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John Henry Newman belongs to the great Teachers of the Church
Different topics - 13 August 1990

A Talk Given by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

On May 15, 1879 Pope Leo XIII raised John Henry Newman to the dignity of Cardinal and thus recognized his extraordinary merits not only for the faithful in England, but also for the Church universal. To commemorate this event, we are publishing this talk in which Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger – now Pope Benedict XVI – revealed his personal approach to Newman, while underscoring the relevance of this great teacher for the Church of our time. The talk was given in the centenary year of Newman’s death (1990) during a Symposium organized by the International Centre of Newman Friends, run by members of The Spiritual Family The Work.

I do not feel competent to speak on Newman’s figure or work, but perhaps it is meaningful, if I tell a little about my own way to Newman, in which indeed something is reflected of the presence of this great English theologian in the intellectual and spiritual struggle of our time.

In January 1946, when I began my study of theology in the Seminary in Freising which had finally reopened after the confusion of the war, an older student was assigned as prefect to our group, who had begun to work on a dissertation on Newman’s theology of conscience even before the beginning of the war. In all the years of his military service he had not lost sight of this theme, which he now turned to with new enthusiasm and energy. Soon we were bonded by a personal friendship, wholly centred on the great problems of philosophy and theology. Of course Newman was always present. Alfred Läpple – the above mentioned prefect named – published his dissertation in 1952 with the title: Der Einzelne in der Kirche (The Individual in the Church).

For us at that time, Newman’s teaching on conscience became an important foundation for theological personalism, which was drawing us all in its sway. Our image of the human being as well as our image of the Church was permeated by this point of departure. We had experienced the claim of a totalitarian party, which understood itself as the fulfilment of history and which negated the conscience of the individual. One of its leaders had said: “I have no conscience. My conscience is Adolf Hitler.” The appalling devastation of humanity that followed was before our eyes.

So it was liberating and essential for us to know that the “we” of the Church does not rest on a cancellation of conscience, but that, exactly the opposite, it can only develop from conscience. Precisely because Newman interpreted the existence of the human being from conscience, that is, from the relationship between God and the soul, was it clear that this personalism is not individualism, and that being bound by conscience does not mean being free to make random choices – the exact opposite is the case. It was from Newman that we learned to understand the primacy of the Pope. Freedom of conscience – Newman told us – is not identical with the right “to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations.” Thus conscience in its true sense is the bedrock of papal authority. For its power comes from revelation that completes natural conscience, which is imperfectly enlightened and, “the championship of the Moral Law and of conscience is his raison d’être.”

I certainly need not explicitly mention that this teaching on conscience has become ever more important for me in the continued development of the Church and the world. Ever more I see how it first opens in the context of the biography of the Cardinal, which is only to be understood in connection with the drama of his century and so speaks to us. Newman had become a convert as a man of conscience; it was his conscience that led him out of the old ties and securities into the world of Catholicism, which was difficult and strange for him. But this way of conscience is everything but a way of self-sufficient subjectivity: it is a way of obedience to objective truth. The second step in Newman’s lifelong journey of conversion was overcoming the subjective evangelical position in favour of an understanding of Christendom based on the objectivity of dogma. In this connection I find a formulation from one of his early sermons to be especially significant today: “True Christendom is shown… in obedience and not through a state of consciousness. Thus the whole duty and work of a Christian is made up of these two parts, Faith and Obedience; ‘looking unto Jesus’ (Heb. 2,9) … and acting according to His will … I conceive that we are in danger, in this day, of insisting on neither of these as we ought; regarding all true and careful consideration of the Object of faith, as barren orthodoxy, technical subtlety… and … making the test of our being religious, to consist in our having what is called a spiritual state of heart…”.

In this context some sentences from The Arians of the Fourth Century which may sound rather astonishing at first seem important to me. “… to detect and to approve the principle on which … peace is grounded in Scripture; to submit to the dictation of truth, as such, as a primary authority in matters of political and private conduct; to understand … zeal to be prior in the succession of Christian graces to benevolence”. For me it is always fascinating to see and consider how in just this way and only in this way, through commitment to the truth, to God, conscience receives its rank, dignity and strength. I would like in this context to add but one sentence from the Apologia, which shows the realism in this idea of person and Church: “Living movements do not come of committees.”

Very briefly I would like to return to the autobiographical thread. When I continued my studies in Munich in 1947, I found a well read and enthusiastic follower of Newman in the Fundamental Theologian, Gottlieb Söhngen, who was my true teacher in theology. He opened up the Grammar of Assent to us and in doing so, the special manner and form of certainty in religious knowledge. Even deeper for me was the contribution which Heinrich Fries published in connection with the Jubilee of Chalcedon. Here I found access to Newman’s teaching on the development of doctrine, which I regard along with his doctrine on conscience as his decisive contribution to the renewal of theology. With this he had placed the key in our hand to build historical thought into theology, or much more, he taught us to think historically in theology and so to recognize the identity of faith in all developments. Here I have to refrain from deepening these ideas further. It seems to me that Newman’s starting point, also in modern theology has not yet been fully evaluated. Fruitful possibilities awaiting development are still hidden in it. At this point I would only like to refer again to the biographical background of this concept. It is known how Newman’s insight into the ideas of development influenced his way to Catholicism. But it is not just a matter of an unfolding of ideas. In the concept of development Newman’s own life plays a role. That seems to become visible to me in his well known words: “…to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Throughout his entire life, Newman was a person converting, a person being transformed, and thus he always remained and became ever more himself.

Here the figure of St. Augustine comes to my mind, with whom Newman was so associated. When Augustine was converted in the garden at Cassiciacum he understood conversion according to the system of the revered master Plotin and the Neo-Platonic philosophers. He thought that his past sinful life would now be definitively cast off; from now on the convert would be someone wholly new and different and his further journey would be a steady climb to the ever purer heights of closeness to God. It was something like that which Gregory of Nyssa described in his Ascent of Moses: “Just as bodies, after having received the first push downwards, fall effortlessly into the depths with ever greater speed, so, on the contrary, the soul which has loosed itself from earthly passion rises up in a rapid upward movement … constantly overcoming itself in a steady upward flight.” Augustine’s actual experience was a different one. He had to learn that being a Christian is always a difficult journey with all its heights and depths. The image of ascensus is exchanged for that of iter whose tiring weight is lightened and borne up by moments of light, which we may receive now and then. Conversion is the iter – the roadway of a whole lifetime. And faith is always “development,” and precisely in this manner it is the maturation of the soul to truth, to God, who is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves.

In the idea of “development” Newman had written his own experience of a never finished conversion and interpreted for us, not only the way of Christian doctrine, but that of the Christian life. The characteristic of the great doctor of the Church, it seems to me, is that he teaches not only through his thought and speech, but also by his life, because within him thought and life are interpenetrated and defined. If this is so, then Newman belongs to the great teachers of the Church, because he both touches our hearts and enlightens our thinking.




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