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Katie van Schaijik

Benedict on Newman

Sep. 25, 2010, at 9:10pm

The Friends of Newman have a web page dedicated to his influence on Pope Benedict.  This passage highlights several of the themes we touched on at our gathering last night.  It also makes me think how close he and Wojtyla were in their thinking.

For Newman, the middle term which establishes the connection between authority and subjectivity is truth. I do not hesitate to say that truth is the central thought of Newman’s intellectual grappling. Conscience is central for him because truth stands in the middle. To put it differently, the centrality of the concept of conscience for Newman is linked to the prior centrality of the concept of truth and can only be understood from that vantage point. The dominance of the idea of conscience in Newman does not signify that he, in the nineteenth century and in contrast to “objectivistic” neo-scholasticism, espoused a philosophy or theology of subjectivity. Certainly, the subject finds in Newman an attention which it had not received in Catholic theology perhaps since St Augustine. But it is an attention in the line of Augustine and not in that of the subjectivist philosophy of the modern age. On the occasion of his elevation to cardinal, Newman declared that most of his life was a struggle against the spirit of liberalism in religion; we might add, also against Christian subjectivism, as he found it in the Evangelical movement of his time and which admittedly had provided him with the first step on his lifelong road to conversion. Conscience for Newman does not mean that the subject is the standard vis-à-vis the claims of authority in a truth less world, a world which lives from the compromise between the claims of the subject and the claims of the social order. Even more, conscience signifies the perceptible and demanding presence of the voice of truth in the subject himself. It is the overcoming of mere subjectivity in the encounter of the interiority of man with the truth from God. The verse Newman composed in1833 in Sicily is characteristic: “I loved to choose and see my path but now, lead thou me on!” Newman’s conversion to Catholicism was not for him a matter of personal taste or of subjective, spiritual need. He expressed himself on this even in 1844, on the threshold, so to speak, of his conversion: “No one can have a more unfavourable view than I of the present state of Roman Catholics.” Newman was much more taken by the necessity to obey recognized truth than his own preferences - even against his own sensitivity and bonds of friendship and ties due to similar backgrounds. It seems to me characteristic of Newman that he emphasized the priority of truth over goodness in the order of virtues. Or, to put it in a way which is more understandable for us, he emphasized truth’s priority over consensus, over the accommodation of groups (Conscience and Truth, 10th Workshop for Bishops, February 1991, Dallas, Texas, USA; in: Benedict XVI and Cardinal Newman, p. 46).


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