John Henry Newman would rejoice in ‘Towards an Assembly’ day — Seamus Devitt CSsR
Blessed John Henry Newman, and Monday May 7th, 2012: -‘Towards an Assembly of the Irish Catholic Church’.
John Henry Newman, probably the greatest writer/theologian of the 1800’s, was made Cardinal, but only at the age of 78, and by the newly elected Pope Leo XIII. His predecessor, Pius IX , and a lot of bishops in England, had regarded Newman with suspicion. Much of this suspicion related to his views on the role of the Catholic Faithful.
‘On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine’ , a famous article, was first published in July, 1859 in the Rambler. It was the immediate cause of great controversy both in Rome and in England. Newman did not withdraw his views, though he did not reprint the article. In this long article, Newman shows how, in the course of the history of the Church, the laity protected and saved the Church, even from its bishops, in times of great peril. As a young Anglican Minister, Newman had done a long study of Arianism (Arius and his many followers denied the Divinity of Christ) in the 4th Century, and wrote how this was eventually defeated by the preaching and writings of St. Athanasius together with the fidelity of the faithful, when great numbers of the hierarchy had fallen into error.
Newman was consistent in his views of the importance of the voice of the faithful, within the Church. Only in Vatican 2 did this importance find universal acceptance. In an earlier address to the Brothers of the Little Oratory in Birmingham in 1851, we find this: What he desired in Catholics, he said ‘is the gift of bringing out what their religion is — I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men (sic) who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it. I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity — I wish you to enlarge your knowledge, to cultivate your reason, to get an insight into the relation of truth to truth, to learn to view things as they are, to understand how faith and reason stand to each other, what are the bases and principles of Catholicism … In all times the laity have been the measure of the Catholic spirit; they saved the Irish Church three centuries ago and they betrayed the Church in England. You ought to be able to bring out what you feel and what you mean, as well as to feel and mean it.’
He wrote in the Rambler, in 1859: ‘… the body of the faithful is one of the witnesses to the fact of the tradition of revealed doctrine, and… their consensus through Christendom is the voice of the Infallible Church.’
John Henry Newman was treated with great suspicion by bishops and by Rome. His wisdom was only publicly recognized by Rome very late in his life when he was made Cardinal . Our present Pope Benedict even declared him ‘Blessed’. I wonder what would have happened if Newman had been writing today. There’s hope, therefore for other voices who seek to speak the truth with love, and who are silenced or mocked for being ‘self-serving’.
Just twenty years ago, this June, Yves Congar, a theologian much maligned by many, but later made Cardinal, died. NCR (National Catholic Reporter) in their edition of July 14, 1995, reflected on his passing: his life ‘is a vivid reminder of the church’s tendency to brutalize innovative thinkers, only to later herald them for pushing the church to new insights and directions.’ I think Blessed John Henry Newman and Yves Congar would rejoice to see this gathering on Monday May 7th, ‘Towards an Assembly of the Irish Catholic Church’. But will Rome?
Seamus Devitt, C.Ss.R., Esker, Athenry, Co. Galway.
May 2 was the feast of St. Athanasius – for a time, a much-reviled cleric and bishop, five times imprisoned, later a Saint and Doctor of the Church.
Note: ‘Newman and the Laity’ by Paul Chavasse, is a rich source of information on all of this, and can be found in http:// www.catholiceducation.org.