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19th century English cardinal who led Oxford revival could be given rare honour for his work

by Ros Mayfield

There are hopes the 19th century British Cardinal Henry Newman could soon be named a ‘doctor of the church’.

Bishops in the US have backed calls from their UK counterparts.  At a national meeting in Maryland, on the east coast this week, US bishops voted to send a letter to Pope Francis expressing their support for the U.K. bishops’ proposal.

Newman, born in 1801, was a highly regarded Protestant academic and priest, in the high Anglican tradition, who led a revival among young intellectual Christian leaders in Oxford, persuading them of the merits of traditional liturgical worship, and then inspiring them to go into working-class communities around the UK to spread the gospel.

The high Anglican tradition typically includes more participation by the laity, including children, serving as servers, acolytes, choristers and altar boys.  It’s also a highly sensory experience, with evocative sounds and powerful smells a regular accompaniment in worship.  In the days before television and social media, it was Newman’s view that this style of worship would appeal to poorer, more visually starved communities.

Having led what became known as ‘The Oxford Movement’, he then famously converted to Catholicism in 1845, a decision which led to backlash and prejudice from his friends and family. His own sister is said to have never spoken to him again.

Nevertheless, today his teachings are admired and read by Protestant and Catholic theologians alike.  He was canonized (made a saint), by Pope Francis in 2019.

To become a “doctor of the Church” usually involves three criteria – holiness, eminence in doctrine, and a formal declaration by the Church - usually by a pope.

Bishop Robert Barron of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota, was one of several U.S. bishops who spoke passionately in support the proposal, urging fellow believers to, “study his writings deeply. I think it might help to heal some of the divisions in our Church”. 

According to Matthew Bunson, editorial director of the 24/7 Catholic TV network, EWTN, two similar appeals by US bishops have proved successful in recent years.  St. John of Avila and St. Irenaeus of Lyon have both been approved as “doctors of the Church”, with their support.

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