Christians get a new saint just when they need him most
The pope's latest canonisation is good news in a time when being religious is viewed as a bit loopy, or even sinister
By the age of 32, Augustus Pugin had become one of England’s best-known architects – sometimes too well known.
He used to tell a story about being recognised on a train by a woman who exclaimed: “You, sir, are a Catholic: I must get into another carriage.” A fairly common reaction in the days when his faith was seen as a kind of virus infecting the stupid, the untrustworthy and the Irish.
So when John Henry Newman, one of the greatest minds of the Victorian era, chose to convert to Catholicism, he would have expected the abuse that followed. He would not have expected a sainthood.
The whole process will seem bizarre to non-Catholics: proof, perhaps, of what a funny bunch we are. You need two miracles to qualify as a saint and the second Newman miracle has just been recognised: a woman from Chicago says her prayer to him stopped a miscarriage. Vatican authorities agree that it defied medical explanation.
So Britain will soon have its first new saint since 1976: a former Oxford don whose life and (copious) works will now be held up as an example.
You might think that this is all a bit odd, and that something else is probably going on. You’d be right. The Catholic Church has long understood that saints convey religious points better than any number of religious texts. Take Catherine of Alexandria, whose teenage evangelisation efforts in the fourth century so irritated Emperor Maxentius that he had her cross-examined in public by 50 of Rome’s finest philosophers. He thought they’d humiliate her, exposing her errors to the world. Instead, each one ended up converting to Christianity. She was put to death, but not defeated.
Now, that’s a story.
John Paul II grasped the power of such stories, recognising 482 saints – more than all of his predecessors put together. Their life stories made points about marriage, about protecting the lives of unborn children, about resisting evil in authority. In an age that liked celebrity, he created a lot more of it.
In Cardinal Newman, we have a young Oxford don who was kicked out of university because he had become a Catholic. He went against the grain, at some cost, to follow his conscience; and then eloquently explained himself, thereby doing his cause a momentous service. It’s an inspiration for anyone in public life who admits to being religious (Catholic, Evangelical or anything else) and, in so doing, chooses a flintier path to walk down. Especially at a time when God-botherers are seen to be a bit loopy, or even sinister.
Take, for example, traditionalist UK politician Jacob Rees-Mogg, who tends not to give speeches about abortion or moral issues. His sin is to answer, rather than dodge, questions about his faith. His response is always the same: that he accepts Catholic teaching, and has nothing to add to it. He says very little to defend church teaching (sainthood, therefore, looks like a remote possibility). The only logic for calling him a bigot, as many do, is the assumption that Catholicism is inherently bigoted, malign or suspect. It’s history repeating itself.
We saw an interesting example of this in 2018 when Glasgow Caledonian University expelled a priest, Mark Morris, who held a prayer meeting in protest against a gay pride march. His prayers were said outside the campus, yet to the authorities this didn’t matter: he had sinned against its orthodoxy and could no longer be university chaplain.
When universities start expelling priests for being too Catholic, it suggests the return of an era Newman would have recognised. But this time, all kinds of religious people might find themselves on the wrong side of the accepted orthodoxy.
But the power of Cardinal Newman was not that he somehow trotted off to the wilderness: he helped encourage a great revival of his faith, in no small part because he was, and remains, the most famous example of someone who thought his way into his religion.
The accusation he hoped to fight was that thoughtful, dependable people cannot be Catholic. The idea facing today’s churchgoers (not to mention mosque-goers and synagogue-goers) is that you can’t be rational, trustworthy and religious. You don’t have to look too hard for the suggestion that religious people are a bit nutty. George Osborne used to mock the UK’s department for work and pensions as the “department of worship and prayer” - the joke being that Iain Duncan Smith was a churchgoer, and that his welfare reforms were religiously influenced, ergo, probably unsound.
Tony Blair was famously told by Alastair Campbell not to “do God” because it might make him seem deranged. In a country where barely a quarter profess a belief in any God, it was sound advice.
I know a few politicians, some of them ministers, who feel they need to keep their Christianity concealed like a dirty secret. And while many of them might not like Jacob Rees-Mogg, they are struck by the attacks against him: how he’s described as being unfit for senior office on account of his “extreme views” – his Catholicism. When Tim Farron quit as leader of the Liberal Democrats he said he found it impossible to “remain faithful to Christ while leading a political party in the current environment”.
This is what Cardinal Newman was famous for: making the case for his faith in a hostile environment, explaining how rationality and reason led him to worship God the way he did. It was difficult. But, as he put it, “10,000 difficulties do not make one doubt”.
When Pope Benedict beatified Cardinal Newman nine years ago – starting the ball rolling to sainthood – he went to Birmingham to do it himself. Popes almost never do this kind of heavy lifting, a sign that the canonisation had a political point to make.
Speaking to politicians in Westminster Hall, he spelled it out: “The world of reason and the world of faith need one another, and should not be afraid to enter a profound and ongoing dialogue.” It was a plea for a ceasefire – or at least a detente – between the worlds of politics and religion. But a great many politicians, of all faiths, are afraid – not just to enter the dialogue, but to expose themselves to hostile fire.
The pope can’t do much about that. But he has at least given them a new saint to pray to.
– © The Daily Telegraph