How Newman followed his conscience, no matter the cost

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By Fr Daniel Seward

Many people know that John Henry Newman was a great thinker, that he was a magnificent convert to the Catholic faith, and that he was a man of great personal kindness. These are the attributes that make him worthy to be a saint. However, we live in an age that is wary of strong religious opinions, and so it is probably on Newman’s personal holiness that we are more likely to focus rather than on his thought, much of which is controversial and challenging.

A saint is not just somebody who is good and kind – he is someone who is rightly-believing, and thus a light to others. But how on earth can I possibly know that what I think is true, out of all the thousands of belief systems present in the world? Well here Newman gives us an example: the example of his personal journey of faith – which Pope Paul VI called the most significant journey that anyone made in the nineteenth century.

Newman lived in a time of great religious turmoil. We tend to think of the Victorians as being church-going people – and the evidence for this is in the large numbers of churches that they built, many of which are now redundant. Actually, this gives a misleading impression – since when we look at the population growth in nineteenth century England, church building failed to keep pace with this. Moreover, all of the trends of secularism and opposition to revealed religion that we observe to be so militant in our own day have their origins in the Victorian age.

Newman saw the marginalization of religion coming, but he also had the answer. He saw that it is by uniting faith and reason, as the Catholic Church has always done, that we are able to combat the artificial separation between the two, that turns religion into a private hobby with no bearing on everyday life or on the great issues of public interest. When he was fifteen years old, like many adolescents, John Henry began to wonder about the reality of the religion in which he had been brought up. At that stage of his life, he was on the verge of falling into scepticism – it would not have been surprising if he had, as his younger brother Frank did. But John Henry realized, as he describes in his autobiography, the Apologia:

“When I was fifteen, in the autumn of 1816, a great change of thought took place in me. I fell under the influence of a definite Creed, and received into my intellect impressions of dogma which, through God’s mercy, have never been effaced or obscured.”

Newman felt the strong conviction that there were two necessarily existing beings – himself and God, rather in the same way as Blaise Pascal had done. Initially, Newman fell under the influence of the Calvinist school of religion. He believed that the Pope was the anti-Christ, that one portion or humanity was predestined for heaven and the other to hell, and so on. But here we see the seeds of his genius – that when shown other doctrines by friends and those whom he admired, he was able to consider their merits and to weigh up by reason which were true. It was this that enabled Newman’s religious thought to develop during his lifetime. When he was at Littlemore, studying the Fathers, Newman realized that he had to become a Catholic. He said later that it was not Catholics that made him a Catholic (he didn’t know any) but Oxford. By which he meant that it was prayer and study that convinced him of the truths of the faith, not an encounter with any person. It is remarkable how many other people have been led by the reading of Newman also into the Church – for this alone he is worthy to be made a saint, for the thousands of conversions brought about by his intellectual apostolate.

The great gift, which Newman saw could safely steer a person through all this controversy, is conscience. Conscience – the ‘aboriginal vicar of Christ’ – is that faculty every human being has to know what is right. It is the voice of God Himself speaking in our soul. This does not mean that following conscience is easy. The word conscience is used by many people today to mean “how I feel”. That is an unscientific, subjective attitude. Look at Newman’s life, and we see that his conscience led him in paths that he did not choose, in directions he did not expect. He did not become a Catholic because he felt drawn to anything outwardly beautiful (quite the opposite!), or because the Catholic Church was an easier or more peaceful place to be, but because his conscience impelled him. He always advised those wondering whether to convert that they should do so only if they were convinced that this was the only way to save their souls. Any other motive was insufficient. In the same way then, conscience can never be a let-out clause. Conscience does not allow me to say that I am not bound by the same laws as other people – but only that I may be bound by stricter rules.

Newman approached matters of truth, and questions of right and wrong, with a sense of reverence, because he was convinced that a loving God has ordained something for certain in all these matters. Our interpretation of our conscience is flawed because of Original Sin, and so we can never be safe simply by relying on our natural perceptions. That is why Newman came to see that he should be guided by the Church and to opt for those answers in moral questions which are safest and most certain to be God’s will.

We can ask John Henry Newman to guide us in seeking Truth in all things, in following our conscience at whatever cost, and in witnessing to the fact that God alone is Lord of human history.

Isaac Withers