How Benedict XVI and Leo XIII were inspired by Newman

How Benedict XVI and Leo XIII were inspired by Newman

Given his seclusion, it is hard to know what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI thinks about what is going on around him, but it is safe to say that the last few weeks must have been painful. His fellow Germans are now defiantly setting out towards a national synod which will damage their communion with the Universal Church, despite public warnings from Pope Francis himself.

As pope, Benedict advanced an authentic Christian environmentalism, but he never imagined that what appeared to be pagan ecological rituals – coram Pontifice (before the pope) – would arrive on his doorstep in the Vatican gardens on the eve of the Amazon synod.

All the more then will Benedict be consoled by the canonisation of Cardinal John Henry Newman. It was for Newman, after all, that Benedict broke his own custom of delegating others to do beatifications. He went to Birmingham himself to declare Newman Blessed and built one of the most important trips of his pontificate around it.

But Benedict is not the only former pope who will take particular joy in Newman’s sainthood. So too (one presumes from his heavenly station) will Pope Leo XIII.

Indeed, Newman’s canonisation may be thought of as something of a proxy for two popes who are unlikely to be raised to the altars, Leo XIII and Benedict himself. There is no Cause for Leo, and it will take decades before the great abdication of 2013 – utterly without precedent in the entire history of the Church – can be calmly evaluated to judge whether it meets the criterion of a heroic exercise of virtue.

Leo XIII himself pointed to Newman as a model for his own pontificate when he included – to the chagrin of some senior churchmen in England – the convert and scholar among the first cardinals he created. It was a bold indication of where Leo was headed, bestowing the red hat on one who had at times been at odds with his predecessor, Blessed Pius IX.

It is often said that Newman served as a posthumous peritus (theological adviser) for Vatican II, sketching out in the 19th century the principal themes which the Church would take up in the 1960s. There is truth in that, but Leo XIII was the more important figure, seeking to reorient the Church from a tout court rejection of the modern project to an engagement with it. In this Leo found in Newman’s method and sensibility a good model.

Leo was convinced that only a retrieval of the Church’s philosophical and theological patrimony – Thomas Aquinas taking pride of place – could address sufficiently the challenges of the Enlightenment. Newman’s theological method began with immersion in history, especially the apostolic and patristic periods. Newman’s genius was to keep his balance from one historical epoch to the next, sorting out the wheat of continuity from the chaff of corruption, the narrow path of development from the wide road of degeneration.

Leo proposed Newman as the model of a new approach, one that has largely characterised the Church’s engagement of the world since. Not that Leo couldn’t be definitive, as in his declaration of Anglican orders as “absolutely null and utterly void”. That followed Newman’s death. He wouldn’t have disagreed, but would he have thought it opportune?

For Benedict, whose theological work has focused on different subjects from Newman’s, there are two areas of great continuity. First, Newman’s passion for truth. His epitaph – Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem (“From shadows and images into truth”) – and the Ratzinger/Benedict motto – Cooperatores veritatis (“Co-operators of the truth”) – are in perfect harmony. At the prayer vigil for Newman’s beatification in Hyde Park, Benedict explicitly spoke of the splendour of truth, veritatis splendor.

Second, Benedict and Newman have similar preaching styles. Deeply biblical, both turn to the sacred page with great scholarship and attention to detail, but interpret what they find there relative to the whole tradition of faith. Biblical and theological preaching was a mark of the patristic age, which Newman knew so well. It is plausible to argue that Benedict was the greatest papal preacher since the patristic age. Newman’s sermons are still being read. A century hence, so too will Benedict’s, even as those of his predecessors and successors fade away.

In retirement, Benedict has attended great ceremonies in St Peter’s, notably the canonisation of St John Paul II. He is now more frail, so it is unlikely that he will attend the canonisation of John Henry Newman. It is quite possible that he may not want to venture out during the Amazon synod, lest he be disturbed by the theological errors he may encounter.

But in Newman, Benedict will be present, as will Leo XIII.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of