When Newman received the biglietto signifying his elevation to the rank of Cardinal, he made a speech which has often been quoted; and I am going to quote it yet again and not least because it beautifully enunciates the essential continuity of his life as a Catholic with his years as an Anglican. But, at the end, I wish to draw attention to a very important realisation of Newman's which is not so often quoted.
For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion. ... the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are a matter of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentimemt and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy. ... As to Religion, it is a private luxury which a man may have if he will; but which of course he must pay for, and which he must not intrude upon others, or indulge in to their annoyance.
Note the deft, almost imperceptible skill - so characteristic - with which Newman points to us the paradox that this 'liberalism' is itself a doctrine. But it is his next observation which, I feel, gives us material for thought.
He adds that there is much in the liberalistic theory which is good and true ... justice, truthfulness, sobriety, self-command, benevolence .... Ah, we incautiously surmise, it isn't too bad after all; he allows it an Extenuating Circumstance. But no. Newman is playing quite the opposite game. In his early years he had been preoccupied with the concept of Antichrist. At the heart of this, there is the perception that the greater an evil and the closer it comes to Ultimate Evil, the more it is adorned with the good and the true and the noble. It is so dangerous precisely because it looks so good. Who was ever deceived by the self-evidently monstrous? So Newman goes on There never was a device of the Enemy, so cleverly framed, and with such promise of success.
I wonder if the Vatican and the SSPX negotiators - due to begin their deliberations today - will think to consider together Newman's life-long polemic against Liberalism. Despite its relevance to their dialogue, I doubt it. There is a risk that his beatification will mean the veneration of a sort of mummified Newman, rather than an excited and lively investigation of what he can contribute to the theological problems of our day. Our only hope is a papal document hauling the beatus out of devotional cobwebs and into the centre of today's vibrant debates. I think there's a good chance that the nice old Bavarian gent might do just that. Orandum.