Why Britain's first saint almost 50 years could hold key to reform in Catholic Church

Tim Stanley
Cardinal John Henry Newman is to be canonised almost 130 years after his death - HULTON ARCHIVE

Britain gained its first saint in almost fifty years on Sunday.

John Henry Newman, a 19th century cardinal, was canonised at a morning service in St Peter’s Square.

Pope Francis celebrated Mass and the Prince of Wales was among the thousands of Britons in attendance.

The Prince has lauded Cardinal Newman, an Anglican who converted to Catholicism in 1845, as a saint that our age desperately needs, a theologian who could “advocate without accusation” and “disagree without disrespect”.

Behind the scenes, however, the Church is conducting a rancorous debate over its future, in which Newman will almost certainly be invoked by liberals and conservatives alike.

Amid preparations for Sunday's canonisation, the Vatican hosted a council, or synod, to debate evangelisation in the Amazon, and conservatives fear it will give the green light to married priests.

Liberals in the Catholic church take Newman’s teachings to mean that the Church can change its mind over certain subjects – including the celibacy of priests.  

The prince of Wales attends a Mass for the canonisation of 19th-century British cardinal John Henry Newman

Newman's legacy leaves two key ideas. The first is that the Church must listen to its local congregations, or laity; the second is that Church teaching, or doctrine, “develops” over time. 

At present, the Amazon has a chronic shortage of priests. Some reformers insist that what the locals want most is the ordination of married men, not just to raise recruitment but to reflect better the culture of the region.

Conservatives say that if the Amazonians cannot understand celibacy then it is the job of the Church to explain it to them. Conservatives call this the mission of the Church; some liberals regard it as closer to European colonialism.

As Vatican City was abuzz ahead of Sunday's events, Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, often dubbed America's leading clerical critic of Pope Francis, told The Telegraph in Rome that he was praying to Newman to “intercede” to protect the Church from error. 

Pope Francis arrives to celebrate the Canonisation Mass for John Henry Newman

Influential figures like the journalist Christopher Lamb, on the other hand, argue that Newman would have approved of the synod. “His spirit is now here,” he says. “The ideas that he put forward have now embedded in the Church.”

Mr Lamb has accused some Catholics in the media of making “demeaning, xenophobic and at times racist remarks” against indigenous peoples during the synod.

He sees Newman as having been critical of an over mighty, Euro-centric church and favouring greater decentralisation.

“The power of the Catholic Church is that you can be totally part of your local culture but also part of the universal church,” he says. “That’s what Newman was.”

Cardinal Burke, however, fears Newman is sometimes "subject to misinterpretation".

Sitting in his Roman apartment, with letters by Newman framed on the wall, the cardinal suggests that the Church can only properly consult communities on faith matters when that community is already Catholic.

“For instance, in the working document of the synod it says that when we go into these pagan places and places where the gospel hasn’t been preached, we go there looking for revelation in the culture itself.”

The synod's preparatory document calls “the Lordship of Christ… into question because Christ is just one more element of what they call the Cosmos”. 

The cardinal is careful with his words, but grassroots conservative clergy are increasingly more outspoken. Over lunch near the Vatican, Fr Ed Tomlinson, a parish priest from Kent, argues that the Amazon question is being used for a broader assault on Church teaching by Sixties liberals. 

“What we’ve really got is the boomer generation once again trying to sell us the sexual revolution… speaking through the mask of the Amazon because it a) hides their true motives and b) it means anyone who criticises them can be described as racist.”

A portrait of Cardinal Newman by Sir John Everett Millais hangs in the National Portrait Gallery Credit: Bridgeman Art Library

He finds it suspicious that there is such an overlap between the aims of European liberal priests and indigenous peoples: “It just seems a little neat to me.”

Rev Dr Stephen Morgan, a Catholic deacon, suggests that the subtlety of Newman’s teaching is being lost.

Newman did identify that things can change within the Church, he says, but “things change in order to remain the same… which is why [Newman] uses images drawn from biology. Someone looking at your face now is looking at a face that has developed since you were a three-year-old. But it’s still the same person.”

Conservatives are worried that the synod is being used to tweak practices in a way that will fundamentally alter not just the appearance but the character, even the beliefs of the Catholic Church.

Some fear the Synod for the Pan-Amazon Region could open the way to married priests Credit: Giuseppe Lami/Rex

On the other hand, Austen Ivereigh, a sympathetic biographer of Pope Francis, says that ultimately “consultation and deliberation on matters of Church discipline and faith are now part of the norm of this pontificate and here’s an obvious link with Newman’s teachings”.

Although he was a thorough believer in Catholic doctrine and authority, Newman, says Ivereigh, disliked authoritarianism and centralisation “in a very English way…. He is a person who very honesty looks for the truth and is prepared to go wherever the truth takes him.

“He is a conscience hero. That’s very modern,” says Ivereigh, suggesting that this is perhaps what makes him so appealing today. Newman “is a searcher, and we live in an age of religious searching," he adds.