History and Person: Newman’s Approach and Contemporary Issues

By Alessandro Rovati
November 10, 2022
16 min read
History and Person: Newman’s Approach and Contemporary Issues

There are three things that, according to Benedict XVI, we should learn from Newman. First, the Pope Emeritus says that Newman reminds us that “we were created to know the truth, to find in that truth our ultimate freedom and the fulfillment of our deepest human aspirations. In a word,” continues Benedict XVI, “we are meant to know Christ, who is himself ‘the way, and the truth, and the life’ (Jn 14:6).”[1] Second, Benedict XVI thinks that Newman's life also "teaches us that passion for the truth, intellectual honesty and genuine conversion are costly. The truth that sets us free cannot be kept to ourselves," the Pope Emeritus explains, "calls for testimony, it begs to be heard."[2] Finally, Benedict XVI claims that Newman teaches us that when "we have accepted the truth of Christ and committed our lives to him, there can be no separation between what we believe and the way we live our lives. Our every thought, word and action must be directed to the glory of God and the spread of his Kingdom," argues the Pope Emeritus, because faith "penetrates to the core of our being."[3] Following in the footsteps of Benedict XVI, I, too, probe here whether and how Newman might shed light on some contemporary difficulties.

I do so keeping in mind that all the important theological and philosophical works that Newman wrote are rooted in the thoroughly Christological center of his life and thought. While his so-called spiritual writings are sometimes overlooked, all the reflections of Newman on the various topics sketched below are ultimately rooted in a gaze that is continuously fixed on Jesus. That is why the church counts Newman among her saints. It is because of his life of prayer, missionary zeal, and fraternal charity made possible by Newman's complete devotion to the Lord. In the end, it is most of all Newman's holy example that can sustain us as we confront the many challenges we face, for only God's gracious initiative may allow the church to remain a beacon of truth amid a turbulent world. There is one prayer by Newman that well represents his utmost desire and perfectly describes his way of conceiving his work and vocation: "The one thing, which is all in all to us, is to live in Christ's presence; to hear His voice, to see His countenance."[4] It is such single-hearted devotion to and desire for the Lord that should accompany us as we think through some of today’s most pressing challenges. Nothing mattered more to Newman than to discover and testify to the cogency of Christ. Accordingly, all his treaties and polemics were ultimately rooted in a desire to bring to life the existential import of the faith.

Because of such a Christological emphasis, Newman's theology is characterized both by a keen perception of the historically bound nature of all human existence and by the recognition of the importance of the subject. His emphasis on history and his personalism are the features that make Newman's proposal uniquely modern and that made him such a different voice within the Catholic Church of his time. It is precisely this modern character that allowed Newman to anticipate many issues that would soon become central for the church's life. Simultaneously, though, while introducing within the theological conversation emphases that were novel, Newman always referred to the wealth of the Christian tradition and brought it to bear on the many contemporary discussions in which he engaged. I contend that these hallmarks are the ones that have made Newman a fitting spiritual and intellectual companion for many. Furthermore, they are also the reason why Newman's thought has played a crucial role in the development of Catholic theology in the past century.

In what follows, I trace Newman's distinctive approach across four essential aspects of his contribution, specifically, conscience, faith, doctrine, and education. Furthermore, I gesture toward the pathways that Newman's method and insights offer to address some of today's urgent questions within and without the church. As I do so, I engage in conversation with one of the latest additions to the ever-growing literature on Newman, namely, Reinhard Hütter's John Henry Newman on Truth and Its Counterfeits.


Let me start with conscience. According to Newman, conscience is a messenger from God who "speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives."[5] Accordingly, Hütter describes the saint's view of conscience as being "theonomic all the way down,"[6] that is, a description of conscience as the faculty capable of receiving God's eternal law into the human intellect. Interestingly enough, Newman does not spend much time arguing in favor of such a description of conscience. Instead, Newman treats the reality of conscience in human beings as a given, something that possesses self-evidence and emerges from within the experience of each of us. However, Newman does contrast his understanding of conscience with what Hütter describes as conscience's modern counterfeit, namely, private judgment. When people today advocate for the rights of conscience, Newman thinks that they do not "mean the rights of the Creator, nor the duty to Him, in thought and deed, of the creature."[7] Instead, Newman continues, what they mean by the word conscience is "the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting, according to their judgment or their humor, without any thought of God at all."[8] While for Newman freedom of conscience coincides with the freedom to recognize the truth for which we are made, and thus it is the primary tool to respond to our God-given call, our society thinks of freedom of conscience as the right to affirm our own subjective conceptions of the truth, no matter what they are. Drawing a parallel between Newman and Aquinas, Hütter believes that our society has lost the sense of the human capacity to recognize a first principle and precept—what Aquinas calls synderesis. Accordingly, people are left with the idea that, as John Paul II taught in Veritatis Splendor, "one's moral judgment is true merely by the fact that it has its origin in the conscience. ... The inescapable claims of truth disappear, yielding their place to a criterion of sincerity, authenticity, and 'being at peace with oneself.'"[9] 

It is easy to discern the many ways in which Newman's warnings against confusing conscience with the sovereign rule of self-will apply to today's society. What I want to suggest, though, is that Catholics should recognize that the dominant mentality touches them as well. One aspect of the faithful's lives in which this is clear is how most Catholics think of the relationship between freedom and the church's authority. In particular, plenty of the faithful have an adversarial understanding of the relationship between their conscience and the teachings of the church. This is not the case only for those who perceive a tension between what the magisterium teaches and what their conscience seems to indicate as true. Instead, one can agree with church teachings and still perceive the magisterium as something external that imposes itself on the individual's conscience. Newman's reflections about conscience serve as a powerful antidote to such a misrepresentation of the magisterium's role in the life of the faithful. Rather than an external imposition, the church's authority is best described as an aid to conscience's natural capacity to perceive the truth. Hütter argues that the first mission of the church's magisterium is to "support and strengthen the divine spark of conscience, synderesis, by explicitly reaffirming the first principles of moral action."[10] The church's authority does not impose conclusions from the outside but enlightens the individual to allow her to become certain of the truth and to follow it.


Nowhere is Newman's personalism more evident than in his description and defense of faith. His vivid account of the faith's existential import, though, goes hand in hand with the affirmation of the ecclesial nature of faith. Consider the following quotes of Newman that Hütter highlights:

1) "The very meaning, the very exercise of faith, is joining the Church."[11] 

2) "Men do not become Catholic, because they have not faith."[12] 

3) "It is vain to discourse upon the beauty, the sanctity, the sublimity of the Catholic doctrine and worship, where men have no faith to accept it as Divine."[13] 

Faith is giving assent to God's self-revelation, but God's initiative reaches men and women today through the encounter with the human reality of the church. To assent to God today entails assenting to what the people the Lord chooses to communicate himself today say. Hütter puts the matter succinctly: "divine faith is always apostolic faith, the submission to a living authority."[14] 

In our age, instead, faith is perceived as the exclusive realm of individual preferences and choices. According to Hütter, a person's choice of religious affiliation is "ultimately nothing but a consumer choice of a particular commodity that is in principle dispensable or exchangeable at any time."[15] To counter such tendency, Newman insists on the incarnational and communal nature of the Christian life, thus rescuing us from the temptation of living the faith while always remaining isolated outsiders. We are embodied creatures who are not touched by abstract arguments. We do not give our lives to opinions but to a real place made of witnesses, past and present. As Newman says beautifully: "No one ... will die for his own calculations: he dies for realities."[16] 

Christianity is a faith that values history. It does so for two reasons. First, because Christianity's most fundamental claim is that God, the origin of everything that exists, the source of reality and existence, became a human being. God entered human history at a precise time and in a specific place. T. S. Eliot describes it wonderfully: 

"Then came, at a predetermined moment, a moment in time and of time, A moment not out of time, but in time, in what we call history: transecting, bisecting the world of time, a moment in time but not like a moment of time, A moment in time but time was made through that moment: for without the meaning there is no time, and that moment of time gave the meaning."[17] 

The second reason why Christianity values history is that, through the Spirit, God remains present in history to guide human beings to the fullness of the truth. (Jn. 16:12–13)


It was to respond to the profoundly historical character of divine revelation that Newman devoted much of his time to study, think, and write about the time-bound character of human existence and of the church's life. Newman's well-known reflections on the development of doctrine belong to this broader context of affirming and exploring God's involvement with history. Catholics are "deep in history"[18] because, as Hütter explains, they hold on to the "Spirit-guided and Spirit-filled history of salvation that the living church holds in her memory."[19] Anticipating one of the most important theological debates of the twentieth century, Newman teaches us that the church is called to remain rooted in the deposit of faith, while also being opened to the Spirit-filled present. In doing so, Newman helps us resist the double temptation of antiquarianism and presentism, that is, in the words of Hütter, "becoming stuck in the past for the past's sake and getting rid of the past for the sake of an ever-changing present."[20] Newman's reflections on the development of doctrine are often used to debate the content and reception of the documents of Vatican II and rightfully so. I suggest, though, that Hütter’s warnings against authentic development's two counterfeits also serve to discern what is happening today in a church where Pope Francis's vision of missionary discipleship calls forth a season of conversion and reform. The Catholic Church is filled with disagreements regarding how, in the words of the Holy Father, traditional truths of Christian doctrine “can be lived and applied in the changing contexts of our times.”[21] For example, some want to focus exclusively on pastoral experience and seem to forget the importance of Scripture, the Catholic tradition, and the magisterium. Others, instead, have a mistaken idea of the immutability of the church’s teachings and think that any attempt to reflect upon the signs of the times and discern whether the Holy Spirit is calling us to a deeper understanding of the truth of divine revelation is in and of itself a betrayal of the faith. Newman’s warnings and his seven notes to help the church discern authentic development remain invaluable resources to craft the path ahead. In particular, his insistence that the Holy Spirit is at work in the church to guide the faithful into the fullness of truth is a perfect antidote to the temptation to settle into well-known ideological battlelines. “The development of doctrine gives concrete witness to the continuous mission of the Holy Spirit to guide the church into all the truth,” explains Hütter. Thus, “antiquarianism and presentism resist the mission and work of the Holy Spirit.”[22] The development of doctrine is a facet of the church’s life that is integral to its historical nature, for it takes time and space for what is implicit in the deposit of faith to be understood and articulated into explicit affirmations.


Even when it comes to education, Newman shows an uncanny ability to spot the dangers and implications of the educational philosophy that started during his time and that is now widely spread. With prophetic spirit, Newman envisioned a society in which "authority, prescription, tradition, habit, moral instinct, and the divine influences go for nothing ... [and] in which free discussion and fallible judgment are prized as the birthright of each individual."[23] In such a society, it becomes impossible to conceive of education as introducing people to the meaning of reality, that is, to a unifying vision that might help them make sense of, learn to use, and reflect on the different facets of our world and existence. That is why contemporary universities are fragmented institutions that, using Newman’s pithy descriptions, function as a sort of bazaar in which “wares of all kinds are heaped together for sales in stalls independent of each other.” They are like a hotel where “all professions and classes are at liberty to congregate, varying, however according to the season, each of them strange to each, and about its own work or pleasure.”[24] It is no mistake that such an environment would encourage an instrumentalization of knowledge that ends up producing an education that, Hütter explains, consists of the delivery of "goods that are seen as commodities to be purchased in order to satisfy the desires of the sovereign subject."[25] In our system, naturalism, materialism, secularism, and pragmatism have become interconnected givens. Thus, reason’s horizon has shrunk and the very notion of the existence of a comprehensive and ultimate truth that would provide unity to all knowledge becomes inconceivable. People have been conditioned to desire an education that consists exclusively of credentialing for career advancement’s sake, better still if achievable quickly and affordably. Newman, instead, stood completely at odds with such a pragmatic ethos that values employability and expertise in the order of consumption and production above everything. He thought that investigating human beings’ nature, the reality of human flourishing, and how to live a morally good life are necessary for any authentic education. Rather than taking away from the worthiness of the human intellect’s creativity and enterprise, being open to an ultimate truth and recognizing that reality is God’s gift empower human beings to unlock their true potential, according to Newman. It is such an enlargement of our reason that we desperately need today, argues Hütter, for “contemplation is necessary for human flourishings,” and we “desperately need it in our late-modern, techno-capitalist societies.”[26] We need to once again help students discover in themselves the fundamental questions of life: “What should I live for and why?” “What should I believe?” “What is morality?” “What kind of person should I be” “What is meaningful in life?” And, we should also equip them with a method to probe and pursue such questions. Starting from the insights of Newman’s The Idea of the University and its insistence on the importance of the first science, Hütter thinks of metaphysical inquiry and contemplation as the most appropriate way to explore life’s fundamental questions. Only reflecting on first principles, he argues, can rescue people from being at the mercy of transient imagination, emotions, and experiences.[27] A strong case can be made that Newman thought the same. Yet, Newman’s life as a priest and his utmost devotion to his ministry as a preacher seems to entail that, while important, the university was not the only place where people could be authentically formed. We all need a method to navigate the questions and challenges that the journey of life elicits in us, but such a journey is not open only to those whose circumstances allow them to enjoy the leisure of contemplation and the study of the first science. This is where Newman’s further reflections on the importance of existential acts of assent becomes so essential. Hütter provides a moving autobiographical depiction of their importance when describing his own journey towards joining the Catholic Church. 

“When I left this Ascension Day Mass, I had become a Catholic without yet fully realizing it. While I had not received explicit answers to all the questions lingering in my still largely Lutheran mind, I had encountered mother church in the core of her life … I had been able to relinquish the principle of private judgment in matters of divine truth in an existential act of assent, which was a fundamental as it was comprehensive.”[28] 

Not everyone is called to become a professional philosopher or an outstanding theologian like Hütter. Instead, it is urgent to build communities, both inside and outside the academy, that will prepare people to be open to such moments of existential assent and capable of making them the driving force in their lives. “Conscience,” explains Benedict XVI, “is both capacity for truth and obedience to the truth which manifests itself to anyone who seeks it with an open heart.”[29] People who are encouraged and empowered to engage in an attentive search for truth will discover it, for reality makes itself transparent to those who earnestly seek. Education must once again become an instrument to investigate the whole of reality so that our reason’s horizon might remain wide open, and the heart might be ready to catch God’s grace in action. In conclusion, all of us educators should heed to Newman’s invitation to the laity of his time as we prepare our students: “I wish you to enlarge your knowledge, to cultivate your reason, to get an insight into the relation of truth to truth, to learn to view things as they are, to understand how faith and reason stand to each other.”[30]    

[1] Benedict XVI, “Prayer Vigil on the Eve of the Beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman,” 18 September 2010.

[2] Benedict XVI, “Prayer Vigil on the Eve of the Beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman.”

[3] Benedict XVI, “Prayer Vigil on the Eve of the Beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman.”

[4] Newman, PS iv, sermon 3.

[5] Newman, Diff ii, 248.

[6] Reinhard Hütter, John Henry Newman on Truth and Its Counterfeits (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2020), 26.

[7] Newman, Diff ii, 250.

[8] Newman, Diff ii, 250.

[9] John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, no. 32.

[10] Hütter, John Henry Newman on Truth and Its Counterfeits, 63–64.

[11] Newman, Mix, 193.

[12] Newman, Mix, 193.

[13] Newman, Mix, 207.

[14] Hütter, John Henry Newman on Truth and Its Counterfeits, 98.

[15] Hütter, John Henry Newman on Truth and Its Counterfeits, 99.

[16] Newman, GA, IV.3.93

[17] T. S. Eliot, Choruses from the Rock, VII.

[18] Newman, Dev, 8.

[19] Hütter, John Henry Newman on Truth and Its Counterfeits, 131.

[20] Hütter, John Henry Newman on Truth and Its Counterfeits, 135.

[21] Pope Francis, Let Us Dream (New York: Simon and Shuster, 2022), 84–85.

[22] Hütter, John Henry Newman on Truth and Its Counterfeits, 154.

[23] Newman, Idea, 37.

[24] Newman, Idea, 421.

[25] Hütter, John Henry Newman on Truth and Its Counterfeits, 170.

[26] Hütter, John Henry Newman on Truth and Its Counterfeits, 201.

[27] Hütter, John Henry Newman on Truth and Its Counterfeits, 207–210.

[28] Hütter, John Henry Newman on Truth and Its Counterfeits, 233.

[29] Benedict XVI, “Address on the Occasion of Christmas Greetings to the Roman Curia.”

[30] Newman, Duties of Catholics Towards the Protestant View, IX.4.

Previous Article
Science's Equivocal Crisis
Alessandro Rovati

Alessandro Rovati

Chair and Assistant Professor of Theology, Belmont Abbey College

Dr. Alessandro Rovati is Department Chair and Assistant Professor of Theology at Belmont Abbey College. A graduate of the Università Cattolica in Milan, Italy, Dr. Rovati’s scholarship focuses on Christian Ethics, Moral Theology, and Catholic Social Teaching. He has published his work in peer-reviewed journals and online publications, and he is a Board Member of New Wine New Wineskins, an association of early-career Catholic moral theologians.


Newman Today
New and Noteworthy
© 2024, All Rights Reserved.
National Institute for Newman Studies