One of the 'great teachers of the Church'
On 15 May 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 universal Church.
To commemorate this event, we publish this Presentation 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 Presentation 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
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.
We were soon bonded by a personal friendship, wholly centred on the
great problems of philosophy and theology. Of course, Newman was always
present. Alfred Läpple
the name of the abovementioned prefect
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;
its power comes from revelation that completes natural conscience, which
is imperfectly enlightened, and "the championship of the Moral Law and
of conscience is its raison d'être".
Doctrine on conscience
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
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 except 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
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".
Recognize identity of faith
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
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
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
Throughout his entire life, Newman was a person converting, a person
being transformed, and thus he always remained and became ever more
St Augustine and Newman
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
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.