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Andreas R. Batlogg, S.J. {*}

Conscience First, then the Pope


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 11/2010, P. 721 et sequ.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


Since September 19th 2010 John Henry Newman (1801-1890) belongs to the new beatified of this year. That the Pope himself has at the end of his four-day trip to Great Britain beatified him and has not (as before) delegated this act was interpreted as a sign of Benedict XVI's personal esteem for the "Doctor of the Church of the Modern Age", who is the most prominent convert in England before Tony Blair.

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Newman's death in 1990, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told that he in January 1946 as a seminarian in Freising together with his fellow students had been introduced into Newman's world of thought by the older fellow student Alfred Läpple, who at that time was finishing his thesis on Newman's view on conscience, which he had begun before the Second World War. His doctoral adviser Gottlieb Söhngen and Heinrich Fries reinforced the fascination of the English theologian and polymath. The encounter with Newman would be of crucial importance for the young seminarian.

In retrospect Ratzinger said, "Newman's doctrine of conscience was to us then an important foundation for theological personalism, which cast its spell over all of us. ... We had experienced the claim of a totalitarian party, which saw itself as the fulfillment of history and negated the conscience of the individual. ... It was therefore liberating for us and essential to know that the 'We' of the Church was not based on the extinction of conscience, but the opposite is true, it can only develop when it is based on conscience. Precisely because Newman takes conscience as starting point for his interpretation of man's existence, that is, the vis-a-vis of God and soul, it was also clear that this personalism is no individualism, and that the loyalty to one's conscience does not mean to allow arbitrariness - the opposite is the case."

Newman converted for reasons of conscience at the age of 44. The distrust which he met both among Catholics and Anglicans ("Living Under the Cloud") only subsided thanks to his "Apology" (1864), a kind of report on his journey of faith. Pope Leo XIII turned a deaf ear to massive concerns within the Curia that Newman was "too liberal" but also to slanderous rumors deliberately spread, when he in 1879 appointed him Cardinal ("il mio cardinale"). He was determined, "by honouring Newman I would honour the church." The red biretta for a convert as ecclesial recognition during his lifetime, the beatification as posthumous confirmation!



What can be learned from John Henry Newman? Above all, the courage to follow one's conscience. A passage from his "Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1874), in which he emphasizes the primacy of conscience, is famous and often cited. "If I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts ... I shall drink to the Pope, if you please, still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards." The toast has a more dramatic effect than its wording suggests, because it only expresses, as Karl Rahner S.J. emphasized, "a mere matter of course." "The Catholic Christian," says Rahner in September 1978 in Freiburg at the end of the first international Newman Conference on German soil, "will say, 'From the deepest life decision of conscience I accept and acknowledge this real doctrinal authority of the Catholic Church as an external, but meaningful, necessary, God-willed standard for my conscience. The recognition of this objective standard, however, is of course once again my own decision of conscience, which I make on my own account and risk.' You cannot, so to speak, hand over and deliver your conscience to someone else."

Since Thomas Aquinas this "matter of course" is a good old tradition. Of course, the conscience must be trained. It does certainly not mean arbitrariness or wishful thinking. But it can also not be replaced by any other instance - except at the price of sin. In England as in Germany Catholics were and are always under the general suspicion to be ultra-montane, i.e. "submissively dependent on Rom", and to be thus not even capable of their own decision of conscience. They live in fact in a tension that is reflected in Newman's life story and all the more in his theological path: What am I to do if my conscience suggests or even commands something else than the official doctrine of the Church?

Honouring John Henry Newman does also mean to learn from his convictions. In the commentary on paragraph 16 of the Pastoral Constitution "Gaudium et Spes" of the last Council it says, "Our own conscience stands still above the pope as an expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority. We have first of all to obey it, if need be, even against the orders of the ecclesiastical authority." The author of the commentary, a theologian during the Second Vatican Council, is now Pope. One needn't evoke any dramatic situations. But the encyclical "Humanae vitae" (1968) e.g. has plunged innumerable Catholics into serious moral conflicts; in the Declaration of Koenigstein the German bishops entrusted their solution to the personal decision of the faithful. One can also think of the years of the German bishops' struggle with Pope John Paul II, which resulted finally in the withdrawal from the state counselling for unwanted pregnancies. Bishop Franz Kamphaus has suffered much from it.

With his concept of conscience-theology John Henry Newman made "a decisive step toward the modern era," says the Freiburg theologian Magnus Striet. "With it Newman deliberately recognizes the dignity which is founded in the human person as such. This conception knows therefore also a dignity of the erring conscience - the Second Vatican Council will follow his view. Newman does no longer think religious freedom in the line of the tolerance precept. He rather sees that conscience it entitled to absolute primacy, because it is the expression of man's personal dignity."


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'