The New Evangelization is another name for the re-evangelization of a post-Christian culture. John Henry Newman’s canonization affords us with the opportunity to reflect on how he might help us with this work.
In the modern West, banks close for Christmas and Easter, families reunite for Thanksgiving dinners and politicians invoke God’s blessing during times of war or national loss. In these and countless other ways, we in the West still inhabit Christian cultures. In other ways, however, Western liberal democracies have become deeply, aggressively, incontrovertibly, and menacingly ‘post’-Christian. Over the Church’s long history it has in every regime successfully sought and won converts to its message of salvation. Today, however, Peter casts his net over a different sort of waters. When St. Paul stood before the Athenians, when Patrick landed in Ireland, when Francis Xavier preached in Japan, and John Brébeuf on the shores of the St. Lawrence, they could presume in their hearers some notion of divinity that had only to be purified. Not so today. For many of our contemporaries the supernatural is either unfamiliar or the object of intense hostility.
After centuries of secularization, modern people now find themselves enclosed within an immanent horizon, or what Charles Taylor has called a “self-sufficient humanism.” Where secularism has triumphed men and women hold to a vision of the good life that rejects as alien the very idea of the search for fulfillment beyond the material, for ultimate purposes, and consequently for those questions which religion has traditionally supplied the answers. Given the present cultural conditions, the challenge for the contemporary Church is not merely to present post-Christian people with the doctrines and precepts of religion; our object is now to arouse in them some feeling for its need. Our Lord promised that the harvest is always plentiful; but it is also true that each labourer has his own work, and ours seems to be that of preparing the soil.
John Henry Newman (1801-1890) lived during a century of enormous political, economic, cultural and religious upheaval. During Newman’s life, Catholics still could not hold public office and could not enter universities in Britain. In Victorian England, British Protestants widely regarded Catholics as socially backward and educationally inferior — that is, until Newman’s conversion. The witness of his life and his work remains an inspiration for us especially today when Christianity no longer binds together the cords of our culture; in the years ahead, my sense is that Newman’s inspiration is destined to increase among all those who wish to give a coherent “reason for our hope” (cf. 1 Peter 3:15) in the risen Christ.
As an Oxford Don, parish priest, and a cultural commentator, by his 40s, Newman found himself as the leading public figure in a bid to return the Anglican Communion to a more vibrant and liturgically robust expression of Christian faith. Prophet that he was, he feared that the Reformation had too closely allied itself with subjectivism in religion, and paved the way to agnosticism in politics. Newman was ever a seeker after the truth about first principles. His own deep study in religion and philosophy, and particularly of the early Fathers of the Church, gradually drew him closer to Catholicism. In 1845, after a long and arduous search, and at great cost to his reputation and career, Newman forsook his eminent position as a man of letters within English society to join the Catholic Church.
For his remaining years, Newman devoted his enormous energy to advancing Catholic causes. His scholarly output is staggering. During his life he published some 37 volumes, including a celebrated book of poetry (Edward Elgar composed an oratorio to the text of Newman’s poem The Dream of Gerontius), two novels, numerous historical and theological works, in addition to some 20,000 letters. Whether it was establishing the Oratorian religious community in England, a school for boys in Birmingham, or the Catholic University of Ireland, Newman was indefatigable in his service for others. Many sought his advice as a guide and friend. He never failed to encourage others, as he did himself, of God’s particular call to greatness. As he once reflected:
God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission — I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am like a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do his work.
Newman’s efforts bore tremendous fruit. His generous service and his massive intellectual labor lifted Catholicism in the English-speaking world out of its relative obscurity into a new radiance. The effect of Newman’s conversion was immediate. The first wave of converts largely came from among those Anglicans seeking a deeper union with the historic Faith, and included such luminaries as Oscar Wilde, a deathbed convert, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, perhaps the finest poet of his age, whom Newman received personally in 1866. The second wave of converts was dominated by the likes of Ronald Knox, Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton, who himself came into the Church in 1922. During the mid-twentieth century, the third wave of converts and others influenced by Newman include the Harvard historian Christopher Dawson and the novelist Evelyn Waugh, as well as the community of imaginative writers known as the Inklings. And the circle continues to widen.
It is often remarked that the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was “Newman’s Council.” Although Newman is not cited directly in the documents, for those who know where to look, his shadow looms over many of its pages. His recovery of the early Church Fathers, his emphasis on the dignity of the laity, and his construction of the theory of doctrinal development all left indelible marks upon the finished texts.
Despite Newman’s impressive contributions to the Church during the last council, a glance at Newman’s major works gives some sense of the close connection between his questions and our own.
As a theologian, Newman wrestled with the way that truth can remain constant amid the expansion and amplification of ideas over time in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845). As an educator, Newman defended the liberal arts as the only humane foundation for learning in his The Idea of a University (1852). As an apologist, his spiritual autobiography Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864) stands as one of the great testimonies to faith against the trials of doubt. As a philosopher, Newman produced a stunningly modern analysis of the psychology of belief in his An Essay in Aid of the Grammar of Assent (1870). As a debater, he launched his open letter to the British prime minister in defense of conscience and a Catholics’ right to participate actively in politics in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1875); and so on.
One of the Council’s Canadian fathers — Archbishop Anthony Jordan, the founder of my own college — reflected shortly after his return from Rome that the reason why we need Newman in our time is because the problems he worked on are largely our problems. I think this judgment correct. One reason why Newman’s thought continues to prove so fecund, perhaps now even more than during the last century, is that, while he was steeped like few others in the Church’s intellectual past, he was also remarkably prescient concerning our culture’s future.
Newman early recognized that secularism’s tendency toward relativism would end in persecution. As Newman counseled a group of seminarians in a lecture near the end of his life, the Church was soon to face trials which “would appal and make dizzy even such courageous hearts as St. Athanasius, St. Gregory I, or St. Gregory VII.” He went on to predict that Catholics in the future will be thought of as “enemies… of civil liberty,” and were likely to face such persecutions as have not been seen “since the age of Constantine.” Newman saw more clearly than any others in the 19th century, perhaps except Nietzsche and Pope Leo XIII, the magnitude of the coming tsunami that was to wreak havoc upon our civilization. The force of secularism’s combined disruptions to our philosophy, economics, politics, faith and patterns of family life have together rendered our culture “post” Christian.
In recent decades Newman’s vision for the need for a new evangelization has slowly come into focus for the wider Church. Even though Vatican II addressed a wide range of topics, surprisingly, it hardly touched on the question of evangelization or even on the need for fostering a distinctively Christian (counter) culture in the midst of secular modernity. Arguably, it is the nature of the Church itself that received the most sustained attention. Since the council, however, Catholicism’s strategic shift in emphasis increasingly reflects the West’s altered cultural situation. The unprecedented rejection that Humanae Vitae provoked among the faithful was one sign of this shift. Ten years after Vatican Two, Paul VI would act, in his encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi, as the first pope to redirect the Church’s attention away from questions of its own internal constitution and reform to the need for a new outward advance of the Gospel.
Then came the long pontificate of John Paul II. During his quarter-century ministry, John Paul II made the “new” evangelization of secularized post-Christians — not preaching to pagans or Protestants — the express object of his mission. Indeed, by the end of his pontificate John Paul II proposed the “new evangelization” as the hermeneutical key to understanding the Church’s chief work over the last decades of the 20th century. In his Tertio Millennio Adveniente he proposed that every general and regional synod “begun after the Second Vatican Council” should be understood as aiming to advance nothing other than the new evangelization. This direction was strengthened under Benedict XVI. The pope emeritus tailored his formidable addresses increasingly toward secular audiences, or at least toward providing for believers a model of engagement with secular modernity, and even established in 2010 a Pontifical Council to perpetuate this project. Given that Pope Francis’ own first major document, Evangelii Gaudium, also takes up evangelization, his papacy shows signs of continuing the same course. For the Church of the 21st century, then, it appears the new evangelization remain her first priority.
The saint is a rare type. These are men and women drawn from all classes and every circumstance of life, but confined to none of these. The saint is not the one who has lost his freedom; the saint is the one who has lost everything except his freedom. Just as every age breeds its own vices, so also at no time is the Church bereft of heroes. For that is what defines a saint: they are Christian success stories. Anyone who has gained familiarity with this type knows well that these successes are not without their own failures, or temptations, or sufferings, or trials; the difference between them and most of us lies in their fidelity.
As I believe will only become more clear in time, Newman’s gifts are well-suited to the work of the New Evangelization. Besides his clarity about the rights and duties of conscience, his call for a return to classically-minded education, and his passionate apologetics, the Church’s newest saint combined what most of us only experience in fragmentary isolation: a deep holiness joined to a profound wisdom — just the qualities we need to carry forward the New Evangelization.
Dr. Ryan N.S. Topping is the Academic Dean at Newman Theological College in Edmonton, Alberta, and author of several books on Catholic culture and education. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming work St. Newman and the Evangelization of a Post-Christian culture