UK Hearts Opened to Message of Faith and Reason

Interview With Newman Scholar Joseph Pearce

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By Genevieve Pollock

NAPLES, Florida, SEPT. 23, 2010 ( During the papal U.K. trip, the hearts of millions were opened to Benedict XVI’s words about faith and reason, a message also underscored by the newly beatified Cardinal Newman.

Joseph Pearce, an Englishman and a Catholic convert who has studied and written about Cardinal John Henry Newman, spoke with ZENIT about the Pope’s visit to the United Kingdom and the beatification ceremony.

Pearce, currently serving as writer-in-residence and associate professor of literature at Ave Maria University, has published numerous books on the great Christian intellectuals including «Literary Converts,» «Tolkien: Man and Myth,» «C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church» and «The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde,» all available from Ignatius press.

In this interview with ZENIT, he spoke about the importance of Blessed John Henry Newman’s example and message for laity and clergy alike.

ZENIT: Benedict XVI had never presided over a beatification ceremony until that of Blessed John Henry Newman on Sunday. Why do you think the Pope chose Cardinal Newman in particular to single out with this gesture?

Pearce: The Holy Father was certainly paying a special tribute to Blessed John Henry Newman in his decision to preside personally over the beatification ceremony. 

I believe it to be a reflection of the Holy Father’s personal admiration for Newman, a great theologian who has exerted a huge and significant influence in the century or more since his death. Indeed Pope Benedict has acknowledged Newman’s role in his own spiritual and intellectual development.

I believe also, however, that Pope Benedict sees the figure of Newman as a powerful witness to the modern world whose life and work have the power to assist the Church in her re-evangelizing of the secularized culture of England in particular and Europe in general. 

As such, I think that the Pope’s decision to beatify Newman personally was also connected to the fact that the beatification would take place in England, thereby facilitating the papal visit. 

There is no doubt that his visit to the United Kingdom provoked a rabid reaction from the secular fundamentalists who appear to be in the ascendant but, as we have seen, it also served as a catalyst for a nationwide catharsis. 

During the four days of engagements, millions of people in England and Scotland truly opened their hearts to the Pope and his message of faith and reason amid the quagmire of a decaying culture; the Holy Father’s words shone forth as a beacon of sanity and sanctity.

ZENIT: In his homily at the beatification ceremony, the Pope specifically mentioned Blessed John Henry Newman’s appeal for an «intelligent, well-instructed laity.» Could you say something more about this?

Pearce: The Pope was referring to Newman’s role as a trailblazer in the push to empower the laity to take their place alongside the priesthood in the mission to evangelize the secular culture. 

Newman believed that the laity needed to be well-instructed in all aspects of the faith so that every Catholic could defend the Church and its mission in an increasingly secular culture. 

In his work on the needs and nature of Catholic education, much of which was published in his important work, «The Idea of a University,» Newman emerges as one of the finest and most eloquent advocates of an integrated liberal arts education for the laity. 

The underlying and underpinning principle of such an education is that the Catholic laity must be well versed in theology, philosophy, literature, and history, and that they must be able to see how each of these intellectual disciplines informs the other. 

One cannot understand the history of western civilization or the great works of art and literature that it has bequeathed to posterity without understanding the philosophy and theology that was the wellspring of the civilization itself. 

This great and axiomatic truth of education has been lost by the secular academy but has become the animating principle behind the revival in the liberal arts and in the restoration of the so-called great books to the curricula of many colleges, particularly in the United States. 

Newman’s influence in this revival cannot be overstated. The «intelligent, well-instructed laity,» the chief beneficiaries of this revival in education, will be well prepared to defend the faith and evangelize the culture.  

ZENIT: The Pope also spoke about Blessed John Henry Newman’s example of priestly life and ministry. In your opinion, what aspects of his priestly testimony are most noteworthy?

Pearce: A major aspect of Newman’s philosophy was that a living faith must be lived faithfully. 

He believed that a life of sanctity was the greatest and surest witness to the truth of Christianity. Although this is true for all Catholics, it is particularly true for those who have the priestly vocation. 

The absence of such sanctity is a great cause of scandal, as can be seen in the fallout surrounding the instances of sexual abuse carried out by wayward and fallen priests. 

Newman’s own life as a priest was exemplary, serving to illustrate the power of the priestly ministry if lived in accordance with the call to holiness implicit to the ministry itself. 

Although Newman is best known as an intellectual whose works of literature, history, philosophy and theology have exerted a profound influence, the Holy Father was reminding us that he was also a priest who ministered to his flock with the caritas that saves souls and wins them to heaven.  

ZENIT: Could you say something about your own reflections — as one who has spent significant time studying Newman — regarding the beatification ceremony? 

Pearce: As an admirer of Newman, as an Englishman, and, more to the point, as an English Catholic convert, I was simply overjoyed by his beatification. 

Newman is rightly considered to be the father of the Catholic revival and the seismic power of his conversion continues to reverberate throughout the English-speaking world. 

The number of converts who owe their conversion, under grace, to Newman, at least in part, are too numerous to mention. As such, a few will suffice to illustrate the point. 

Gerard Manley Hopkins, arguably the finest poet of the Victorian era, was received into the Church by Newman in 1866. 

Oscar Wilde fell under Newman’s spell as an undergraduate and continued to admire him throughout his life. Wilde’s ultimate deathbed conversion, the culmination of a lifelong love affair with the Church, was due in part to the beguiling presence of Newman’s enduring influence. 

Hilaire Belloc and J.R.R. Tolkien both studied at the Birmingham Oratory School, which had been established by Newman, the former during Newman’s own lifetime and the latter in his ghostly shadow a few years after his death. In both cases, Newman’s role in their Christian formation contributed to the faithful fortitude that animated their lives as Catholic writers of the utmost importance. 

Others such as Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Muriel Spark could be mentioned among the many others, documented in my book «Literary Converts» (Ignatius Press), who owed their conversion, at least in part, to Newman’s benign influence. 

Last, and indubitably least, I must mention that Newman’s beautiful and profound «Apologia pro Vita Sua» played a significant role in my own path to conversion.     

ZENIT: What do you see as Blessed John Henry Newman’s most important message to Catholics today?

Pearce: Newman’s most important message to today’s Catholics is conveyed in the many works in which he affirms and elucidates the inextricable bond between faith and reason. 

In his famous sermon on «Development in Christian Doctrine» he illustrates the paradoxical way in which the Church engages the mu
tability of the world with immutable doctrinal truth. 

In «The Idea of a University» he affirms the efficacy of an integrated liberal arts education in which faith and reason (fides et ratio) elucidate the splendor of truth (veritatis splendor). 

In «The Grammar of Assent,» his greatest contribution to philosophy, he highlights the rational foundations for religious belief and the inadequacy of empiricism. 

His «Apologia pro Vita Sua» is perhaps the greatest autobiographical spiritual aeneid ever written, with the obvious exception of St. Augustine’s incomparable «Confessions.» In the «Apologia,» as in his semi-autobiographical novel, «Loss and Gain,» he illuminates how the path to faith is lit by the light of reason. 

Although Newman is one of the finest writers of the Victorian period, whose poetry and fiction warrant a place among the greatest works of this golden age in English literature, he is nonetheless most important today as an exemplar of the rational-faithful mind. 

In today’s beleaguered world in which the twin errors of faithless reason (secular fundamentalism) and irrational faith (Islamic fundamentalism) are a dark and portentous presence, we need giants such as Blessed John Henry Newman to remind us of the indissoluble marriage between true faith and true reason.  

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