In preparation for John Henry Newman's beatification, this reflection on his complicated life and legacy from The Boston Globe....
Born in 1801, Newman would make both a fascinating and controversial saint. An eminent clergyman, Newman spent much of his life in the orbit of Oxford University, where he studied and later taught. Ordained in 1824, the brilliant scholar instantly became one of the glittering stars of the Anglican Church.
Over the next decade, he spearheaded the "Oxford movement," which sought to return Anglicanism to more traditional roots. Newman's ultimate decision, in 1845, to convert to Catholicism came on the heels of research that led him to conclude that the Catholic Church had a greater claim to orthodoxy. His conversion horrified much of England.
Even after "crossing the Tiber," however, Newman retained his intellectual independence, freely toggling between traditional and progressive theologies. Despite his conservative theological leanings, he championed such radical ideas as the rights of the individual conscience at a time when that notion was held in low regard in the Vatican. ("Error has no rights" was the prevailing line of thought.) When he was named cardinal in 1879 by Pope Leo XIII, it was joked that perhaps Rome hadn't read all that he had written.
Because of his protean mind and voluminous writings, then, he is beloved by groups that are often at loggerheads. More traditional Catholics admire Newman's elegant apologias for Catholicism. Progressives embrace his work on conscience and the "development of doctrine," the idea that church belief on some matters can change over time - for the better. And ironically, many Catholics suspicious of clericalism often quote this prince of the church, who once quipped about the laity, "[T]he church would look foolish without them." Indeed, one of his most famous articles was called "On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine."
The greatest controversy over the soon-to-be-saint, however, may be his intense relationship with his long-time friend Ambrose St. John. "As far as this world was concerned, I was his first and last . . . he was my earthly light," wrote Newman. Before his death in 1890, Newman made an unusual and strongly worded request. "I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Fr Ambrose St. John's grave - and I give this as my last, my imperative will," he wrote. As a result, he is beloved among some in the gay community, who often claim him as one of their own.