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Tuesday, October 25, 2016
Reflections on Newman by Alasdair MacIntyre
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Cardinal Newman
The distinguished British philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre reflects on Newman, both to the Cause, concerning Newman's Beatification,  and more widely in his latest book God, Philosophy, Universities (2009).

Self-knowledge and conversion

In making a stimulating contribution to the Cause site's series of notable reactions to Newman's Beatification, Professor MacIntyre emphasised the personal quality in Newman by which how we understand and receive him holds up a mirror in which we can see ourselves more truthfully. 'When one reads Newman', Professor MacIntyre explains, 'one confronts arguments, is engaged by insights, and is challenged by searching theses and questions. But if one reads Newman with anything like the same seriousness that Newman brought to his writing, there is always more to the encounter. There is always Newman himself, concerned for his readers, anxious that his words might make them better able to see things as they are, including themselves.'

In the moral and spiritual urgency with which Newman speaks to us, Professor  MacIntyre reads a determination that 'habit, familiarity and prejudice should not prevent us from being open to the truth, including the truth about ourselves'. In this way, reading Newman complacently, finding in him only what flatters or confirms our existing thoughts and feelings, is to miss the profoundly inter-personal challenge which Newman intends, by which we must be open to being 'surprised and, if necessary, upset'.

In a striking passage, Professor MacIntyre links this quality in Newman to the 'very different temperament and style of St Philip Neri.' Despite their differences, MacIntyre suggests that in both men we experience not merely historical characters but an unmistakable contemporary presence. 'Both of them inhabit the same modernity that we do, speaking to our own time as to their own in ways well-designed to inform, but also to transform us.'

In both St Philip and in Newman, in other words, the depths at which they seek to influence us unite intellectual, moral and spiritual considerations in ways which are inseparable from the call to conversion.

The enemies of Conscience

In God, Philosophy, Universities Professor MacIntyre develops these themes in reflecting on Newman's work in founding and shaping the Catholic University in Dublin. According to MacIntyre, in his reflections upon education Newman was reacting to 'the intellectual plight of Catholics in a culture ... that was ... alien and inimical to Catholic thought' (p. 136).

But at the same time, MacIntyre suggests, it was not Newman's way to deal with this by isolating Catholics from the battlegrounds of science and philosophy. Retreating to an ecclesiastical Catholicism, devotional and philanthropic in character but, in its attitude towards secular reason, either uncomprehending or tacitly compliant, was an impossibility for Newman.

What was necessary was to get under the skin of secular reason, to show how the atheism it propagates originates not in reason properly understood, but in a moral debility created by ignoring or overriding conscience. For Newman, it is by following conscience that we learn to reason properly and truthfully. But where obedience to conscience is lacking, reasoning will take us in any direction that fallen human nature may dictate.

'Conscience', Newman wrote, 'is the essential principle and sanction of Religion in the mind' . This is the key to Newman's personal challenge to his readers, then and now. Because conscience was at the heart of Newman's own reasoning, his writings have the power, as Professor MacIntyre puts it, of disclosing the ways 'in which we attempt to protect ourselves from the authoritative demands of conscience ... in which we resist acknowledging the authority of
conscience and, if Newman is right, the authority of God' (p. 141).

This is pre-eminently Newman's argument for the reality of the Divine. Acknowledging the inconclusiveness of rational arguments divorced from moral preparation of heart, MacIntyre shows how Newman focused on cultivating the 'awareness of God [which] is natural to human beings [and] is something every human being is capable of achieving, if only they focus their attention adequately' (pp. 141-42).

For Newman, this awakening and cultivation of conscience ought to be at the heart of Catholic education. Beyond that, it should also be at the heart of the Church's evangelisation of contemporary culture. 'Since the inward law of Conscience brings with it no proof of its truth,' Newman writes, 'and commands attention to it on its own authority, all obedience to it is of the nature of Faith'..

In this obedience we learn the independence from secularism, popular opinion and the tyranny of the State, which for the Christian mind is essential in its relationship to the modern world. In obedience to conscience we learn that because, in Newman's words, 'the sense of right and wrong ... is so delicate, so fitful, so easily puzzled, obscured, perverted', therefore 'the Church, the Pope, the Hierarchy are, in the Divine purpose, the supply of an urgent demand'.

As Newman explains of conscience: 'certain as are its grounds and its doctrines as addressed to thoughtful, serious minds, [it] needs, in order that it may speak to mankind with effect and subdue the world, to be sustained and completed by Revelation'.

Conscience, in Newman's famous phrase, is 'the aboriginal Vicar of Christ',  fidelity to the Vicar of Christ in His Church, to the Pope and his teaching, are the completion of conscience and its consummation.

Authentic Catholic Education

These, then, are Newman's priorities in his reflections upon Catholic education. Catholics need not retreat in the least from confronting secular knowledge and speculation, provided that their consciences have been formed according to the authentic teaching of the Church. Both things are necessary. Without intellectual integrity, education will degenerate into social engineering. Without conscience and the Faith, in Professor MacIntyre's words, 'even the best university education may result in a peculiarly dangerous form of bad character, that in which the cultivation of the mind, independently of religion' makes conscience degenerate into 'mere self-respect'.

These twin dangers have an obvious bearing on contemporary educational dogmas, especially perhaps on the State's vision of education in human relationships and sexuality. Both intellectually and morally the Church's vocation in education is to oppose such distortions.

Intellectually, as MacIntyre shows, Newman's understanding of education departs radically from the politically-motivated model currently in vogue. For Newman, MacIntyre explains, 'the aim of ... education is not to fit students for this or that particular profession or career, to equip them with theory that will later on find useful applications to this or that form of practice. It is to transform their minds, so that the student becomes a different kind of individual, one able to engage fruitfully in conversation and debate, one who has a capacity for exercising judgement, for bringing insights and arguments from a variety of disciplines to bear on particular complex issues' (pp. 147-48). Independence of mind, rather than compliance with socio-economic expectations, is the goal of education.

Morally, the degeneration of conscience into 'mere self-respect' leads not to authentic moral understanding but to 'a fastidious self-regard, a wish to be able to think well of oneself' (p. 148). This, MacIntyre suggests, is a 'simulacrum of morality' (ibid). Of people who have fallen under this influence, Newman writes: 'When they do wrong, they feel not contrition, of which God is the object, but remorse, and a sense of degradation. They call themselves fools, not sinners'.

This danger is clear in the modern tendency, even in Catholic education, to substitute, for the authentic language of sin and repentance, the categorisation of conduct as 'appropriate' or 'inappropriate', and in the tendency to equate morality with what makes a person 'feel good' about him or her self.

Newman's prophetic witness to his contemporaries, Professor MacIntyre implies, is what makes him speak so powerfully to our own times. 'What gave Newman's story a huge interest for many of his educated contemporaries, Catholic and non-Catholic alike', MacIntyre says, 'was the extraordinary character of Newman's mind, character, and intelligence. This was someone of high intellectual powers, of notable integrity, someone well aware of the claims of the Enlightenment ... someone who understood what was at issue in contemporary philosophical debate, someone with a distinctively modern sensibility and literary style, who, at a time when Catholicism seemed to be intellectually impoverished and unable to come to terms with the claims made in the name of secular reason, had identified himself with the Catholic faith' (pp. 137-38).
Newman quotes have been taken from:

The official website for the Cause for Cardinal Newman's Canonisation:

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Tags: Alasdair MacIntyre, Beatification, God, Newman, Philosophy, Universities

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