THREE years ago I was in the Basilica of St Mary Major in Rome, photographing Melissa Villalobos and her family on the eve of the canonisation of St John Henry Newman, the 19th century convert, cardinal and theologian who is now England’s newest saint.
The inexplicable healing of Villalobos from a severe haemorrhage caused by a detached placenta, which threatened to kill both her and her unborn child, was the miracle required by the Catholic Church to declare Newman a saint. It happened one morning in May 2013 when the Chicago lawyer awoke in a pool of blood. She collapsed in her bathroom and, too weak to stand, she uttered a simple prayer as she approached death: ‘Please, Cardinal Newman, make the bleeding stop.’ It ceased at that moment, and Villalobos says the bathroom was filled with the scent of roses.
Gemma, the daughter who also survived the haemorrhage, was five years old and leaning shyly into the leg of her father, David, when a young priest appeared and began to take pictures beside me. David asked him who he was. ‘Pope Benedict sent me,’ I recall the priest saying. ‘He often asks how the little girl is getting on.’ The priest soon departed, presumably to his master, who died on New Year’s Eve at the age of 95.
Much has been written about the life and legacy of this pope. I will remember him very much in connection to Newman not only because of that night in St Mary Major and because the one time I saw this pope was at the beatification of Newman in Birmingham in 2010, but also because he possessed the honesty and the intellect to understand Newman perfectly.
In particular, Benedict was perhaps the world’s greatest exponent of Newman’s ‘theology of conscience’, which he began to study in depth from 1946 when he entered a seminary in Freising, Bavaria. There, the young Joseph Ratzinger forged a close friendship with Alfred Läpple, his prefect of studies, who had undertaken a study of Newman’s theology of conscience before the Second World War and who was able to resume his work only after the conflict had ended.
‘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,’ explained Cardinal Ratzinger in a 1990 speech to mark the centenary of Newman’s death. ‘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 had said, “I have no conscience. My conscience is Adolf Hitler”. The appalling devastation of humanity that followed was before our eyes.’
Professor Läpple, in an interview more than a decade later with journalist Gianni Valente, was more to the point. ‘Newman was not a topic like any other,’ he said. ‘He was our passion.’
Newman’s theology was significant to German Christians of the post-war era because it helped to re-establish the meaning and role of conscience in the aftermath of tyranny.
It had already begun to capture the German intellectual imagination after the First World War. Newman was read later by Sophie Scholl and in 1942, the year before she was guillotined in Stadelheim Prison, Munich, for urging fellow students to resist ‘Nazi terror’, she gave two volumes of his sermons to Fritz Hartnagel, her boyfriend, as a farewell present before he left to fight at Stalingrad. The couple referred to Newman’s theology of conscience in their letters to each other.
Ratzinger was introduced to Newman by Läpple on the back of this intellectual ferment and studied his writings more deeply under his fundamental theology tutor, GottliebSöhngen, and then under Heinrich Fries, the theologian and Newman scholar.
Professor Läpple later remarked that Ratzinger was so intellectually curious he was like a ‘dry cloth soaking up water almost greedily’. Newman would have been irresistible to him.
As Cardinal Ratzinger, he would go on to define conscience in his teachings in precisely the way that Newman intended, rather than the way it has been continually misrepresented as the ‘right of self will’, or, as what Newman himself disdainfully remarked, as ‘the very right of conscience to dispense with conscience’.
The theology that both Newman and Benedict have expounded speaks of conscience as an echo of the voice of God, the ‘connecting principle between the creature and his Creator’, and the ‘guide of life, implanted in our nature, discriminating right from wrong’ in concrete situations.
To them, it is an expression of the natural law of God written on the heart of every human being. This law refers not to the ‘law of nature’ but to the Ten Commandments, and in theology it is described as natural because of the belief that good acts are innately natural to man, and that evil or sinful acts are aberrations of the image of likeness of God in which men and women are made. This is the natural law to which William Shakespeare refers when he deals with evil in such plays as King Lear and Macbeth. Conscience is the internal voice that testifies to it.
Like Shakespeare, Newman’s writings are often beautiful but in the quality of Charles Dickens, his Victorian contemporary, leading James Joyce to describe him as one of the best prose stylists in the English language of his times. His writings on conscience are no exception.
He describes conscience as the ‘aboriginal vicar of Christ’ that at the same time is ‘so delicate, so fitful, so easily puzzled, obscured, perverted, so subtle in its argumentative methods, so impressible by education, so biased by pride and passion, so unsteady in its course’. It is the urgent mission of the Church, he argued, both poetically and with sheer clarity, to protect and strengthen it.
Such theology found a faithful and eloquent echo in the teachings of Ratzinger who, for instance, observed on one occasion that ‘all power that the papacy has is power of conscience’ and that the silencing of conscience ‘leads to the dehumanisation of the world and to moral danger, if one does not work against it’.
An appeal to the rights of conscience underpinned the substance of a speech Pope Benedict gave to Parliamentarians in Westminster Hall, London, two days before he beatified Newman.
Benedict XVI would conclude that the extent and depth of Newman’s ideas have ‘not yet been fully evaluated’ and suggested that Newman should be declared a ‘great doctor of the Church’, an accolade reserved to just 37 of the greatest saints in history. Some Catholic cardinals and bishops would also like Newman to be given the additional title of ‘Doctor of Conscience’.
As Newman’s ideas are evaluated, the people of this and future generations may, like Benedict, discover a profound relevance to the challenges of times in which the demands of the faith are increasingly in conflict with those of the state. Already, there are some who are finding themselves in predicaments where they find little option but muster up ‘obedience to conscience . . . obedience to the truth, which must stand higher than any human tribunal’, in the words of Benedict.
Guidance and strength can be found in the teachings of Newman and his diligent student Benedict. Their words contain the seeds vital for the transformation of an age threatened by moral confusion, apostasy and barbarism into a luminous new era for Christian civilisation, an age of conscience in which once again people can truly describe themselves, without any hint of irony, as ‘free’.