What Cardinal Newman would advise women 'priests'

As this issue arrives in mailboxes and in the back of parish churches, Pope Benedict XVI will be preparing to preside over his first-ever beatification (a task he’s delegated until now) when he visits Great Britain Sept. 16-19. The newly proclaimed blessed is Cardinal John Henry Newman, a convert from Anglicanism, an intellectual and theologian, a shy scholar claimed by both liberals and conservatives. 

The pope has special admiration for Cardinal Newman. In our In Focus this week, Father Dwight Longenecker — a former Anglican priest himself — notes that both the pope and the cardinal are thinkers, often characterized as a bit introverted, and as in possession of formidable intellects (see Pages 9-12). Pope Benedict has gone so far as to talk about Newman in the same breath as the Doctors of the Church — those saints whose teaching is deemed especially valuable for the Church. 

Cardinal Newman, as Father Longenecker writes, is especially known for his exploration of the interplay between personal faith and the teaching authority of the Church. 

On the one hand, he insisted that reason alone could not bring one to God; there needs to be the gift of an “inner light.” But at the same time, this inner conviction cannot lead one to doctrinal certainty without a teaching authority of the Church. 

In a homily on faith and obedience, Cardinal Newman talked about the necessity of obedience and its relationship to faith: 

“Faith has a certain prerogative of dignity under the Gospel. At the same time we must never forget that the more usual mode of doctrine both with Christ and his apostles is to refer our acceptance to obedience to the commandments, not to faith. ... There are multitudes who would avow with confidence and exultation that they put obedience only in the second place in their religious scheme, as if it were rather a necessary consequence of faith than requiring a direct attention for its own sake; a something subordinate to it, rather than connatural and contemporaneous with it.” 

Our Page 4 story offers a prime possible application of this principle. The article is about the renewed calls of some Catholic women to be ordained priests, despite recent popes’ statements that Church teaching on the matter is infallible and unchangeable: Just as Jesus only called men to be his apostles, so he only calls men to serve as ministerial priests. 

That’s a tough teaching for modern ears (as it was for some in the early Church; some of the Church Fathers write about “heretical” individuals and groups who tried to ordain women priests). But Church doctrines are something we receive, not that we negotiate. 

And when assenting to them is difficult, we need to use our God-given intellects to seek understanding, not walk away. 

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