U.S. bishops express strong support for proposal to name Newman a doctor of the Church

John Henry Newman by Sir John Everett Millais public domain CNA John Henry Newman by Sir John Everett Millais. | Credit: Public domain

Bishop Robert Barron of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota, was one of several U.S. bishops who spoke passionately in support this week of a proposal to name the 19th-century English cardinal St. John Henry Newman a “doctor of the Church.” 

The U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine asked the country’s body of bishops Nov. 15, during their annual fall meeting in Baltimore, if they support a petition brought by the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales asking the Vatican to name Newman a doctor of the Church. 

The U.S. bishops voted overwhelmingly — with just two bishops voting no — to send a letter to Pope Francis expressing their support for the U.K. bishops’ proposal. Newman, born in 1801, was famously a convert to the Catholic faith from Anglicanism and faced backlash and prejudice from his community and his family. 

“If that happens, that Newman is named a doctor, we should really take advantage of that, study his writings deeply. I think it might help to heal some of the divisions in our Church,” Barron said, speaking to his brother bishops ahead of the vote. 

Other bishops including Metropolitan Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia and Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston also rose to express their support. 

Prior to his conversion, Newman made a name for himself as a well-known and widely respected Oxford academic, preacher, and public intellectual. His 1845 conversion to the Catholic faith resulted in the loss of many friends — including his own sister, who never spoke to him again.

He became a priest in 1847 and founded the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in England. He was particularly dedicated to education, founding two schools for boys and the Catholic University of Ireland. Newman’s “Idea of a University” became a foundational text on Catholic higher education. A prolific author and letter writer, he died in Birmingham in 1890 at age 89.

Newman would join the ranks of just over three dozen saints — including Anthony of Padua, Jerome, and Thérèse of Lisieux — if he is ultimately named a doctor of the Church. Pope Francis canonized him in 2019. 

Traditionally, the title of doctor of the Church has been granted on the basis of three requirements: the manifest holiness of a candidate affirmed by his or her canonization as a saint; the person’s eminence in doctrine demonstrated by the leaving behind of a body of teachings that made significant and lasting contributions to the life of the Church; and a formal declaration by the Church, usually by a pope.

Matthew Bunson, editorial director of EWTN News, said in an interview with “EWTN News Nightly” that the bishops’ support may well have an effect. 

“The U.S. bishops made an appeal to [Pope Benedict XVI] over St. John of Avila, and he was named a doctor of the Church. In 2019, they asked Pope Francis to make St. Irenaeus of Lyon a doctor of the Church, and that happened just a couple of years after that,” Bunson noted. 

“So it could have an effect, and the bishops clearly want it to happen as soon as possible.”

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