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Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 6.4 (2003) 164-169

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Introduction to John Henry Cardinal Newman's Biglietto Speech

Ian Ker


ON 12 MAY 1879, JOHN HENRY NEWMAN received from the secretary of state the biglietto, or note, informing him that at the consistory that morning, the new Pope Leo XIII had elevated him to the college of cardinals. In response, Newman gave his famous so-called biglietto speech.

To understand the significance of the speech—both what Newman said and what he left unsaid—we need to appreciate the circumstances in which the red hat was conferred on him. In December of the previous year, the leading English Catholic layman, the Duke of Norfolk, personally asked the new pope, Leo XIII, officially to recognize Newman for his loyalty and orthodoxy by making him a cardinal. This confirmation would dispel the suspicions of Newman's loyalty, which had been questioned for many years, principally due to the efforts of the extreme Ultramontane Party in England led by Cardinal Manning of Westminster, himself a fellow convert to Catholicism [End Page 164] . Making Newman a cardinal would not only be an act of justice to Newman, but also would reassure Protestants that his immensely popular apologetic writings were indeed properly Catholic.

Newman was later given to believe that Pope Leo XIII already had thought of elevating Newman's position. As papal nuncio in Brussels, Leo became familiar with the Oxford Movement and met Blessed Dominic Barberi (the Italian Passionist missionary in England) in Belgium in 1845, immediately after Dominic had received Newman into the church at Littlemore, outside of Oxford. After being elected pope, Leo is supposed to have said that the policy of his pontificate would be revealed by the name of the first cardinal he created. Several years later, Leo told an English visitor, "My cardinal! it was not easy, it was not easy. They said he was too liberal, but I had determined to honour the Church in honouring Newman. I always had a cult for him. I am proud that I was able to honour such a man." 1

The death of Pius IX in 1878 after his long pontificate had come as a relief to Newman. Pope Pius IX, who was no theologian, was responsible for the reactionary Syllabus of Errors, encouraged the extreme Ultramontane Party and disastrously insisted on the temporal power of the popes as almost an article of faith. By contrast, the declared intention of his successor was to work for a greater openness toward the modern world (although he, too, was still not prepared to accept the [End Page 165] situation in which the papacy had no secular power base—a situation that Newman thought was inevitable and was for the spiritual good of the church). Newman was delighted with the new pope and the prospect of the emergence of the church from the narrow intransigence of the previous, long pontificate.

When, then, Newman spoke at the beginning of his speech "of the wonder and profound gratitude which came upon me, and which is upon me still, at the condescension and love towards me of the Holy Father in singling me out for so immense an honour," he is indicating his awareness of the significance and courage of the pope's act. The Ultramontane grip on the church was at last weakened less than a decade after their partial victory in securing the definition of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council. This definition of papal infallibility, which in its moderation presented no difficulties to Newman, fell short of the extreme Ultramontane hopes.

However, when Newman went on to speak of his "great surprise," as the thought of such a promotion "had never come into my thoughts, and seemed to be out of keeping with all my antecedents," he took a more personal tone. When Newman was sounded out about accepting the cardinalate, his fear was that he might have to leave his beloved Oratory in Birmingham and take up...


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