09/22/2010 10:18 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

New York Review Of Books: Newman's Saga With The Catholic Church

"Stealing Newman"
By Gary Wills

Pope Benedict XVI is the best-dressed liar in the world. And in England he presided over the best set-designed lie imaginable. He beatified the nineteenth-century Oxford theologian John Henry Newman, presenting him (in the penultimate step toward canonization) as a docile believer in papal authority, an enemy of dissent, and a rebuke to anyone who questions church authority. When the pope declared authentic the bogus miracle on which he bases the beatification--the claim that a deacon from Boston was cured of a spinal disease after praying to the cardinal--he said in a letter from Rome to England last February "In a social milieu that encourages the expression of a variety of opinions on every question that arises, it is important to recognize dissent for what it is, and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate." This is a Newman few who are acquainted with his radical views would recognize.

Newman is a touchy matter in England. He left the Anglican church, thinking it historically disabled as a channel of Christian teaching. To that extent, Benedict is in a good position for claiming Newman's allegiance to Rome. Admittedly, this is hardly a way to promote ecumenical peace between English and Roman Catholics. For many years Rome would not canonize martyrs like Edmund Campion because they were killed under Queen Elizabeth. Admitting to hostility between London and Rome was considered undiplomatic. But now the pope wants to say that Newman was a standing affront to the church of England--and to say it in England, where he has encouraged Anglican priests to come join the Catholic church. Perhaps, too, he thinks this is a way to reclaim wavering loyalties of the British, and especially the Irish, who have expressed revulsion at the sexual scandals of predatory priests. The pope is breaking his own rule in making the beatification by his own personal act rather than by a brief of the Congregation of Sacred Rites, so he obviously means to be dramatic despite his reputation as an undramatic man.

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