As the world’s leading expert on Cardinal John Henry Newman’s life and thought, Anglican convert and Oxford theology professor Father Ian Ker offers a unique perspective on the relevance of his ideas in today’s world.

In a special interview ahead of Newman's Oct. 13 canonization by Pope Francis, Angelus News spoke to Ker about Newman’s ideas on salvation, how to effectively reach the hearts of the nonreligious in today’s world, the importance of the Second Vatican Council and the charisms that it gave birth to, and bridging the divide between Catholics of goodwill in today’s Church.

In a time marked by division within the Church and a rejection of her values from outside of it, many Catholics seem overwhelmed and even a bit helpless at times. What can Newman say to those people? Is there still hope? Why?

Fr. Ian Ker: Newman always pointed out that corruption was practically a note of the Church. After all, corruption begins right with the apostles, with Judas Iscariot, and will always be there because of original sin and because of lack of faith.

Newman would certainly be appalled by the recent scandals in the Church, especially by the corruption of the clergy.

On the other hand, Newman always maintained that we should “stand still and see the salvation of God.” Newman would certainly say: “Don’t despair.”

Newman compared the Church to a boat and said that the Church has always been buffeted by the waves and storms.

And there have been times of even greater trial for the Church. Think of what happened to the Church after the Reformation. 

The Reformation was a terrible thing for the Church, not only because the Church lost half of Europe, but also for the negative consequences it had on Catholic doctrine, for it meant that we exaggerated all things that Protestants downplayed or denied, and everything that the Protestants emphasized we promptly downplayed. 

So Catholics, for instance, would not read the Bible at all! The Fathers of the Church would be appalled by that.

Part of the despair and confusion has to do with what is perhaps the greatest challenge for Christianity today: secularization. It seems that the sense of the supernatural has disappeared from human consciousness. This reality was anticipated with incredible prophetic insight by Newman.

Yes. He predicted this with unbelievable prescience in a sermon in 1874. He taught seminarians at this seminary in Birmingham that they would face a world that has never been known before, a darkness much greater than even that faced by the early Church, something that would make even the likes of St. Athanasius or St. Pope Gregory I tremble.

For while the Church in her history had been accustomed to deal with pagans, the Church had never had experience of dealing with a simply irreligious world, a world in which, to put it in Newman’s words, Catholics are likely to be “regarded as … the enemies … of civil liberty and of national progress.”

With this is mind, in 1975 Pope Paul VI called the Church not so much to the evangelization of pagans or non-Christians, but to the re-evangelization of the secularized post-Christians or post-religious, what Pope John Paul II called the “new evangelization.” Can the theology and spirituality of Newman help the Church in this task?

As I said in my last book, “Newman on Vatican II,” it is very interesting that the heroine of his novel “Callista” is indeed a post-pagan.

The novel is set in the third century and Callista is a young Greek woman who has lost faith in the gods of pagan religion. She is thus very much like a Victorian post-Christian; she talks very much like Matthew Arnold does when he writes about the ‘long, withdrawing roar’ of the “Sea of Faith.”

This novel, in the character of Callista, exemplifies Newman’s view of how to approach the secularized. Callista is not converted through conscience, the philosophical argument that Newman is famous for, but she is converted by the fact that she feels this desire for happiness, this need for fulfillment.

"Callista" by John Henry Newman.

Callista has had a first experience of Christianity through a slave of hers, Chione, who has impressed her as possessing something she does not possess. And the priest, Father Caecilius, in reality St. Cyprian the bishop of Carthage, has this conversation with her, in which he illustrates what Newman thought would be the best apologetic for the “new evangelization,” namely, a response to man’s sense of unfulfillment and desire for happiness. 

He tells her that every man is in the same state in which she is, that we all love things that do not last, while having no love for him who alone lasts.

As Newman would put it, “He alone is sufficient for the heart who made it,” a sentence that reminds us of St. Augustine’s famous words, “Our hearts are restless till they rest in you.” And that is what put Callista into the Church; it is not conscience at all. She exemplifies exactly what Augustine says. It is no good saying, “Repent of your sins!” that cuts no ice at all. The emphasis should be on people’s happiness, on the ability that Christ has of fulfilling the desires of the human heart.

Newman seems to suggest in the novel that Callista’s lack of happiness is particularly connected with her being “shut up within herself.” In her inability to escape the prison of the self, doesn’t Callista resemble the men and women of our time?

She certainly does. And this is how Caecilius describes hell to her. Callista tells him she is rather attracted by Christianity because she had this Christian slave and now she has this Christian boyfriend.

When she adds that she has trouble believing in hell, Caecilius replies by asking her whether she is unhappy. When she replies she is, Caecilius tells her that hell would just be a continuation of her present unhappiness, the self-imprisonment that she is trying to escape from.

Human beings can’t begin to be happy if they have no relationships with other people, but if you live without a relationship with God you are missing out on the essential relationship of life. The other relationships only make you human, but this relationship enables you to transcend yourself. To put it again in the words of one of Newman’s sermons, without God “We are pent up within ourselves, and are therefore miserable.” Only God can free us from the prison of the self.

So the first step in approaching today’s secularized post-religious people would be to show them that there is an answer to their unfulfilled hearts. But what comes next?

In the novel, conscience does eventually kick in, but then, of course, she also reads the Gospels, where she encounters the figure of Christ becoming man. That is what impresses her. The Gospel appeals to her imagination; Newman uses that word.

After hearing about Christ she needs to learn how to love him, she needs to encounter him. And she does in two ways. First by reading the Gospels, and second through the Church, that is, through the Christians she personally meets. 

“In the words of one of Newman’s sermons, without God ‘We are pent up within ourselves, and are therefore miserable.’ Only God can free us from the prison of the self.” Click To Tweet

Newman took all kinds of apologetics, the intellectual apologetic of the “Grammar of Assent,” but he also had an imaginative apologetic, one based not in theories but in providing real, concrete images of one’s ideas. The first thing he wrote as an Anglican was “The Church of the Fathers,” and that was to impress the Anglicans and show them how different the early Church was from the Church of England, and he wanted women in particular to write stories for children; again you see an imaginative apologetic.

Newman seems to suggest that art and literature may, in fact, be more effective than preaching and theology in transmitting important truths.

That is exactly right. If you want to teach your students about religion, it is much better to teach them about literature that involves religion than teaching them theology. And Newman used his novels and poetry as a vehicle for his theological ideas.

You see, Newman never wrote a summa. If you want to know about Newman’s theology of purgatory you have to go through his “Dream of Gerontius,” and if you want to find out how Newman thought we should approach the secularized world, you should go through his novel “Callista.” Newman says in a letter that he is sorry Catholics have not taken the novel more seriously. “Callista” is far more important than Newman’s other novel, the semi-autobiographical “Loss and Gain.” By the way, “Callista” is also a good read; it is quite good for a romantic story.

In what ways did Newman think that the Church can make herself ready for the task of the new evangelization?

Newman was the founder and leader of the Oxford Movement, and in many ways the Oxford Movement is a forerunner of the new ecclesial movements like the Neocatechumenal Way, because it consisted of both laypeople and clergy.

The ecclesial movements and communities offer people a model of how it is possible to live one’s life in real communion with one another and be happy, and this is exactly how Christianity spread. 

Of course, there was the good news that Christ rose from the dead, but it was certainly the sight of these Christian communities in the early Church that impressed people so much. And that is what we have to do again; we have to impress the world by showing them people who are truly happy and love one another, people who are happier than the others.

But this has to be put before their mind and imaginations in concrete ways; it will be no good telling them. There is a great degree of loneliness in the world and a great lack of communion, so it is no surprise that a reality like the Neocatechumenal Way appeals to people because it offers them a formation in the Faith, but also because it provides community.

I think that that is the way for the Church to move forward: the ecclesial movements, these charisms [movements and individuals in the Church inspired by the Holy Spirit] which, as Vatican II says, were given not for the good of the people who are part of them, but for the good of the Church.

In this sense people like Kiko Argüello [co-initiator of the Neocatechumenal Way] respond to the crisis of the society we are in, in the same way that the Jesuits responded to the needs of the Church in the aftermath of the Council of Trent. 

What the Church needed at the time were priests who were solidly formed; they needed missionaries and they needed teachers. But we do not need those things in quite the same way now. There are other needs, and I think the ecclesial movements and communities are precisely an answer to these needs.

You said that an important trait of the ecclesial movements is that they are formed of laypeople as well as clergy.

Yes, that is what is novel. The Church has been for a long time, and still is, very clerical. Even liberal bishops and clergy are very clerical, in that they still like to define the Church as clergy and laity, but this is not what the Church is.

The Church is the baptized. This is what the Second Vatican Council makes very clear in the second chapter of “Lumen Gentium” (“Light of the Nations”). And this vision of the Church, the one outlined in the first two chapters of “Lumen Gentium,” is the one that Newman anticipated most clearly. Those two chapters are, in my view, the most direct response to Pope John XXIII’s reason for calling the council.

“We have to impress the world by showing them people who are truly happy and love one another, people who are happier than the others.” Click To Tweet

The first reason was the need for Christian unity. The first chapter was obviously of appeal to the Orthodox — since the council defines the Church in terms that are much closer to the Orthodox definition of the Church than to the Tridentine model of a hierarchical, militant Church — and the second chapter is an answer to Protestants, showing that the Catholic Church believes in the priesthood of the baptized and not just the ministerial priesthood.

Those two chapters are a blueprint for the renewal of the Church, because the new movements and communities exemplify what those two chapters say.

Some priests and bishops believe that what parishes and dioceses already do is sufficient for the faithful and that any new “movements of the Spirit” are at best unnecessary and at worst divisive. What would Newman’s reaction to this approach be?

It is interesting that in the “Church of the Fathers,” Newman, as an Anglican, understood that the Catholic Church had the ability to support and regulate charisms.

As Vatican II says, the hierarchical dimension has to regulate the charismatic dimension of the Church. Newman recognized that the Catholic Church had that ability, and that the Anglican church did not. Newman speaks about people in the Anglican church whose attitude toward the charisms was that of saying, “Why is this necessary? What is wrong with what we already have?”

And that is exactly the attitude you were describing, still the attitude of many conservative bishops and pastors in the Catholic Church. And that is not just a problem of conservatives. Liberal bishops and clergy do not like the movements either, for they like to control everything, and they can’t control movements.

And this once again finds a counterpart in the documents of the council. One of the big debates of the council was whether or not the charisms should receive a special mention in “Lumen Gentium.”

Well, they are mentioned three times, so the more liberal side, so to say, won the day against the more conservative party. The question was: Does really everything that counts for the Church take place in the churches — in other words, through the sacraments, the clergy, and the ministers? The answer is no. The council said that important charisms are given to individuals. We can hardly imagine a Church without St. Benedict, and he is a much more important figure than bishops and popes even.

Would you go as far as to say that the new movements are as important for the renewal of the Church as St. Benedict and the birth of the monastic movement?

I certainly would, and as I said, the charisms are given by the Holy Spirit and not by the bishops.

The future Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, said that there were several charismatic surges in the Church: first monasticism, and then the friars, and then the rise of the active orders like the Jesuits, who were no longer confined to the cloister and the office, and then he mentions the missionaries of the 19th century, particularly women congregations, and finally he refers to the new movements as being the fifth charismatic surge.

Pope Benedict XVI prays before an image of Bl. John Henry Newman at the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Birmingham, England, in 2010. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

There is no doubt that in the Church today the Neocatechumenal Way is the biggest thing going, and it is one of the most effective realities, too. It is effective because we need the evangelization, and that is what they are good at. 

Of course, there will always be resistance, precisely as there was resistance to the Jesuits after the Council of Trent. [G.K.] Chesterton, too, writes something similar in one of his books. He notes that new spiritual movements have always been opposed by the local church. That was quite prophetic, don’t you think?

How can Newman help the Church navigate today’s divide between conservatives and progressives?

Newman was a great advocate of the idea of reform in continuity, exactly what Benedict maintained in his famous address to the Roman Curia in 2005.

I do not know whether Benedict had Newman in mind when he wrote those words, but they are remarkably like what Newman says in the “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.”

In that sermon, Benedict distinguishes between two rival interpretations of the Second Vatican Council, a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture, and a hermeneutic of reform and renewal in continuity, according to which the Church “increases in time and develops, yet always remains the same.” This is remarkably similar to what Newman argued in his “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine,” where he states that Christianity “changes … in order to remain the same.”

Particularly helpful is another image used by Newman when he writes, “It is indeed sometimes said that the stream is clearest near the spring,” but this “does not apply to the history of a philosophy or belief, which on the contrary is more equable, and purer, and stronger, when its bed has become deep, and broad, and full.”

This quotation comes immediately before one of Newman’s most quoted and most misunderstood sentences, the one in which he affirms that “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

This is typically interpreted as supporting a hermeneutic of rupture, but what Newman means here is that the Church needs to change to stay the same. And Newman’s idea that a philosophy or a belief becomes “more equable, and purer, and stronger” as it develops and moves away from its original context, can be applied to the ideas of the Second Vatican Council. The vision of the Church outlined in the second chapter of “Lumen Gentium” — the idea of the Church as not distinguished between laity and clergy, but consisting in the communion of the baptized — whose importance was not fully realized at the beginning, is now realized by the ecclesial movements and communities.

One last thing, Father Ker. Is there one thing you would recommend in Newman’s spirituality that can help us in our personal conversion?

I suppose is what I talk about in my book “Healing the Wound of Humanity”: the personal encounter with Christ. It is what Benedict said: Christianity is not about doctrine; it is about persons. This is what another important charism in the Church, Communion and Liberation, is all about. Christianity is an encounter with persons, it is not a theory. As Pope Pius XII said: There is no such a thing as Christianity, there is only Christ.