Cardinal John Henry Newman
VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict's decision to travel to Great Britain to beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman will give him an opportunity to highlight Newman's teaching about the relation between faith and reason, the role of conscience and the place of religion in society.
During his Sept. 16-19 trip, the pope will visit the Scottish cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow before he travels to London and Birmingham for the beatification.
Newman was a 19th-century intellectual who was a leader in the Anglican reform effort known as the Oxford Movement before becoming a Catholic.
The pope will celebrate open-air Masses, meet Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister David Cameron and make a major address to leaders of British society.
But the Vatican has billed the trip as a pastoral visit "on the occasion of the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman."
Since his election more than five years ago, Pope Benedict has presided over several canonization ceremonies, but he always has delegated the task of presiding over beatifications to highlight the different importance of the two ceremonies.
The pope's decision to make an exception for Newman demonstrates his personal admiration for the British churchman, an admiration he once said went back to his first semester of seminary theology studies in 1946.
"For us at that time, Newman's teaching on conscience became an important foundation" for theological reflection, the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said at a conference in 1990 marking the centenary of Newman's death.
The Second World War had just ended, he said, and the German seminarians who had grown up under Adolf Hitler witnessed the "appalling devastation of humanity" that resulted from a totalitarian ruler who "negated the conscience of the individual."
While most of the world's totalitarian regimes have fallen, Pope Benedict often has warned that the individual conscience - which must seek and try to act on truth - is being threatened today by a culture of moral relativism. Relativism asserts that nothing is always right or always wrong and almost anything is permissible.
Pope Benedict also often speaks of the essential interplay of faith and reason, a point Newman emphasized.
While embracing faith and knowing there were no scientific proofs for God's existence, the cardinal was convinced that believing in God was reasonable, an idea frequently challenged by modern British schools of philosophical atheism.
Newman's commitment to the search for truth, his concern for fidelity to doctrine and his conviction that faith must be lived publicly all are key concepts in the teachings of Pope Benedict as well.
During his visit to Britain, the pope is expected to emphasize his conviction that religious belief is not a hindrance to social progress and peaceful coexistence.
Cardinal John Henry Newman
The fact that Newman's Christian faith and theology initially was formed within the Church of England will require particular sensitivity at a difficult time in the Roman Catholic-Anglican search for full unity.
The Rev. David Richardson, the archbishop of Canterbury's representative to the Vatican, said while some people may see Newman's beatification as another point of contention, "it's much more likely that the beatification will be bridge building."
The liturgical calendar of the Church of England already commemorates Newman, whom many Anglicans honour as an eminent theologian, a person of prayer and a force of renewal for the Church, he said.
"This beatification is not simply a piece of triumphalism for a dead Roman Catholic, but it's actually an opportunity to embrace a wholeness - his Anglicanism as well as his Catholicism," Richardson said.
At a time when many saw a danger of the Church of England being treated almost as a department of the English government, Newman was a leader in the Anglican Oxford Movement's effort to return to the teachings of the early Christian theologians in order to recover a sense of the Church as a sacred institution with a divine mandate.
As he continued his search for the truth, he was received into the Catholic Church in 1845, was ordained a Catholic priest in 1847 and was named a cardinal in 1879.
Msgr. Mark Langham, a priest of the Diocese of Westminster and an official of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said, "You cannot begin to understand Newman the Catholic without Newman the Anglican."
At the same time, while convinced that the fullness of truth was found in the Catholic Church, Newman valued the formation he received as an Anglican and "was always very clear that his role was not one of trying to poach people for the Roman Catholic Church."