A champion of the laity


Cardinal Newman will be canonised by Pope Francis on 13th October.  One of the leading members of the Glasgow Newman Circle highlights his lasting contribution to the church.

John Henry Newman lived through virtually all of the 19th century, being born in 1801 and dying in 1890.  He was a controversial figure in both the Church of England and the Catholic Church, to each of which he made a huge contribution.  His views were sought and circulated at the First Vatican Council in the 19th century, while in the 20th century his thought was influential at the Second Vatican Council to the extent that Pope Paul VI called that council ‘Newman’s Council’.

As the historian and theologian Adrian Hastings wrote of him, he was ‘the most powerful theological mind writing in English in the 19th century and the most creative and influential thinker of his time… His criticism of what happened at Vatican I, his insistence on the importance of the laity, the primacy of conscience, the acceptability of evolution, and much else were all far out of line with the dominant attitudes of Victorian clerical Catholicism’.

Born into a Church of England family, Newman went to school in Ealing and at the age of 16 to Trinity College Oxford.  He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1825 and, as a Fellow of Oriel College, he was in the 1830s the principal figure of the Oxford Movement, the High Church revival in the Church of England.  After years of study, writing and preaching, he joined the Catholic Church in 1845 and was ordained a priest in 1847, and later introduced the Congregation of the Oratory into England.  Despite what were seen as his liberal views, he was made a Cardinal by Pope Leo XIII in 1879, the Pope later saying, ‘My Cardinal!  It was not easy, it was not easy.  They said he was too liberal’.

In fact, the Catholic Church that Newman joined saw itself threatened by liberalism throughout Europe.  Secular liberals, inspired by the legacy of the French Revolution, intended to reduce or eliminate the role of the Church in public life and civil society.  Crucially for the papacy, the movement for Italian unification – based on liberalism and nationalism – threatened to absorb the Papal States into a united Italy.  To all this, papal reaction was largely one of condemnation, dogmatism and increasing centralisation.  This policy was encouraged by Ultramontanism.

Ultramontanism – ‘over the mountains’ (the Alps) to Rome – was in part an opposition to the perceived liberal threat.  It was a belief in the importance of a monarchical style of papal control of the Church and the ‘Romanisation’ of all aspects of Catholic life.  Such centralisation would, of course, be made easier by modern developments in the means of communication.  Ultramontanism was a strong element in English Catholicism and at one point its adherents controlled the Catholic press there.

They were pleased when in 1864 Pope Pius IX issued the encyclical Quanta Cura with the Syllabus of Errors condemning eighty alleged errors, among which was the view that it’s unnecessary for Catholicism to be the state religion, with other religions being banned, and that people have full liberty to express their ideas.  The conclusion to the list of condemned propositions was ‘That the Roman Pontiff can and should reconcile himself and make peace with progress, with liberalism and with modern culture’.

Meriol Trevor, Newman’s biographer, pointed out that these documents started from the belief ‘that the Catholic Church possesses the revelation of God’s truth and his will for humanity and consequently has the absolute right to announce it and enforce conformity so far as possible’.  She drew attention to the fact that the maxim of those who thought in this way was ‘Error has no rights’, a view clearly abandoned – despite opposition – at Vatican II.  Newman did not, of course, accept this view, and later would write eloquently about the rights of conscience.  This, and much else, put him at odds with the ultramontanes, many of whom regarded all Papal statements as infallible.

In 1870 Infallibility itself became the central issue at Vatican I.  Despite the misgivings of many bishops, there was a campaign to have infallibility applied to all papal statements.  Cardinal Manning, who was urging an extreme definition, saw papal dogma, in the words of John Cornwall, as ‘the antidote that would confirm Catholics in their faith while withstanding the spread of atheism, secularism and evolutionary science’.  Newman, however, wrote in June 1870, ‘I certainly think this agitation of the Pope’s Infallibility most unfortunate and ill-advised, and I shall think so even if the Council decrees it’.

He was invited to Rome to be a peritus at the Council, an invitation he refused on health grounds, but his ‘inopportunist’ views, expressed privately, were copied publicly among the bishops.  Providentially, Newman believed, the eventual definition of infallibility by Vatican I was much more restricted than what had been a advocated by the ultramontanes.

However, if Newman’s views on this are important, perhaps more relevant in our time – and exceptional among senior churchmen of his time – is his vision of the role of the laity.  In a letter to Cardinal Manning about an article by Newman, Monsignor George Talbot, who had the title of Papal Chamberlain, wrote, ‘What is the province of the laity?  To hunt, to shoot, to entertain.  These matters they understand, but to meddle with ecclesiastical matters they have no right at all…’.  This is a classic – if, to 21st century eyes, bizarre in its expression – statement of a clericalism which still exists and which Pope Francis has called a ‘leprosy’.

In contrast are Newman’s words: ‘The Church flourishes’, he wrote, ‘when at one with the faithful but not when she cuts off the faithful from the study of her divine doctrines and the sympathy of her divine contemplations, and requires from them [an implicit faith] in her word, which in the educated classes will terminate in indifference, and in the poorer in superstition’.

Significantly, during the visit of Pope Benedict XVI, who had been a peritus at Vatican II, to England, he quoted approvingly Newman’s statement: ‘I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it’.

Newman’s views were influential at Vatican II, of which Adrian Hastings wrote in the year 2000.  He said the Council ‘called for a recognition of pluralism, diversity between local churches and collegial rather than monarchical government …but the difficulty of implementing such ideals through a Roman Curia shaped on ultramontane principles has been central to the tensions within Catholicism ever since’.

By an ironic reversal, though, ultramontanism in the present pontificate – instead of supporting and encouraging papal policy – opposes and seeks to delegitimise the Pope, hating his proposed reforms and all talk of a synodal Church.  At this troubling yet hopeful time, the canonisation of John Henry Newman is a sign that Vatican II is still relevant and important.  In the words of the theologian Nicholas Lash, honouring Newman ‘is a powerful signal that the Church has not abdicated its dedication to the movement of renewal and reform that the Council so wholeheartedly initiated’.

The Newman Association in Scotland (in a box/section at the end of the article)

Dan Baird writes: When in 1942 a Catholic organisation was formed that was concerned with, among other matters, adult education, it was appropriate that it adopted John Henry Newman as its patron and called itself the Newman Association.  Currently the Association states its aim as  ‘To further the mission to the world of the Christian religion with particular reference to the Roman Catholic Church and in the light of the life and work of the Blessed John Henry Newman, by promoting greater understanding of the Christian faith and the application of its principles to the contemporary world’.  For this, it organises lectures and conferences.  Its main activity is the promotion of talks and discussion through its local circles.

I first became aware of the Glasgow Circle in the early 1960s during and following the Second Vatican Council – a time of great interest and enthusiasm for Catholics – when the circle was active and well-attended.  Later, though, its numbers and activities declined and by the late 1990s the Circle really existed only on paper.

At that time, I had retired from teaching and was a postgraduate student at Strathclyde University.  There, I became involved in discussions with Gerry Carruthers – my course coordinator – and Gilbert Markus, at that time the university chaplain, on the need for a city-wide lay organisation, committed to Vatican II, to promote public meetings and discussion on religious questions.

With the help of Professor Eileen Anne Millar, who had done so much to maintain the Circle’s membership during its decline, we decided to revive the Glasgow Newman.  The first meeting of the revived Glasgow Circle was in February 2000, since when we have promoted, often in conjunction with Open House, public meetings, panels and discussions with a variety of speakers on a wide range of topics.  After almost twenty years, and in the year of Newman’s canonisation, we have good attendances and a solid support.

Dan Cronin writes: My wife, Lyn, and I first came in contact with the Edinburgh Newman Circle in 1975, when we moved to Edinburgh from Dundee.  We joined the Circle at an xciting time – the 1970s were seeing the heady days after Vatican II.  The Circle was already well established, and met fortnightly, with a busy programme based on meetings with visiting speakers.  There were lively social activities too, and discussions of interesting books.  Father Marcus Lefébure O.P. was chaplain and took a large part in shaping the programme.  It followed the general aim of the Newman Association to enable and encourage Christians, and most especially Catholics, to learn more about their faith and to nurture it by thinking about it, discussing it together and asking questions, all this being done freely and without fear of criticism or rejection.

At that time the Newman Association had a Scottish Council made up of representatives from the Circles in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow.  From time to time the Scottish Council ran national conferences on subjects of current interest.  One, in 1976, drew particular notice since the principal speaker was Cardinal Basil Hume who was on his first visit to Scotland since his appointment as cardinal.

Over time membership of the Edinburgh Circle dwindled and fell to the point when, about the mid-1980s, the Circle decided that it should be wound up.  Before long, however, the governing Council of the National Newman Association was urging that an Edinburgh Circle should be re-formed and I was asked to try to make that happen.  These moves were warmly supported by the then Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, the late Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien.

These efforts met with success when in the late 1990s a new Edinburgh Newman Circle was set up.  It has worked well, though not on as wide a scale as forty years ago.  The Circle decided against looking for a chaplain.  It judged that priest numbers were now too few for us to expect one to give pastoral care to such a group.  The Circle now looks to meet around eight times a year, the meetings taking the familiar form of talks by visiting speakers or by our own members.  An important development has been that, when a change venue was needed, the Circle was welcomed by a local Church of Scotland parish.  This has been a positive step and has greatly increased our ecumenical interest.

The Circle looks forward to celebrating John Henry Newman’s canonisation.  It will mark the occasion by showing a short film about him on Tuesday 22nd October at 7.30 p.m. in Mayfield Salisbury Church, Edinburgh.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.