and Wales told this story eloquently in their recent teaching document Meeting God in Friend and Stranger.

There has been controversy surrounding Newman's beatification. I guess that he would have expected nothing less. Some may merely wonder if this is the right way to honour him. But none will seriously doubt that he was, and is, a Doctor of the Church. There is still time to proclaim him as such.

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