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Cardinal Newman on Consulting the Faithful
FutureChurch Celebrates 20 Years of Doing Just That

On Sunday September 19, Pope Benedict beatified Cardinal John Henry Newman before a crowd of 60,000 gathered in cold and rainy Birmingham, England. An intellectual giant of the 19th century, Newman was a prominent Anglican vicar and leader who converted to Catholicism at the age of forty-four. He brought many Anglican intellectuals into the Catholic Church with him.

As is often true of holy people, Church functionaries did not always appreciate Newman. In 1859 he was forced to resign as the editor of a lay publication known as The Rambler, for defending an article written by a Catholic layman. The writer was a school inspector who believed that if Catholic schools received money from the British state, they should also welcome state inspectors. Newman apologized to irritated British bishops, but he also published his opinion that since bishops had recently sought lay consultation in defining the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, they should also be open to lay perspectives on more practical matters. The bishops quickly called for his resignation.

As his last act at The Rambler, Newman published an unsigned article, “On Consulting the Faithful in the Matter of Doctrine,” in which he listed twenty examples from Church history in which the hierarchy got it wrong while the laity did not. The most well known is the 4th century Arian heresy denying Jesus’ divinity. At the time most bishops were Arians but the laity overwhelmingly maintained a staunch belief in Christ’s divinity. Of this period Newman wrote, “the body of bishops failed in their confession of faith” and argued, “the voice of tradition may in certain cases express itself, not by Councils, nor Fathers, nor Bishops but ‘the communis fidelium sensus’ ” -- the shared sense of the faithful.

Newman’s writings became foundational to Vatican II teaching on the dignity of the laity. Pope Paul VI went so far as to call Vatican II “Newman’s Council” because his thought was at the root of so many conciliar ideas. Newman believed that Church teaching is the result of both the laity and bishops “breathing together” (conspiratio). Therefore, a primary responsibility of both bishops and popes is to listen carefully to the faithful before teaching doctrine.

Newman spent much of his life trying to win over Catholic laity, priests and bishops to his enlightened understanding that all the parts of the Church need each other. While he met with scant success in his lifetime, he had a major impact on Vatican II thinking about the laity, the primacy of conscience, and the development of doctrine (that Church teaching develops over time).

The beatification of this wise and holy man of letters is a fitting beginning to Future’s 20th anniversary year. We were founded amidst a “consensus of the faithful” that the Eucharist is more central to Catholic life and worship than an exclusively male celibate priesthood. For twenty years we have respectfully made our views known to our bishops and pastors. We have not yet succeeded in convincing everyone of the pressing need for change. But we point with pride to some significant progress:

20 years ago, no one would have believed lay people could or should impact a Vatican synod of bishops.   But in 2005, thirty thousand Catholics successfully put the priest shortage on the agenda of the Synod on the Eucharist by petitioning for open discussion of mandatory celibacy and women deacons. Four of twelve bishop groups asked for further study of a married priesthood following the Synod. In 2008 twenty thousand postcards from Catholic laity succeeded in catalyzing a decision to invite the greatest number of women ever to participate as auditors and biblical experts. Also, for the first time in history, the synod “recognized and encouraged the ministry of women of the Word,” and discussed the need to restore women’s stories to the Lectionary.

20 years ago everyone thought St. Mary of Magdala was a prostitute. Today tens of thousands of lay people have transformed that understanding. Now Christians everywhere now know her as a prominent woman leader and the first witness to the Resurrection.

20 years ago most Catholics would have quietly abided by their bishop’s decision to close their beloved, vibrant and solvent parish.   But today faithful Catholic lay people have brought an unprecedented 100 appeals to the Congregation for the Clergy, and are successfully resisting what they see as unjust attempts to close their parish communities.

20 years ago: bishops and priests rarely spoke publicly about church celibacy rules and women’s roles.   Today, in part because of widespread support from faithful laity, at least thirty bishops from all over the world are speaking out about the need to open discussion of mandatory celibacy.   Hundreds of priests and a few bishops from Ireland, Australia, Austria, Canada and the US believe we must discuss women’s roles as well.

We at FutureChurch see our unique place in the vineyard of Church reform as working to transform passive Catholics into active ones. Our prayer, education and advocacy resources empower faithful, Catholics to discern and give voice to the “Sensus Fidelium” on matters pertaining to the good of the Church.

We begin our twentieth year secure in the knowledge that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Blessed John Henry Newman, pray for us.

Help Us Celebrate 20 Years! Join the 2010 Club

To celebrate FutureChurch's 20th anniversary we are asking supporters to help us raise an additional $20,000 for a programmatic reserve fund.

More info on the FutureChurch 2010 Club

Focus on FutureChurch

Fall 2010

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