Two Newmans and Two Catholic Springs

On a Tuesday in 1852, the thirteenth of July for the literary record since it was a day important for English letters, Blessed John Henry Newman mounted the pulpit of Oscott College, its halls relatively new though designed by Joseph Potter and Augustus Pugin to recall the best of the Tudor times before the depredations of the eighth Henry. Always attentive to signs of decay, at 51 he claimed to be entering old age but was ready for a second breath, both for himself and his Church. That sermon, “The Second Spring,” is as poetic as homiletic, and could take its place in the annals of free verse as one of its most lyrical samples.

The occasion was the gathering of the First Provincial Synod of Westminster, when the Catholic episcopate had been restored, and hope was mingled with a quality of caution, for the road ahead was not straight and smooth and there were no sureties of rest along the way. That is why Newman took the temperature of the times:

Have we any right to take it strange, if, in this English land, the spring-time of the Church should turn out to be an English spring, an uncertain, anxious time of hope and fear, of joy and suffering,—of bright promise and budding hopes, yet withal, of keen blasts, and cold showers, and sudden storms?

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The same might be preached today, in this peculiar period when the Church seems as conflicted as our nation, for the issues at hand have never been greater and the commentaries on them both in Church and State are almost burlesque in their shallowness and venality. Napoleon called China a sleeping giant and various sources have said the same of the Catholic Church. During the present election season, fevered as it is with unprecedented bitterness and banality, the Church could almost pass as a giant more comatose than slumbering.

If anything has stirred the Church, rusty when urban and flaccid when suburban, it has been the discovery of documents revealing cynical attempts by political strategist to subvert and suborn the institution, stripping her of supernatural credentials to become a tool of the State, like the Gallican Church of the French Revolution. Leaked emails from February 10-11, 2012 record exchanges entitled “Opening for a Catholic Spring?” between the current manager of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, John Podesta, and Sandy Newman, president of a political action group called Voices for Progress. Sandy Newman is certainly no heir to John Henry Newman nor are his visions of Spring like those of the Second Spring preached at Oscott. For Sandy Newman, “There needs to be a Catholic Spring in which Catholics themselves demand the end of a middle ages dictatorship and the beginning of a little democracy and respect for gender equality in the Catholic church.” The mandate for contraception coverage in medical plans might be a rallying point to “plant the seeds of the revolution.”

At the risk of fueling the imaginings of conspiracy theorists, it has been said that paranoia is just having the right information. But even a well-tempered analyst should be taken aback by Mr. Podesta’s reply: “We created Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good to organize for a moment like this. But I think it lacks the leadership to do so now. Likewise Catholics United. Like most Spring movements, I think this one will have to be bottom up.” Podesta, who professes to be a Catholic, is past president of the Center for American Progress, a think tank that promotes “LGBT equality and women’s reproductive health and rights.”

To usher in this kind of man-made Spring, John Podesta recommended enlisting the help of the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who addressed the dissident organization Call to Action in 2008, and who has served on the board of the National Catholic Reporter.

Sandy—not John Henry—Newman acknowledged that he has a “total lack of understanding of the Catholic Church” since he is Jewish, and thus he deferred to John Podesta for implementing this anthropogenic climate change. But he does have experience in using the Catholic Church as an agent for community organizing, and in 1993 he hired a young man named Barack Obama to register voters in Illinois. Later, the same Obama sought to align Cardinal Bernardin with the United Neighborhood Organizations of Chicago, affiliated with Obama’s own group called the Developing Communities Project. In this he was assisted by Monsignor John J. Egan, another community organizer, who was a close associate of the primeval theorist of social restructuring, Saul Alinsky. That man boasted of his strategy, which was to enlist the sympathies of well-intentioned, if naïve, Catholic clerics, in his essentially Marxist agenda. He said, “To [expletive] your enemies, you’ve first got to seduce your allies.” Eventually, even Cardinal Bernardin disassociated himself with the more extreme organizers including Obama. Hillary Clinton clearly admired Alinsky, but her senior thesis at Wellesley College disagreed with his view that systemic change is “impossible from the inside” and requires radical revision from external engineering.

Well known is the dedication Alinsky wrote for his Rules for Radicals which was the chief object of Hillary Clinton’s college writing: “Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history … the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom—Lucifer.”

Speaking of Lucifer, the e-mails of Newman’s advice to Podesta are sulphuric like Screwtape’s animadversions in the Screwtape Letters of C.S. Lewis. They also remind one of the lines of the other Newman, the blessed one, in “The Patristical Idea of Christ”:

Surely, there is at this day a confederacy of evil, marshaling its hosts from all parts of the world, organizing itself, taking its measures, enclosing the Church of Christ as in a net, and preparing the way for a general Apostasy from it. Whether this very Apostasy is to give birth to Antichrist, or whether he is still to be delayed, as he has already been delayed so long, we cannot know; but at any rate this Apostasy, and all its tokens and instruments, are of the Evil One, and savor of death…. He promises you civil liberty; he promises you equality; he promises you trade and wealth; he promises you a remission of taxes; he promises you reform. This is the way in which he conceals from you the kind of work to which he is putting you; he tempts you to rail against your rulers and superiors; he does so himself, and induces you to imitate him; or he promises you illumination,—he offers you knowledge, science, philosophy, enlargement of mind. He scoffs at times gone by; he scoffs at every institution which reveres them. He prompts you what to say, and then listens to you, and praises you, and encourages you. He bids you mount aloft. He shows you how to become as gods. Then he laughs and jokes with you, and gets intimate with you; he takes your hand, and gets his fingers between yours, and grasps them, and then you are his.

Addressing the 2015 Women in the World Summit, Hillary Clinton coldly declared that “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.” Not present at that summit was Saint Hildegarde of Bingen, who could have enlivened the proceedings by her description of the wiles and ways of Alinsky’s Lucifer:

Religion he will endeavor to make convenient. He will say that you need not fast and embitter your life by renunciation… It will suffice to love God… He will preach free love and tear asunder family ties. He will scorn everything holy, and he will ridicule all graces of the Church with devilish mockery. He will condemn humility and foster proud and gruesome dogmas. He will tear down that which God has taught in the Old and New Testaments and maintain that sin and vice are not sin and vice…

So there we are at this crossroads of culture and, more than that, of civilization itself. Two Newmans proffer two Springtimes and they are not occasional variations of a common climate. Our nation has endured recent years of eroding faith and moral reason. It cannot endure several years more in the confidence that the erosion can be reversed as though it were just the habit of a cyclical season. There is a better prospect, but it is possible only if Catholics assent to the lively oracles of the Gospel and cast their votes and vows against those who are against it. The Newman who is blessed saw a Catholic Spring in the pulpit at Oscott that is not the clandestine plot of e-mails:

I listen, and I hear the sound of voices, grave and musical, renewing the old chant, with which Augustine greeted Ethelbert in the free air upon the Kentish strand. It comes from a long procession, and it winds along the cloisters. Priests and Religious, theologians from the schools, and canons from the Cathedral, walk in due precedence. And then there comes a vision of well-nigh twelve mitred heads; and last I see a Prince of the Church, in the royal dye of empire and of martyrdom, a pledge to us from Rome of Rome’s unwearied love, a token that that goodly company is firm in Apostolic faith and hope.

Editor’s note: In the image above, John Podesta appears with Pope Francis during the canonization Mass for John XXIII and John Paul II on April 27, 2014. (Photo credit: Catholic World Report)


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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