“Trans-Disciplinary Dialogue”: Pope Francis and St. John Henry on the Mystery of the Human Person

By Donald Graham
Published in Theology
June 01, 2023
18 min read
“Trans-Disciplinary Dialogue”: Pope Francis and St. John Henry on the Mystery of the Human Person

At the Crossroads with Pope Francis

In his recent address to the Pontifical Academy for Life “on the relationship between the person, emerging technologies and the common good,” Pope Francis speaks about our “increasing difficult[y]” in “discern[ing] what is proper to humans and what is proper to technology.” In this moment, the Holy Father stresses our need for “serious reflection on the very value of the human person” especially, “the concept of personal consciousness as relational experience,” and he exhorts us to draw upon our “shared human experiences” by studying them “from various perspectives, employing trans-disciplinary dialogue and cooperation.” Inspired by the Holy Father, I take a step in that direction by reflecting upon St. John Henry Newman’s view of the manifold aspects of the mystery of the human person.

Mystery or problem?

When approaching the question that is the life of any human being we are in the presence of what the French existentialist philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, terms a mystery.1 In the Christian tradition, this someone in God’s image and likeness is an irreducible ensouled-body mystery who awaits exploration. For others, however, this someone, the human being, is a problem who awaits a solution, just like the most impenetrable unknown awaits the perfect algorithm run by the best supercomputer to yield a master explanation that dominates and then dispels its mystery. Approaching the human being merely as a problem to be solved—pre-eminently and often exclusively according to the experimental method grounding and leveraging the achievements of technology—is the favoured approach of the scientific materialist who reduces the human being to a complex, chemical-biological-sentient-conscious, machine in which mind is a synonym for brain or, at best, is an emergent, epiphenomenon. In such an approach, the brain is hardware, consciousness is software, and the soul is a superfluous, anthropological placeholder.2

An early twentieth century philosopher expounding this narrative was Gilbert Ryle. He contended that soul is a Cartesian “category-mistake” caused by a metaphysical hangover of medieval scholasticism resulting in the misbegotten belief of a “ghost in the machine,” which needs to be exorcized by moderns.3 Unquestionably, both the hard and soft sciences contribute appreciably to understanding what it means to be human and, correspondingly, of one’s inner life. Christianity values scientific investigations and findings about the human being but insists that experimental knowledge be complemented by other forms of knowledge and, at length, discerned in the light of divine revelation. Over and against reductive readings that transpose the discourse on the soul, mind, will, and affectivity entirely into the arenas of the hard and soft sciences—favouring subspecialities like neuroscience and evolutionary biology4—Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart presents an alternative account of the soul through the lens of the Great Tradition:

It is something of a modern habit of thought (strange to say) to conceive of the soul— whether we believe in the soul or not—as a kind of magical essence or ethereal intelligence indwelling a body like a ghost in a machine. That is to say, we tend to imagine the relation between the soul and the body as an utter discontinuity somehow subsumed within a miraculous unity: a view capable of yielding such absurdities as the Cartesian postulate that the soul resides in the pituitary gland or the utterly superstitious speculation advanced by some religious ethicists that the soul may “enter” the fetus sometime in the second trimester. But the “living soul” of whom scripture speaks, as John Paul makes clear in his treatment of the creation account in Genesis, is a single corporeal and spiritual whole, a person whom the breath of God has awakened from nothingness. The soul is life itself, of the flesh and of the mind; it is what Thomas Aquinas called the “form of the body”: a vital power that animates, pervades, and shapes each of us from the moment of conception, holding all our native energies in a living unity, gathering all the multiplicity of our experience into a single, continuous, developing identity. It encompasses every dimension of human existence, from animal instinct to abstract reason: sensation and intellect, passion and reflection, imagination and curiosity, sorrow and delight, natural aptitude and supernatural longing, flesh and spirit. John Paul is quite insistent that the body must be regarded not as the vessel or vehicle of the soul, but simply as its material manifestation, expression, and occasion. This means that even if one should trace the life of the body back to its most primordial principles, one would still never arrive at that point where the properly human vanishes and leaves a “mere” physical organism or aggregation of inchoate tissues or ferment of spontaneous chemical reactions behind. All of man’s bodily life is also the life of the soul, possessed of a supernatural dignity and a vocation to union with God.

A Brief Phenomenology of the Embodied Soul

Newman understands “soul” to correspond to that what is meant by saying “I.” Reflecting upon the mysteriousness of the human being in 1836, Newman identifies at least five decisive attributes of the human person as an embodied soul.

  • We are “made up of body and soul.”
  • The body and soul are distinct.
  • The soul is the indivisible “principle which thinks and acts in the body” such that “each person feels [the soul] to be himself.”
  • The soul is that which has, uses, and is superior to the body which is “his.”
  • The soul animates “every part of the body” such that “a man’s very self is in every part of his body” to clarify that “no part of a man’s body is like a mere instrument, as a knife, or crutch might be, which he takes up and may lay down [for every] part is part of himself; it is connected into one by his soul, which is one.”5

So, when Newman opines in “The Tamworth Reading Room” that “man is not a reasoning animal; he is a seeing, feeling, contemplating, acting animal,” he speaks to the acting person as an ensouled unity-identity-whole: that is, a sentient, affective, intellectual, contemplative, volitional creature.6

Upon looking at his father’s corpse in 1824, and seeing a dead body for the first time, Newman queried, “Can a man be a materialist who sees a dead body?”7 Surely such powerful experiences underpin sermons like “The Individuality of the Soul” in which he describes the soul as the centre of the human person, God-breathed, individually distinct, personal, animate of the body, enduring upon its separation from the body at death, subject to judgment, eternal, and destined to be reunited to the body upon one’s resurrection from the dead.8 He chastises contemporaries whose blunted awareness of the eternality of the individual soul is eclipsed by their emphasis upon the “body of [human beings] collectively, as one mass, as parts of a whole.”9

A Clash of Views: John Henry Newman and George Eliot

This sermon chastisement was not an exception to the rule. As Bernadette Waterman Ward has recently argued, Newman’s emphasis upon the individuality of the soul—especially in the exercise of conscience—crossed swords with nineteenth-century collectivist ideologies as exemplified in the life and writings of the influential English writer, George Eliot (1819–1880). Waterman-Ward effectively demonstrates how the collectivism Eliot favored (and Newman abhorred) was indebted to the naturalistic ethics of Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), the atheistic interpretation of the life of Jesus by liberal Protestant theologian, David Strauss (1808–1874), the understanding of religion as psychological projection by German philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872), and the contention of German thinker, Karl Marx (1818–1883), that religion narcotically distracts the masses from the hardships of life.10 Though Newman invested intensely in associations beyond the self—e.g., family, friends, college, parish, village, missionary society, and country—he possessed a penetrating sense of the human being as an incommunicable, irreducible, immortal, ensouled-body mystery who underwrites every form of society. As he entreats,

survey some populous town: crowds are pouring through the streets ... Every part of it is full of life ... But what is the truth? Why, that every being in that great concourse is his own centre ... He has his own hopes and fears, desires, judgments, and aims; he is everything to himself ... No one outside of him can really touch him, can touch his soul, his immortality; he must live with himself for ever. He has a depth within him unfathomable, an infinite abyss of existence; and the scene in which he bears part for the moment is but a gleam of sunshine upon its surface.11

A Kaleidoscopic View

The commonplace that Newman was “a highly complex and subtle thinker who refused to see issues in black and white alternatives” applies particularly to his manner of viewing the mystery of the human person through the kaleidoscopic lenses of the sacramental-mystical, literary, historical, scientific, and theological.12 In the phraseology of Pope Francis, Newman tended to consider “human experiences ... from various perspectives, employing trans-disciplinary dialogue and cooperation.”


In his “theological autobiography,” the Apologia pro vita sua, Newman views the human person through a sacramental-mystical lens to assert that visible aspects of human person and cosmos stand as “Economies or Dispensations of the Eternal.” As a child, he says, “I thought life might be a dream, or I an Angel, and all this world a deception.” In his late twenties, after discovering the Alexandrian fathers, he similarly suggests angels are “the real causes of motion, light and life, and of those elementary principles of the physical universe.”13 This perspective influenced how Newman viewed creation, including the human person, throughout his life. As he comments in his 1841 review of the History of Christianity by Henry Hart Milman (1791–1868), Newman writes:

We maintain then, as we have already said, that Christianity, nor Christianity only, but all God’s dealings with His creatures, have two aspects, one external, one internal. What one of the earliest Fathers says of its highest ordinance, is true of it altogether, and of all other divine dispensations: they are twofold, “having one part heavenly, and one part earthly.” This is the law of Providence here below; it works beneath a veil, and what is visible in its course does but shadow out at most, and sometimes obscures and disguises what is invisible. The world in which we are placed has its own system of laws and principles, which, as far as our knowledge of it goes, is, when once set in motion, sufficient to account for itself,—as complete and independent as if there was nothing beyond it. Ordinarily speaking, nothing happens, nothing goes on in the world, but may be satisfactorily traced to some other event or fact in it, or has a sufficient result in other events or facts in it, without the necessity of our following it into a higher system of things in order to explain its existence, or to give it a meaning.14

Etched upon Newman’s Rendal gravestone are words which express his Alexandrian sacramental-mystical sensibility: “Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem”; that is, “Out of unreality into Reality.”15 Newman’s way of seeing reality through a sacramental-mystical lens stokes suspicions that he devalues the objectivity of the material world and veers towards solipsism, subjectivism, and nominalism, the prima facie case, which John F. Crosby and Terrence Merrigan acknowledge, but against which they defend Newman.16 Consideration of Newman’s view of the inner life of the person in other contexts defangs these accusations to the degree that he affirms what is experienced interiorly also comprises part of the objective, created order and possesses common, essential features.


In his novels, Callista: A Tale of the Third Century (1848) and Loss and Gain (1849), each which treats conversion to Roman Catholicism—Callista from paganism, and Charles Reding from Anglicanism—Newman views the life of the human person through a literary lens. For instance, during the climax of Callista, the heroine is steeled against the brutality of her approaching martyrdom by a consoling dream. In the dream, Callista encounters the Blessed Mother who is “arrayed more brilliantly than an oriental queen,” whose look of “innocence” and “tenderness” “bespoke both Maid and Mother, and so transported Callista, that she must needs advance towards her, out of love and reverence” until that face transforms into the luminous visage of the thorned-crowned king with “hands spread out as if towards her, and there were marks of wounds in them.”17 This inner, imaginative experience is then juxtaposed with the harsh physicality of the “utter darkness, the heat, and the stench” of her prison, and her eucharistic words upon the rack of death: “For Thee, my Lord and Love, For Thee ... Accept me, O my Love, make haste and come!”18 Alan Hill argues that the dramatic actions and speech of Callista (and Charles Reding)19 display the inner workings and growth of the human mind, as affected by time, place, friendship, memory, character, imagination, personal influence, first principles, the illative sense, etc.:

Callista is remarkable for its great descriptive set pieces, its grasp of Terencian scenic method for dramatic confrontations and contrasts, and above all, perhaps, for its psychological realism. Where else in a novel of this date could be found a subtler or more economically worded piece of Jamesian interior analysis. ...[:] “She might, indeed, have been able afterwards, on looking back, to say many things of herself; and she would have recognized that while she was continually differing from herself, in that she was changing, yet it was not a change which involved contrariety, but one which expanded itself in (as it were) concentric circles ... Every day, as it came, was ... the child of the preceding and parent of that which followed ... What did she know about herself, but that to her surprise, the more she thought over what she heard of Christianity, the more she was drawn to it, and the more it approved itself to her whole soul, and the more it seemed to respond to all her needs and aspirations, and the more intimate was her presentiment that it was true.”20


In his sketches of the Church Fathers, Newman recalls how their spiritual heroism illustrates the life of virtue, underscores the drama of orthodoxy and cost of discipleship, speaks to the scope of spiritual warfare, and enlivens faith by recounting God’s merciful and mighty acts through servants who cooperate with grace. Viewing saints through the historical lens, Newman distinguishes revelatory hagiographies from those that obscure. Thus, he lauds histories that draw upon the correspondence and personal writings of saints and criticizes moralistic biographies because the latter show forth the minds of biographers, whereas the former offer readers insight into the inner, spiritual journey. The personal communications of saints’ display “the secret heart of such favoured servants of God, unveiled to their devout disciples in such completeness and fidelity” as to reveal “the real, hidden but human, life, or the interior as it is called.” Indeed, “when a Saint is himself the speaker, he interprets his own action ... his words are the index of his hidden life, as far as that life can be known to man”; his words serve as “an unstudied self-manifestation.”21 For example, St. Martin of Tours, at prayer in his monastic cell, vanquishes Satan guised as Christ in “glittering clothing, and radiant with a diadem as Christ” with the Pauline protestation, “I will not believe that Christ is come, save in that state and form in which he suffered, save with the show of the wounds of the Cross.” Here Newman extols us to test the spirits of the age by imitating Martin, imitating Paul, and imitating Christ: “Christian, look hard at them with Martin in silence, and ask them for the print of the nails.”22 He employs hagiography to address the discernment of spirits in the inner life which, in turn, has real life outer consequences for believers asking, “how then ought we to live?”


Life-long respect for the acquisition of experimental knowledge suggests Newman’s openness to understanding the life of the human being through the scientific lens. In 1820–1821, as a young man, he “dabbl[ed] in chemistry and attend[ed] lectures on minerology and geology” at Trinity College.23 In the 1850’s, he assigned a full lecture to “Knowledge and Professional Skill,” in The Idea of a University to argue that while “Professional or Scientific knowledge” is not “the sufficient end of a University Education,” the comprehensiveness of such an education embraces the study of all knowledge, including scientific knowledge of the human being.24 Later, he applied his pedagogical theory by opening a successful medical school at the Catholic University in Dublin. In 1858, he also launched the Atlantis, a register of literature and science [:] “a biannual ... heavyweight academic journal under the editorship of W. K. Sullivan, Dean of the Faculty of Science.”25 In the spring of 1868, Newman commented on Darwinism with its implications for understanding the human person in an evolutionary context which does not, all things being equal, conflict with a Christian religious understanding:26

As to the Divine Design, is it not an instance of incomprehensibility and infinitely marvellous Wisdom and Design to have given certain laws to matter millions of ages ago, which have surely and precisely worked out, in the long course of those ages, those effects which He from the first proposed that “Mr. Darwin’s theory need not then be atheistical, be it true or false; it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of Divine Prescience and Skill.27


Newman’s approach to understanding the mystery of the human being mirrors the complexity of what it means to be human, and is grounded in the principle which he expresses in his irenic 1868 letter to Henry Allon, Anglican co-editor of the British Quarterly Review: “Truth is one, but it has manifold aspects.”28 For St. John Henry Newman, the truth of the mystery of the human person resists reductionisms and is accessible by complementary approaches or, in Pope Francis’s turn of phrase, “trans-disciplinary dialogue”—e.g., the sacramental-mystical, literary, historical, theological, and scientific—which yield fruit according to the soundness of their methods fixed upon the proper objects of investigation as exercised by skilful practitioners. Notably, Newman’s belief that the truth attained by such investigation never exhausts the mystery of the ensouled human being harmonizes well with Pope Francis’s exhortation to commit ourselves “to work toward reconciliation between scientific and technological growth and the ‘development in human responsibility, values and conscience’” to become who we are as bearers of the imago Dei, as sons and daughters in the Son.29

1 See Gabriel Marcel, Homo Viator: Introduction to a Metaphysics of Hope, trans. Emma Crawford (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 35.

2 Mortimer J. Adler speaks similarly of those who consign philosophy to the penumbra of science in “Questions Science Cannot Answer.” Roger Scruton opposes this depreciation of philosophical knowledge in The Soul of the World (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014).

3 See “Ryle,” in Body, Mind and Death, selected, ed., and intro. Antony Flew (New York and London: MacMillan and Collier MacMillan, 1964), 245–64.

4 E.g., Lisa Feldman Barrett, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017).

5 Newman, “The Mysteriousness of our Present Being,” citations at 283, 284, 285–86.

6 Newman, DA, 294.

7 Newman, AW, 202–203 at 203; cf. Newman, LD i, 192–94.

8 Newman, “The Individuality of the Soul.”

9 Newman, “The Individuality of the Soul,” 81.

10 Bernadette Waterman-Ward, “Newman against Nineteenth-Century Distortions of the Idea of Conscience,” lecture delivered at St. John Henry Newman Association of America Annual Convention, South Bend, IN, 6 August 2022, and kindly shared with this author.

11 Newman, “The Individuality of the Soul,” 82–83, italics added. See John Crosby’s perceptive analysis that Newman’s insistence on the individuality of soul deepens rather than excludes one’s possibility to be a person-in-communion in The Personalism of John Henry Newman (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2014), 156–85.

12 Ian Ker, Newman on Vatican II (Oxford: OUP, 2014), 3.

13 Newman, Apo, 16, 37.

14 Newman, Ess ii, 190–91. The original review appeared in the January 1841 edition of the British Critic. The view Newman expresses in this pericope dates at least from 1828 and bears the imprint of his reading of Joseph Butler. See Newman, “On the Christian scheme of mediation as connected with the natural and Jewish systems,” Sermon 28 (no.176)m 14 September 1828, in Sermons on the Liturgy and Sacraments and on Christ the Mediator, John Henry Newman Sermons 1824–43, vol. 1, edited from previously unpublished manuscripts by Placid Murray (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991), 214. Cf., Joseph Butler, The Analogy of Religion, intro. Ernest Mossner (1736; reprint: New York: Frederick Ungar, 1961).

15 Newman was angered by the “anti-rational” avoidance of attributing God’s grace to the inner workings of some aspects of Christianity and its institutions.

16 Crosby, The Personalism of John Henry Newman, 156–85, and Terrence Merrigan, Clear Heads and Holy Hearts: The Religious and Theological Ideal of John Henry Newman, foreword by Ian Ker (Louvain: Peeters Press, 1991), 116–23, esp. 122.

17 Newman, Call, 354–55.

18 Newman, Call, 364, 369.

19 “Within this authentic Oxford setting, the dialogues dramatize the workings of Charles Reding’s mind as step by step he pursues his quest for certainty and finds his destined home in the Catholic Church.” Alan G. Hill, “Originality and Realism in Newman’s Novels,” in Newman After a Hundred Years, ed. Ian Ker and Alan G. Hill (Oxford: Clarendon, 1990), 21–42, at 29.

20 Hill, “Originality and Realism in Newman’s Novels,” 40–41.

21 Newman, HS ii, 217–24, citations at 218, 219 and 224.

22 Newman, HS ii, 206. “For I resolved to know nothing of while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Cor 1:2); cf., Gal 6:14, Phil. 2: 1–13, Gal. 6:14, 1 Cor. 1:18–25.

23 Ian Ker, John Henry Newman: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 16.

24 Newman, Idea, ed., intro., and notes by Ian T. Ker (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), 134–55; citation at 145.

25 Paul Shrimpton, The ‘Making of Men’: The Idea and Reality of Newman’s University in Oxford and Dublin (Leominster, UK: Gracewing, 2004), 252.

26 See Jonathan W. Chappell, “A Grammar of Descent: John Henry Newman and the Compatibility of

Evolution with Christian Doctrine,” Science & Christian Belief, vol. 27 no. 2 (October 2015): 180–206.

27 Newman to J. [Canon] Walker, (22 May 1868), LD xiv, 77. Compare this to Newman’s 1841 observation in “Milman’s View of Christianity” that God graciously acts in history through secondary causes which signals his understanding of the nature-grace relationship as harmonious, non-competitive, sacramental, and providential (Ess ii, 194). A corollary of Newman’s understanding of God’s activity in the created order is that legitimate ways of knowing, including the scientific, complement rather than compete with the theological.

28 Newman to Henry Allon, (28 Jan 1868), LD xiv, 22.

29Address of His Holiness Pope Francis to Members of the Pontifical Academy for Life (20 Feb. 2023).”

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Donald Graham

Donald Graham

Dr. Donald Graham is Associate Professor of Systematic and Pastoral Theology at St. Augustine’s Seminary in Toronto and a former member of the Editorial Board of Newman Studies Journal (2014–2018) whose research focuses upon the intersection of Trinitarian theology, Christology, pneumatology, and ecclesiology. His publications include From Eastertide to Ecclesia: John Henry Newman, the Holy Spirit, and the Church (Marquette, 2011), “Sympathy in the Spiritual Theology of John Henry Newman” in Newman and Life in the Spirit: Theological Reflections on Spirituality for Today (Fortress, 2014), and “Ratzinger’s Reception of Newman on Conscience: Memory, History, Creation and Christ,” Communio, 47 (2020).


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