Anyone with overly pious views about who is suitable for canonization will be puzzled by the pope's beatification of John Henry Newman this weekend. Newman wasn't a lifelong Catholic, and he wrote against the Catholic Church well into his 30s.
About a decade after he left the Anglican Church and became a Catholic, Newman's writings on the church's duty to consult the laity brought him into disfavor with the Vatican. In the 1860s, he drew criticism from England's highest-ranking Catholic prelate, Archbishop Henry Edward Manning, who wrote of Newman to a Vatican source, "I see much danger of an English Catholicism, of which Newman is the highest type. ... In one word, it is worldly Catholicism, and it will have the worldly on its side, and will deceive many."
Newman was determined to resist any imposition on English Catholics of what was then called an ultramontane attitude, or what we would today call ultraconservative. The infallibility question provides a good illustration.
Even though Catholics worldwide didn't deny the pope's prerogative to infallibly teach doctrines under certain conditions, Manning's ultramontane party pushed the First Vatican Council to declare a binding teaching on papal infallibility. Newman and many other Catholics weren't sure that papal infallibility should be declared a teaching that all Catholics had to accept immediately as true, without doubt.
Newman wrote of the ultramontanes to his own bishop: "Rome ought to be a name to lighten the heart at all times. ... Why should an aggressive insolent faction be allowed to 'make the heart of the just to mourn?' "
The papal dogma did come about, but with conditions that Newman supported. Some ultramontanes had hoped for fewer restrictions, and Archbishop Manning offered an extreme interpretation of the council's teachings in a pastoral letter upon his return from Rome.
Newman disagreed but had such respect for the role of bishops that he bit his tongue. A few years later, however, when Prime Minister William Gladstone used Manning's pamphlet to claim British Catholics couldn't be loyal to England - foreshadowing accusations leveled at John F. Kennedy - Newman saw a chance to offer a more balanced view by addressing Gladstone rather than Manning. His "Letter to Gladstone" was so successful - and so championed by Catholics and hitherto skeptical Protestants - that Manning now had to bite his tongue.
The man being beatified Sunday was no plaster saint, ever devout and submissive in his statuary stillness. He was a controversial figure who, in his life and writings, achieved balance in matters that led others to one-sided stances. He had the utmost respect for church authority but defended free theological investigation.
"Life has the same right to decay, as it has to wax strong. This is specially the case with great ideas," Newman wrote. "You may stifle them ... or you may let them have free course and range, and be content, instead of anticipating their excesses, to expose and restrain those excesses after they have occurred."
He balanced being a loyal British citizen with being a loyal Catholic; quitting the Church of England with forever appreciating it; celibacy with an esteem for the married life of laity; and being an object of hostility and suspicion with trusting in the providence of God that his integrity and views would someday be recognized.
The suspicion Newman endured during the long pontificate of Pius IX was whisked forever away when a new pope, Leo XIII, named him a cardinal in his first meeting of cardinals, in 1879. Today he's known as Cardinal Newman, after whom Catholic "Newman Clubs" at state universities are named. But this lionization came late in his life and after his death.
Newman is also known for celebrated writings defending his conversion, championing liberal-arts education, and arguing that one can be certain of truths one cannot prove logically. His many published sermons describe how common people in a conflicting world can live holy lives. He, too, was a very holy human being. And this is what beatifications are about, after all.