While college seminarians at St. Bernard’s in Rochester, we were privileged to take an intensive course on the life and work of Cardinal John Henry Newman, whose Beatification is expected soon. (Our world literature studies ranged from Dante to Robert Browning, to Newman, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc.)
Newman was certainly the finest preacher the 19th-century English-speaking world ever knew, as well as its ranking religious intellectual. A prodigious writer, his many books comprise a library of profound theological wisdom. He literally represents a Church Father redux, another Athanasius. He is so great that his entrance into the Catholic Church is itself a magnificent sign that the Church of Rome must be the true Church of Christ.
An Oxford Don, Newman served as a Fellow of Oriel College, and later, as Vicar of St. Mary’s, the church of Oxford University. But while studying the Church Fathers of the fourth century, he began to harbor doubts about Anglicanism. In 1833, with some friends, he launched the celebrated Oxford Movement as a means of blunting the intrusion of liberalism into religion – from the age of 15, accurate dogma had been the ultimate principle of his religious life.
Newman’s decision to become a Catholic occurred while he was writing one of his many masterpieces, Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. By October 1845, he had invited the Passionist Father, Blessed Dominic Barberi, to receive him formally into the Catholic Church. Father Dominic (the first Passionist in England), who arrived at Newman’s residence at Oxford during a driving rainstorm, had taken a place next to a fireplace when the great Dr. Newman, whose every word or move was reported by the media, entered and, kneeling at the feet of the immigrant priest from Italy, asked to go to confession and be admitted to the Church of Rome.
Newman’s lifelong rejection of liberalism in religion is not only evident in his various books and tracts, but also in his "Biglietto Speech," the address he gave when informed that he had been named a Cardinal. (Biglietto merely means a "notice" or a "ticket." Papal protocol required that a notice be hand-delivered to a Cardinal-designate.) The famed speech was published in full by The Times of London the very next morning. Translated into Italian, it appeared the following day, 14 May 1879, in L’Osservatore Romano.
The "Biglietto Speech" is Newman’s deeply personal affirmation that he had always resisted, to the best of his powers, "the spirit of liberalism in religion." Liberalism in religion, the speech explains, "is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily."
"I lament it deeply," Newman added, "because I foresee that it may be the ruin of many souls; but I have no fear at all that it really can do aught of serious harm to the Word of God, to Holy Church, to our Almighty King, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Faithful and True, or to his Vicar on earth … "
Newman’s worst fears were soon realized, and continue to be realized now. We literally live in an age when the principle of contradiction, a bedrock rule of valid reasoning, is ignored or ridiculed. (Aristotle would have turned his back in disgust.) No proposition can be true and false; either it is true or it is false. Either God exists or God does not exist. How can an avowed atheist deny that God exists if his or her starting premiss is that there is no God? If human dignity derives from godliness, how can there be any such reality as atheistic humanism? How can one "respect" a doctrine which he or she knows and believes is erroneous?
Relativism – credal or moral – leads everywhere and anywhere except to truth. A survey of "values" courses being taught today is really what the noun "survey" connotes; namely, a simple overview of what is happening – not an analysis of the principles involved in each theory discussed, never a judgment as to whether a theory might reasonably be acceptable. Completely absent, of course, is acknowledgment that between good and evil lies a chasm that is and will always be impossible to bridge. Yet without such an acknowledgment, as Nobel Laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn noted in a famed BBC interview some decades ago, it is impossible to structure a meaningful life.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.