On September 19, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI made an exception to an ecclesial custom dictating that local bishops beatify, popes canonize. He overrode this in the case of John Henry Newman, and beatified him in Birmingham on that date as Pope. It would appear the late Emeritus Pontiff was eager to indicate his immense debt and gratitude to the English convert, cardinal and saint.
Some, however, notice the lack of direct attention to Newman in Benedict’s theological works. It is thought that this represents a lack of real influence, or a divergence in theological interest. However, as several addresses and writings of Pope Benedict make clear, Newman exemplifies Benedict’s papal motto, cooperatores in veritate—co-worker or co-laborer in the truth (rf. 3 John 1:8). Benedict did not only admire Newman’s theological content, but sought to emulate Newman’s personal theological form: he looked to Newman as a personal exemplar, and sought to emulate him as a fellow worker for the truth. In this integrated sense, Benedict’s occasional explicit statements show, even early on, a clear acknowledgment that Newman’s saintly contributions deserve him the title Doctor ecclesiae, Doctor of the Church.
In Rome on April 28, 1990, then Cardinal Ratzinger gave an address honoring the first centenary of the death of John Henry Newman (see Prof. Donald Graham’s excellent overview). He cites how crucial Newman was in articulating that the conscience is the “way of obedience to objective truth.” Living in accord with conscience is “commitment to the truth, to God.” Newman helped Ratzinger and other German theologians develop categories for “personalism” in philosophy, which seeks to describe truth under the aspect of the person, not merely as an individual or autonomous agent, but as a living rational creature whose most inward being is defined by loving obedience to a Moral Governor. To be a co-worker in the truth is to live in accord with fundamental reality, the truth about God the Creator and his creations, the world and man.
In his teaching on the conscience and development of doctrine, Ratzinger says Newman “placed the key in our hand to build historical thought into theology… to think historically in theology and so to recognize the identity of faith in all developments.” If truth is the full participation of a mind with reality, as St. Thomas Aquinas would say (Summa 1.16.1), then there is a deep connection between history and theology, as we study the tradition of human minds encountering truth and allowing it to form them in personal and living ways.
And herein is the key to understanding Newman’s immense influence on Ratzinger: “Newman’s own life plays a role… Throughout his entire life, Newman was a person converting, a person being transformed, and thus he always remained and became ever more himself.” Ratzinger saw in Newman a personal model, a living exemplar, of the theologian transformed by truth. The deep consonance between Newman’s life and thought made him a personal witness to the truth, a truly worthy teacher (Latin, “doctor”). Ratzinger quotes Newman’s words: “…to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” He did not just study Newman’s thought—he aspired to be like Newman, to co-labor with him in the truth, with the truth, for the truth of God, the world, and man.
Ratzinger’s short work On Conscience, comprised of two essays, is sufficient to indicate the depth of influence owed to Newman. In a paper delivered to a Workshop for Bishops in 1991 in Dallas, TX, titled “Conscience and Truth,” Ratzinger says that Newman’s life and work is “a single great commentary on the question of conscience.” What Newman calls the voice of God in the soul, Ratzinger argues, is synonymous with a “co-knowing with the truth,” also called the “inner Teacher” by St. Augustine and the light of truth in the soul by St. Thomas Aquinas. All humans have an inward capacity to remember and recall the truth “written on their hearts.” The reality of conscience is far deeper than individualistic whim, experience or opinion—it makes each person morally accountable to God’s law. Ratzinger’s synthesis of the Catholic tradition on conscience, culminating in Newman, is an essential documentation of the profound impact Newman had on him. The conscience is that by which one becomes personally formed in the truth, a reality to which both Newman and Benedict bear personal witness as exemplars.
The conclusion of Ratzinger’s 1990 address strongly commends Newman’s status as saint and teacher: “The characteristic of the great Doctor of the Church, it seems to me, is that he teaches not only through his thought and speech but also by his life, because within him, thought and life are interpenetrated and defined. If this is so, then Newman belongs to the great teachers of the Church, because he both touches our hearts and enlightens our thinking.”
Much fruitful work is to be done investigating the harmony between the lives, thoughts and writings of Newman and Benedict. As “co-workers in the truth,” they teach us that only from within the setting of truth can true human or divine relationships occur, can “heart speak unto heart,” in Cardinal Newman’s motto. Exploring their deep connections may advance not only the cause of Benedict XVI’s witness of sanctity in fidelity to the truth, but also the cause, as Benedict himself strongly hints, of Newman’s status as a Doctor of the Church.