28 February
2019

Newman’s Age

In the coming year Pope Francis seems now likely to canonise the English Cardinal, John Henry Newman, completing a first step taken by Pope Benedict XVI who beatified him (declared him ‘Blessed’) in 2010. The Pope Emeritus has often referred to Newman in the same vein as his fellow-countryman St. Thomas More as figures who, though separated by centuries, left a legacy by acting according to conscience. News of the probable canonisation has already been met by calls from leading Newman scholars for him to be made a Doctor of the Church.

As an intellectual titan of Victorian England, Newman foresaw the rise of an irreligious and intolerant age in which truth in the public sphere would face a difficult reception. In the face of the advance of individualistic materialism, of Benthamite utilitarianism, and of religious indifference, Newman presented his own thoughts on how best to reconcile fides et ratio, faith and reason, in his day. In our own age, when perennially-held norms are routinely portrayed as ‘extremist’, Newman still offers valid guidance on discernment between truth and error. The Cardinal had moved from emotional Evangelicalism of adolescent years to a form of via media or ‘middle way’, even a kind of ‘High Church’ Anglicanism before, finally, submitting to the Roman Catholic Church. His ecclesial journey stemmed not from any lack of integrity, such as he was famously accused of by Charles Kingsley, but rather from a consistent belief in the unity of truth.

He thought that the ‘evangelical body [within the church] … had nothing to guide it but its own private and unaided judgement’. Furthermore, in the Lectures through which he explained his decision to enter the Catholic Church, he saw that ‘the National Church is strictly part of the Nation, in the same way that the Law or the Parliament is part of the Nation, and therefore as the Nation changes, so will the National Church change’. It had become vividly clear to him that religious truth could not reside firmly in such a system, could not depend on as unreliable and fickle a source of authority as elite or popular secular judgement. This led him to pose a key question: How does one attain and discern the truth in the face of the ‘spirit of the age’?

In our time we have seen basic foundational norms – for example, on gender and the limits of sexual behaviour – altered almost at whim by legislation – and are seemingly presented with a greater challenge than ever to what have hitherto been regarded as unchanging truths. It would seem that one reason for Benedict XVI determining to advance Newman’s canonisation process was because his writings offer clarity amidst contemporary confusion and what the Pope styled the ‘dictatorship of relativism’.

Newman rejected a view that gathered force during his own lifetime by which conscience was regarded as a safeguard for an individual’s subjective experiences and opinions. Rather, a consistent and coherent life in the modern world requires that an individual’s conscience be correctly formed by experience and authoritative teaching where this is available. If conscience is authoritative for the individual, truth, which is not a matter of feelings, must first be discerned by that individual. Only by this discernment of truth can any meaningful freedom be attained.

This is likely to be one of the soon-to-be-canonised Blessed John Henry Newman’s definitive contributions: a defence of the existence of unified truth alongside an assertion of the authority of conscience, properly understood.

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