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Praise for St. John Henry Newman

Monday, November 04, 2019 - Updated: 9:37 am

By David Mills

“Otherwise, we’re going to come in for some loud throat clearing,” said a Protestant writer in the comment box. He objected, very politely, to Bishop Robert Barron calling the newly sainted Cardinal John Henry Newman, “the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas.”

He suggested changing the claim to “the most important Roman Catholic theologian since Thomas Aquinas.” Fair enough, him being a Protestant with a long list of candidates of his own.

On Oct. 13, Pope Francis declared Cardinal Newman a saint. I posted a collection of short quotes from St. Newman on an ecumenical site. I tried to pick quotes that evangelical Protestants would like, in the hope that they’d like what he said and start reading him. Search “The Wise and Witty New Saint, John Henry Newman” if you want to read it.

By the way, if you want to know more about the new saint, Pittsburgh has been blessed with the National Institute for Newman Studies. It’s one of the major places to learn about him. See www.newmanstudies.org.

I think Bishop Barron got it right. In his depth and range, and his insight and creativity, St. Newman wins easily.

How we know what we believe by faith was one of the questions he explored so deeply. How we can rationally agree to the faith’s supernatural claims, which we can’t prove in the way we try to prove everything else. A very practical man, and a very serious pastor, St. Newman cared for ideas, not as things to play with, but as truths or untruths that deeply affected our lives.

He knew that we just don’t accept the Catholic faith’s claims as ideas, the way we accept the movement of the planets. From what we can see, obviously the sun revolves around the earth, but we take the scientists’ word for it. It doesn’t really matter. But we live by the faith. We change our lives in response to it. We need to know we can trust it.

St. Newman addressed this in a series of sermons he preached as an Anglican, collected in his “Oxford University Sermons.” Then he worked out his ideas in a very technical theological book called the “Grammar of Assent” when he had been a Catholic for some time. (If you want to read St. Newman, don’t start there.)

Many people insist that we can’t believe in God because we can’t prove him the way scientists prove a scientific theory. You’ve heard that from someone. St. Newman had an answer. (What follows is a gross oversimplification. The copy of the “Grammar” I have runs about 400 pages.)

He saw that we human beings 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.

As he said in one of his most famous lines: “The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us.”

Which is, by the way, and St. Newman said this often, a reason to work to be as holy as you can. You may be one of those people whose life helps someone come to see the truth. Or you might not be.

Once we see the truth, we begin living by it, and in living by it we discern its truth. That’s perfectly rational. It’s knowledge we can bet our lives on.

That by itself would be a great accomplishment for a theologian. But he also took up how Christians through history have grown in their understanding of the faith. He thought deeply about what conscience tells us and what Catholic education is. Also how Christians who have a first and final allegiance to God could still be good citizens, to the extent we can be. And lots, a boatload, of other subjects.

St. Newman thought so hard because he wanted to tell us about God, who loves us. “God has determined, unless I interfere with his plan, that I should reach that which will be my greatest happiness. 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 editor of Hour of Our Death (www.hourofourdeath.org).


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