Wednesday, June 30, 2010


I dragged John Henry Newman into the picture I recently drew, of the Donatist controversy as illuminating our current Church stresses over sexual abuse of minors. The influence of St Augustine’s insights in Newman’s own conversion can be read famously in the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, his spiritual autobiography. But thanks to an e-conversation with a friend, I think it proper to bring the Cardinal in a bit more directly to the conversation.

In discussing his state of mind, religiously speaking, since becoming a Catholic in 1845, Newman wrote that there were doctrines in “the Christian Creed, whether as held by Catholics or by Protestants, [that are] beset with intellectual difficulties…” But these were not so troublesome for him as others might think they should be: “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.”

Granted that Newman was, as he says, referring to doctrinal issues, yet the principle seems good to me in today’s Church context, as well. There are many things in the Church, especially with regard to its behaviors and the ways in which some exercise authority and impose discipline, at all levels of the Church’s governance, which give me trouble. In some cases these things seem arbitrary; in other cases, unjust. In most cases they are the flaws of individuals in the Church. They sometimes do make life difficult—for some, very difficult.

And of all people, Newman knew of this kind of pettiness in his own life as a Catholic. It was a pettiness rooted, I believe the evidence shows, in their deep-set jealousy of his brilliance, balance and regard by others in England (Catholic and Protestant alike: writings like his Apologia and Letter to the Duke of Norfolk led even Protestants in England to refer to him as “our Newman”).

So we need to focus not on the difficulties that the Church’s blundering has created, not on the difficulties that behaviors and policies have encouraged, not on the difficulties that pettiness has inflicted, but on the proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord. Difficulties do in fact make things difficult; they do not have to lead us to doubt or distancing from our Faith.

A bit of lagniappe: Newman is traditionally given as the source for the saying Growth is the only evidence of life. In fact, Newman tells that this is a saying based on the writings of Thomas Scott, an Englishman who made the spiritual journey from Unitarianism to Calvinism in the late 18th century—whom Newman read and was influenced by even before he came up to Oxford as an undergraduate.

The other “proverb” Newman says he took from Scott was Holiness rather than peace. This surely was the summary of his life as a Catholic, until Pope Leo XIII made him a cardinal in 1879, lifting the cloud from him forever.

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