By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Cardinal John Henry Newman’s cause for sainthood will take a significant step forward Nov. 9, with the formal closure of the diocesan phase of an investigation into a miracle in Boston attributed to the 19th century English theologian.
The Boston archdiocese has been responsible for the study, which focuses on the healing of an American deacon with severe chronic spinal problems. Fr. Paul Chavesse, provost of the Birmingham Oratory in England, which Newman founded, and postulator of the cause, will travel to Boston for the occasion, along with Peter Jennings, a longtime stalwart of church communications in England and the spokesperson for Newman’s cause.
If authenticated in Rome, the miracle would clear the way for Newman’s beatification. A subsequent miracle would be necessary for canonization.
The closure of the process means that all witnesses have provided their testimony, including doctors who examined relevant medical records. Diocesan evaluators have judged the materials to be sufficiently strong to submit to Rome. Traditionally, for an alleged miracle to satisfy the church’s standards, it must be instantaneous, complete, lasting, and without scientific explanation.
After the boxes containing all records of the investigation are formally sealed, they will be sent via the papal embassy in Washington, D.C., to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome.
Under other circumstances, those boxes might sit for some time in the Vatican before they get a serious look. In some cases, centuries can pass before a cause moves forward.
Jennings, however, told NCR that he believes the wheels will grind more swiftly in Newman’s case.
“Cardinal José Saraiva Martins [Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints] has already indicated to us that because of the worldwide interest in Newman’s cause, these documents will be dealt with immediately,” Jennings said.
He cautioned, however, that there are still several hurdles to clear before a beatification can be scheduled.
A panel of doctors must examine the material to be sure there’s no scientific explanation, and then a panel of theologians must find that the healing is consistent with the church’s teaching on the nature and purpose of miracles. Cardinal members of the congregation have to approve the case, and finally the pope himself must assent.
Assuming that Newman is beatified, and eventually canonized, Jennings said he would become the first non-martyr saint in England since before the English Reformation.
Were Newman one day also to be declared a Doctor of the Church, he would become the first Englishman to earn the distinction since the Venerable Bede, who died in the eighth century and was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1899. (Coincidentally, Bede was given that designation by Leo XIII, the same pope who made Newman a cardinal).
There are presently 33 Doctors of the Church. The last to earn the designation was St. Theresa of Lisieux in 1997.
A convert from Anglicanism, Newman was viewed with some suspicion during much of his clerical career, first by Anglicans who saw him as too Catholic, later by Catholics who wondered if he maintained too much of his Anglican ecclesiology. He lived to see a sort of vindication, however, when he was made a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII in 1879.
Over the last century, Newman has become a theological icon across a wide spectrum of opinion, above all for his unique capacity to blend a tenacious sense of Catholic identity with openness to the organic “development of doctrine.”
Newman also has fans in high places: Pope Benedict XVI was first introduced to Newman’s work in January 1946, at the age of eighteen, and has returned to it throughout his own theological career.
In 1990, while still prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger addressed a Symposium on Newman. He said the English cardinal’s theology of conscience helped lay the foundation for post-war theological personalism in Germany, a reaction against the negation of conscience under Hitler. Importantly, Ratzinger said that Newman had elaborated a theory of conscience which did not shade off into individualism.
In 2005, Pope Benedict praised Newman’s “life of disciplined commitment to the pursuit of religious truth.”
Newman was declared “venerable,” the first step on the path to sainthood, by Pope John Paul II in 1991.