April 19, 2009

"Truth's priority over goodness in the order of virtues"

Cardinal Ratzinger on Newman. From Conscience and Truth: (paragraphing added)

...For Newman, the middle term which establishes the connection between authority and subjectivity is truth. I do not hesitate to say that truth is the central thought of Newman's intellectual grappling. Conscience is central for him because truth stands in the middle. To put it differently, the centrality of the concept conscience for Newman, is linked to the prior centrality of the concept truth and can only be understood from this vantage point. The dominance of the idea of conscience in Newman does not signify that he, in the nineteenth century and in contrast to "objectivistic" neo-scholasticism, espoused a philosophy or theology of subjectivity. Certainly, the subject finds in Newman an attention which it had not received in Catholic theology perhaps since Saint Augustine. But it is an attention in the line of Augustine and not in that of the subjectivist philosophy of the modern age. On the occasion of his elevation to cardinal, Newman declared that most of his life was a struggle against the spirit of liberalism in religion. We might add, also against Christian subjectivism, as he found it in the Evangelical movement of his time and which admittedly had provided him the first step on his lifelong road to conversion.
Conscience for Newman does not mean that the subject is the standard vis-a-vis the claims of authority in a truthless world, a world which lives from the compromise between the claims of the subject and the claims of the social order. Much more than that, conscience signifies the perceptible and demanding presence of the voice of truth in the subject himself. It is the overcoming of mere subjectivity in the encounter of the interiority of man with the truth from God. The verse Newman composed in 1833 in Sicily is characteristic: "I loved to choose and see my path but now, lead thou me on!" Newman's conversion to Catholicism was not for him a matter of personal taste or of subjective, spiritual need. He expressed himself on this even in 1844, on the threshold, so to speak of his conversion: "No one can have a more unfavorable view than I of the present state of Roman Catholics." Newman was much more taken by the necessity to obey recognized truth than his own preferences, that is to say, even against his own sensitivity and bonds of friendship and ties due to similar backgrounds.

It seems to me characteristic of Newman that he emphasized truth's priority over goodness in the order of virtues. Or, to put it in a way which is more understandable for us, he emphasized truth's priority over consensus, over the accommodation of groups. I would say, when we are speaking of a man of conscience, we mean one who looks at things this way. A man of conscience, is one who never acquires tolerance, well-being, success, public standing, and approval on the part of prevailing opinion, at the expense of truth. In this regard, Newman is related to Britain's other great witness of conscience, Thomas More, for whom conscience was not at all an expression of subjective stubbornness or obstinate heroism. He numbered himself, in fact, among those fainthearted martyrs who only after faltering and much questioning succeed in mustering up obedience to conscience, mustering up obedience to the truth which must stand higher than any human tribunal or any type of personal taste. Thus two standards become apparent for ascertaining the presence of a real voice or conscience. First, conscience is not identical to personal wishes and taste. Secondly, conscience cannot be reduced to social advantage, to group consensus or to the demands of political and social power....

"...not a matter of personal taste or of subjective, spiritual need." That is very important. When I first became a Catholic a friend said something to the effect of: "That happens to be what works for you. My [insert Protestant denomination] is what works for me." But if you are a Catholic it is of great importance to simply NOT think in those terms at all. Don't look for "what works for me." The working of the Church is objectively true, like a car takes you places whether you like its style or not. Ex opere operato.

And it is our duty to be in communion with God's Church even if the local manifestation is repulsive. Charlene and I love our parish intensly, but suppose we moved to some small town where the only parish was similar to what Fr. Dwight described recently:

...Then in becoming a Catholic I had to give it up. The churches we attended were dull modern auditoria. Some of them not too bad, many of them awful. The liturgy was often the usual modern Catholic Howdy Doody show with felt banners, priests walking around with a hand held mike being folksy. The music was torture. Plump middle aged ladies strumming guitars, beardy weirdy men in sandals standing at a keyboard swaying to the beat. Bad music. Heretical words. Excruciating.

But we had to be Catholic. So we made the sacrifice. The beauty, the reverence, the dignity, the sublime music, the architecture, the learning, the glories of Anglicanism: all of it went on the altar...

Yeah, like he said. Charlene and I would still faithfully attend Mass, even if we hated every minute of it. And when I considered becoming a Catholic, I dug that almost immediately. I take a little bit of pride in that.

Posted by John Weidner at April 19, 2009 5:19 AM
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