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Don’t try to sugarcoat St John Henry

(Mazur/cbcew.org.uk)

The canonisation of John Henry Newman was a glorious affair and, for this writer – the chaplain for Newman House at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, since 2004 – a moment of deep personal joy.

Canonisations in Rome in recent years have been rather flat affairs, even last year’s which included Pope St Paul VI and St Oscar Romero. Thanks, though, to the English Oratories and the British embassy to the Holy See, there was a whole series of splendid events which extended and elevated the days in Rome, and which continue this week in England.

Now that Cardinal Newman is St John Henry, it is important that he not be domesticated, turned into a figure admirable and comforting, but shorn of his capacity to challenge. Something of that danger appeared in the very generous editorial which the Prince of Wales wrote for L’Osservatore Romano on the eve of the canonisation.

Let there be no doubt; the presence of Prince Charles and his lavish praise for Newman and, by extension, the contribution of Catholics to British life, was a significant historical moment. And one would expect that the Prince of Wales would emphasise those matters of greater public esteem, namely Newman’s capacity to see all sides of an argument, to argue with attacking, to see in differences the potential for harmony, to be a bridge between Anglicans and Catholics.

Newman though, like all the saints, had some sharp edges too. And we should not lose those. The temptation to domesticate the saints, to remake them over in our own image, is strong. Consider Francis of Assisi, whose Canticle of the Creatures – “Laudato Si’ ”, it begins – is endlessly invoked today in Rome. But rarely is any attention given, after hymning “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon”, to the lines which follow: “Woe to those who die in mortal sin!”

And so during these canonisation days I recalled another great British man of letters, Christopher Hitchens. The late essayist was not in Newman’s mould – he preferred to attack as well as argue – and was animated by a great variety of hatreds, from Henry Kissinger to Bill Clinton, and Joseph Ratzinger to Mother Teresa.

In 2010, he debated a hapless Tony Blair in Toronto on the merits of religion. I attended the event and was rather surprised when Newman was invoked at beginning, by Hitchens, not Blair.

Hitchens opened by saying that it was only fair to treat religion by its greatest exemplars, not its worst scoundrels. There was a touch of Newman in that. And so he began by quoting Newman, which he introduced as a model of religion at its best. It was the famous passage from the Difficulties of Anglicans, in which Newman also speaks of the sun and moon, but not quite in the Laudato Si’ key:

“The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one willful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.”

There it is, Hitchens crowed. Newman – the great, refined, subtle, brilliant, gentle, incomparable Newman! – is a fanatic. For it is fanaticism to prefer the starvation of millions to one little sin. And if Newman is a fanatic, then all religion is fanaticism.

Blair, a man of great intelligence but not comparable learning, was totally flummoxed. (He should have been prepared, as Hitchens had used the same quotation three months earlier in Slate.) Blair should have argued, as Newman did in the lines immediately following, that the Church “considers the action of this world and the action of the soul simply incommensurate, viewed in their respective spheres”.

The saints are meant to be bracing. Even Mother Teresa, upon accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, told the assembled global glitterati that abortion was the greatest threat to peace, as even the most intimate relation of mother and child had become lethal.

Such moments are considered awkward, even by their fellow Catholics. Could anyone even imagine a prelate rising in the synod hall to suggest that it would be better if the entire Amazon went up in flames than for one Amazonian soul to commit a sin? Of course not. But St Francis would have said something similar. Yet he has become domesticated to the extent that even the Vatican observes his feast day by planting a tree amid dubious rituals. So too will be the temptation with Newman, to turn him into a gentle, Victorian house cat. His canonisation should not be a step along that path.

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