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Pope breaks own rule to beatify Anglican convert
Vatican City - Pope Benedict XVI will break his own rule this weekend when he beatifies Cardinal John Henry Newman, the renowned 19th Century Anglican convert who greatly influenced the Roman Catholic Church.
Newman remains a complicated figure within the Anglican church he abandoned, and the pope's glorification of him during a state visit to Britain could unleash new tensions between churches already divided over issues like the ordination of women and gay bishops.
Benedict will move Newman a step closer to possible sainthood when he presides over his beatification Sept. 19, the main reason for his four-day trip. It's the first time Benedict will celebrate a beatification; under his own rules popes don't beatify, only canonize.
For the German-born, by-the-book professor, such an exception to his own rule is significant. It's a calculated gesture that underscores Benedict's view that Newman is a crucial model for all Christians at a time when Christianity is on the wane in an increasingly secularized Europe.
"His personality and teachings could be a source of inspiration for ecumenism in our times from which all of us can draw," Benedict said on the eve of his trip. "It is my hope and prayer that more and more people will benefit from his gentle wisdom and be inspired by his example of integrity and holiness of life."
For many Anglicans, the sight of the pope traveling to Britain with the express aim of beatifying a figure who turned his back on their church will be a bitter one.
And Benedict has a history of causing offense while on foreign trips - notably outraging Muslims in a speech in Germany by appearing to suggest the prophet Muhammad spread a message of violence, or suggesting while traveling to Africa that condoms hindered the fight against AIDS.
Newman was one of the founders of the so-called Oxford Movement of the 1830s, which sought to revive certain Roman Catholic doctrines in the Church of England by looking back to the traditions of the earliest Christian church.
Anglicans split from Rome in 1534 when English King Henry VIII was refused a marriage annulment. In the centuries that followed, Catholics were fined, discriminated against and killed for their faith.
Newman gave up a brilliant academic career at Oxford University and the pulpit of the university church to convert to Catholicism in 1845, convinced that the truth that he had been searching for could no longer be found in the Church of England. The decision caused pain at a personal and institutional level.
"For him, becoming a Catholic was to become a pariah, to give up all his friends, all his jobs, possessions, and do something that was really difficult," said Jack Valero, the spokesman for Newman's beatification cause. "But he did that because he wanted to follow the truth."
For Benedict, Newman represents a model in that he fought against the same moral relativism - the idea that all religions are the same and that there's no objective truth - that Benedict has denounced during his papacy.
"Perhaps Benedict is thinking that Newman is the vehicle that he can use to push the evangelization of the old Europe," said Valero.
But the beatification is controversial, not least because Newman's defection still rankles in the Church of England, a betrayal that represents current and centuries-old fears about Rome.
The beatification comes at a difficult time for the Anglican Communion as a whole, torn over the ordination of women and openly gay men as bishops that have threatened to tear the 80 million strong communion apart.
Relations between the Anglican and Catholic churches that were already tense over these issues were further strained last year when Benedict unexpectedly issued an invitation to those opposed to the liberalizing bent of the Anglican church to convert.
Vatican officials insist the pope's beatification of Newman isn't another slap in the face to a church already hobbled by internal divisions, noting that the process began in 1958. They call Newman a bridge figure who foreshadowed the Second Vatican Council and could help heal the wounds of division.
Few Anglicans have come out to openly contest the beatification, but few are lining up to hail it either - an indication of the almost bittersweet sentiment Anglicans feel about him if they know about him at all.
"He seems to symbolize the view that the ecumenical journey leads Anglicans ultimately back to the Roman Catholic Church," said the Rev. William Franklin, an Anglican Newman scholar who has taught Newman at Rome's Pontifical Angelicum University.
While the Vatican hopes to hold Newman up as a bridge figure, his own experience with conversion suggests otherwise, said the Rev. Ephraim Radner, a professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, an Anglican theological school at the University of Toronto.
"There are very sad things about what happened, that he himself and others acknowledge: the great parting of friends - it's something that's true today" when Roman Catholics or Anglicans switch sides, Radner said.
"He stands as a sign of what's broken of a bridge, it seems to me."
Newman's legacy is also complex for Anglicans and Catholics alike: Liberals like his emphasis on conscience, conservatives admire his submission to authority and his devotion to celibacy. Some gay activists have claimed him as one of their own, as Newman was buried in the same grave with the Rev. Ambrose St. John, his companion of more than 30 years.
Valero and others insist there is nothing in the record that shows Newman was gay, noting that double graves were common at the time and that Newman had many intense friendships with men and women yet remained chaste.
Canon David Richardson, the Archbishop of Canterbury's representative to the Holy See, acknowledged that Newman's beatification could be perceived by some as a triumphalist, "we won" provocation on the part of the Vatican. But he said he didn't think it would be seen as such, noting that few rank-and-file Anglicans even know very much about him.
"Christianity, because it's a historic religion, does rely a lot on memory, but its not at its best about picking over the scabs of the past," he said. "It's actually about bringing our past into our present and letting it shape our future. And Newman's contribution is a very positive contribution, even if at the time it was hurtful."
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