Newman’s warning about the future of the Church

John Henry Newman, by William Thomas Roden

Newman foresaw much that we are now experiencing

Having read and blogged about Fr Guy Nicholls’ study of St John Henry Newman’s understanding of aesthetics, Unearthly Beauty (Gracewing), I was keen to ask him a few questions, such as what led him to write on this topic? Fr Guy tells me that “It is the fruit of many years of living in the Oratory which the Cardinal himself founded, lived in and loved.” He thinks that not enough attention has been paid to the “aesthetic aspect of the Oratory, as a reality in which I have lived daily for nearly 30 years.”

“I wanted to explore and explain the striking fact that both the Oratories founded by St John Henry, though different in many ways, shared and still practice a profound love of the use of beauty in art, architecture and above all, music. If this didn’t come from him, where else did it come from?”

What did his research teach him about Newman that he had not known? “I think that his humanity as expressed in warmth and humour was something that shone forth in ways that are not always clear from biographies that concentrate on his mental world and the great affairs of religion and education which absorbed his energies. He was, as others have shown, admired as a leader and loved as a friend, but I think his everyday friendships were full of humour which St Philip Neri drew out of him, without in any way making him a rough copy of St Philip’s inimitable nature.”

Fr Guy adds that Newman’s priesthood “was not only deeply pastoral, but joyful and directed to the edification and salvation of all entrusted to his care in so many levels of life. Beauty is teleologically designed to draw us to our Creator. Newman’s priesthood shows that.”

Following from this, I want to know what particular features of St John Henry’s personality have endeared him to Fr Guy. He is keen to explain that Newman’s character “is far warmer than sometimes appears from accounts, because his much-commented sensitivity is often explained away as prickliness – whereas in truth it is a profound expression of self-giving which is the heart and foundation of true friendship.”

He reflects, “It is easy to see just why such a person who gave so much and trusted others, was thereby open to the pain of misunderstanding and betrayal. This sensitivity is also akin to his aesthetic sensibility; the two are complementary aspects of a complex yet well-integrated character.” He observes, “Beauty hurts as well as pleases.”

How does Fr Guy think Newman would respond to the moral and theological conflicts within the Church today? He believes that “Newman foresaw much that we are now experiencing”, adding that “His most disturbing prophetic sermon delivered at the opening of a new seminary in South Birmingham in 1873 on “the infidelity of the future”, foretells the falling away from the faith as the worst calamity awaiting the Church of the future, though he could not tell exactly how far in the future this lay.” But he foresaw the abandonment of the true teachings of the faith by so many within the Church, following the example of so many non-Catholic bodies in his own day.”

“Similarly, he saw the likelihood of legislation being brought in to curtail the Church’s freedom of faith and moral action out of fear of a religion which is, after all, however weak her members, powerful because divine. He foretold the probability of great harm to the Church done by her priests’ infirmities, because of the “malicious curiosity” directed towards Catholics by our fellow countrymen.”

Fr Guy adds soberly that “Behind all these dangers he saw loss of faith as the ultimate cause of all the problems, hence threats coming from within as well as from without. For all this will come to a head in a society which has meanwhile lost all sense of faith in God, whether as Creator or as moral Governor. But in spite of all this, Newman says there will be a remnant “who belong to the soul of the Church.” The answer to all this, for the seminarians whom he was addressing, is what he calls an “ecclesiastical spirit”, meaning seriousness or recollection, the habit of feeling oneself in God’s presence, on being accustomed “to lean on the unseen God.”

Newman, Fr Guy reminds me, commends a “clear consistent idea of revealed truth” which cannot be found outside the Church, as the means of a powerful attraction to many who will be seeking something they don’t understand.” He comments, “Something of this is also well explored in his novel Callista, a neglected masterpiece!”

Finally, I would like to know what positive effects the author thinks Newman’s canonisation will have on the Church in this country? Fr Guy responds unhesitatingly, “The canonisation has come about at a providential time. Just as the Church throughout the world seems overwhelmed by doubt and moral confusion, the sudden appearance of this holy man, not just as a voice of faith and reason but as a powerful intercessor, must be timely. “

He points out that when Newman was travelling back to England from Sicily in 1833, he said “I have a work to do in England”. “Of course, this was the beginning of the Tractarian Movement. But it can hardly be said to have stopped there. The Holy Spirit guided him in those prophetic words, as Newman himself must have realised when all he had worked for in the 1830s lay “pulverised” by the Tract 90 debacle. His work continued as a Catholic with a new intensity and urgency. That work has now also yet again received a new impetus in this event, both for England at a truly critical moment in her history and also for the Church and the world in turmoil.”

Fr Guy is convinced “St John Henry was given an extraordinary understanding of the human condition, one capable of addressing the ferocious storms that mankind is unleashing on itself, all caused by abandonment of faith in God and obedience to His will, and the obliteration of His image in the sanctity of life. He adds that although we “cannot see what his intercession and example will achieve, because so much is in God’s hidden will, yet it is open to us to believe – as I do- that something providential has been revealed to us in Saint John Henry Newman.”