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Oakland institute to make Catholic philosopher's works high-tech

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013, 10:56 p.m.

A trans-Atlantic collaboration between institutions in Pittsburgh and England will make available to the world the fragile, handwritten letters and notes of a 19th-century English cardinal who inspired modernization of the Catholic church.

Although Cardinal John Henry Newman died in 1890, theologians continue to study his writings, said the Rev. Drew Morgan, provost of the Pittsburgh Oratory, which hosts access to some of Newman's work that is digitized and published.

“Issues that he was writing about in the 19th century people are still wrestling with today,” Morgan said.

The Pittsburgh Oratory and the National Institute for Newman Studies, affiliated with Duquesne University, will spend more than $500,000 during the next three years to digitize hundreds of thousands of unpublished documents locked in a Birmingham, England, church that Newman founded. The institutions have raised enough money to scan half the documents, Morgan said.

Newman's papers include early drafts of his published writings and letters he received, such as one from Pope Pius IX in 1854. He made notes in the margins and drawings. Morgan said the documents offer a glance into how Newman formed his beliefs.

Mary Jo Dorsey, knowledge manager at the National Institute for Newman Studies, said they provide an opportunity to get to know Newman.

“There are so many things that we've found that contribute to knowing Newman's personality,” Dorsey said. “It's a solid history of not only Newman's external thoughts but also his internal thoughts.”

Morgan called Newman a mentor and a spiritual grandfather to Catholic leaders who modernized the church during the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Newman viewed Christianity as a series of ideas that must develop to keep teachings relevant, Morgan said.

Newman wrote on spiritual matters such as the origin of a conscience and its connection to God, Morgan said.

“Conscience is not self will but the voice of God speaking to the human heart,” Morgan said, paraphrasing Newman.

Born in 1801, Newman grew up in the Church of England and became a prolific writer on Anglican thought. Concerns with the Anglican church led to his conversion to Catholicism in 1845, according to a biography on the Pittsburgh Oratory's website. Pope Leo XIII made Newman a cardinal in 1879. In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI beatified Newman, the stage before sainthood.

To view or study Newman's handwritten notes, scholars must travel to Birmingham, Dorsey said. The project will digitize 250 boxes that contain 200,000 to 250,000 documents and make them available on the Internet, Dorsey said.

Researchers at the University of Manchester, in the north of England, will take high-resolution photographs of each page. Crivella West Inc., a Pittsburgh company supplying software to catalog Newman's published works, will provide tools to organize and search the documents, Morgan said.

Dorsey, who visits Newman's study in Birmingham frequently, said walking among the writings is like walking back in time. She hopes the digital collection will offer scholars the same experience.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or




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