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The Liberal Spirit and Anti-Liberal Discourse of John Henry Newman

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Ambrose Mong Ih-Ren

Not many cardinals get to be declared saints, and even rarer is one who is known for his controversial ideas and interpretation of doctrinal faith both within and outside the church. John Henry Newman (1801-1890), however, beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in September 2010, was no ordinary churchman. Raised an Anglican and a leading member of the Oxford Movement in his younger days, he converted to Catholicism and, through prolific writing and polemics, established an intellectual and spiritual influence far beyond the placid, pastoral domain of the papacy. This book seeks to settle the historical question of Newman as anti-liberal or liberal, and to shed theological light on his liberal spirit and anti-liberal discourse, in order to provide fresh insights into the issue of religious pluralism. In particular, the author examines Newman’s perception of the danger of the liberal spirit of his time and his possession of another kind of liberal spirit that made him so original, bold and prophetic.

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4. The Liberal Ideas of Newman 101

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101 Chapter 4 The Liberal Ideas of Newman As an Anglican, Newman portrayed himself as the relentless foe of ‘the Liberalism of the day’ in his Apologia. He wanted to expose the damage done to Christianity by the liberals who disregarded tradition. As one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement, he attempted to pro- mote the wisdom of the Church Fathers and opposed any novelty in the church. Newman was afraid modernity and new ideas would de- stroy Christianity in society if liberalism began to take root, which in fact it already had. However, after his conversion to Catholicism in 1845, he appeared to tone down his attack on liberalism and became sympathetic to Catholic liberals without changing his own basic dis- position. Critical of modernism and its hostility to faith, he was also critical of the conservatism in the Roman Catholic Church with its excessive control. In Oxford, he stressed the pastoral role of the college tutor; as founding rector of a Catholic University in Dublin, he emphasised intellectual freedom; and in The Idea of a University, he called for liberal education. There was also a shift in his ecclesiology: in the Church of England, Newman stressed Episcopal authority and respon- sibility, and in the Church of Rome, he stressed participation, defend- ing the interests of an educated laity with his essay in the Rambler of July 1859, ‘On Consulting the Faithful’. Misner rightly observes that this shift is not so much a change in outlook as an...

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