To meet Ignatius Harrison, the Oratorian tasked with promoting the canonization cause of John Henry Newman, is to catch a little glimpse of the saint himself. Fr. Harrison lives with other Oratorians in the house Newman designed and built in Birmingham, England, and follows his prayer life as closely as possible. He is portly and jowly where Newman was beak-nosed and spindly, yet Fr. Harrison’s black cassock with its crumpled white collar is identical, as are his shyness and exquisite Englishness, and that soft Victorian way of speaking that belongs to the age before television.
At the Vatican press office the astonished indignation of our waiting scrum of reporters and camera crews on being told Harrison won’t give TV interviews was priceless. When the Tablet’s Christopher Lamb and I sat down with Harrison, he was still shaking his head at all the “fuss,” worrying that our taking of his photo was “vanity.”
But then he began speaking in perfectly modulated, TV-friendly soundbites. Harrison is not only soaked in Newman’s thinking but also has the saint’s forthrightness and clarity and bold openness to new things. Newman, he tells us, would have been delighted by the way the church has developed since his time. “His main ideas, that seemed to some in Rome at the time dangerously liberal, have now become embedded in the mind of the church and seem to most of us quite normal and normative,” he points out, citing as examples his insistence on the divine origin of human conscience, his insistence on the protagonism of the laity, and above all his “carefully elaborated” understanding of the true development of Christian doctrine, the way doctrine becomes more true to itself as it grows in response to new times and challenges.
Asked about Pope Francis and the synod on Amazonia, Harrison refuses the role of curmudgeon. “It seems to me—not that I have any prophetic insight—this is going to be even more important in the future than it was to Newman when he was writing, because the church is exploring, as we know, the peripheries, looking at possibilities and opportunities that we really hadn’t considered before,” he says.
He would certainly not be in the opposition camp. “I think John Henry Newman would say, fine, now let’s look at that in the light of the church’s tradition, and in the light of our belief that the Holy Spirit guides the church in every age and at every moment.”
Newman’s mind was so refined and supple that he can sometimes seem like a helicopter that never lands. Thus, his zinger quote in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk—“I shall drink to the Pope, if you please, still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards”—has long been brandished to justify Catholic dissent, whether by liberals annoyed at John Paul II twenty years ago or nowadays by rad-trad opponents of Pope Francis’s magisterium. But Newman saw conscience as an “aboriginal Vicar of Christ,” one that leads eventually to submission to a dogmatic and institutional Christianity.
So while conscience is the “first principle,” it “does not repose on itself,” as he puts it in Grammar of Assent, but “dimly discerns a sanction higher than self for its decisions.” It searches restlessly, one might say, until it comes to rest in submission to the papal magisterium, “like coming into port after a rough sea,” as he famously described his conversion in the Apologia.
The great Jesuit Erich Przywara said that for Newman the “principle of conscience” and “the principle of dogma” turned out to be “one living principle: the dawning and consummate manifestation of the One God—from the beginnings of His appearance in conscience, through to the fullness of His appearance in an authoritatively infallible Church.” And yet—you can’t talk about Newman without these qualifiers—he was no ultramontane, and was wary of papal autocracy. His opposition to the declaration of infallibility came from his accurate prediction that weaponizing the papacy in the nineteenth-century equivalent of the culture wars would end up feeding the false polarization of faith and freedom.
He was prophetic, too, in deploring long pontificates. “It is not good for a Pope to live twenty years,” he said of Pius IX. “It is an anomaly and bears no good fruit; he becomes a God, and has no one to contradict him, does not know facts, and does cruel things without meaning it.” (During the twenty-six-year papacy of John Paul II, Benedict XVI reached the same conclusion.)
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