Tuesday, September 14, 2010

PM, "Pope and Newman"

Suffice it to say, today's front page of the Vatican daily L'Osservatore Romano featured a most conspicuous lead columnist.

Fresh off receiving Philadelphia's Liberty Medal last night -- and with the beatification of another celebrated Anglican convert headlining B16's weekend pilgrimage to the UK -- the top quarter of the Papal Paper's Tuesday cover was taken up by Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, who swam the Tiber months after ending his decade-long run in Downing Street in 2007.

The piece is especially notable as the architect of "New Labour" -- his wife and children raised in the faith -- has taken heavy criticism in some church circles both before and following his reception for two political positions in office that defied his adopted faith's concerted line: namely, Blair's career-long support for legal abortion, then his support of the Iraq war, to which he controversially deployed a sizable contingent of British troops. The divides are alluded to in the piece, which keenly focuses on Newman's concept of the development of doctrine.

Fresh off the publication of his memoirs and now heavily invested in the post-Premiership Faith Foundation he established for interreligious dialogue, this isn't TB's first big turn in the pages of L'OR -- last year, the former PM was the subject of a warm centerfold interview in its pages.

With all that as prologue, here below is a house translation of Blair's column, as published in Italian atop today's L'Osservatore:

On the eve of the beatification
The Pope and Newman

by Tony Blair
In England the saints are truly few in recent times, at least those recognized by the Church. English Catholics are, therefore, very happy at the beatification of John Henry Newman.

For this, a Pope will return to our country, above all a Pope in profound harmony with the spirit and the ideas of Newman.

The life and thought of Newman evidence the gap that separates us from his world. His fame as a theologian, the constant search for the truth of religion, scientific reason and the depth of his historical studies that brought him to leave Anglicanism for Rome, the noise his departure aroused, all seem from another age.

Certainly, one remains struck by his intellectual assent to the Catholic faith. Some continue to undertake this road, even if in a less spectacular way. I should know. But in 2010, writing of theology in an elegant and keen way doesn't make the front pages of the newspapers. Are its ideas, then, less important?

Newman counted spiritual truth at the peak of all other values. For this search he was prepared to put aside friends old and new. While he prepared himself to formally join the Catholic Church, he wrote: "No one more than me could have a more unfavorable vision of the current status of Catholics." Surely, not the most diplomatic affirmation. But to him it didn't matter, as he would have usually done that which he saw right, however uncomfortable or unpopular.

Such intellectual courage is admirable. It's something that many Catholics sense in Pope Benedict XVI. The ideas of Newman cannot themselves be expressed easily in a brief article. "The man of conscience is he who never succumbs to indulgence, well-being, success, public prestige and the approval of public opinion at the expense of the truth," he wrote. It is a hard thought in a world in which, in a rather crushing way, it is the media which forms opinion.

As has been noted, Newman considered conscience above all else, even before the Pope. But he did not maintain that the voice of conscience necessarily facilitated the choice of a true, just path, or rendered this choice independent of the authority of the papacy. "Our sense of the just and the errant ... is so delicate, so fragmented by that which can confound, obscure, perverted with such facility ... influenced by pride and passion." In this, the magisterial authority of the Church succeeds with its gift of discernment and definitions, to correct and to pronounce judgment. So even though the divide between us and the world of Newman is great, no less do the questions of which he wrote question every Catholic and every politician.

Newman was the first to introduce the concept of development. His idea of how doctrine progressively developed itself took on extraordinary influence in his age. Development remains a key idea, whether within or outside the Church. It's likely that today we wouldn't use the terms "Millennium Development Goals" or "international development" if Newman hadn't first used this word in his theology.

It's evident that for the life of the Church today, the reflections of Newman on the development of ideas have implications of no small significance. He concluded that it was impossible to fix a point in which the growth of doctrine would cease in the Church. Implicitly such growth continues even today. "The idea was never of those things which prospered and endured, but as mathematical truths never incorporate anything from external sources," he wrote.

To decide what makes a "true" development, the presupposition was certain of the teaching of the Church. But Newman defined the consensus of the entire "body of the faithful" on doctrinal questions as "the voice of the infallible Church." I ask myself if this voice is likewise taken seriously enough or if we have we have understood fully the implications of these ideas. The tendency of some religious leaders to insert a great number of differing ideas in one big package with the label of "secularism" and then consider it as something of the Left creates divisions in pluralist societies. This precludes the Church from possibilities of new developments of thought. The dialogues of the Popes with important secular thinkers are, by contrast, a very different example.

I think that Newman would be a strong ally in the promotion of diverse forms of dialogue among the religions thanks to his theory of development. Intuitively it could seem otherwise. Newman, like Pope Benedict, himself fierily opposed relativism. But the interreligious activity of my Faith Foundation produces the opposite of relativism, confirms people in their different faiths, and maintains respect and understanding for the faith of others. Linking schools and faiths throughout the world, joining universities together in interdisciplinary courses on faith and globalization, working in an interreligious way to promote the Millennium Development Goals, many share our idea, wanting to deepen their consciousness of their own faith.

In the course of my life, the growing understanding on the part of the Church of the nature and the importance of dialogue among religions has produced a harvest of ideas, above all in these last decades assisted by a development that encourages the Church to welcome the spiritual significance of other faiths. The bishops of England and Wales have explained this eloquently in their recent document, Meeting God in Friend and Stranger.

As one could predict, there are some controversies surrounding the beatification of Newman. Some simply ask themselves if this is the right way to honor him. But no one can seriously doubt the fact that he was and is a Doctor of the Church. The time will come to declare it so.
Blair is expected to be part of the delegation of senior political figures greeting B16 following the pontiff's historic Friday speech to British society in Westminster Hall.