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Newman is the antidote to Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche (Getty)

I first came across the name John Henry Newman in primary school. The hymns Firmly I Believe and Truly and Praise to the Holiest were often sung at our school Masses. Later when I was in secondary school I read his Apologia and The Idea of a University. At that time I understood that he was a very significant Victorian figure. I only came to appreciate that he is moreover an original theological thinker of great magnitude when I started to read German theology. The Germans love Newman!

Joseph Ratzinger described Newman as one of the heroes for his generation of seminarians. Newman’s most significant publications, including the Grammar of Assent and Essay on the Development of Doctrine, were translated into German by Theodor Haecker, who was a friend of Hans and Sophie Scholl, the martyrs of the White Rose movement. It was actually Newman’s work on conscience that inspired the White Rose students to resist the Nazis. Gottlieb Söhngen, who was the young

Fr Ratzinger’s doctoral supervisor, wrote: “Newman inspired us Germans as if he were one of ours and as if he had written especially for us, without this taking anything from his significance for the Christianity of England and the rest of the world.” Ratzinger wrote: “Newman taught us to think historically in theology”; “his teaching on conscience became an important foundation for theological personalism”; and “it was from Newman that we learned to understand the primacy of the pope”.

For Newman, the pope was not an absolute monarch or dictator, but someone more like a constitutional monarch whose actions and judgments were circumscribed by a constitution. But in this case the “constitution” was Scripture and Tradition. Ratzinger also praised Newman for understanding the importance of doctrine. That is, as he expressed the principle: “Christianity is based on the objectivity of dogma.” It was precisely Newman’s arrival at this conclusion that necessitated his break from Protestantism.

With his idea of conscience, Newman made a significant contribution to moral theology; with his treatment of the papacy, he developed a major topic in ecclesiology and helped to protect Catholics from embarrassing maximalist interpretations of the doctrine of papal infallibility. With his work on the development of doctrine, especially his criteria for distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate doctrinal developments, Newman addressed a contemporary hot issue in dogmatic theology, allowing that history plays a role in doctrinal development without jettisoning tradition and landing Catholics in the ditch of historical relativism.

Newman also made significant contributions to the field of theological anthropology with his emphasis on the importance of a pure heart for the love and reason relationship, and with his treatment of the illative sense (a mental faculty similar to intuition) in the faith and reason relationship. He also highlighted the place of the human imagination in spiritual development. The imagination had been a much neglected faculty of the human soul. Over the Christian centuries the intellect and will tended to get the lion’s share of academic analysis, but Newman understood the power of what is today called mythopoesis. There could be no CS Lewis or JRR Tolkien without a highly developed Christian imagination.

Newman also paid due attention to the heart as the site of the integration of all the soul’s faculties. Although some might assert that the heart is simply an organ that pumps blood around the body, what Newman called the heart was the place of integration within the human soul.

Just as some faculties of the soul are often over-looked, some transcendental properties of being (truth, goodness, beauty) can be neglected. Here too Newman was on to the problem and clearly understood the inter-relationship of all three and the indispensable importance of beauty in the liturgical context. He quite passionately opposed all forms of philistinism.

In many ways, but perhaps above all in his defence of beauty, and in his quest to integrate history into theology without falling into historical relativism, Newman was a precursor to two of the biggest names in 20th century Catholic theology: Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger. Like them he believed in the timelessness of truth.

Newman can also be read as an intellectual antidote to Nietzsche. As Söhngen noted, Newman understood the problem of an ethical atheism. He understood that contemporary atheism had become a dogma, that is, a lived reality of which one is convinced and for which one is willing to die. Newman grasped that one cannot defeat this kind of atheism with logic, only with a counter-narrative, a counter-theological anthropology, a counter-Christian humanism that is more intoxicating than anything else on offer in the intellectual salons (and today one would add, in the pop culture magazines).

For all of these reasons and more, this Victorian saint is a Doctor of the Church for the postmodern 21st century.

Professor Tracey Rowland is the St John Paul II Chair in Theology at the University of Notre Dame (Australia)