Addresses and Statements

ACSA Newman Dinner “A Person Converting”, St. John’s College, University Of Sydney

10 Mar 2018

St. John’s College, University Of Sydney

Many of you will have seen James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic – at the very least, you’ll know the story. But one part of the events that night is often left out: the ship hit an iceberg just as a service on board was finishing with the hymn:

Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home.
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

These sadly apt words, sung just moments before one of the greatest naval disasters of the last century, were penned in 1833 by the Englishman John Henry Newman who is patron of this dinner tonight.

Newman’s life (1801-90) spanned pretty-well the entire nineteenth century and included a period as an Anglican divine, known for his involvement in the Oxford Movement, and then, after his famous conversion in 1845, as a Catholic priest and man of letters. He was a prolific writer, including famous academic works on The Development of Doctrine, The Idea of a University and The Grammar of Assent, many volumes of sermons, as well as autobiography (The Apologia pro vita sua), poems (e.g. The Dream of Gerontius) and hymns (e.g. Firmly I Believe and Truly). Though he suffered many humiliations after becoming Catholic – including being required to submit to rebaptism, having his Catholic faith doubted by some till the end, being defamed, and never being named a bishop, he was eventually named a Cardinal in 1879 and beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.

Newman’s influence continued long after his death. Throughout the Anglosphere, Catholic university groups were named Newman Societies or Newman Centres. Many years ago, when I was a student here at the University of Sydney, some friends and I fought off a move to rename the Catholic student group “Newpersons Society” because some people, in their ignorance of history, thought Newman was a sexist word! Cardinal Newman was also a major influence on the fathers of the Second Vatican Council, in their teaching on the dignity of conscience and its need for formation, their teaching on the integral or organic development of doctrine, and in other matters. He is quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church where conscience is described as ‘the aboriginal Vicar of Christ’ (§1778). Because of his importance in articulating the Catholic conception of conscience, Newman has been used by some as a champion of ‘anything goes’, as long as people are sincere and tolerant. Talk of supremacy of conscience today seems to amount to a theological ‘get-out-of-gaol-free’ card, so that no matter how wrong you are objectively speaking, or how little trouble you’ve taken to work out what the right thing to do is, as long as you are following “your own lights” you’re fine. The disastrous effects of conscience-as-sincerity-and-tolerance upon our culture, including its deep relativism, subjectivism and individualism, and its declining respect for the freedoms of conscience, thought and religion, are amongst the factors we might dub ‘th’encircling gloom’ of today – a gloom that has led to moral and spiritual shipwreck for many. And before we point any fingers outward at the Titanics of our society, we should realize this dangerous murkiness is alive and well on board the Barque of Peter, in parts of the Church here in Australia today, indeed within the hearts and minds of each one here.

In his famous Letter to the Duke of Norfolk Newman warned that that the idea of conscience was, already in 1875, degenerating into “an Englishman’s prerogative to be his own master in all things”. Without divine revelation, tradition, community, and reason itself, conscience easily goes off the rails. Morality becomes a mere power game and people write their own tickets. What we need is a reliable moral compass, that is, a well-formed practical intellect. On the day he was made a Cardinal, Newman observed: “Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another.” This view, he observed, was increasingly commonplace and had the very real advantage of encouraging tolerance. But “it is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true.” It reduces all religion to mere sentiment and taste, “the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.” And if we accept that faith is so personal and private, it will necessarily be ignored in public life.

It was in fact from reading Newman that the young Joseph Ratzinger learnt that without Church authority conscience can easily be slave to personal passion and social fashion. This is what he famously dubbed ‘the dictatorship of relativism’. On the centenary of Newman’s death, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger paid tribute to Newman’s ‘liberating and essential’ truth that the ‘we’ of the Church develops from and guarantees the ‘me’ of personal conscience. Catholic teaching never contradicts freedom of conscience: by forming and informing conscience it frees it rather than caging it.

A person converting

Of course, we must be wary of going to an opposite extreme that empties conscience of any real role. When Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, who shared Newman’s doubts about the need to define papal infallibility, was asked whether the Pope was infallible in all things, the Cardinal replied: “In my last visit with him he called me Jibbons.” Some think Catholic assent to doctrine and obedience to the commandments means ‘This is how it is, like it or lump it. It’s the Church’s way or the highway’ – by which they mean, my reading of the Church’s way or nothing. It’s exactly what the Pharisees tried to do to Jesus. But Jesus demonstrated enormous respect for and patience with His disciples as free and rational beings made in God’s image with the moral law written on their hearts; He made space for their growth in faith and morals, gradually tutoring their speculative and practical intellects. Yes, there was a perennial truth He revealed about God and the human person – revealed most fully in Himself – but that truth must be received by each individual and applied to her unique situations, rediscovered afresh by every generation and re-presented in its languages and thought patterns. Christians are not moral robots following an App written in 33AD. Though Christ who is the Truth is unchanging, we are not. And so the same Newman who taught the immutable truths of Catholic faith also wrote about the development of doctrine down the ages; and the same Newman who taught the importance of conscience also wrote about its limitations. While those who wanted to rid Catholic societies of the name ‘Newman’ for fear of sexism were muddled, they were right to think there was more to the name than just an historic figure. For to say we must all be New-men, is to grasp that Catholic life is one of continual evangelisation, catechesis, formation, change. We must be forever becoming new men and women, as we deepen our understanding of the mysteries of God, the universe and ourselves, and seek to live those renewed understandings faithfully in our lives.

As an Anglican, Newman realized that truth in matters of faith or morals can never be established by current opinion or committee resolution or private ‘spiritual’ feeling, which he thought was all too often the Protestant temptation. No, if we are to assent to some truth of faith or morals, to have certainty about that truth and conform ourselves to it, it must have a reality beyond ourselves and our tastes or the spirit of our age. As a Catholic, however, Newman also realized that truth in matters of faith and morals can never be established once for ever as a closed system, a ‘done and dusted’ orthodoxy, as is all too often the Catholic temptation. No, if we are to be true to what we have received we must not only be careful to pass it on unpolluted but also be ready to explore the mystery more and more deeply and ready to be astonished by new and greater understandings. “If we insist on being as sure as is conceivable,” Newman wrote, “we must be content to creep along the ground, and never soar.”
Thus Newman observed – both with respect to himself and the Church – that “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Pope Benedict once observed that “Throughout his entire life, Newman was a person converting, a person being transformed, and thus he always remained and became ever more himself.” And in this there is a model for us all, for our own lives as Catholic university students and ultimately graduates, professionals and scholars, and spouses and parents, and politicians and journalists, and priests and religious, and the rest. Are you the same person at 20 that you were at 10 and would you want to be the same person at 50 and at 80? To which I would say both YES and NO. It’s the same you developing over that time, and many of the essentials must be continuous; but it is also a maturing person whose mind and relationships and waistline and much else expands, deepens, hopefully grows in wisdom and holiness. To the extent that we are sinners and limited in understanding we must hope for, work for, welcome that conversion to which God is constantly calling us.

A life of conversion

‘Convert’ is not a word we hear so often these days; it used to mean someone who had become a Catholic and would on average be more intentional or missionary about it than the genetic Catholics. Its root is in the Latin word convertere, meaning to ‘change,’ ‘turn’, ‘refresh’. Our word ‘conversion’ comes from the related Latin word conversari, meaning ‘to dwell with, keep company with’; the same Latin word is the root of our word ‘conversation’. Thus conversion is not about brow-beating, or trying to force others to ‘see the light’, so to speak; rather, it is intimately connected with conversation, with friendship, and so with the passing of time together, and the change that follows. And as Newman said, “Growth is the only evidence of life”. This has consequences for us in three areas of our lives: our relationship with God, our relationship with ourselves, and our relationship with others.

First, our relationship with God. Though I imagine all of you here tonight are believers, your faith journey is by no means complete. Friendships are built and strengthened over time, and it’s no different with our friendship with God. And part of any real friendship is the openness to allowing that friendship to change us. As the American Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor wrote in a letter to a friend, “A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and alright for children, but eventually you have to grow up religiously as in every other way.”1 It took Newman 44 years to reach the stage of being ready formally to convert to Catholicism; nor did he stay in one place with respect to his faith thereafter. In our own autobiography, like Newman’s Apologia pro vita sua, God must loom as the benevolent ever-directing force, the reliable friend, the Creator-Saviour-Inspirer.

So, we have to grow in our relationship with God, allowing Him to teach us, convert us, renew us, return us towards Himself every moment of every day. In the process of getting to know and relate better to God, we hope there will be change in us for the better, growth in faith, hope and love, in the theological or God-knowing-and-relating virtues. And this is closely connected to the second conversion in our lives: the conversion of our relationship to ourselves. Christ tells us to love God first, and then our neighbours as ourselves. So we have to respect and esteem, reverence and love ourselves, as God’s image, but with humility without self-hatred, with patience without lethargy, with temperance without insensibility, and so on. As we grow in self-knowledge and respect, we hope to grow in prudence, temperance and courage, in the moral or self-knowing-and-relating virtues. In writing our Apologia pro vita sua, the character must be constantly evolving, hopefully into a richer, more interesting, and nobler character – a saint.

“Without self-knowledge,’ Newman wrote, “you have no root in yourselves personally; you may endure for a time, but under affliction or persecution your faith will not last. This is why many in this age (and in every age) become infidels, heretics, schismatics, disloyal despisers of the Church. They cast off the form of truth, because it never has been to them more than a form. They endure not, because they never have tasted that the Lord is gracious; and they never have had experience of His power and love, because they have never known their own weakness and need.”2

Finally, conversion of our relationship with others. Friendship with our fellows is hugely important for us; its absence, as lethal as light and oxygen deprivation for a plant or animal. So we have to grow in friendships of various kinds, with our romantic interests and ultimate spouse, our confidants, children, work colleagues, and others. As we get to know and love them more deeply, we grow in justice and compassion, in the social or other-knowing-and-relating virtues. Our autobiography or Apologia pro vita sua is populated with others with whom we agree and disagree, engage in common projects and uncommon rivalries, influence and are influenced, give support and are supported.

Naturally, we want our non-Christian friends to convert, to be led by the ‘kindly Light’. But that’s unlikely to happen unless they see in us someone who relates well to God, ourselves and others, someone who is enriched and finds joy in that knowing and relating. So our friends must never be mere targets for conversion in some religious numbers game; they must never be projects first, but always and first our friends in their own right. As we get to know and love them, and they us, we both may change. And if we have our relationships with God and ourselves right, we need not fear they will influence us in the wrong direction. It may be a little cheeky of me to say, but I think there are really only two religious groups in our world worth worrying about: the Catholics, who should know they still have a long way to go until they are saints; and everyone else, the Yet2B-Catholics who don’t yet know that. Both groups are converts: Catholics are Christians becoming more so, Yet2B-Catholics are hopefully on the way.

In short, we are not human beings so much as human becomings; our lives are change. We try to improve ourselves and our world, knowing that we won’t always get it right. But as Newman said, “Nothing would be done at all if one waited until one could do it so well that no one could find fault with it” and “If we are intended for great ends, we are called to great hazards”.

With the morn those angels smile

Whether Newman will eventually be one of the select group of Doctors of the Church is yet to be seen. I expect he will. Pope Benedict clearly thought so also when he said: “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.”

Tonight I have suggested that amidst the causes for gloom in our world and even in some corners of our Church at the moment, there is every cause for hope, as long as we open ourselves to the graces of conversion, in our relationships with God, with each other, with ourselves. We might consider events like the Australian Catholic Youth Festival with nearly 20,000 young participants only three months ago, which so starkly challenges the popular wisdom that the world is moving uniformly in the secularising direction of marginalising and abandoning faith. Or think of an organisation like “Catholic Voices” that was inspired by Newman and has spread from Britain to places like America and Australia, giving smart, articulate young Catholics “a crash course in media literacy and the hot-button issues about the Church, such as women’s rights, gay marriage, and abortion and contraception, and then makes them available for print and broadcast interviews.”3 And ACSA tries to make you both: witnesses to our world that more is possible for youth and articulate spokesmen and women for our faith.

Though the hymn Lead, Kindly Light was the theme-song for the tragedy of the sinking of the Titanic, less than twelve hours later it had been converted into a harbinger of hope. As the ship the Carpathia picked up survivors from the Titanic the next morning, they found one boat singing loudly familiar words:

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!

After darkness comes the light; after the Cross the Resurrection; out of sin comes conversion. So let’s all be converts, not just once off but for all our lives, as Newman was; not just in word, but in all our actions, relationships. Let us live for that worthy epitaph: “Throughout his entire life, [this] Newman [or woman] was a person converting, a person being transformed, and thus he always remained and became ever more himself.”

Blessed John Henry Newman – pray for us.


1 Flannery O’Connor, “A Letter to Louse Abbott, 1959”, in Sally Fitzgerald (ed.), The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979), pp. 353-354
2 John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons

3 “John Allen on Catholic Voices: John Henry Newman in Action”, Catholic Voices