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Resisting the Nazis with Newman

Who today knows the legacy of John Henry Newman on conscience better than Benedict XVI? He lived through the horrors of Nazi Germany and saw the devastating effects of National Socialism on the consciences of his fellow Germans. On entering the seminary in January 1946 the German catastrophe was the burning issue of the time: how could it have happened, teachers and students asked themselves and each other. Fortunately, they had Newman’s writings on conscience to draw on, as his most important works had been translated into German between the two wars. The young Joseph Ratzinger was more privileged; he was assigned a mentor who was writing his doctorate on Newman’s theology of conscience.

Reflecting on this period in 1990, Cardinal Ratzinger commented:

For us at that time, Newman’s teaching on conscience became an important foundation for theological personalism, which was drawing us all in its sway. Our image of the human being as well as our image of the Church was permeated by this point of departure.

We had experienced the claim of a totalitarian party, which understood itself as the fulfilment of history and which negated the conscience of the individual. One of its leaders [Hermann Göring] had said: “I have no conscience. My conscience is Adolf Hitler.” The appalling devastation of humanity that followed was before our eyes.

So it was liberating and essential for us to know that the “we” of the Church does not rest on a cancellation of conscience, but that, exactly the opposite, it can only develop from conscience. Precisely because Newman interpreted the existence of the human being from conscience, that is, from the relationship between God and the soul, was it clear that this personalism is not individualism, and that being bound by conscience does not mean being free to make random choices – the exact opposite is the case.

When the young Ratzinger moved to Munich in 1947 to continue his studies, he was introduced to Newman’s Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. The Grammar is Newman’s systematic study of the genesis of religious belief and contains his most developed thought on conscience. There he explains that conscience has two aspects: “It is a moral sense, and a sense of duty; a judgment of the reason and a magisterial dictate.” And it is in the latter aspect of sanction that conscience is primary, for it is “a voice, or the echo of a voice, imperative and constraining”.

The theme of conscience also lies at the heart of The Letter to the Duke of Norfolk. Written in the wake of the First Vatican Council, the letter was a response to the charge of the prime minister, William Gladstone, that Catholics, in light of the Council’s adoption of the doctrine of papal infallibility, would have “no mental freedom”, being “captives and slaves of the Pope”. One section of this letter is quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (which deals with conscience in a highly Newmanian way): “Conscience is a messenger of Him who speaks to us behind a veil and teaches us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.”

Newman’s argument regarding conscience also includes the line, “I shall drink – to the Pope, if you please, – still to conscience first and to the Pope afterwards.” Though much repeated, this line is also much misunderstood. Cardinal Ratzinger explains: “Freedom of conscience, Newman told us, is not identical with the right ‘to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations’.”

Moreover, he clarifies that Newman’s “way of conscience” is not “a way of self-sufficient subjectivity; it is a way of obedience to objective truth”. It must be formed in accordance with the magisterial teachings of Holy Mother Church.

Cardinal Ratzinger also sees Newman as a teacher of conscience through his actions: it was his conscience that led him out of close ties and security into the world of Catholicism, which was initially so strange for him. For this reason, Newman exhibits the “characteristic of the great Doctor of the Church” as “he teaches not only through his thought and speech but also by his life, because within him, thought and life are interpenetrated and defined”.

During his four-day visit to Britain in September 2010, when he beatified Newman, Pope Benedict referred to the Christians in wartime Germany who “opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives”. Had he in mind, one wonders, Hans and Sophie Scholl and their friends, who resisted Hitler and paid the ultimate price? Operating under the name the White Rose, they circulated thousands of leaflets telling Germans of their moral duty to resist Hitler and his “atheistic war machine”.

The man who brought Newman’s writings to the attention of the Munich students was the philosopher and cultural historian Theodor Haecker, who had become a Catholic after translating Newman’s Grammar. Forbidden to publish or speak in public, Haecker translated seven of Newman’s works, and on several occasions read excerpts from them at the illegal secret meetings Hans Scholl convened for his friends. The night before the fourth leaflet was written, Haecker spoke to the students, drawing on Newman in his attempt to explain the metaphysical background of the war. The impulsive and spirited Hans used what he heard to draw up the fourth leaflet.

When Sophie’s boyfriend, a Luftwaffe officer called Fritz Hartnagel, was deployed to the Eastern Front in May 1942, Sophie’s parting gift was two volumes of Newman’s sermons. After witnessing the carnage in Russia, Fritz wrote to Sophie to say that reading Newman’s words in such an awful place was like tasting “drops of precious wine”.

In another letter, Fritz wrote: “We know by whom we were created, and that we stand in a relationship of moral obligation to our creator. Conscience gives us the capacity to distinguish between good and evil.” These words were taken almost verbatim from one of Newman’s sermons, “The Testimony of Conscience”. In it he explains that conscience is an echo of the voice of God enlightening each person to moral truth in specific situations. All of us, he argues, have a duty to obey a right conscience over and above all other considerations.

When interrogated by the Gestapo in February 1942, Sophie said that it was her Christian conscience that had compelled her to oppose the Nazi regime non-violently. Like her brother, she had found in Newman and other Christian writers the resources and inspiration to make sense of the demonic world around her.

Fritz was evacuated from Stalingrad just before the German army surrendered. In his last letter to Sophie, he laments the loss of the Newman sermons, not knowing that she was already dead when he was writing. When Fritz visited Sophie’s parents, he gave them a collection of Newman sermons translated by Theodor Haecker. Haecker himself also visited the Scholls, and signed the visitor’s book with Newman’s own motto, Cor ad cor loquitur (“Heart speaks to heart”).

It is not improbable that the final words of the fourth White Rose leaflet were written under the influence of Newman: “We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace! Please read and distribute!”

Dr Paul Shrimpton teaches at Magdalen College School, Oxford. His Conscience before Conformity: Hans and Sophie Scholl and the White Rose resistance in Nazi Germany (2017) marked the 75th anniversary of the White Rose movement