Newman: A rare genius

Wednesday, March 27, 2019 - Updated: 8:03 am

By David Mills

He’s not a local saint by any means, but we still have ties to the soon-to-be-sainted Englishman John Henry Newman. The Pittsburgh Oratory has been working and praying for his canonization for a long time. They even have one of his cassocks in a case across from the door to the chapel, which is kind of cool.

Just around the corner from the oratory is one of the world’s centers for studying Newman and passing on his insights. It’s called, naturally enough, the National Institute for Newman Studies (www.newmanstudies.org). Both the director, Bud Marr, and its communications director, Elizabeth Farnsworth, were quoted in last week’s front-page article, “Faithful excited for Newman’s canonization.”

Here’s a very quick biography: Newman lived from 1801 to 1890. He was a star in the Protestant Church of England who entered the Catholic Church in 1845, giving up one of the cushiest lives you can imagine. He was made a Catholic priest in 1847 and served the church faithfully until he died, through continuing Protestant abuse and a good bit of abuse from other Catholics. Pope Leo XIII made him a cardinal in 1879.

He was one of the great preachers of his age. Even his enemies admitted that. He was English Catholicism’s greatest defender. His spirit and his intellect helped earned the church grudging acceptance. When even the prime minister came unglued over the First Vatican Council’s teaching on papal infallibility, Newman defended it boldly yet winsomely.

He wrote one of our language’s greatest autobiographies, called “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” (“A Defense of One’s Life”). In it, he responded to a slander from a Protestant minister, and shredded the guy. While doing that, he offered deep reasons for becoming a Catholic. A good many of the bookish converts (including me) owe their entry into the church in part to that book.

Theologically, he’s the heaviest hitter of the last several hundred years, at least of people writing in English. He wrote lots of books, many of them still major works in Catholic theology, and many of the others still widely read. Many people hope that, with his canonization, he will be declared a doctor of the church.

So what’s so great about Newman?, you may ask. A lot. He really was one of those very, very rare geniuses who succeed at doing a lot of things superbly well. Here’s one thing that I like about his life and his thinking. He was very practical.

No absent-minded scholar, he knew what people were like. That came out in his practical wisdom. For example, for the perfectionists among us, he noted: “Nothing would be done at all if one waited until one could do it so well that no one could find fault with it.” Boom.

It also came out in his theology. Among the subjects he spent a lot of time on was how we come to believe what we believe. Many people answered this as if we were logical machines. Many atheists insist we can’t believe in God because we can’t prove him the way we prove a scientific theory.

Newman saw that we (atheists included) have to decide all the important things without working out all the arguments. We decide based on what he called “converging probabilities,” meaning that a number of things together point to the right answer. We choose it, and in living by it, discern its truth. That’s perfectly rational, and it’s the way we find religious truth.

Here’s another thing I like about him. He had a keen sense of God’s calling and his goodness. God created each of us “to do him some definite service,” he wrote. “He has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.”

God knows what will make us happiest and leads us to it, if we listen. “God has created all things for good; all things for their greatest good; everything for its own good,” he wrote. “He looks on me individually, he calls me by my name, he knows what I can do, what I can best be, what is my greatest happiness, and he means to give it me.”

Mills is working on a book about Catholic dying and death for Sophia Press.

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