A great day for the Church and for that multitude of us who revere Cardinal Newman as a thinker, a writer, and a model of holiness.
writing in that distinguished theological journal the New York Review of Books) calling Newman a "radical"--like Wills himself, get it?--and Pope Benedict "the best-dressed liar in the world." I'm old enough to have had at one time a tempered admiration for Garry Wills, back in his Bare Ruined Choirs days. Lately I find myself hoping that Wills will wake up in his right mind one of these days and instantly regret pretty much everything he's published over the last 25 years -- well, maybe with the exception of Lincoln at Gettysburg and his translation of Martial's Epigrams, two intelligent if wildly different studies in the power of language.
In one sense, Newman certainly was a "radical"; his conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism is a perfect object lesson in Christian radicalism--a return to the roots of truth. But he was no "radical Catholic" in the way Garry Wills would like to think. Yes, Newman championed conscience in his famous toast--but conscience as the Catechism understands it, not as Hans Kung or Joan Chittister or Nancy Pelosi misrepresents it. And yes, Newman expressed reservations about the First Vatican Council's definition of the dogma of papal infallibility--but as a prudential matter, a question of timing and policy, not because he himself did not believe the dogma. (He did believe it, and wrote iron-clad defenses of it.) These are all matters of record for anyone willing to pay attention to the record--Newman's own writings, the standard biographies (Ker, Zeno, Martin), histories of the First Vatican Council. Yet the legend of "Newman the dissenter" is still resurrected from time to time by hero-starved Catholic dissenters, in much the same way that Protestants still talk about the Council of Nicaea as a Catholic hijacking of the New Testament Church, or anti-Catholic secularists still talk about Pius XII's collaboration with the Nazis. Some lies are simply too useful to abandon.
What Newman genuinely offers us today, above all, is not an endorsement of one side or another in the Catholic culture wars, but rather a call to action...oops, let me rephrase that...a warning and an encouragement about the real culture war in which Western civilization is now embroiled. It is the war against moral and epistemological relativism, and Newman gave his whole adult life in a struggle against it. Here is one of his most famous statements on the subject--the "Biglietto Address," the short speech he made in 1879 when he accepted the cardinal's biretta. (Newman's use of the term liberalism here is perhaps unfortunate--even though it was precisely the correct term at the time--because it suggests to modern ears that relativism is tied in some way to a political philosophy. It need not be.)
In any case, Newman's words are startlingly prophetic. And, in their tone of calm Christian hope at the end, they are comforting:
Blessed John Henry Newman, pray for us.