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‘I did it my way?’ “No way!” says Cardinal Newman

John Henry Newman
John Henry Newman. © Mazur/

Bishop Anthony Fisher OP

On 19 September, Pope Benedict XVI will beatify John Henry Newman. He does not usually celebrate beatifications, and the fact that he has chosen to do so – in the face of considerable obstacles – is a sign of the high regard in which he holds this Englishman.

Newman’s life (1801-90) spanned the 19th Century and included a period as an Anglican academic and vicar, and then, from his famous conversion in 1845, as a Catholic priest, man of letters and cardinal (from 1879).

He was a prolific writer, including famous academic works on The Development of Doctrine, The Idea of a University and The Grammar of Assent, many volumes of sermons, as well as autobiography (The Apologia), poems (The Dream of Gerontius) and hymns (Firmly I Believe and Truly).

Famous for his writing on conscience, Newman was a major influence over the fathers of the Second Vatican Council and is quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church calling conscience ‘the aboriginal Vicar of Christ’ (§1778). Some imagine him the champion of ‘anything goes’, as long as people are sincere and tolerant. But this misses his point.

In his famous letter to the Duke of Norfolk, Newman protested that the idea of conscience was fast degenerating into “an Englishman’s prerogative to be his own master in all things”.

Without divine revelation, tradition, community, and reason itself, conscience easily goes off the rails. Morality becomes a mere power game and people write their own tickets.

What we need is a reliable moral compass, that is, a well-formed conscience and a well-informed mind. I Did It My Way is a popular song at funerals these days. It was never Newman’s theme song – and will not, I expect, be sung at his beatification!

The end of religion

On the day he was made a Cardinal, Newman observed: “Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another.” This view, he observed, is increasingly commonplace and has the advantage of encouraging tolerance.

But “it is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true.” It reduces all religion to mere sentiment and taste, “the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.” And if we accept that faith is so personal and private, it will necessarily be ignored in public life.

It was, in fact, from reading Newman that the young Ratzinger learnt that without Church authority conscience can easily be slave to personal passion and social fashion. This is ‘the dictatorship of relativism’.

On the centenary of Newman’s death the then-Cardinal Ratzinger paid tribute to Newman’s ‘liberating and essential’ truth that the ‘we’ of the Church develops from and guarantees personal conscience. Catholic teaching never contradicts freedom of conscience; it should free conscience rather than cage it.

Always converting

As an Anglican Newman had also realised that truth in matters of faith is never determined by opinion poll, committee resolution or private ‘spiritual’ feeling. He carefully explored what it means to assent, to have certainty and to conform to truth.

He insisted, too, that authentic Catholic faith – ‘Orthodoxy’ – cannot be a closed system, ‘done and dusted’, but must always be open to development.

Thus Newman observed – both with respect to himself and the Church – that “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” The Pope observes that: “Throughout his entire life, Newman was a person converting, a person being transformed, and thus he always remained and became ever more himself.”

Whether Newman will eventually be one of the select group of Doctors of the Church is yet to be seen. But as Cardinal Ratzinger, the Pope gave a hint of his own opinion: “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.”

Newman’s theme song was always, “I did it Truth’s way. I did it the Church’s way. I did it Christ’s way.”

Blessed John Henry Newman – pray for us.

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