Recently, I was speaking with my Spiritual Director, whom I asked to lead our Parish Retreat this year: Msgr. Charles Fink. In discussing the subject of the retreat, “The Holy Cross of Jesus”, he mentioned that he would like to highlight the thought of John Cardinal Newman because he will be canonized by the Church this Fall. I welcomed the news because I always loved Newman’s writings and his general approach to Spirituality.
Like I often do, I asked myself why I had such a powerful positive feeling about this, and so I decided to take his writings with me as the chief input for my monastic retreat. It was an inspired choice! The depth of his writing and the minute way he analyzes the movements of the soul is amazing. An added and very welcome plus is that he actually wrote in English. With many spiritual writers like St. Teresa of Avila or St. Ignatius Loyola, you are reading a translation of their writing. The translator can be selective about the words he uses, and indeed he has to be selective. Thus something is lost even in the best translation. Newman, however, being British himself, wrote in English and was a supreme stylist of our language. His sentences are models of balance and clarity, thereby making things crystal clear. This is not always so in spiritual writing.
And so I began reading the texts of his sermons and, as I expected, I was deeply impressed by the depth and beauty of his writing and his insights. Here was an honest man who wrote about the mysteries of faith in a precise and pleasing way!
Newman grew up in the Anglican Church and became an Anglican Priest. He taught at Oxford in the 19th century and made the study of Church history, and especially the theological controversies of the early Church, his specialty. In studying the early councils and the correct, orthodox theology they produced, he saw that the road taken by the Anglican Church was wrong and that the true faith was found in the Catholic Church. This took great courage to admit since Catholics were hated in England at that time. He also saw the dangers to the Church of the heresy called Modernism that unfortunately has also affected our understanding of Church since the Second Vatican Council.
Many of the heresies of the past had to do with only addressing one side of a paradox that is uncomfortable to our intelligence. We attempt to resolve the paradox in a way that only protects one side of the truth. Such are the heresies involving the Trinity (Three Persons in One God) and the Incarnation (Jesus is fully human and fully divine). Heretical understanding is faithful only to one side of the mental tension, for example: Jesus is just a great man and not truly God (the heresy of Arianism).
But the heresy of modernism is different. It is a wholesale denial of the supernatural dimension of religion. It strips the Vertical (worship of God) from the horizontal dimension of faith, hence creating the conditions that negate faith completely. It is therefore an all-pervasive heresy.
It is also the most invisible of heresies. In this erroneous mode of thought, we think we are being rational and contemporary in striping away the basics of the faith, until what we are left with is just warmed-over Humanism. And even in that, it is a false humanism because, in purging the human person of his or her divine origin and divine destination, we make of the human being a purely earthly and material creation with a very short shelf life. Man goes in the direction of thinking himself to be a ‘thing’ in nature.
In a sense, this is nothing new. The so-called ‘Enlightenment’ which others have called the ‘Darkening’, laid the foundations of this heresy. Thomas Jefferson literally cut out of the Bible every miracle, thus writing his own “bible” called “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth”.
We see the corrosive effects of Modernism when we witness the wholesale abandonment of the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist: Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. This is admittedly a difficult doctrine to believe in: that the wafer and the wine, after consecration, is Jesus; and that we can unite our very bodies, spiritually and physically, to the historical and real Jesus, both in His humanity and in His divinity. This is a lot to believe in! It is much easier to strip it all down to symbolism.
Our Diocesan newspaper ‘The Tablet’ recently reported on a poll of Catholics that said only one third (33%) believed in the Real Presence. A modernist would say: the people have spoken, change that belief! The New York Times is a herald of modernism, thinking the Church and the Pope can change the teaching of Christ simply because the majority does not believe it anymore! This is the peril of modernism and the reason why Newman fought so strongly against it. He found that the Anglican Church had been almost completely rotted away by it. So he became a Catholic because he felt that the Catholic Church still guarded the Deposit of Faith.
Given the pressures on the Church by media and those Catholics that give their faith over to it, I wonder what Newman would suggest to us today? Our faith must make of each of us a new man, or to be more politically correct, a new person. Soon to be Saint John Newman provides the map of faith to help us keep on the safe road of correct doctrine and not an expedient running after the ‘modern’ approach to all things.
Blessed John Newman, pray for us!