FR D VINCENT TWOMEY SVD, Professor Emeritus of Theology, St Patrick's College, Maynooth, Co. Kildare
John Henry Cardinal Newman was one of the greatest Catholic thinkers of recent centuries. His influence on the present Pope goes back to Ratzinger’s early days as a seminarian in Freising (Bavaria), when, after living through the horrors of Nazism, he began his study of theology in January 1946. His Prefect at the time was researching his dissertation on Newman’s theology of conscience and encouraged those under his charge to read the writings of the great English theologian.
‘For us at the time’, Ratzinger recalls, ‘Newman’s teaching on conscience became an important foundation for theological personalism, which was drawing us all in its sway.’ This was against the background of the totalitarianism they had experienced so closely during the Nazi period, which sacrificed the person to the collective and which, in effect, negated the conscience of the individual. One of the leading Nazis, Göring, summed up the abolition of personal conscience under the Nazis when he announced: ‘I have no conscience. Hitler is my conscience.’ It was liberating, Ratzinger says, to discover that ‘the “we” of the Church [her collective nature] does not rest on a cancellation of conscience but that, exactly the opposite, it can only develop from conscience.’ In a sense, one could say that Ratzinger’s life as a Catholic theologian demonstrates that early insight. His later writings on conscience develop its significance.
Conscience, it seems to me, is one of the keys to understanding both the personality of the man and his theology. More accurately, it is the link between the man and his writings. As I show in my book on Pope Benedict XVI, conscience is one of the main themes that runs through his entire theological endeavour, helping to give his writings that inner consistency which, despite the breadth of topics he covered, despite its fragmentary nature of his work, and despite developments within his writings, marks all his thought. Conscience also is at the root of that personal integrity, courage, and inner calm, which became ever more evident as he increasingly became the object of attacks by the media for the unpopular stand he had to take on various controversial issues as Prefect of the Congregation for the Faith.
It is conscience, at its deepest level, that spurs us on to search for the truth, to listen to the voice of Truth as spoken in divine Scriptures and re-echoed in human literature and philosophy. Listening perhaps sums up the most evident personal characteristic of our present Pope. As a student of his in Regensburg, I was fascinated by the way he conducted his seminars and doctoral colloquia. He listened to what anyone had to say – and so created an atmosphere of openness and genuine debate as we all sought to understand the faith more deeply and articulate it more adequately. His lectures were the fruit of his attentive, critical ‘listening’ to the voices of the past and the present, recognised thinkers and scholars as well as his fledgling students. He once remarked in passing: “Education should not try to relieve the other person of anything. It must have the humility to go along with the other person’s [insight], and to help it mature . . .” On another occasion, he wrote, that the object of education must be: “to break open the prism of positivism and awaken man’s receptivity to the truth, to God, and thus to the power of conscience ... .” The prism of positivism refers to the tendency we have to reduce reality to the visible, to the senses, and so ignore the invisible, God and the moral law. In the context, he was referring to the Church’s task in the political sphere. Indeed, this understanding of education is at the core of his own philosophy of politics, according to which the Church “must give men the courage to live according to conscience and so keep open the narrow pass between anarchy and tyranny, which is none other than the narrow way of peace.”
When elected Pope Benedict XVI, he captured the imagination of the world in a positive sense. Ordinary men and women devoid of prejudice recognised that here they were confronted with someone who was completely his own man, markedly different in personality from his revered predecessor, but, like him, a man of integrity. The unprecedented media coverage he received after the death of his predecessor, followed by his election and inauguration as Pope, revealed to a mostly surprised public a man of deep joy and simple humanity, shy but fearless – because he is a man of conscience. To echo his own words, he is someone who, prompted by the voice of God in his heart, listens to the Word of God resounding through history in the Church, in her Scriptures and Tradition, in order, in season and out of season, to speak a word of truth to the conscience of his contemporaries.