Monday, December 20, 2010

The "path of conscience" is "not a path of self-asserting"

Church historian Eamon Duffy, in a recent book review of John Cornwell's Newman’s Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint, wrote about Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman that he was "[a] remarkably consistent thinker" in that "to the end of his life [he] looked back on his conversion to evangelical Protestantism in 1816 as the saving of his soul. Yet as a fellow of Oriel, the most intellectually prestigious of the Oxford colleges, he outgrew his earlier Calvinism. He came to see Evangelicalism, with its emphasis on religious feeling and on the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone, as a Trojan horse for an undogmatic religious individualism that ignored the Church’s role in the transmission of revealed truth, and that must lead inexorably to subjectivism and skepticism." Even reading Duffy's review will give you a very good idea of what an independent thinker Newman was and remained throughout the eighty-nine years of his life. Newman's still very relevant An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, which, as Duffy notes in his review, was described by "the distinguished Oxford philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny... as the most significant contribution to epistemology between Descartes and Wittgenstein," played a large role in my own conversion.

The Holy Father in his annual Christmas speech to the Roman curia, delivered today, which is one of the most important addresses he gives every year, he looked back on the beatification of Cardinal Newman, an event he was eager to preside at himself, an unusual thing for him, gave a great insight into an aspect of Newman's thought that frequently gets distorted: conscience. Benedict's understanding of Newman is deep. So, his exposition of Newman on conscience is no ploy on the part of an institutional figure to routinize Newman's unique charisma, which remains as attractive today as it did a century ago.

"I would like to highlight just two aspects which belong together and which, in the final analysis, express the same thing. The first is that we must learn from Newman’s three conversions, because they were steps along a spiritual path that concerns us all. Here I would like to emphasize just the first conversion: to faith in the living God. Until that moment, Newman thought like the average men of his time and indeed like the average men of today, who do not simply exclude the existence of God, but consider it as something uncertain, something with no essential role to play in their lives. What appeared genuinely real to him, as to the men of his and our day, is the empirical, matter that can be grasped. This is the 'reality' according to which one finds one’s bearings. The 'real' is what can be grasped, it is the things that can be calculated and taken in one’s hand. In his conversion, Newman recognized that it is exactly the other way round: that God and the soul, man’s spiritual identity, constitute what is genuinely real, what counts. These are much more real than objects that can be grasped. This conversion was a Copernican revolution. What had previously seemed unreal and secondary was now revealed to be the genuinely decisive element. Where such a conversion takes place, it is not just a person’s theory that changes: the fundamental shape of life changes. We are all in constant need of such conversion: then we are on the right path.

Cardinal Newman towards the end of his life

"The driving force that impelled Newman along the path of conversion was conscience... In modern thinking, the word 'conscience' signifies that for moral and religious questions, it is the subjective dimension, the individual, that constitutes the final authority for decision. The world is divided into the realms of the objective and the subjective. To the objective realm belong things that can be calculated and verified by experiment. Religion and morals fall outside the scope of these methods and are therefore considered to lie within the subjective realm. Here, it is said, there are in the final analysis no objective criteria. The ultimate instance that can decide here is therefore the subject alone, and precisely this is what the word 'conscience' expresses: in this realm only the individual, with his intuitions and experiences, can decide. Newman’s understanding of conscience is diametrically opposed to this. For him, 'conscience' means man’s capacity for truth: the capacity to recognize precisely in the decision-making areas of his life – religion and morals – a truth, the truth. At the same time, conscience – man’s capacity to recognize truth – thereby imposes on him the obligation to set out along the path towards truth, to seek it and to submit to it wherever he finds it. Conscience is both capacity for truth and obedience to the truth which manifests itself to anyone who seeks it with an open heart.

"The path of Newman’s conversions is a path of conscience – not a path of self-asserting subjectivity but, on the contrary, a path of obedience to the truth that was gradually opening up to him. His third conversion, to Catholicism, required him to give up almost everything that was dear and precious to him: possessions, profession, academic rank, family ties and many friends. The sacrifice demanded of him by obedience to the truth, by his conscience, went further still. Newman had always been aware of having a mission for England. But in the Catholic theology of his time, his voice could hardly make itself heard. It was too foreign in the context of the prevailing form of theological thought and devotion. In January 1863 he wrote in his diary these distressing words: 'As a Protestant, I felt my religion dreary, but not my life - but, as a Catholic, my life dreary, not my religion'. He had not yet arrived at the hour when he would be an influential figure. In the humility and darkness of obedience, he had to wait until his message was taken up and understood. In support of the claim that Newman’s concept of conscience matched the modern subjective understanding, people often quote a letter in which he said – should he have to propose a toast – that he would drink first to conscience and then to the Pope. But in this statement, 'conscience' does not signify the ultimately binding quality of subjective intuition. It is an expression of the accessibility and the binding force of truth: on this its primacy is based. The second toast can be dedicated to the Pope because it is his task to demand obedience to the truth."


1 comment:

  1. "Newman recognized that it is exactly the other way round: that God and the soul, man’s spiritual identity, constitute what is genuinely real, what counts."

    Exactly! God is Love. God is the most important person in our lives, the center of our very being.

    Merry Christmas.


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