The Canonization of Cardinal Newman

Now that these islands have a new saint, it is time to set aside the dismal news about the promotion of anti-life, anti-family measures by the British government in Northern Ireland and by the UN worldwide.

John Henry Newman was received into the Church only after he had satisfied himself that the infallibility that she claims for the Popes was not a personal infallibility but a personal exercise of the Church’s infallibility.

Therefore, it was not and is not possible for any off-message Pope, such as the Pope who signed the Arian-leaning Second Declaration of Sirmium, to undermine the faith or command the Church to lurch in some novel direction.

As St Vincent of Lerins wrote in his Commonitorium from his agreeable island in the Bay of Cannes, it is not permissible to add anything to the Faith, or to take anything away, or to change anything. The job of Popes and theologians is to follow the first theologian, Our Blessed Lady, and ponder the Faith in their hearts so as to understand it better.

Newman’s conversion to Rome was a big deal. The Hierarchy had recently been restored in Britain after centuries of absence, and new Catholic churches were being built all over the place. Those who had been closet Catholics could now come safely out of the woodwork, and began to do so.

The Anglican ecclesiastical establishment was nervous about this, and was furious when Newman convinced himself, after the most rigorous intellectual enquiry, that the Church of Peter was indeed the one, true, Church with the Lord of Life as its Head and we as its members.

Newman was viciously attacked, and vigorously responded to his critics, sometimes directing whole books at them. He took no prisoners: he was ruthlessly clear in what he wrote, and the sheer clarity of his understanding blazingly pierced the amiable fog of calculated uncertainty that is at once the most charming and the most unfortunate aspect of Anglicanism.

His books could not be more timely today. The Idea of a University, in particular, is sorely needed at a time when the Communization of the Senior Common Rooms throughout the groves of Western academe is gravely imperilling freedom of speech, of expression, of research, of inquiry and of publication in a growing range of subjects.

This week, revolting students at Newman’s university, Oxford, voted to ban applause throughout the university, for reasons that are far from clear. Now, applause is one of the most endearing and enduring forms of expression. If one hears a well-turned speech or a harmonious musical performance or a good play, one wants to applaud.

But the new puritans now wish to deny to their fellowmen even this most harmless, charitable and warm-hearted medium of expression.

Of course, the academic Comrades who ought to have put a stop to any such nonsense are showing every sign of merely deferring to it: for it is one more depressing step in the process of bankrupting the intellectual West, a process to which many professors and doctors of learning have sedulously devoted their useless careers.

Newman would have had no truck with any such nonsense. He might even have directed a book at the pseudo-pietism of those who will ban applause and yet will promote abortion (for there is a noticeably large overlap between the two groups).

For us, though, his canonization is an excellent opportunity to consider what saints are for, why they matter and why they rock.

In most of the Protestant presentations of Christianity, sainthood is regarded – at best – with intense suspicion. The more extreme anti-Catholics tend to say that there is no such thing as a saint, because none of us is perfect (yet these are the very same people who say there is no such thing as original sin, in which case we are all saints).

In the Catholic tradition, however, sainthood is regarded in a much more pragmatic light. We start by believing that there is such a thing as original sin. Indeed, it is perhaps the most readily comprehensible of all the Catholic doctrines. To see its consequences, simply look about you.

Therefore, apart from the Lord of Life and His Blessed mother, none of us is free from the taint of original sin. In the inimitable words of Dr Heinz Kiosk in the famous Daily Telegraph Peter Simple column, “we are all guilty”.

Where, then, is the scope for sainthood? The answer lies in the triumphant overcoming of the disabilities caused by original sin by the long and determined efforts of the saint to do that which is right and just and good.

And there are more saints around you than you will ever be able to count. One of my many amiable hobbies is looking out for them. I collect saints.

The first example is my lovely wife. Proof of her sainthood is easy to provide. She has put up with me for almost 30 years. Instead of growing to hate me for my many inadequacies – a constitutional incapability when it comes to washing up is just one of these – she has somehow, magically, grown to love me and forgive me more and more as time has passed.

For my part, I have nothing to forgive, for she is in my unprejudiced and dispassionate eyes the very image and exemplar of a saint.

Let me give you one further example. My doctor and good friend of 45 years, Dr David O’Connell, trained in Dublin and practising in London, has just died, and he was younger than I am. He, too, was a saint, and a most remarkable one.

He had an astonishing gift for diagnosis. I once walked into his surgery in a fashionable but modest corner of Chelsea and he leapt to his feet, came out from behind his desk and shook me by the hand.

He said: “I never thought I’d ever meet anyone with the condition from which you are now suffering,” he said. “You have a disease so rare that only one person in ten million gets it.”

Yet none of the costly specialists I had been to see had noticed it. David, however, “a mere general practitioner”, as he called himself, had spotted it instantly.

Then he had to convince the specialists that he was right and they were wrong. Ingeniously, he did so by suggesting that I had a disease he knew I did not have. They rushed me into hospital to prove I did not have that disease, and while I was there I told them the specialists had asked for an additional test to be carried out.

That test showed beyond doubt that David’s diagnosis was correct. The Professor saw me and said David – a mere GP – had of course made a catastrophic misdiagnosis. But I did indeed have another disease, and that, though the Professor did not know it, was the disease that David had diagnosed just by taking one look at me. Thus he saved my life, and not for the first time.

I used to take people to see him who could never normally have afforded his fees. He always used to see them either at half price or at no charge. Time and time again, he found out what was wrong when all others had failed.

He remained cheerful to the end, spending all his holidays for 50 years in Lourdes, looking after our Lord’s sick. He was a great man and a great saint, and, since there is justice in Heaven, he will now be merry there.