A Reasonable Faith. Logos and Dialogue in John Henry Newman.

copertina_una_ragionevole_fede

Publisher: Vita e Pensiero
Pages: 252

 

 

 

 

 

Omar Ebrahime

 

Presented in this volume are the proceedings of the International Symposium “John Henry Newman Today: Logos and Dialogue” organized by the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan on 26 and 27 March 2009 in commemoration of the renowned English cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890), whose cause of beatification is underway. In the detailed “Foreword” to this volume the editors illustrate the biography and the most timely features of Newman’s personality, dwelling upon his ever burning concern for knowledge and the search for truth. Cardinal Newman was above all a soul with a driving passion for truth, “dominated by the conviction that the truth exists and that […] only the truth makes us authentic and free, opening before us the way towards our self-realization” (pg. IX). Issuing forth there from was a very special interest in the integral formation of man, and once Newman became a convert to Catholicism this remained one of the ever-present features of his thinking and his pastoral endeavors. At a time when the schizophrenic manifestations of modernism seduced by progress and technology were becoming more and more acute, he resolutely sustained the idea that the manifold dimensions of knowledge “form a single whole, and can be neither separated nor fragmented (pg. X) without making it impossible for there to be any really authentic human society. From Newman’s viewpoint the universality born as the mediaeval cradle of knowledge could not offer merely specialized or sectoral formation, but was entrusted with the task of guaranteeing a universal outlook according to its original vocation, excluding no dimension of knowledge from serene and open discussion. This also included that “science about God” which is theology, and which permits one and all, believers and non believers alike, to travel a journey together in the search for that truth about man and the world that one and all are obliged to seek. Closely linked to this aspect was his concern for the cultural uplifting of the Catholic laity in England, which was so dear to him. In this regard he wrote: “I want a laity […] made up of men who know their religion, who possess their faith so well that they are able to explain it, who know history so well as to be able to defend it. I want an intelligent and well educated laity. . .” (Ibid.)

These two features well illustrate and shed light on Newman’s farsighted gaze and link him, for example, to a pontiff like John Paul II, who not by chance drew inspiration from them for some of the most important things written during his pontificate: for example, his reflections on the great “anthropological issue” faced by XXI century humankind at grips with the overriding power of technology, as well as the project for “new evangelization” with the onset of a new season of the missionary Church in which laypersons themselves, their movements, their associations and their gatherings proclaim the missionary announcement in their own right sustained by a targeted and well developed educational and cultural background.

Nor is it by chance that the two fundamental encyclical letters of the Polish pope contain explicit references to Newman’s thinking (Veritatis Splendor and Fides et Ratio), as does the Catechism of the Catholic Church worked on for years by both Pope Wojtyla and the Holy Father now at the head of the Church. In fact, both of them held in high regard this English cardinal’s “strong thought” (pg. XI) spent entirely at the service of the truth and the battle against moral liberalism, the distant precursor of what is today called “the dictatorship of relativism”, and which back then had already begun to spread in Europe.  Each of the numerous papers in this volume offers a specific code of access to this thought: from the relationship with Tradition to that with the Anglican Church, from the notion of conscience to that of religious truth, without overlooking the specifically ecclesiological dimension of Newman’s thinking driven by his concerns about the practice of sound ecumenism or that of the possible “spiritual guide” of Vatican Council II.  Worthy of note among the most meaningful interpretations of Newman’s thinking is the one offered by the theologian Inos Biffi (“I Profili storici of John Henry Newman”, pgs.155-182), who retraces the Cardinal’s intellectual and spiritual models, dwelling in particular on St. Athanasius, St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil and St. Ambrose, those Fathers of the Church, who, in the words of the future Blessed John Henry Newman himself, “made him become a Catholic” (pg. 175).  For example, to the immortal allure of the “majestic Ambrose” (pg. 168) Biffi dedicates some enthralling pages where he offers readers extensive excerpts from the Cardinal’s Milan diary (during his journey in Italy he stayed in Milan from 20 September to 23 October 1946) and succeeds in recreating the stages that led Newman to conversion. From his awe before the tabernacle of San Lorenzo, visible even from the street where “people passing by would tip their hats” (pg. 177), to intellectual attraction towards the most outstanding Catholics of that time,  Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873) and Antonio Rosmini (1797-1855). Faith and thought, piety and apostolate, prayer and life are so intimately bound together in Newman like so few other cases during the last two centuries, and this to the degree of constituting an unicum in his own unique way. This had been intuited with prophetic words by another cardinal who at length had read his writings with attention and years ago depicted his enthusiasm for the “lessons of Newman” with these words: “The characteristic sign of a great doctor of the Church seems to me that he teaches not only with his thinking and his words, but also with his life, because in him thought and life penetrate and determine one another. If this is true, Newman belongs to the great doctors of the Church, because at one and the same time he touches our hearts and enlightens out thoughts”. This cardinal was  Joseph Ratzinger.