John Cornwell's Hijacking of John Henry Newman by the Rev. Robert Barron

John Cornwell's recent article condemning Pope Benedict XVI for hijacking the legacy of John Henry Newman, turning the great English "liberal" into a "conservative," is a prime example of the danger of using such tired and unhelpful categories to characterize the thought of serious people.

Taking certain texts of the great cardinal out of their literary and historical contexts, Cornwell argues that Newman was the leading liberal Catholic thinker of his time. Then he insinuates that, were he alive today, Newman would be radically out of step with the reactionary Joseph Ratzinger who is, curiously enough, beatifying him.

Well just for starters, I wonder how he squares that judgment with Newman's own famous self-assessment in the speech that he gave upon being named a cardinal: "I consider my entire life's work, both as an Anglican and a Catholic, to have been a battle against liberalism in matters of religion!"

If we're truly interested in interpreting Newman's thought accurately, we might begin by unpacking this remark. By "liberalism," Newman meant the view that "there is no truth in matters of religion," that religion, in a word, is a function of subjective whim or feeling. He was absolutely consistent on opposing this kind of religious subjectivism all his career.

When he was still an Anglican and leader of the Oxford Movement, Newman identified one of his central convictions as the "dogmatic principle," which is to say the affirmation of the objective, intellectual content of religion. And in his midcareer "Idea of a University," Newman strenuously objected to the marginalizing of theology from the circle of proper university disciplines, under the false pretext that religion has to do with private emotions.

Now, it is glaringly obvious that this sort of approach to religion -- privatized, subjective, feeling-based, and relativistic -- is prevalent today. And this helps to explain why Joseph Ratzinger, who has identified the "dictatorship of relativism" as the chief spiritual problem of the present day, is happy to make common cause with John Henry Newman.

With this basic clarification in mind, I would like to turn to some of the specific issues that Cornwell raises. Taking as his cue Newman's motto "Cor ad Cor Loquitur" -- heart speaks to heart -- Cornwell presents the great cardinal as something of a 19th century romantic, uninterested in "clever arguments" and seeing religion as "falling in love."

Well, anyone who has even glanced at Newman's masterpiece, "The Grammar of Assent," or his autobiography, "Apologia pro vita sua," would know that he was intensely interested in argumentation and intellectual precision. To be sure, he thought that much more than argument goes into the act of assenting to religious propositions -- that the "heart" is indeed deeply involved -- but this doesn't mean for a moment that he was an anything-goes sentimentalist.

Further, Cornwell's assertion that Newman thought people should "follow conscience wherever it may lead" is, to say the very least, misleading. Newman was fascinated by conscience all his life, but this was because he saw it as "the aboriginal vicar of Christ in the soul." Conscience, for him, is an extremely demanding and constraining power, the voice of someone who both rewards and punishes. The one thing it is not is a warrant to choose according to one's private desire.

What is perhaps most annoying about Cornwell's article is his tendency to see Newman as an anti-Roman "dissenter," an opponent of the pope and ecclesiastical authority. Even the most cursory acquaintance with Newman's writings shows that this is not the case. Newman consistently argued that doctrine develops and unfolds over time, much like a living organism or a flowing river. As theological ideas are, across the centuries, weighed, assessed, turned over and around by lively minds, their various aspects come to light and their implications and consequences appear more clearly. Dogmas are not dumbly passed on like footballs from one generation to another; rather, they live.

This, by the way, is the context for Newman's celebrated remark, mentioned by Cornwell, that "to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often." However, precisely as living things, doctrines can develop in unhealthy ways, just as trees can send off branches that eventually wither or organisms can give rise to cancers. Newman identified the many heresies that have beset orthodox Christianity from its earliest days -- from Arianism to liberalism -- as types of this devolution or corruption of doctrine. And it is because doctrines can unfold in this problematic way that a living voice of authority is required, someone who can determine disputed questions.

On Newman's reading, a church without a clear teaching authority would be as dysfunctional as a baseball game without an umpire. He definitely encouraged the lively play of the theological conversation, and he was indeed impatient with a fussy, interventionist exercise of Roman authority; however, none of this makes him a "dissenter" in the contemporary sense of the term. He defended the Pope's infallibility as a bulwark against indifferentism and doctrinal drift.

Given the complexity and nuance of Newman's thought, it is not surprising that he is claimed by both "liberals" and "conservatives" today, but I think that a disciplined reading of the whole of Newman reveals that he cannot be caught in either of these simplistic categories. What should especially give Cornwell pause is the fact that Benedict XVI -- one of the most theologically astute popes in history and someone who has read Newman for many years -- is presiding with enthusiasm over the great man's beatification. This in itself should cause Cornwell to question his interpretation of both John Henry Newman and Joseph Ratzinger himself.

The Rev. Robert Barron is an Archdiocesan priest of Chicago since 1986, a professor at University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, a prominent theologian, and an author of numerous books, DVDs, CDs, and essays. His global media ministry called "Word On Fire" reaches millions of people through its Web site,, its TV and radio programs, YouTube videos and other media outlets.

Barron, a Chicago-area native, received a master's degree in philosophy from the Catholic University of America in Washington in 1982 and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Institut Catholique de Paris in 1992. Chicago's Francis Cardinal George recognizes Barron as "one of the church's best messengers."