Via Media

More and more, I am wondering if the real prophets of our day are to be found in the middle.  The Anglican tradition claims this as the via media. Classicists speak of the Golden Mean. Experience teaches all of us the wisdom of the happy medium. Whatever it’s called, we clearly need more of it!  Regretably, the prescription of an early American patriot seems too true for our times: “We either hang together or we hang separately!”

Today is the birthday of one such prophet who challenged the extremes, not to mediocrity, but to integrity.  Faded remnants of this fiery prophet remain in the name often given to Catholic student centers at public universities.  John Henry Newman was born this day in 1801. This child of the Victorian era cherished tradition while enthusiastically engaging questions posed by a changing world.

Newman was an Anglican priest and leader in the Oxford Movement in the 1830s who became a Roman Catholic in 1845.  I do not cite this to argue that in “leaving” to “become” anything he made the “right” choice.  That is precisely the argumentative, divisive, polarizing polemics that leave us in the state we find ourselves today.  Rather, what deserves highlighting is that John Henry Newman was denounced by both Anglican and Catholic leaders of his day.  He was distrusted and demonized both by entrenched conservatives and rabid liberals.  Isn’t that precisely the kind of prophetic voice to which we should have our ears attuned today?

Newman’s passionate love for the church and for Christ led him to defend that precarious “middle” between those who would dispense with anything that smacks of tradition and others who tenaciously clung to teachings “everyone, everywhere, and at all times had always believed.”  Robert Ellsberg provides a cogent summary:

Today [Newman] is remembered as one who struggled to keep the mind of the church open to what was good and valuable in the modern world.  His understanding of the historicity of doctrine, his defense of the laity, his nonscholastic approach to theology, his spirit of tolerance, his belief in the separation of church and state, his appreciation for the spiritual integrity of the intellectual life, and his celebration of the rights of conscience – all these values are consonant with the modern Catholic sensibility. 

Paul VI called Vatican II “Newman’s Council.”  Benedict XVI beatified John Henry Newman in September 2010.  But, he also knew a degree of vindication later in his own life at age 78 – Leo XIII included Newman in the very first group of cardinals named by this new pope.

I take a certain delight in the coincidence of Newman’s birthday today and the installation of yet another new pope’s first group of cardinals tomorrow.  May they prove to be in the prophetic tradition of John Henry Newman – passionate in their love of the church and of Christ – with convictions that are courageous and clear but grounded in the via media.  There is hope!


Source: “All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses For Our Time” by Robert Ellsberg.  Crossroads,1999.

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