In the fall of 2008, with Pope Benedict XVI expected to visit Great Britain in a year or two to beatify John Henry Newman, the great nineteenth century Catholic convert from Anglicanism, church authorities did what Catholics always do to their prospective saints -- they dug him up.
For five hours on a raw October day, in a rural graveyard outside Birmingham and under the watchful eyes of priests and archeologists, workmen dug through the earth on the spot where Newman was buried in August 1890.
At any moment they expected to hit upon the casket that would hold relics of the future saint -- a skeleton and burial robes that would be transferred to a glorious setting in a gilded church where Newman's memory and sanctity would be venerated by the legion of cultured devotees that has only grown in the 120 years since the English cardinal died.
To a depth of eight feet they dug, until they realized that the grave contained what no one expected: Nothing at all.
Cardinal John Henry Newman had almost entirely disappeared, decomposing into the English clay so all the dirt returned were a brass plaque and a scattering of red tassels from his cardinal's hat. No human remains.
It seemed like a bizarre development for a churchman who may loom even larger in the imagination of contemporary Catholicism than he did in life. Exhibit A for Newman's popularity is the fact that Benedict XVI is beatifying Newman (the last step before formal canonization as a saint) at a Mass on Sunday
to wrap up his historic visit to the United Kingdom.
But the empty grave uncovered two years ago is also an apt metaphor for Newman's contested legacy, given that so many different lobbies and constituencies have sought to claim him as their own, even as his complex life and writings have evaded easy categories. Part of the reason for the varying interpretations is that Newman wrote so prolifically -- essays, poetry, sermons, letters and books -- and he is so eminently and memorably quotable on so many different topics, and from many angles.
"It is not good for a Pope to live 20 years," Newman once wrote of the long-lived Pius IX. "It is an anomaly and bears no good fruit; he becomes a god, has no one to contradict him, does not know facts, and does cruel things without meaning it."
Such frank talk about the failings of the hierarchy tended to make Newman a champion of liberal Catholics -- a courageous man who wrote about the "development of doctrine" in the church at a time when the Vatican was projecting an image of unceasing continuity. He also disagreed strongly with the church's adoption of the doctrine of papal infallibility, and famously wrote that if pressed, he would drink "to Conscience first and the Pope afterwards."
Newman was targeted by one Vatican monsignor at the time as "the most dangerous man in England" and in 1859 Rome forced him to resign as editor of a Catholic periodical when he gently questioned a policy decision by the English bishops. In response he penned an essay, "On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine," arguing that history has shown that the people in the pews often have a better sense of the faith than the bishops.
(Of the laity, Newman once quipped to a bishop: "The Church would look foolish without them." Father John McCloskey highlights Newman's battle for a lay role and against "clericalism" in the church in The Washington Post
, writing that Newman was a "revolutionary prophet as regards the laity looking backward to the primitive Christianity of the early centuries to recover a new paradigm for the 21st.")
Newman was finally made a cardinal as he neared his 80th birthday, with a new pope -- Leo XIII, who had succeeded the old and intractable Pius IX -- acknowledging Newman's value for the modern age despite the charges of "liberalism" launched against him.
Conservatives, on the other hand, point to his repeated attacks against "liberalism" and his shocking mid-life switch from Anglicanism to Catholicism -- set out in his brilliant spiritual autobiography, "Apologia Pro Vita Sua"
-- as potent propaganda in the ongoing battle for souls among the various churches. "To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant," as Newman once said.
Newman was certainly a great promoter of Catholicism as the unique repository of the Christian faith, and his defense of Catholic identity in higher education -- an especially bloody battlefield in modern Catholicism's culture wars -- so delights today's right-wing that a leading conservative group pushing Catholic orthodoxy on college campuses calls itself the Cardinal Newman Society.
As Newman wrote: "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."
Complicating all the interpretations is the fact that Newman had an extraordinarily close relationship with another English Catholic, Father Ambrose St. John
, who had died in 1875, leaving Newman bereft -- and giving today's gay Christians an icon of their own.
"I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband's or a wife's, but I feel it difficult to believe that any can be greater, or any one's sorrow greater, than mine," Newman wrote at the time of his friend's death. "From the first he loved me with an intensity of love which was unaccountable." And elsewhere: "As far as this world was concerned I was his first and last."
Newman's "last, my imperative will" was that he be buried on his own death in the same grave as St. John, and he was. Their joint memorial stone is inscribed with the words Newman had chosen: Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem ("Out of shadows and phantasms into the truth").
Given such torrents swirling around Newman, and his beatification on Sunday, it is no surprise that the battle over his legacy is raging more than ever. The Catholic Church today is so polarized that every side is looking for an edge, and Newman offers so many toeholds.
For example, "The papal hijacking of Cardinal Newman" is the title of a powerful essay by John Cornwell, a prolific British writer and author of a new biography of Newman, who argues that Benedict is pushing Newman's cause for sainthood by twisting the dead cardinal's own life.
"Pope Benedict and Catholic officialdom are presenting Newman as an exemplar of unquestioning papal allegiance," Cornwell writes
, noting that in a speech to Britain's bishops in February the pontiff held up Newman as an example to the world of opposition to "dissent."
"It was like saying that Churchill had been a Trotskyite all along," Cornwell said.
Father Robert Barron, a Chicago priest and popular writer, sharply countered Cornwell, arguing that his piece was "a prime example of the danger of using such tired and unhelpful categories to characterize the thought of serious people."
"On Newman's reading," Barron writes
, "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."
Similarly, Pope Benedict XVI has argued that papal authority does not oppose individual conscience "but [is] based on it and guaranteeing it," and thus he says Newman is an exemplar of true Catholic teaching and not a dissenter.
(For an extended and enlightening discussion of Newman's controversial view on conscience, check out an entry, "Conscience and its counterfeit,"
at the blog of Commonweal magazine, by Father Joseph Komonchak, a church historian and Newman scholar who has posted many other pieces on Newman.)
As for Newman's homosexuality -- or not -- the jury is also out, and the arguments are still raging.
Gay rights advocates see in Newman and his intense relationship with Ambrose St. John a precursor to today's gay couples.
"Many of these platonic relationships were, in fact, expressions of latent homosexuality which never found physical expression because the men concerned lived in a homophobic culture where they either had no conception of the possibility of same-sex love or, for religious reasons, dared not express this love sexually," said Peter Tatchell, a British gay rights campaigner.
Poppycock, respond Newman's more traditional defenders, who argue that Newman's relationship with Ambrose St. John, and his fulsome expressions of affection, were not unusual manifestations of male friendship in the Victorian era.
"It doesn't seem to occur to people like Peter Tatchell that had any such relationship existed between the two men as he insinuates, then the last thing Newman would have wanted was to be buried in the same grave -- nor would the Church authorities have allowed it if such an idea had entered their heads," Father Ian Ker, another recent Newman biographer, wrote in The Times
"That idea was left to the twentieth century when the concept of friendship died."
The debates about Newman are sure to continue long after he is beatified, in part because he is so beloved of so many different Catholics (and Christians of all stripes). "John Henry Newman is simply the most electrifying religious thinker and writer in English of the past 200 years -- subtle, imaginative, deeply learned, at times maddeningly paradoxical and dialectical," as Cornwell put it. "James Joyce and Gerard Manley Hopkins claimed that he was the finest English prose stylist of the 19th century."
Moreover, internal debate is perhaps as much the hallmark of the modern church as anything -- and Newman embodies that.
"This is really a picture of what the Church is like today," Jack Valero, a member of the conservative church group Opus Dei group and head of publicity for Newman's beatification, told The Times
. "It is a battle about what the Church is and how it should work. The Pope is trying to bring all these people together under Newman."
Whether Benedict can succeed is also an open question. Two proven miracles are needed for canonization as a saint in the Catholic Church, and the unexplained healing of a deacon from Boston is the one that pushed Newman to beatification.
Will there be another miracle to make Newman a saint?
"It is taking some time," the pope told Cherie Blair, Catholic wife of the former British prime minister, as she was pressing Benedict to canonize Newman quickly. "Miracles are hard to come by in Britain."
That could be true for the entire Catholic Church at times.